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Why I’m afraid video games will continue to 'bury its gays'

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A trope from pop culture can be stopped in games

Life is Strange: Before the Storm Dontnod Entertainment/Square Enix

Life is Strange had done the unthinkable. How did it put a pair of teenage — and possibly lesbian — girls as its protagonists, and still become a popular and seemingly successful mainstream release?

While this may seem unlikely just a few years ago — the studio’s other title, Remember Me, had trouble finding a publisher due to its female protagonist — the video game industry is slowly but surely becoming more receptive to leading ladies. It helps that Life Is Strange featured complex, well-developed teenagers whose character developments do not revolve around a man’s affairs.

But while the game was one of the few with positive female representation, the same can’t be said for its treatment of its LGBTQ characters.

The story began with Max returning to Arcadia Bay, the small town in which she grew up. She saved her best friend, Chloe, from murder by moving through time. Then Chloe’s friend Rachel disappeared. When It was clear that something was amiss in Arcadia Bay, Max set out to get to the bottom of the mystery — with Chloe by her side.

A quick warning: This post will contain spoilers for Life is Strange.

The ambiguity of queer relationships in media

Unfortunately, the story included purposely ambiguous relationships among the trio. Was Chloe in love with Rachel? Did Rachel reciprocate her feelings? Did Max harbor a crush on Chloe? These feelings were hinted at, but never confirmed.

Such queerbaiting, which is the allusion to queer feelings without consummation or even explicit confirmation of the relationship, are often perceived as a betrayal of sorts by queer audiences.

Any romance is merely implied, and never realized. Plus, the companies involved often get credit for hinting at the relationship by framing it as a positive form of queer representation, but never have to come under any heat by actually showing or even stating an actual romantic relationship.

The poster child for this trope in pop culture? Castiel and Dean Winchester from the stupendously long-running teen TV series, Supernatural. They often trade longing looks and ambiguously gay quips without addressing any romantic feelings nor acting on the relationship. The fans noticed.

But Life Is Strange contains an even more painful trend: Rachel is ultimately found murdered, and Max is forced to choose between killing an entire town or sacrificing Chloe.

Judging by how the ending with Chloe’s death was much more fleshed out than its counterpart, chances are that that is considered the more correct, or “canon” ending. Chloe was just never meant to be alive, and her last name, “Price,” is a little on the nose. She has to die for the the survival of Arcadia Bay.

And now with the announcement of a prequel, Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, players will soon be taking a more intimate look into the life — and imminent death — of Rachel and Chloe. For queer fans of the series, it may appear that the lead characters will never have their happy ending.

That’s heartbreaking. Yet, it fits right into a long tradition of dying LGBTQ characters.

Bury Your Gays

The killing of queer fictional characters is such a prevalent trend across television, film and video games that it has been given its own trope: bury your gays.

Dontnod Entertainment/Square Enix

In the post-apocalyptic television series, The 100, the lesbian heroine Lexa was shot by a stray bullet shortly after consummating her relationship with her lover Clarke. There was Mass Effect 3 DLC that involved a lesbian turian, Nyreen Kandros, who sacrificed herself to save civilians from the clutches of evil space aliens. This ignited the rage of her ex-lover, Aria T’Loak, filling her up with enough angst to summon powerful blasts of biotic force against their foes. And in The Last of Us, Ellie’s girlfriend, Riley, succumbed to a fungal infection and died.

These are just a few examples, and I could go on and on. And these deaths happen too frequently to be coincidental; website Autostraddle collated a damning list of every death of an openly queer female on television. There are now 182 examples.

Considering that the portrayal of queer characters, much less openly queer ones, is scarce and often at the fringes of the narrative, this is a staggeringly huge percentage. Queer fans have noticed how often this happens, and Lexa’s death in The 100 sparked a massive backlash against its creators. Many queer Life is Strange players felt that Chloe’s death was likewise pointless and uncalled for.

When so many queer characters across the spectrum of popular media experience violent deaths, regardless of the setting, it’s time we pay more attention to the same issue in video games.

The Sins of Being Queer

Thankfully, video game developers are taking more care when it comes to depicting minorities accurately and positively, such as with BioWare titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Mass Effect allowed players to pursue same-sex relationships without either partner dropping dead at any point, whereas Dragon Age had produced one of the most positive — and well-loved — transgender characters in video games: Krem.

