GLBT History in Video Games: 1990s

GLBT History in Video Games II

Welcome back to another edition of GLBT History in Video Games. Last week’s article included four games from the 1980s, which was a larger number than I had expected from that era. This week, we’ll be continuing that trend by covering games from the 1990s. There are significantly more games featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans characters in this decade, but then again, there are significantly more games over all. The ratio of games with GLBT characters to over all games is still pathetic; however, one would hope that with more examples comes a wider variety of representation than we saw in the 1980s. With that said, let’s take a look to see how people who identify with GLBT communities have been portrayed in video games now that there are more examples to choose from.

The 1990s was a really conflicted time for American members of GLBT populations. On the one hand, we have Reform Judaism allowing openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, and the World Health Organization and American Medical Association taking homosexuality off their lists of illnesses. On the other hand, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act were put into effect; and the murders of Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, and countless other less well-known assaults and murders pushed people to fight for better protections for members of GLBT communities. Still, some positive changes occurred in the political sphere: Deborah Batts, Sherry Harris, Althea Garrison, Roberta Achtenberg, and Tammy Baldwin are but a few of the members of GLBT communities to hold a government position of some kind during this decade. We began to see more of GLBT communities in the media as well, with Ellen DeGeneres coming out, a gay marriage on Friends, and the first lesbian kiss being shown on television. Video games were no exception to this trend, however. The problem isn’t so much how many references there are, but that the majority of these characters come from Japan, which historically has had little understanding of or care for American culture and an awkward treatment of anyone who has some kind of minority status; and that censorship is, to put it lightly, often a frustrating topic to deal with.

In 1990, Sierra Online’s Rise of the Dragon featured the main character, Blade Hunter, hitting on what he believed to be a woman who  turned out to be a long-haired man. He worried that his nickname would then be “Switch Blade” as a result of the mix up. It also featured a seedy location called the Pleasure Dome, which listed homosexual activity as one of the services the establishment offered. This contrasts quite interestingly with Nintendo’s insistence that Enix remove a gay bar from Dragon Warrior III in 1992 due to censorship issues.

Nintendo wasn’t the only company using quality control guidelines that required the censorship of GLBT themes or characters, though. Sega also had content policing, but they were a bit more liberal in their stance; many of their games had things you wouldn’t see in Nintendo games, like sexually suggestive themes, female enemies, and more graphic representations of violence. Still, there were cases where Sega nixed characters or settings that hinted at GLBT representations. For example, in the American port of Phantasy Star II, one musician’s sexuality was edited to the point where the only hint that he might be gay was that he charged male characters less for music lessons, which shouldn’t even qualify as a hint. In 1992, they also censored some of the GLBT enemies in Final Fight; and in 1994, Streets of Rage 3 was edited so that a gay villain wearing Village People-themed clothing was removed and a trans villain was transformed into a man with long hair. As we can see, censorship was quite common in American ports of Japanese games, especially in the early 1990s.

World Heroes was released in 1992 and featured a character named Rasputin, who would emulate the famous Marilyn Monroe pose when he won; and in the 1995 release, World Heroes Perfect, he actually pulls male characters into bushes, and all we can see are hearts floating out of the bushes as they rustle. Also in 1992, Masaya’s Cho Aniki was first released, though not in North America. The game is known as an “idiot game” in Japan, and it features partially naked men in questionable poses. Some have argued that the series—the most recent one having been released in 2010 in North America—has the most blatant references to gay sex and homosexuality in general than any other video game series. For what might seem like obvious reasons, most of the games have not been released in North America. In fact, none of the games were released in North America until 2008, and only three of the seven games have found their way over here.

In 1993, Sega created the Video Game Rating Council (VRC), which gave content ratings to Sega-released video games. During its short life before the ESRB formed in 1994, it made a decision to retain Rise of the Dragon‘s inclusion of a trans individual in a bar intended to be used as a joke wherein your player confuses that person for his girlfriend. Allowing this in the game earned it a MA-17 rating, meaning, “not appropriate for minors.”

