December 24th, 2010

Ghaleon

Gay characters in games.

I've been playing Fallout: New Vegas on my Xbox 360, thankful for the escape it offers from reality. One thing that kind of bothered me about the game was how it teases me with the promise of homosexual characters, but does nothing with it. There is one gay character you can recruit into your party, but aside from a one-sentence mention his sexuality is not touched upon. As a gay gamer I'm pretty much used to this sort of thing, but there are moments when I feel a bit disappointed at wasted potential. From the "fade to black" kiss in Jade Empire to the absence of a male love interest in Mass Effect, a game that allows female characters to romance a female alien (I know, the Asari are mono-gendered, but that one gender is still, for all intents and purposes, female) and, in the sequel, her human female yeoman. Dragon Age: origins is a little better about it, allowing a male character to romance a male elf party member. Too bad that particular character is depicted as a depraved whore and is, by far, the quickest to jump into bed.

I just read an interesting article on the subject that rebuts a commentary by one Jim Sterling, who praises the depiction of Arcade Gannon, Fallout: New Vegas's one gay party member (or, more accurately, his lack of depiction as a gay character) as the best thing that's happened to gays in games. While Sterling's comments are well-intentioned, I could not disagree more. While I am in agreement that a character's sexuality shouldn't be the be-all-and-end-all of that character's personality, to have it so downplayed that even some gay players fail to realize that he's gay (if the comments under Sterling's article are anything to go by) defeats the purpose of having a gay character in the game to begin with.

Sterling doesn't like how writers portray gays as flamboyant or sex-driven, and so his answer is to almost totally hide any traces of a character's homosexuality to the point where the game challenges you to even detect it. He reasons that this shows that said character's sexuality is not what defines him and is thus a more balanced portrayal. No. At best that is pandering. In New Vegas's case it's as if Obsidian said "we're throwing in this one line so our game can technically have a gay main character, thus filling in our diversity quota." At worst it is either a spineless shying away from the subject or a simple lack of imagination on the part of the writers. More importantly, it is indicative of the double standard that makes it perfectly okay for straight characters to have active sex lives and display affection on screen, but if gay characters do anything even approaching what the straights do it is "flamboyant." Hell, TVTropes has an entry called But Not Too Gay, which describes this double standard better than I could.

It's not as if New Vegas's portrayal of homosexuality, on the whole, could be called progressive. At one point in the game you can flirt with a male character by the name of Major Knight, who, while gay and interested, informs you that the New California Republic does not tolerate homosexuality and he'd put his career at risk if he acted on his feelings. He is so frightened of the possible repercussions of even talking about it that he pointedly refers to gay coupling as "friendships" in an attempt to be as ambiguous as possible on the subject, lest he be overheard.

Which major group in the game DOES view homosexuality with more acceptance? Caesar's Legion--the village burning, slave taking, mass crucifying, genocidal butchers of the wastelands. Granted the Legion is based on ancient Rome, so the inclusion of homosexuality as a common practice is likely just a case of historical accuracy. Still, what does it say that, in this game's world, the civilized people frown on homosexuality, leaving it largely the province of a group that regularly commits crimes against humanity?

This is the game Sterling is praising for its excellent portrayal of homosexuality, a game where the subject has to be spoken about in hushed tones and acknowledged only briefly, if at all. This is the attitude towards homosexuality that he goes so far as to call "enlightened"! I'm sorry, Mr. Sterling, but I've already left the closet once.

What would be a better portrayal of a gay character, you may ask? Using New Vegas as an example, let's examine the back story of one of the other main characters by the name of Craig Boone.

WARNING: THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS. SKIP IT IF YOU'D RATHER NOT KNOW ABOUT BOONE'S PAST.

Boone is a man of few words, tormented by something in his past involving his wife that he refuses to discuss with the player. By fulfilling certain criteria you can unlock his companion mission, in which it is revealed that he had tracked down his wife after she'd been sold into slavery. Held hostage by the Legion, Boone found his wife being sold on an open slave market with many other slaves. Rather than let his wife live through the horrors of Legion enslavement, he picked up his sniper rifle and murdered her, seeing it as an act of mercy. This has led him to become depressed and to adopt a view in which he thinks fate itself is trying to punish him for what he's done.

END OF SPOILERS.

As you can see, Boone's past speaks of the love he has for his wife and how the unfortunate events have left him emotionally scarred. That the other person happens to be female is inconsequential. It isn't a story about a straight man, but that of a man in love. Boone could just as easily be distraught over the fate of his domestic partner as he could his wife without any major change to the story. While his sexuality plays only an incidental role, it is still visible nonetheless. His suffering shows the depths of his love, which is itself an expression of his sexuality.

When it comes to portraying gay characters, people tend to focus too much on the "sex" part of the word "homosexual." They seem to think that a character can't be gay unless he's having tons of gay sex or fits certain stereotypes. They forget that sexuality isn't only about who you have sex with, it's also about who you love. A similar story involving two men would be an excellent portrayal of homosexuality because it would show that gay people love too. If something happens to the ones they love, they feel pain just like a straight person would in the same kind of situation. It would show that they're human.

Sterling's answer is to avoid the issue entirely, to have a character's homosexuality classified as that thing which shall not be named. While this may make the presence of homosexuals more comfortable for heterosexuals, it does a disservice to the people that are being portrayed. This is not some dichotomy wherein homosexuality must either be displayed flamboyantly or suppressed into obscurity. In both cases something vital is lost. In both cases the character in question is less of a human being, reduced to being the token homo. The former says "Ooh, look at that flaming queen. Isn't his flamboyance amusing?" while the latter says "don't ask, don't tell."

Neither portrayal should be praised. You really want to portray a gay character as being no different from his straight peers? Let them love and lose just like everyone else. Let them experience the same ecstatic highs and devastating lows. Don't tell the story of a man in love with another man, just tell the story of a man in love. That would be a much more effective portrayal of a gay character than having him waving around a rainbow flag shouting "I'm gay, acknowledge me!" or skulking in the shadows saying "I'm just like you guys, please accept me." Granted there will always be those who see a story involving two men and think it flamboyant no matter how tastefully it's portrayed (see the above "but not too gay" link for that double standard) but that's not the fault of the story.

There has yet to be a video game (at least not one that I've played) that portrays gay people in a manner I would call enlightened. Fallout: New Vegas doesn't even try, and should not be praised for its laziness.
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