So, for awhile I played Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I played a female Sith Marauder, because, fuck yes, that shit was awesome. Committed to being as ruthless and callous as possible, I would elect to perform every evil action over good, even if I felt a twinge in my personal moral fiber while doing so. When Jaesa Willsaam entered the story, I felt that from that point on I would crush and dominate her completely because that’s exactly what my demented, psychopathic, sexy sith lord would do. I was disappointed to learn that while I could instruct her to bathe half the galaxy in blood, I couldn’t even get in a hint that I wanted to give her a snog. A romance option wasn’t available to me and, well, as a young, white male that just felt plain weird.
I’ve never felt like I wasn’t being offered a romance that I wouldn’t be interested in at least the idea of, no matter how rubbish the romance itself actually is. It was also the first time I’d ever actually considered the presence of homosexuality in games, or rather lack thereof, and how interactive relationships in games often aren’t great regardless of the dynamic. At PAXAus this year, I attended a panel called “Press X To Woo” that dealt with these very issues, and I had a chance to speak with panelist and writer Liam Esler about the topic.
His hair, much like our own Nick Ballantyne’s, might just naturally be like that.
Homosexuality in games isn’t an area I’ve extensively explored regarding the impact it has on narrative. What’s your perspective of homosexuality in games? When you’re writing something along those lines what are you trying to achieve?
I had the experience of writing Hexxat for Baldur’s Gate II [Enhanced Edition], which was a lesbian romance. Clearly, as I’m not a lesbian myself, or a woman, that was a really interesting experience. The one tip that I can give is just consult people; come up with an idea, find lesbians, or gay guys, to talk to about it and run it by them, get their opinions, get their thoughts. Try to get them to be fairly brutal, and even if they’re feeling slightly weird about it, you should act on it because often there’s something important there.
Regarding homosexual relationships in games, the gay community often feels very left out in gaming, but do you think the gaming community is actually alienating towards anyone who’s not straight, or what might be described as “normal?”
Absolutely, I like to think that’s changing but sure, in many of the sectors, particularly triple-A players… In the “bro” games, there’s going to be a “bro” culture.
So like your Call of Duties and Halos and what not?
Exactly, you can’t help that but I’m hoping that, in the future, we’ll start to see more queer characters in those games. Not a lot, you don’t need a lot, you just need a couple, and it’ll normalise and humanise them. So, yeah, the gaming community can be pretty awful at times but I think it is getting better and the more we engage as queer people, the better it’ll become because homophobia and so on is only combated through exposure. There’ve been so many studies done on the topic; if you personally know someone who is gay, you’re less likely to become homophobic, or you learn to get over it, you learn to overcome it.
On the idea of the “bro culture” being non-inclusive of gay people, do you think we’ll reach a point where gay people can also engage in the bro culture, and there won’t be any issue with it? Or do you think we’re already at that stage?
I think that there’s a lot of that already, like, there are significant parts of gay culture that are very bro. There’s that whole… Have you played Coming Out On Top?
No, it was mentioned during the panel and I want to play it now. Something about romancing a goldfish?
You really should, it’s so good. It’s problematic in a number of ways because it only depicts one body type, which I’m sure you can imagine what it is. And yes, oh my God, great – but problematic if it’s all that’s there. So one of the paths is that you can seduce your straight best friend or he sort of comes out to you, and it’s in there because that’s a huge fantasy for some gay guys.
Converting the straight guy?
Well, not just converting the straight guy but having sex with really masculine guys, and I think that masculinity and straight-appearing guys are considered very sexy. It is what it is, but, as a result, there are some very bro parts of the gay community. You know, I can be pretty bro at times, I also grew up in a small country town in Adelaide, so, you know, and I’m pretty fucking gay. I didn’t know anyone else who was queer in my entire town, so I kind of went to the internet and porn as like a, “Are other people like me?” sort of thing, and I was lucky I had that as an outlet.
“I had the experience of writing Hexxat for Baldur’s Gate II [Enhanced Edition], which was a lesbian romance. Clearly, as I’m not a lesbian myself, or a woman, that was a really interesting experience.”
So, as a writer for games, have you ever tried to write some of your own experiences into games before?
Not specifically but you can’t help it, bits of your own experiences, challenges and triumphs will always make their way into whatever you do. If you play anything I’ve written, there are definitely big vulnerable bits of me stashed away in there somewhere, like Rasaad in Baldur’s Gate II is the awkward, vulnerable, endearing part of me that I like about myself. So, I thought, “Well, I like that about myself, and I like that in other people, so it’d be attractive to women,” because it was for a straight romance. That was really fun to write! I wrote him as the robot who’s learning to love, that’s a trope, like “I don’t know how to human,” it’s really endearing.