Despite these efforts, the next few years saw an outburst of GLBT characters. LucasArts’s Manic Mansion: Day of the Tentacle featured a cross-dressing gay man named Harold. Sierra’s Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers featured Roger Wilco in drag at one point during the game, though many in GLBT communities would not consider dressing in drag once as reason to call someone a drag queen, and neither does it mean that the person identifies as trans. It’s included here only because this is material that would probably have been censored for an association with GLBT themes. In addition, MicroProse’s Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender required the player to undergo a transformation from male to female; and their other title, Return of the Phantom, features a gay theater director. Infinite Adventure’s Dracula Unleashed included a live actor who actively lusts after the player’s character. Sierra Online’s Laura Bow in The Dagger of Amon Ra has the title character meeting a woman who offers her a massage all over and then asks if she’s seen someone who can be assumed to be her lover, and their Police Quest: Open Season featured a gay bar. Adventure Soft released Simon the Sorcerer, in which the main character jokingly reminds the player that he prefers blonds when hitting on men. Finally, in Nintendo’s EarthBound, it’s hinted that Jeff Andonut’s friend Tony might have feelings for Jeff and is a little obsessive about him. In the game, Tony writes Jeff a letter:

Dear Jeff,

Everything’s really going great here.
I wish I could have gone with you on your adventure, even just part of the way, but instead I’m sitting here, waiting for you in Winters.
I want to see you again as soon as possible.
I can’t wait to see your cheerful face.
I bet your glasses are dirty… If you come back, I’ll clean them for you!
Like I said, I’m waiting for you.

Yours truly,
Tony

P.S. Don’t show this letter to anyone!

Tony sounds like any kid who has a crush on someone else, which makes sense as the characters are preteens or young teenagers. It’s probably the most normal representation of a gay character because it treats him as a human being first, which is surprising as the game came from Nintendo. Characters other than Tony, unfortunately, were still largely stereotyped into overly sexualized roles.

SNK Playmore also introduced Benimaru Nikaido in their King of Fighters series starting in 1994.  While Nikaido is not gay, it’s interesting to note that SNK Playmore addresses the issue of how he looks on their web site: “His speech patterns have led some to question Benimaru’s preferences as far as certain lifestyles are concerned. All we have to say is: It’s not what you think. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)” So while they recognize that he might be mistaken for gay—without directly stating that might be the issue—they do address it and also say they don’t see anything wrong with it. Also released in 1994 was Capcom’s Darkstalkers, which featured a succubus named Morrigan Aensland (and another named Lilith in Darkstalkers 3, released for console in 1998), who for all intents and purposes appears to be bisexual.

Origin System’s Ultima VI, Ultima VII, and Ulitma VII Part Two are notable games during this time period because they were the first to actively allow the player to choose to engage in homosexual behavior, although it was relatively tame by today’s standards. In Ultima VI and VII, the player can be entertained by either a man or woman; and in VII Part Two, a mage will hit on the player regardless of the gender of the character, and the player must decide whether or not to accept the proposition. This could be seen as a ground-breaking moment in that the games didn’t treat homosexuality/bisexuality like the butt of a joke and instead looked at the situation in a more realistic light. However, many players didn’t even get to see that, as the SNES version of VII, at least, had to be altered in order to suit Nintendo’s quality control guidelines.

So what we see from years 1990-1994 is that most of Japan’s references to homosexual and trans individuals make them to be the butt of jokes or incredibly stereotypical. These game are filled with Sorry, I confused you for my girlfriend and Haha, you’re in women’s clothing jokes, along with representations of gay characters as either theater directors or incredibly effeminate. The other link that is often made is that homosexuality is synonymous with debauchery: Rise of the Dragon’s Pleasure Dome and the succubi being bisexual—traditionally, they only seduce men—imply that with general sinfulness comes homosexuality. Many of the sexual encounters in these games were set to sexually indulgent contexts or in secret. Representations like this are harmful because they only look at one aspect of someone who identifies as part of a GLBT community’s life—the sexual aspect—and even then this aspect is not being represented fairly, which leads to a lot of misunderstanding.

