The Aces of Representation

While the queer community as a whole has its issues with representation, various identities within the community, like gay men and lesbians, are notably more visible. Amongst the least visible queer identities are the Asexuals and Aromantics.

Asexual people, or “Aces”, don’t experience sexual attraction, while Aromantic people, or “Aros”, don’t experience romantic attraction.

Conversely, people who do experience sexual attraction are referred to as “Allosexuals” and those who experience romantic attraction are referred to as “Alloromantic.”

As Allosexual and Alloromantic attraction amounts to what genders someone is attracted to, the concept of not being attracted to any genders is often not even considered.

Indeed, while Asexual and Aromantic people are represented in the extended LGBTQI+ acronym (LGBTQQIP2SA), many claim that their A stands for Ally instead. Even GLAAD, an LGBTQI+ organization, has needed to apologise for implying otherwise in the past. Asexuals and Aromantics are so underrepresented that allies, or supportive non-queer people, feel that they have more of a right to the queer community than they do.

This underrepresentation means that Aces and Aros who don’t know the name of their identity might feel “broken”, or otherwise pressured to seek therapy to become “normal.”

The Visual Novels, C14 Dating and Backstage Pass, are some of the few video games to include Asexuality positively, though Aromantic relationships are not addressed. This is due to the fact that both Visual Novels are of the romance kind, meaning the aim of the game is to romance a character.

Backstage Pass – Spoilers Ahead

In Backstage Pass, by Sakevisual, you play as Sian Goodin, a new college student and makeup artist. She has four main love interests, who are all male. Alongside the main routes, there are three bonus routes. These routes are considered bonus as they are not advertised, and there is no easy way to see how well you are progressing along their paths. One of these bonus routes is Alvin.

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Admittedly, as a bonus route, Alvin’s route doesn’t have the same depth as the four main routes. However, when the game does address Alvin’s Asexuality, it is deeply touching.

At the very end of his route, Sian leans in for a kiss, only for Alvin to pull away from her. Sian asks him if she misread the signs. He denies this but runs away. When she catches up to him, he explains how he loves her but is unsure if it really is love if he isn’t feeling certain things people say he should be feeling.

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This whole speech is very important, but it must be noted that the rest of his route does not really touch on his Asexuality. To add to this, Alvin’s route is primarily advertised and seen as a Friendship route, even if it is still very much a romance. Alvin just doesn’t experience sexual attraction, and some signs of affection that an allosexual would feel.

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Additionally, while Alvin is confirmed by the Devs to be Asexual, this is never explicitly stated in game. This means that those who identify with the same struggles mentioned by Alvin in his final speech might not know where to go from there in terms of figuring out their identity.

Backstage Pass’s Steam page can be found here.

C14 Dating – Spoilers Ahead

In Winter Wolves’ C14 Dating, you play as Melissa Flores, an anthropology student participating in an archaeological elective. She has five love interests, four male and one female. One of her male love interests is Hendrik Luikenhuis. Hendrik is a geologist and one of the main team working at the archaeological site.

Hendrik

A generally charming man with a love for rock related puns, C14 Dating does an excellent job of making Hendrik an endearing and charming character, making him much more three-dimensional than a token queer character. This is a deliberate design choices on the part of the writer, Kitty Star who is Asexual herself.

At the same time, C14 Dating foreshadows and incorporates his Asexuality through his route instead of making it one big reveal at the end of his route. For instance, Melissa realises that Hendrik is Asexual a week before Hendrik confesses it to her. It is notable that when she makes this realisation, she already knows what the term means.

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This is a running theme throughout C14 Dating with queer characters being casually mentioned without further commentary. However, while this is a pleasant stance for a game to take, it assumes that its audience knows what Asexuality is. But C14 Dating nonetheless actually gives a name for the term.

C14 Dating’s Steam page can be found here.

Both of these Visual Novels approach Asexuality in varied ways, but both depictions are valuable in their own right. It is important for Backstage Pass to have Alvin explain his struggles with his sexuality versus what society tells him he should feel. It is important for C14 Dating to downright state that Hendrik is Asexual.

If you would like to learn more about Asexuality and Aromantic Attraction, Asexuality.org is a good place to look next.

 

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Protagonist Pronouns

As society changes it becomes more and more important to be inclusive and progressive in games. In particular, diverse protagonists are important because not everyone has the privilege of being able to play as the gender they identify as.

There are relatively few games that have non-binary protagonists; non-binary individuals being those who identify with genders outside of the gender binary.

The below games kept the existence of non-binary people in mind during development.

It is notable that, with the exception of Fallen London, none of these games ask for gender, only pronouns. Choosing to give the option of pronouns, rather than gender, is a positive decision as non-binary people do not neccesarily go by Them/They, and people who go by She/Her or He/Him are not neccesarily of binary genders.