But then you have Hexxat who’s a black, lesbian vampire, and it’s a bit of a power struggle – with her it’s all about trust, and I dealt with some of my trust issues through that. Then Dorn was all about power, and sex is power, and Dorn’s bi and that’s awesome and his romance isn’t… yeah if you get a chance to play it at some point you should. It gets a little rapey at times, which I feel bad about, but it wouldn’t make sense for the character not to be a little bit forceful. I wish I’d had more time to spend on it and refine it a little bit more, but his romance is very much about power and he’s trying to get some of your power. There is totally a sexual element to that, and part of that comes from me and exploring power dynamics, which is something that I never had a chance to do, so I got to play it out as a character. So yeah, I think that whatever you write there’s totally bits of you in there.
Speaking personally, sex can be a bit of a weird topic for me – it’s not something I really discuss openly–
None of us do, it’s always weird!
Do you think maybe that general uncomfortableness with sex is why people find gay or trans people to be so confronting in the gaming community?
I definitely think that there’s an element of sex is uncomfortable no matter what it is, and so we don’t talk about it.” Particularly for guys who are bi, it’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about. It’s very emotional, and I think there’s a very vulnerable part of being in a relationship with a dude as a bi guy. It’s not the norm, the norm is sleeping with girls, which is kind of easy in comparison, but then when you have sex with a guy it’s a very different experience because it’s outside of the norm, it’s outside of what you’re expected to do. So, you kind of put your trust in their hands in a way you don’t when you’re in a relationship with a girl, or when you’re having sex with a girl. Then there’s all those problematic notions of masculinity, and does having sex with a guy make you less masculine? Especially, if you’re a bottom, or if you’re the submissive person in that encounter, that can be quite confronting and really hard to talk about because that’s definitely something that most straight guys won’t understand.
Trans, I think, is a separate issue, like we’re so used to the gender binary, we grow up, and there’s boy and girl. Then have something that challenges that and it becomes incredibly difficult. We don’t know what do do with it, we don’t know how to process that, and it makes me really happy that we’re starting to see more Trans representation in games because it means that kids will get exposure to Trans people early on, and it’ll be normalised. And I’d like to see more non-binary characters, characters that are on the gender spectrum and not just a flat “boy-girl” dynamic. I think that’ll help avoid those kinds of problems later.
Do you think that a part of it as well is men having emotions is something that… I wouldn’t say frowned upon by society, but something that’s really awkward to deal with? Like, “Men having emotions? Ah! That’s a bit weird!” It also sort of shows through in gaming, especially in a lot of RPG’s where, as it was said during the panel, it often gets boiled down to “Press X to love!” And the love itself never really gets explored.
Yes, I think that it’s definitely a problem, I think there is this idea that as a guy you should be stoic, you should be… Not heartless, you should have a heart, but don’t show it. Only show it when nobody’s watching, and that’s terrible. I do think that gay guys tend to be more in touch with their emotions and more in touch with being emotional, and that can be quite confronting for straight guys who haven’t grown up with the idea that they should express their emotions, or that it’s okay to feel.
“… Whereas Lieutenant Traynor is a lesbian and it doesn’t come up until it’s appropriate, which is when she comes on to you, and I liked that approach.”
It was brought up during the panel that some people within the community actively rail against this kind of stuff being included in games. It’s not enough for them to be uncomfortable with it, they have to stop it entirely – where do you think that comes from?
I think that there’s a bit of… oh, God, I’m going to bring up GamerGate. There’s the idea that if we do something different it takes away from something else, that if we have gay relationships in games, it means we’ll have less straight ones. The reality is that’s not how it works but I think there’s a perception that that might be how it is, and it’s because people don’t understand how game production works. That’s an industry problem, but it’s a very difficult one to solve because production is such a fickle thing and varies so drastically from project to project.
I think that there’s also a moralistic part of it, like, “Won’t anybody think of the children?” kind of thing. Maude Flanders always sort of comes up for me there – we have a lot of Maude Flanders’ in the gaming community, and they’re mostly guys, which is weird. Some women, as well, there are definitely some high profile women who rail against queer and diverse content in games and broader spheres. And I think that’s awful, I think it’s awful when anyone does that, and the only way that we can combat it is to work harder – more queer content! Be more representative, expose more people to diversity.
It shouldn’t be in your face, like Cortez in Mass Effect 3 is an interesting example. He’s like, “Oh, hi, I’m Cortez, in my first conversation I’m going to talk about my dead husband, and did I mention that I’m gay and have a dead husband?” It’s really shoved in your face, whereas Lieutenant Traynor is a lesbian and it doesn’t come up until it’s appropriate, which is when she comes on to you, and I liked that approach. I think it should exist in triple-A, it should be a part of it, but it shouldn’t be the main focus, and it shouldn’t be shoved in the spotlight because then it will create reactions that we don’t want. What we want is just exposure, and it should be normalised exposure, it shouldn’t be like, “Hey, I’m gay, oh hey, hey, I’m gay!” There’s no point in that, it’s not doing us any good, and it’s not helpful.