The second half of the 1990s was just as busy as the first. Square gave us Chrono Trigger in 1995, which featured a male-dressed-as-female boss named Flea who explicitly stated, “Male or female, what difference does it make? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power.” Flea reappears in Chrono Cross, released in 2000. It’s really surprising that this character made it through Nintendo’s censorship rules. Perhaps the reason it did was because of relaxing censorship rules as it’s not like Flea isn’t sexualized: he can seduce Chrono to a point where he attacks his fellow party members, and you can actually steal a bustier, a type of feminine lingerie, from him. What’s even more interesting here is that Flea is probably the best example we have from this time period who even remotely actively supports any kind of GLBT theme, though this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Flea is an enemy character.

Also in 1995, we saw the release of Shannara and Simon the Sorcerer 2, both of which included one rather unlikable racist gay character, though the games are unrelated; and The Orion Conspiracy, which was the first computer game to use the word “homosexual” and featured the main character discovering his son is gay while trying to figure out who killed him. The son’s boyfriend even confronts the main character for the poor relationship he had with his son when he was alive. Shortly after this, the son’s boyfriend is also murdered, though not because of his sexuality; it turns out that the captain of the ship felt that the main character left his wife to die and retaliated.

In Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh (1996), the main character’s best friend Revor was gay and effeminate, but he was also intelligent and central to the plot. The developers also state that the main player, Curtis, is bisexual. The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, created by Sierra Online and released in 1995, featured a male antagonist who was rumored to be gay, but actor Peter Lucas has stayed quiet about whether he really was, saying simply, “Von Glover was a man of a lot of secrets and I think we should leave him this way.”

These games are interesting because the developers for these games—Legend Entertainment, Adventure Soft, Divide by Zero, and Sierra Online—are Western developers. Aside from the weirdness that was The Beast Within, these games have characters whose sexuality is not representative of them as a person. The unlikable characters in Shannara and Simon the Sorcerer 2 aren’t unlikable because they’re gay, but rather because they’re racist assholes. Worth noting, however, is that the Simon the Sorcerer series isn’t without its jokes at the expense of GLBT communities, so it’s actually possible the character was designed as gay with the intention of making him even more unlikable. The Orion Conspiracy features an arguably strong gay character who had an actual relationship with someone else, and those legitimate feelings that they had in that relationship lead the gay character to make some poignant comments to his deceased boyfriend’s father. And while Phantasmagoria 2 gave us a stereotypical portrayal of a gay man, he was actually someone important to the plot and showed intelligence; and you, the player, are playing as a bisexual who admits to possibly having feelings for Trevor and even kiss him at one point in the game. For the most part, the more positive portrayals are ones that Japanese developers weren’t particularly interested in showing. Also noteworthy is that these games were primarily PC games, which means they didn’t have to go through as much censorship.

1996 brought us Vic Tokai’s Silver Load, DigiFX Interactive’s Harvester, and Crystal Dynamics’s Blazing Dragons, though only the last of the three was particularly noteworthy. Silver Load featured a gay barber and Harvester featured a gay firefighter, which brings us back to stereotypical portrayals of gay men. Blazing Dragons, on the other hand, was the first time that full-time drag was allowed in a video game. The game features a stereotypically gay dragon knight who takes to wearing drag along with the court jester, who is also probably gay. There’s even a scene where the dragon knight kisses another dragon knight, but it’s off screen. While surely not the best portrayal of those who dress in drag, it is a first. It might be useful to note that Blazing Dragons was created based off of a British cartoon comedy influenced by John Cleese and other comedians. Most interesting, however, was that this game was released on the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, not the PC like one might expect.

A more awkward portrayal of drag and homosexuality comes to us from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997. At one point, Cloud has to find and wear women’s clothing in order to audition as a girl who will spend the night with a male character. One piece is in a gym full of gay body builders, and another is in a brothel where you can end up in a hot tub with ten other men and get propositioned. If you do well enough at the puzzle, you get an almost-kiss. The portrayal is rather awkward because of how stereotypical the situation is all around: Where can you find women’s clothing? By gay men, of course. And these gay men are going to be body builders and hot tub users and they’re going to hit on you, of course. For comedic effect, let’s get an almost-kiss if you do well enough. And let’s not forget that if you can’t get a date with Aeris, Yuffie, or Tifa, you go on a date with Barret.

