By: Sarah Ansari
When young, children tend to gravitate towards characters that they see themselves in or that they admire, taking them on as role models who shape their attitudes and ways of thinking. The world grows more globalized in lieu of new technology, allowing media to be streamed across a multitude of platforms. Because of this, more people from different walks of life can access video game content from around the world in some form– as YouTube videos, simulators, or physical copies. Representation in video games is more important than ever; consumers wish to see characters in their favourite franchises they can relate to and find a role model in.
There are about forty video game franchises where one or more games in the series has a queer character. The key word here is “a”. Within each game, there’s usually only one such character (seldom more). Oftentimes, the portrayal of queerness is not made explicit within the game either, but constitutes “deep lore”. Non-casual gamers would have to look through interviews and other supplemental material to find any information on the gender or sexual identity of their favourite characters.
Take Toad from the Super Mario Bros franchise as an example. Although Toad is assumed to be male, Nintendo revealed in a 2014 interview that Toad was created without a specific gender in mind. While the presence of an agender character in a franchise familiar to even non-gamers seems progressive, the announcement of Toad/Toadette’s lack of gender only six years ago when the characters have been present in Mario since 1985 (and have stereotypically gendered traits) comes across as performative, especially since none of the games ever make mention of this information.
Although Nintendo is a Japanese company, a majority of its revenue comes from sales in the Americas. Around the same time period in which Toad’s agender identity was announced, the United States was going through political reform with the legalization of same-sex marriage (four states legalized it in 2014, and all fifty states had legalized it by 2015). While the timeline of these events could be coincidental, Nintendo had to be well aware of how Toad was perceived, yet they never made a public announcement of their identity until directly asked. The information itself was revealed to Gamespot magazine, a popular gaming news company with a predominantly Western audience (the company does have a Japan branch, established in 2007, but it’s arguably less well-known than the American and UK branches). The original article was written by an American writer as well and published in English. As a result, Toad’s “gender reveal” feels more like a placating publicity stunt than a sincere attempt at representation.
Nintendo’s controversial portrayals of queer characters do not stop at Toad, however. The Fire Emblem series, known primarily through its multitude of characters in Smash (such as Marth and Ike), has recently begun representing LGBTQ+ relationships in-game, allowing players (in some games) to choose their gender and/or to be in a same-sex relationship.
The most recently released game in the franchise, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is perhaps the most progressive installment yet, having a number of queer characters present in it. However, Fire Emblem games have a long history with their mistreatment of LGBTQ+ characters and the controversies that have arisen over the years are a reminder that not all representation is necessarily “good”, especially when it promotes harmful stereotypes or practices. The games themselves are strategy-based RPGs with battle mechanics that mimic a game of chess (using a turn-based system). The plots of the games revolve around politics and war, where players must fight against characters that, in another playthrough, might have been their allies and friends. Rather than being solely battle-focused, however, character interactions and relationship-building are prioritized, which is where the discussion of queer politics begins.
Before Three Houses was conceived of, Fire Emblem: Fates offered same-sex romance options– and came under fire for homophobic content. The game was sold in two different versions, Conquest and Birthright, each with vastly different plots (as they take place from different sides of the warring nations). In one version, the player controls a male main character, and is allowed one gay option; in the other, they play as a female and have a single lesbian option. The ability to play one storyline over the other, therefore, directly conflicts with the player’s choice of sexuality. Players looking for representation must sacrifice their choice in game route or must pay for the other version of the game. In addition, each of the queer romantic options is typecasted as villainous. The male, Zero, is casted as sadistic, while the female, Syalla, stalks potential romantic interests. Rather than uplifting a minority who might be excited about seeing some in-game representation, Fates makes a caricature of queerness.
In the same game, an openly lesbian character (Soleil) is only romanceable by the male version of the protagonist. The reasoning behind this pairing begins with Soleil continually being “distracted” by women on the battlefield. In order to remedy this “issue”, the player must give her a powder that causes her to see men as women and women as men. When the powder wears off, Soleil returns to finding girls attractive, although she makes an “exception” for the male main character. Not only does the scene imply that Soleil was drugged, but the fact that her sexuality is treated as a problem in need of fixing in reminiscent of gay conversion therapy. Within a few minutes of gameplay, LGBTQ+ players are ostracized and given a negative form of representation that can easily damage self-perception. Nintendo responded to the backlash by removing the scene from Western copies of the game, although evidence of it still exists online and in non-localized versions as a monument towards the microaggressions experienced as a queer gamer.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Nintendo is much more lenient about the amount of romantic dialogue they include between characters of the same sex. However, the conversations are often portrayed as “friendly” despite undertones that suggest otherwise. For example, two characters, Sylvain and Felix, have an A+ support, the highest level Sylvain has with any character except one (and barring a paired ending).