What we can do is just normalise it, have characters that are gay, and sure, maybe they mention it in their first dialogue but have it be in a normal way. I don’t introduce myself as, “Hi, I’m Liam and I’m gay,” nobody does that, and we shouldn’t do that with our game characters either.
So, you think this whole situation would be helped if the triple-A industry would embrace gay characters? If they made an effort to include more of these kinds of characters, do you think it would go a long way to helping non-gay gamers understand gay culture in general?
It’s more than just gay. It’s been really interesting while I’ve been running GX, actually, and everywhere’s been reporting it as Australia’s first gay convention. Whereas if you read all of our copy, we actually don’t use the word gay anywhere, ever. It’s “queer,” it’s a broader thing. Gay guys in particular are… I don’t want to say well represented, but I would say they receive better representation than other groups. Particularly trans women, trans men, non-binary people, and lesbians; lesbians are a huge one, there actually aren’t a lot of lesbian characters written for lesbians, they’re all written for men.
Like, in Baldurs Gate II [Enhanced Edition], Hexxat was written for women and I wish I had had a female writer who was a lesbian to pass it to at the time but I didn’t. I’m still really proud of what we did, but it would’ve been more interesting and authentic if it had come from the perspective of someone who is a lesbian, writing for themselves.
You guys on the panel gave a lot of great examples of games that do deal with a lot of these issues, do you want to just list off a few examples of what you think are the best titles to play if you want to look into it further?
Anything of Robert Yang’s is quite interesting, Cobra Club, Stick Shift, these are explorations of male sexuality that are designed to evoke a reaction. They’re designed to be in your face; they’re designed to be provocative, and I think that’s really interesting, and I think there should also be more straight versions of that. Coming Out On Top is another good example of something that, most of the time, does it incredibly well, it does have a few problematic tropes, it’s all one body type as well. At least to me, I find that a little problematic – I’m a skinny little twink guy.
Well, I’m not exactly an Adonis over here either.
Exactly, and we’ve got a huge variety of people in the queer community, and I’d like to see that represented a little bit better. Coming Out On Top does rely on certain tropes that can be quite damaging but, on the whole, it does an incredibly good job of being a fun, sexy game experience. Anything Bioware, yes. And Obsidian, they haven’t done a lot of queer characters but whenever they have they’ve done it super well, and it’s been nice and subtle, not in your face, it just exists in the world.
Ubisoft stuff has been quite good recently, anything by Jeffrey Yohalem is amazing I think. There’s a scene in Farcry 3 where it’s a rape sequence with a male character and it’s quite confronting, there were some really interesting reactions to that. Child of Light isn’t a queer game but it is a queer game, it has a lot of queer themes, it’s about identity and growing up and becoming comfortable with, and confident in yourself and I think that’s really important. Those are the one’s that come to mind – Oh! And Assassin’s Creed 2 with all the Leonardo Da Vinci scenes where he comes out to you. That’s Jeffrey; he did an incredible job of those, and I was so pleased to see that represented in a triple A game. I know he and his team work incredibly hard to push that and make it happen.
When you say “Gay” and “Queer,” they seem to be two very separate terms, what does queer encompass?
Queer… I struggle with this. Gay is very distinct; gay is usually referring to gay men. Some people use it to refer to lesbians as well; I don’t think that’s correct because gay has been traditionally used for men and seems like an exclusive term. I prefer the much more inclusive term of queer, even if, you know, queer has been problematic in the past, obviously it was used as a slur and so was gay, faggot, dyke, etc. These are terms that have been used but queer is one that I quite like, and I know that some members of the older generation don’t like it, the other one is “Quiltbag,” because it has all the acronyms in it and it’s a word. But a quilt can be oppressive and mundane, there’re a lot of metaphors there that aren’t quite right.
So, I prefer queer, which you can think of as an all-encompassing term for anything that’s not straight, cis-gender, dudes and women. That’s more or less how I think about it but I think queer is also an attitude, there’s a certain… I’m trying to think of the word. An “activist” part of it, almost, like an attitude where being queer is a choice. It’s not a choice to be gay, or bi, or trans, or whatever you are, but queer is almost like you’re being more openly gay, or lesbian or trans but doing it to try and progress others’ attitudes. Trying to help people understand that queer people – gay, bi, trans people, etc. – are just normal people. We’re just human like everyone else, we just happen to love cock or vagina, it even extends to the furry community a little.
“Coming Out On Top is another good example of something that, most of the time, does it incredibly well… It’s problematic in a number of ways because it only depicts one body type, which I’m sure you can imagine what it is.”
That… Is certainly another topic of discussion.
