Lesbian representation in video games has increased in recent years. While that's a welcome shift for LGBTQIA+ gamers, the way relationships between women are often portrayed in the medium still leaves a lot to be desired.
Unpacking problematic portrayals of “doomed lesbianism” as a kind of sickness that inevitably ends in tragedy has been a cornerstone of feminist film theory for decades — and what are games if not another form of cinematic storytelling? You’d be forgiven for assuming mainstream games have a better understanding of LGBTQIA+ people and the issues they navigate at this point, but this often isn't the case. Indies tend to be far more open to exploring sexuality in a multifaceted light, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.
Julian, who works in games PR and requested to use a pseudonym to share candid criticism of the space, says this harmful trope continues to pop up across games, movies, and TV.
“Lesbian couples in media are doomed to the point that when one of them doesn't die it feels like an LGBT milestone,” Julian tells Inverse. “That should change, no question.”
Inverse spoke with the creators of one of 2020’s biggest indie games, an industry insider, and a queer gamer about why the trope of doomed lesbianism is so damaging, and how games can do better going forward.
So much for the happy ending
Emma ‘Eniko’ Maasen from Kitsune Games, the LGBTQ+ studio behind Lore Finder, No Way Out, and the upcoming platformer Kitsune Tails, notes that many big-budget games fall short when it comes to lesbian representation.
”The industry has made good progress on the representation of queer women in games in the past decade or so,” she tells Inverse. “Having said that, AAA can still learn a lot from indies who’ve stepped up and filled that gap in the past decade.”
One example Maasen mentioned was The Last of Us Part II, one of the most recent AAA games to feature lesbian characters. Released to wide critical acclaim in June 2020, Naughty Dog’s sequel to its character-driven, post-apocalyptic adventure garnered much praise for its inclusion of queer protagonists Ellie and Dina. Many publications rushed to say how wonderful this was, overlooking the troubling way it reinforced the notion that lesbianism inevitably ends in disaster.
This isn’t to say video games can never depict conflict or misfortune in lesbian lives, but that they can — and should — do more to move away from a trope that’s become low-hanging fruit within the horror and survival genres. The Last of Us 2’s final hours see Ellie unable to ignore her need to pursue vengeance, destroying her tranquil family life with Dina and their child. The couple’s happy ending is a fake-out that feels far less ambitious than it aspires to be.
The indie scene has seen numerous successes in terms of queer representation, though it’s certainly not without missteps. Remothered: Broken Porcelain, released in October 2020, also gives players a glimpse at lasting lesbian romance only to destroy it. The main characters, Linn and Jennifer, nearly die because of the traumatic experiences of their teenage years, then part ways afterward. They meet later in life, and meet with even more heartbreak: Linn dies from Alzheimer's not long after being reunited with her love one last time.
The team at Remothered developer Stormind Games did not respond to Inverse’s request for comment for this story.
Storylines like this leave queer gamers feeling disenchanted and misunderstood. “When games really want to drill home loss and doomed fate, lesbians are another arrow in their quiver,” Julian explains. “Lesbians in love is pretty much foreshadowing ‘this won't end well.’"
A deliberate craft
Around the same time as The Last of Us 2 was released, so too was Annapurna Interactive’s visual novel If Found… an LGBTQIA+ story that won numerous awards for its moving story. It explores difficult experiences through a queer lens in a way that resonated with many LGBTQIA+ people.
Creators Llaura McGee and Eve Golden-Woods agree that indie games have a better track record on queer representation than mainstream ones, with McGee positing that AAA games haven’t quite “caught up” with contemporary beliefs and values.
Golden-Woods says that even games derived from personal experiences demand fine-tuning: “writing from one’s own experience still takes work. It’s a deliberate craft.” This highlights what AAA and AA games lack: authentic experiences combined with creative hard work. Yes, queer people do work on mainstream games, but rarely are they allowed to take the lead or determine the overall direction of one.
This lack of involvement at the top of the games industry has a trickle-down effect, leaving queer gamers feeling alienated.
“I don’t think most people who recognize this trope as “a common theme” are very accepting of it, but we’re used to killing queer characters, so we keep doing it,” says Sofie Vos, a 25-year-old trans lesbian gamer and former programmer.
Vos notes that studio environments sometimes foster an echo chamber of ideas, which makes it hard for other perspectives to break through. “The person thinks they’re doing good work, and disregards the negative feedback from outside the bubble,” she explains.
This is why devs need to be talking with LGBTQIA+ individuals when creating games, and make sincere efforts to involve queer voices and talents across the development process. Granted, you’ll never be able to create content that everyone loves, but you can make a conscious effort to change a highly damaging status quo.
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait several more decades before the “lesbianism is doomed” trope is finally put to rest. It really is long overdue.