For context, support levels mark how close characters are to one another, ranging from C to S. Some characters only have up to B supports with one another, some have no supports at all. The “+” supports (C+, B+, A+) are not present in every pairing (some can have just C, B, A or C+, B, A, etc.). A+ is the highest support attainable barring a paired ending… which Sylvain and Felix have together as well. If they’re paired, the story details their life as they grow so close to one another that they pass away on the same day, as if “conceding that one could not live without the other”. The trope of two people caring for one another so deeply they die together frequents romantic movies such as The Notebook; arguably, if Sylvain and Felix were of opposite genders, the pairing would have been romantic, rather than friendly (they have another childhood friend, Ingrid, who automatically has a marriage option with them because she is female).
Other characters, such as the leader of the Blue Lions House, Dimitri, continually have (arguably) romantic interactions with both versions of the main character (Byleth), but are locked to romancing only the opposite sex. Dimitri lets Byleth know that their smile is “mesmerizing”– regardless of gender– and continually tells them how brilliant they are, how much they mean to him, and how they are one of the most important people in his life, yet he remains a romanceable option only to female Byleth. Many players feel as though the game even wants you to romance him with how heavily he is pushed onto the main character (who aside from one line is not treated differently by him, regardless of gender). Queerbaiting remains an issue due to the fact that homoerotic subtext is used to attract LGBT+ consumers, while the company refuses to alienate more “conservative” consumers. In doing this, queer players find themselves cast aside or told that their experience is secondary.
Let me be frank– Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favourite game. I have nearly 700 hours in it, I’ve replayed it seven times, and I’m still not tired of it. It depicts the struggles of mental health, the horrors of war, the importance of relationships. I think it’s a masterpiece. But I would be an idiot to turn a blind eye to its faults– of which I’ve only scratched the bare minimum. There’s a proper way to represent queerness, and while Three Houses made an attempt, it fell flat in many ways.
Perhaps a better example of an LGBTQ+ character would be Bloodhound, from Apex Legends. The character is canonically non-binary, with their voice actor (Allegra Clark), one of their writers (Manny Hagopian), and a backstory video confirming this fact. I admittedly do not have as much expertise on Apex as I do Three Houses, but from what I’ve gathered, Bloodhound is a smash-hit amongst the queer fanbase because they’re written… like a person. They do not embody harmful stereotypes and their sexuality isn’t made into their personality. Instead, they’re treated with the same attention and respect as any other character in the franchise; Apex Legends isn’t merely trying to win “representation points”, but is making an attempt to be more inclusive towards its audience.
One problem with how LGBTQ+ people are represented in the media circles around companies attempting to make a singular character a “catch-all” for an entire demographic of people. I mentioned earlier that typecasting queer characters as villainous is harmful. However, I feel I must elaborate more on that. The representation becomes harmful when the villainous characteristics are portrayed as entwined with queerness. If the only LGBTQ+ representation that a game offers is a villain, the game is implicitly sending a message that “good” people are heterosexual and cisgender and “bad” people are the opposite. Queer characters can be villains, so long as there is representation of queerness amongst the heroes as well. When cisgender, hetero characters are written, their sexuality is given no thought– seen as the default. Instead, they are written as a person before all else. While queerness is an important part of identity and should not be entirely written off, it should be discussed in productive ways that open conversation and should not automatically become a character’s personality. While this article focused mainly on Nintendo games, save for the brief mention of Apex, they are not the only company at fault with their portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. Rather, they’re the company I feel most qualified to criticise because of how involved I am with their games, moreso than any other company. While we can enjoy the media we consume, we have a duty to not turn a blind eye to its failings. Criticism of the things we enjoy sparks conversations about how they could improve and incentivizes producers to do better in the future. Gaming is, for most, a recreational activity, and people deserve to find comfort and camaraderie within the games they play. Perhaps it seems silly to some, but finding a character to relate to can shift people’s perspectives on their life and give them hope. And who are any of we to deprive someone that?