I’m not a furry, I don’t understand it, I’m just like, “More power to you!”
If I’m being honest, the animal thing is just a bit… Strange for me.
Me too a little, I guess, I just always remind myself that it’s an anthropomorphized animal in an imagined reality, and they’re not trying to have sex with animals, or be animals. They’re trying to be anthropomorphized animals by taking on animal traits, and I think that there’s something quite human about that in a way, like trying to get back to that primal or bestial side. The furry community takes that to a new level in a way.
If I had to relate it to any kind of personal feelings, I’m sure you’re a Star Wars fan?
Well… Twi’leks are kind of fucking hot.
(laughing) Did you go to the panel last night, “Sex and the Modern Geek?”
No, I wasn’t able to make that one.
It was me, Lucie Bee and Kim Cumms, who are porn stars, Jimmy Reilly, and Tim Green – a game dev, two porn stars, a journalist and an academic. It was a really interesting panel, and we talked about how the first thing most people want to do while exploring something new is to have sex with it, it’s a very human response. Sexuality is so deeply embedded into who we are, with reproduction and wanting to have sex with things. There’s a sex toy that’s like a big dildo that you insert into yourself, and then there’re these gelatinous eggs that you push into yourself. It’s like a sexy impregnation kink thing.
I don’t understand that at all, but some people find it incredibly sexy, and I imagine it possibly enters into that, like, violation area like it’s a rape fantasy maybe? But it’s really interesting to hear people talking about it because aliens are becoming quite sexy and it’s that “other,” and the “other” can be sexy and interesting. For me, that’s what I try to think of it as. We’ve all got kinks and stuff that other people just wouldn’t understand, so for me I’m like, “Well, I have my kinks, everyone else has theirs, too.”
Do you think then that the language we use is half the barrier because people so often get caught up on the words themselves? If we changed the way we talked about it or found a new way to go about explaining this stuff, that understanding would come a lot easier?
I think that people do get caught up on the words. I don’t know if creating new words is the solution because then you have to explain those words and create a space for them, which can be quite difficult, that’s a huge battle. I think it’s just education, just one to one conversations with people. Through my lifetime, I’ve had a number of people whom I’ve met that have disagreed with homosexuality at the beginning of our friendship. And then by a certain point they’re like, “No, it’s totally fine, you should be allowed to get married and have kids, and I don’t’ see a problem with that.”
It’s literally just discussion and exposure; they get to know me, and I’m not an awful person; I’m a nice person, and then there’s a disconnect. It’s like “Well, but they’re gay, how can they be nice and lovely and generous and still be this other, awful thing?” They begin to realise that well maybe it’s not, maybe it’s not so bad. Everyone should just meet more queer people.
“Well, I have my kinks, everyone else has theirs, too.”
I’m sure we’ll reach a point where gay isn’t weird, it’s just a thing that happens, and it’s no longer an issue for anyone. Do think when that happens we’ll lose a lot of these terms then? We won’t have queer people or straight people; we’ll just have people, and people will do what they will?
I think it’s in human nature to give terminology to things and to label things, I don’t think that’ll go away. What I do think will happen is we’ll expand vocabulary over time, we’ll create new ones, we’ll probably even reclaim certain words.
So, words like “faggot” in fifty years might become terms of endearment?
Quite possibly, I mean queer even ten years ago was a terrible term.
You think that instead of losing those terms, we’ll just redefine them?
I think so, have you played Read Only Memories? It’s good, it’s by MidBoss; in that one, sexuality is totally cool, gender is totally cool, you’re free to be what you want to be. But the big problem of the time is people using technology to fuse some of their genetics with animal genetics to change their body, like getting cool ears, or getting tech implants, etc. Something about that rings true to me, being queer will become more acceptable, being non-cisgender and not sitting in the gender binary will become more acceptable, but there’ll always be something else. There’ll be new things invented, stuff we haven’t thought about yet, and having sex with robots is a really interesting one.
I totally have no problem with that… Hypothetically speaking. Especially if it hypothetically vibrates.
(laughing) Exactly, and it’s a really interesting area, especially when you start talking about sentience and consent, areas like that. I think all sex should be consensual, I think even play non-consensual sex needs to be consensual, I think that’s a blanket rule that should apply to everything. But what happens to that when it’s an AI? These are the kinds of things that we’re going to hit next, and our struggles will become less struggle-y.
Finally, what’s your favorite game.
Oh God… Uhhh… Baldurs Gate II is definitely my favorite game, I reckon, but I can’t play anymore since I worked on it. Once you start to test something so many times? I know that game like the back of my hand now, there’s no way I could go back and replay it, but those experiences I had playing that game for the first time were so good. Like, the first time I played through Irenicus’ dungeon – holy shit! The mood, the evocative dialogue, everything about that is just incredible. It’s a special, special game.