Fallen London & Sunless Sea

Fallen London and Sunless Sea by Failbetter Games are games set in an alternative Victorian London which was transported underground. They are both choose-your-own-adventure games revolving around choices you make in response to cards. Fallen London is a browser based game with multiplayer elements, while Sunless Sea is an exploration game with roguelike elements.

While Fallen London does ask for character gender at character creation, it does have an option for gender non-conforming individuals.

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Until last year, when characters addressed these “individuals of mysterious and indistinct gender,” they would say “Si-, er, Mad-, er, yes” rather than “Sir” or “Madam”. This choice received mixed feedback over the years, with some people finding this amusing, but with others finding this uncomfortable.

Keeping this feedback in mind, Failbetter iterated on their approach to gender with Sunless Sea.

Sunless Sea deals with character gender by simply not asking for it. Instead, Sunless Sea asks for your character’s title: Madam, Sir, Citizen, Lord, Lady or Captain.

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During the course of the game, your character has the ability to become a parent. Instead of making any assumptions, the game gives you three choices: Having your player character become pregnant, having your player character’s partner become pregnant, or having your character adopt.

Following Sunless Sea’s release, the company took efforts to develop the way Fallen London approaches character pronouns as well. While Fallen London still asks for your character’s gender, you are able to change the title your character is addressed as.

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After some people fond of “Si-, er, Mad-, er, yes” voiced their upset that it was gone, Failbetter also re-added it as an option as a title, making everyone involved happy.

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Due to Fallen London being a browser based game, content changes and additions are to be expected. However, a similar change could be done with a game patch as well.

Fallen London can be played here.

Sunless Sea’s Steam page can be found here.

Hustle Cat

Hustle Cat, is a visual novel game by DateNighto. It revolves around a cat cafe called “A Cat’s Paw” and it’s employees.

It allows you to choose the pronouns of the protagonist Avery from the the start of the game: He/Him, She/Her, and Them/They. Not only that, Avery’s pronouns are changeable in the options, meaning that they can be viewed as genderfluid.

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Because it is a visual novel, Hustle Cat has a focus on romancing other characters. None of these characters are locked depending on pronoun choice, and none of the characters react differently with different pronouns. The developers themselves stated that they wanted Avery to be viewed without gendered commentary.

Hustle Cat’s Steam page can be found here.

Pyre

Pyre, by Supergiant Games, is an action RPG with sports gameplay and narrative elements. You play as an exile who quickly bands up with other exiles as they try and earn their freedom.

Pyre allows you to switch the pronouns used for the protagonist. You can choose between She/Her. He/Him, and Them/They by clicking on dialogue which contains pronouns. This is never a permanent decision allowing you to change pronouns as you please.

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Because Pyre is an action sports game, pronouns are not as high of a priority decision as some other games. Nonetheless, Supergiant Games still saw fit to allow the protagonist to go by Them/They.

Pyre’s Steam page can be found here.

Undertale – Spoilers Ahead

Undertale, by Toby Fox, is an RPG with bullet hell elements. You play as a human who fell down into the world of the monsters, and is attempting to return back home.

The protagonist is referred to with Them/They pronouns by all of the NPCs. There is never an option to change pronouns, however, Undertale’s approach has generally been taken as gender ambiguity, rather than non-binary representation. In other words, players can use the ambiguity to allow them to decide on the gender of “their” protagonist.

However, when it is revealed that the player was actually naming another character, and not the protagonist, the protagonist gives a name of their own: Frisk. This indicates that the player actually doesn’t have agency over Frisk’s identity, and as such it could be argued that Frisk is non-binary, rather than their gender being up to the player.

No matter the interpretation, Undertale’s protagonist undoubtedly goes by Them/They pronouns, rather than it being a choice like with the other games. The option to choose gender is not very resource intensive, but Toby Fox nonetheless chose to forego it.

Undertale’s Steam page can be found here.

Lessons from Dream Daddy

A game that recently came out was Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, which is a dating game in which your character, who is a dad, dates other dads. While it would have ordinarily fallen under the radar, its publisher Game Grumps, a popular youtube channel, gave it a lot of publicity.  

Being a more recent game, Dream Daddy benefits from the knowledge brought on by queer visibility and acceptance in a way that queer games from five years ago cannot. This has lead it to be an astoundingly progressive and inclusive game, the likes that has not really graced mainstream gaming. This, obviously, makes it a prime game to analyse and examine in terms of queerness.

Indeed, we can learn three core lessons from Dream Daddy.

Spoilers Ahead!

1. Including Representation Can Be Simple

The Character Creator

Dream Daddy has a highly diverse character creator at the beginning of the game. It offers a range of skin colours for POC (Person Of Colour) representation, as well as a range of body sizes, hairstyles, and so forth.

