A gaggle of games with an LGBTQ+ perspective02 Mar 2016 0
Welcome to my corner of Mt. Hexmap’s writers’ dungeon. We fly our colors with pride here, and I mean that literally. All my flags are Pride flags: I’ve got Nonbinary, Transgender, Genderqueer, Bisexual, Pansexual, and classic rainbow Pride, and that’s just my personal collection. If you’re looking for Bear Pride, Asexual Pride, Polyamory Pride or just about anything else, I’d be pleased as punch to run that up the flagpole and salute it. No, that wasn’t an innuendo! Tsk.
I’m always looking for strategy and/or story-driven games with queer representation. I know that sexuality and gender are unknown and irrelevant in many strategy games. Looking back over my own gaming history, I think that’s one of the things about the genre that has always appealed to me: I wasn’t explicitly excluded. If you aren’t interested in LGBTQ+ games, or what it means for a game to be queer-friendly, that’s okay too: feel free to skip this article.
Without Bloom Digital’s LongStory, this article wouldn’t have happened. Self-described as “a dating game for the real world,” and “a game about surviving your teen years,” you play as a high school student starting at a new high school as a sophomore. Things deviate from the transfer-student visual novel trope before you even start playing when you get to choose your character’s pronouns: he, she, or gender-neutral they, as well as name and character art.
That makes LongStory something like the third game I’ve seen to explicitly allow nonbinary player characters. From there, you can act out your character’s orientation through the relationships you pursue, but unlike most approaches to this kind of narrative design, you don’t exist in an otherwise purely-straight world. Other characters have their own gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship histories, independent of the player’s choices. That’s what makes LongStory deeply queer-friendly: you can play a straight (and cisgender) character, but that doesn’t make the whole world straight.
There’s even asexual ("ace") representation in the game, in the form of a character who is available romantically and/or for platonic friendship, but not for physical intimacy (note that LongStory is not explicit: it’s not that kind of visual novel). Sure Turkeyhawk is weird, and some aces may be put off by that, but it’s really clear that Turkeyhawk’s weirdness is okay. This is a story about High School: even the people no-one thinks are weird are weird and feel weird.
The writing is consistently well-crafted and clever, up there with the likes of Dysfunctional Systems and Hakuōki. LongStory rests on its characters, all of whom prove themselves to be rounded and human, given a chance. There’s a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity as well, and characters’ backgrounds matter in credible, unstereotyped ways.
LongStory is somewhat lacking in visual polish. The lucid, embellished digital art captures the characters’ emotions well and avoid the various pitfalls of faux-anime style, but remains firmly in service of the story rather than inviting extended contemplation. The game’s aspect ratio is it’s largest and most obvious flaw: the play space is closer to 4:3 than the 16:9, give-or-take, of most phones and tablets, so there are large white bars on both sides of the screen. I’ve never seen anything like that in a game that was produced for mobile, and it’s an amateurish blot on an otherwise remarkable game.
It bears noting that LongStory is targeted especially at people roughly the age of its characters, and, as a parent, there were moments when I felt a little like an interloper. This isn’t a bad thing: even at it’s most didactic, LongStory never drifts into after-school special territory. Instead, it comes across as wanting to actually be about the High School experience, rather than being a fantasy of High School life for people with rose-tinted (or permanently jaundiced) memories of that time of their lives.
Chapter 1 of LongStory is free to download, with additional chapters each costing $2. There are currently four chapters available with a fifth on the way.
Pridefest is a pinkwashed free-to-play city builder. So, why am I mentioning it here?
That's a fair question. If LongStory is a great example of including queer stories and appealing to LBGTQ+ players in a game that targets a broad audience, Atari’s Pridefest is a textbook example of doing it wrong.
You play as the city’s newly-elected mayor, charged with making America fabulous again. First the good: the game has a robust avatar-builder with a lot of options and no arbitrary gendering. I was actually able to create a plausible idealization of my genderqueer self.
After that, it's all downhill. You don't build your town, you transform drab grey buildings into colorful, hip venues. How do you do this? Well, it costs money, but there's something more important than money: fun. Yup, fun. Fun comes from matching pride parades past those buildings, the bigger and more expensive the parade, the better.
Parades are a minigame that’s a little like Pac-Man meets Snake, with protesters instead of ghosts. That concept is actually kind-of interesting, but the execution, designed not to throw off the stock free-to-play city builder mechanics, is tedious and frustrating.
This leaves plenty of time for the pinkwashing to wear thin, at which point Pridefest just looks like a gentrification simulator, and the “fun” parades feel purely corporate. Pride parades grew out of civil rights marches, and in many parts of the world, showing up for a pride march is an act of civil disobedience that comes with a real risk to one's freedom and safety.
In Pridefest, the only “protesters” are protesting your parades, with signs like “no fun.” I'll allow that this may be escapist fantasy for some people, but I find it vapid to the point of dishonesty.
Pridefest is free to download with pretty good user reviews: maybe they know something I don’t.