Also in 1997, we saw the release of Atlus’s Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, which features an implied gay gambling parlor owner and a cross-dresser. Atlus’s Groove on Fight featured one of the first openly gay couples—both inside and outside of the game world—in Rudolph and Damian, though Rudolph is shown as wearing leather and carrying two balls chained together and Damian is rather effeminate-looking.

The first same-sex marriage came to video games via Fallout 2, released by Interplay in 1998, though the reaction in-game is fairly negative. Still, this was a first that has started a trend in games similar to the Fallout franchise, which we’ll see in upcoming articles. Fallout 2 allowed players to make a conscious choice to marry someone who is the same sex as their character, which was pretty revolutionary at the time. Game designer Timothy Cain explained the decision to Game Politics as such:

A big part of the ‘Fallout’ series was that we wanted it to be as open-ended as possible. We had no way of knowing whether you were going to be a man or a woman, so we decided to write all the different dialogue combinations… A role-playing game, you invent your character at the beginning, so you should get to determine what they do, and if we’re going to put any romantic element in, we should cover all the bases.

By 1999, Nintendo’s censorship rules had been largely abandoned in response to changing social norms and mores. 1999 in particular was a busy year for video games as far as representing GLBT characters. We saw The Longest Journey, which normalized homosexuality in the game. Acclaim released South Park Rally, which featured the popular and heavily stereotyped character of Big Gay Al. Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force had a female character that would flirt with the player character regardless of his/her gender. Star Ocean: The Second Story featured potential romances with all party members regardless of whether the player chose to be Rena or Claude. Lucas Arts released Full Throttle, in which a gay uncle raised an abandoned girl. Square’s Final Fantasy VIII featured an incredibly awkward bar conversation with a trans individual where you have the option of having Squall ask if the individual is “really a woman.” Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned has a reference to two of the characters being lesbian. An openly gay character is in Eidos Interactive’s The Incredible Hulk: The Pantheon Saga, though no reference to his sexual orientation is made. Last but not least, Persona 2: Innocent Sin featured Kurosu Jun, who was effeminate, gay, and in love with the main character, Suou Tatsuya.

So in the span of ten years, we see forty-seven games that feature GLBT characters. The main problem isn’t so much the number of games featuring GLBT characters but the fact that the vast majority of them are used as the butt of jokes or are stereotyped to oblivion. Gay men are often depicted as flamboyant and/or effeminate, lesbians are extremely flirtatious, bisexuals are largely ignored or want to have sex with everyone, and trans individuals are made fun of through the joke of gender confusion or extravagant cross-dressing. Even though Poison was largely accepted and even revered to an extent in the 80s and following through to the 90s, her character was referred to as a “trap,” an attitude that obviously invades the portrayal of many trans characters in this decade. Often, trans status and sexuality are conflated, which is problematic for a number of reasons. Conflating these two makes for over-simplified and often inaccurate depictions of what trans people are actually like (hint: just like cisgendered* individuals, seeing as how they have more going for them than their gender identification and expression).

These stereotypical depictions don’t reflect the diversity that can be found within GLBT communities. To make this clearer, take any other group of people—say, people from America. Is everyone from America the same? Do they have the same interests, concerns, dreams, hopes, love interests, political values, or religious beliefs? No, they don’t. The same applies to GLBT communities. These depictions give the impression that all people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans have one thing on the mind—sex—or only have a base set of interests, like fighting fires, directing theater plays, or going to saunas. Having these one-sided depictions also tends to put people who identify as GLBT in an “other” category because they’re seen as having very specific, niche interests that don’t go along with mainstream society. Thus, it’s very easy to categorize these characters as “weird” and to dislike them, possibly even allowing that to bleed over to reality, which isn’t fair for a group of people who are already marginalized.

The 1990s reflect small efforts to normalize sexuality and gender identification and to make GLBT characters less one-dimensional, but in the end, we still have a poor representation of GLBT communities in video games during this time. The important question here is whether we see a more positive and less stereotypical trend starting with the new millennium. Join us next week as I explore games released in 2000-2009.

* Cisgender is an adjective referring to individuals who identify with or express a gender that is the same as one’s assigned sex at birth.

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