Of note is the body size section which has three body sizes repeated twice. The first set of body sizes are labeled as “tank top” bodies, and the second set is labeled as “binder” bodies. Binders are used to flatten breast tissue as to not cause dysphoria, and as such the latter set is clearly intended for trans male characters. In addition, the “binder” bodies have a bit less body hair.

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The difference in the artwork for the tank tops and binders is very minimal. The binders are essentially shorter versions of the tank tops. It would not have taken them very long to make the alteration, but the inclusion of binders makes all the difference.

The Writing

One of the first choices you get at the start of the game is the gender of your character’s former partner. The next choice is whether your daughter, Amanda, was born or adopted.

Not only does the first choice allow agency with your character’s sexuality, but the second choice does not change depending on your answer to the first question. This further supports trans inclusion in Dream Daddy, as well as the possibility of surrogates, with only a few word changes.

One of the datable dads, Damien, being a trans man is no more than an off hand comment about wearing binders on the first date with him, rather than some big reveal. Again it only took them a couple of words to confirm trans representation.

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2. Queerness Is Not Synonymous With Sex

Dream Daddy does not have any explicit sex scenes. The few instances of sex in the game are implied, and only a couple are heavily implied. For Dream Daddy, this was a good thing.

In our society it is not uncommon for cis-heterosexual people to see queerness as innately sexual when trying to figure out what the difference between queerness and straightness is, and to see queerness as being “adult” as a result.

This is not to say that queerness needs to be desexualised. However, within the contexts of Dream Daddy, it would have been detrimental if the game had more of a focus on sex.

Society currently fetishises the sexual aspect of queerness, whether in the form of “yaoi” or so called “lesbian porn”. Because of Dream Daddy’s publicity, it would have sent a message if it included explicit sex scenes: that the game was no more than another thing for straight consumption.

For instance, it is a staple of the Visual Novel and Dating Sim genre to have CGs, which are special images depicting characters in key situations. For the more explicit games, these CGs tend to illustrate sex scenes. However, Dream Daddy lacks these CGs.

This is not only good for not fetishising the encounters, but also doesn’t make assumptions about the genitalia of characters. In a way, the lack of illustrations also respect the characters more; making private moments even out of sight of the player. The sex scenes are not for the player’s consumption.

This decision is, of course, also practical as illustrating every combination possible in the character creator is not cost effective.

3. Nothing Exists In A Bubble

Dream Daddy simply can’t be viewed on its own without the contexts of 2017. In 2017, queer people, especially young queer people, congregate on websites like Tumblr and Twitter. Because Tumblr and Twitter are social media websites, a sense of community also emerges. The aspects of these communities aren’t always positive.

Because of the visibility of queerness, combined with the feeling of solidarity that community provides, the general queer communities on Tumblr and Twitter have become ones with impossible ideals. Because there is comparatively little queer representation than straight representation, there comes a need for the existing representation to be perfect.

Because Dream Daddy’s existence is so predominant, Dream Daddy gets that scrutiny.

While this heavily critical eye is generally not healthy, it is still common practice and Dream Daddy needed to acknowledge and work around that. Unfortunately, this is where Dream Daddy still has a lot to learn; especially with the character Joseph.

Joseph, one of the datable characters, is married. His relationship with his wife Mary is strained and clearly unhealthy for either of them. To make matters worse, Joseph finds himself attracted to the player character from early on, causing his interactions with the player character to sour the marriage even further as Mary is not blind to what’s happening in front of her.

During the final date with Joseph, he and the player character get stranded on Joseph’s yacht. Joseph confesses that he and Mary and over, and soon after he and the player character sleep together. However, during the epilogue, he tells the player that he and Mary have sorted things out and that he in fact still loves his wife, rejecting the player.

Joseph is the only character to downright reject the player character.

Naturally, this route was met with uproar. What made it worse though, is that the developers explained why the route was written in such a way: they wanted to subvert expectations for the dating sim genre.

While their desire is to be respected, their execution nonetheless makes playing the route, and by extension playing the game, a punishment. How dare you choose one of the available routes? How dare you expect to win Joseph’s route by selecting all the right options?

The route certainly isn’t the worst route that has ever graced visual novels or dating sims, but the rest of the game is comparatively light hearted and good natured. No other datable dads have a story arc anywhere similar to Joseph’s. The other routes don’t have very high dramatic stakes. In short, Joseph’s route feels out of place from the rest of Dream Daddy.

You need to be able to set the right tone with your game to pull off a more experimental route without damaging the whole game as a result. You need to be aware of the current society, and how it will interpret your content, while writing a game.

This is certainly not to say that the pitfalls of Dream Daddy outweigh the positives, and it is certainly a revolutionary queer game because of all its representation. It is my hope that Dream Daddy’s failings create even better games in the future.

Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator’s Steam page can be found here.