HyperRogue is a deeply strange and deeply strategic roguelike game, played on a hexmap set in an infinite hyperbolic (rather than Euclidean) space that makes re-tracing your path over any significant distance nearly impossible. Your character and the strange monsters that populate HyperRogue’s interconnected planes have only a single hit point each, so the first strategy you learn is finding choke points that will allow you to take out a stream of enemies without getting “checkmated” (which is the only way to lose, other than by forfiture, as the game won’t let you make a suicidal move).
That basic strategy quickly becomes nuanced, as the longer you play in a given realm, the higher the risk-reward curve climbs toward impossible numbers of monsters. You must move on or die, and each world twists the rules in a different way that reshapes the basic fighting and accumulation strategies of the game. First you have to deal with invulnerable sandworms, then you move on to one-way journeys across a realm whose every tile drops into the void as your cross it… and the VOID DOGS who float across those chasms to come after you. There’s the mineweeper-like challenge of the bomberbird realm with it’s precious eggs, and an ocean with deadly tides. Voyage out far enough and you might run aground on R’lyeh, or you could hack a bloody trail through the realms until the Graveyard recognizes you as Death incarnate and opens its gates to you...
This way you cross dimensions one step at a time in HyperRogue reminds me of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series, much more so than roguelikes that more explicitly reference Amber. But wait, what’s queer about that? Well, aside from the eminent slashability of all the intense manly rivalries between the princes of Amber, nothing, and HyperRogue is vanishingly light on story. But…
You can swap out the default “male” rogue for “female” character art, a nice touch when so many games default the player character to that white guy. You know, him. There’s also a palace realm, with guards that break the “one hit” rule by only being stunned the first time (or more) that you hit them. What are they guarding? The Prince(ess), of course! That’s right, the game’s options allow you to choose a (binary) gender for your imperiled heir (and potental ally), so you can go all Thelma & Louise on those guards.
HyperRogue is free to download and has been out on Android and PC for a bit, but just recently went live on Steam. iPhone and iPad users are out of luck on this one.
Publisher: Choice of Games
Choice of Games has made a point of being inclusive from the beginning, and that, combined with the breadth of genres and ideas spanned in their stories, continues to make them my favorite Interactive Fiction publisher, even as I’ve been wowed by some of inkle's and Tin Man’s recent releases. Full disclosure: in my day job, my game writing students have to complete an assignment using Choice of Games’ ChoiceScript language as an example of scripting their own creative writing.
Pretty much everything in Choice of Games’ signature line is inclusive, and most of the titles in their Hosted Games series (fan-created ChoiceScript games) are as well. The implementation varies a little, with most games asking the player to chose their protagonist’s (binary) gender and sexual orientation (straight, gay, or bisexual) during initial character creation part of the game (a characteristic of Choice of Games titles).
Recently, they’ve moved more toward the letting the player determine their character’s orientation simply by who they pursue in game (like most AAA RPGs do), and toward gender-neutral writing. Their latest release, The Daring Mermaid Expedition never genders the protagonist, not that most players will notice. It’s easy to avoid gendered terms in the second person, and the romantic options are unhampered: smouldering glances, tight hugs and even passionate kisses are all gender neutral, and all the potential love interests are gendered, so the writing can linger on their appearances.
I appreciate this approach, but it also has it’s downsides. Some of their previous games were written to match the gender of a primary love interest to something appropriate to the protagonist’s gender and orientation, and one game did quite a bit more than that. Choice of Broadsides, one of Choice of Games’ first titles, is set in the historical age of sail, when women were not allowed to serve aboard ship. If you chose to play a female character in that game, instead of adding content about the very real practice of women disguising themselves as men to go to sea, the game flips all of the genders.
I’m blase about the “normal” world of Choice of Broadsides, but the inverted one, where it is bad luck to have a man aboard ship, and brave, bold sea captains marry attractive and well-connected young men who will raise their children and keep the hearth warm as they wait for their wives’ return from voyages of exploration, trade, and war… that’s interesting, and would never have happened without a choice of gender.
Most importantly, Choice of Games’ titles are reliably a welcoming, safe space for LGBTQ+ players, and only more so with the trend toward gender-neutral protagonists.
More LGBTQ+ Games, Please
With the success of events like the GX (formerly GaymerX) Convention, with its slogan Everyone Games, LGBTQ+ gamers are coming out of the shadows. This isn’t trivial, as the case of Singaporean game developer Witching Hour Studios shows. Best known for the epic story-driven Fantasy Strategy game Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion, they’re in danger of government censorship for including a heroic gay man in their forthcoming Strategy RPG (SRPG) Masquerada: Songs and Shadows.
I’ll keep looking for Strategy and Interactive Fiction games that contain LGBTQ+ themes or are queer-inclusive, and if there’s interest, I’ll do another roundup before too long. If you know of something I should be taking a look at, you can contact Pocket Tactics or leave a comment below.
Tof Eklund is a nonbinary transgender author (they/them/their pronouns) and a professor of Creative Writing and Game Design at Full Sail University. You can find them on Twitter @tofeklund.