These characters weren’t just hinted at, and their status as queer or trans didn’t earn them a violent death. It’s a bit sad that these two facts feel so noteworthy, but let’s praise the small amount of progress being made. That doesn’t make the criticism of how far we have to go any less important.

The pop culture killing of queer characters likely had its roots in the Hays Code, otherwise known as the Motion Picture Production Code, back in the 1930s.

“Impure love, the love of man and woman forbidden by human and divine law, must be presented in such a way that (a) it is clearly known by the audience to be wrong; (b) its presentation does not excite sexual reactions, mental or physical, in an ordinary audience; and (c) it is not treated as a matter for comedy,” the code stated.

Instead, characters who take part in love “forbidden by human and divine law” had to be punished, or at least be portrayed as dastardly, villains.

The code specified “that evil is not presented alluringly. Even if later in the film the evil is condemned or punished, it must not be allowed to appear so attractive that the audience’s emotions are drawn to desire or approve so strongly that later the condemnation is forgotten and only the apparent joy of the sin remembered.”

That is why popular tropes such as the sissy villain — the effeminate man with a taste for destruction and mayhem — became so widespread in the early days of Hollywood. It wasn’t enough to show anything that wasn’t heteronormative as being evil, it had to be punished, and no aspect of it could be pleasurable. The stereotype was locked in place and continued even after the Hays Code was retired.

And the rampant death of fictional queer characters, which used to be a way to show “impure” sexuality being punished, still persists. Perhaps it’s helped along by the lack of understanding of queer characters beyond their sexuality, which is what Trish Bendix of queer publication, Go Magazine, suggests.

"[Creatives] ideas of inclusion and diversity are often the fact that they offered up a queer character at all — they don't put much thought going forward into what that character is about outside of her sexuality," Bendix told NBC OUT. "It's frustrating to watch the same kinds of stories — coming out stories, love stories — end in death, because writers aren't able to fully flesh out LGBTQ characters like they can heterosexual ones."

The why may be a question that’s worth asking, but what is more important is that we recognize the problem. And it is a problem.

Dontnod Entertainment/Square Enix

“Since the beginning of 2016, more than 25 queer female characters have died on scripted television and streaming series,” GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report stated in 2016. “Most of these deaths served no other purpose than to further the narrative of a more central (and often straight, cisgender) character. When there are so few lesbian and bisexual women on television, the decision to kill these characters in droves sends a toxic message about the worth of queer female stories.”

When those in the queer community, especially the younger ones, only ever see the death of LGBTQ characters in the stories they love, it’s hard not to despair. In fact, it is even harder for them to imagine that they can lead better lives themselves.

“Indeed, LGBTQ characters should be treated the same as their straight, cisgender counterparts by the rules of their series’ worlds,” GLAAD’s report explained. “This means having the same opportunities for romance, nuanced motivation, developed backstory, and the same odds of death. When the most repeated ending for a queer woman is violent death, producers must do better to question the reason for a character’s demise and what they are really communicating to the audience.”

Diversity Matters

This isn’t an issue of immortality for all fictional LGBTQ folks. I just don’t want queer folks to die that frequently, you know?

Many in the community do pass away in their early years, and LGBTQ teenagers and young adults face a higher risk of suicide than their peers. Life as a queer individual can be extremely tough, and being queer remains illegal in 76 countries today.

Stories of the prejudice that some LGBTQ folks face daily can be inspirational, and may help others sympathize with their plight. They deserve to be told. In some ways, the participatory nature of video games can even convey the queer community’s hardships in more effective ways than other media.

However, queer stories desperately need more diversity. The arbitrary nature of some of these deaths, like those of Rachel’s and Chloe’s in Life Is Strange, can be immensely frustrating. And these story decisions don’t exist in a vacuum. The death of queer characters is as common as the Wilhelm scream at this point, and often just as distractingly artificial.

That’s why the announcement of Before The Storm filled me with a mixture of dread and giddiness. As a fan of the original, I was thrilled about learning more about Chloe’s formative years, especially what took place in her life during Max’s absence. I was excited to learn more about the enigmatic Rachel, who had had such an impact on her schoolmates’ lives.

But to play this with the knowledge that they will eventually die makes the experience feel so much more dreadful. It is yet another stark reminder of how queerness will almost always result in violent death or suicide in pop culture.

We want to hear about queer couples who overcame countless fears and obstacles together ... without dying from these difficulties in the end.

We want to hear about transgender characters who are accepted for who they are, as they go on to have meaningful, fulfilling lives … without getting shot by a stray bullet. We want to see games that allow gay men of various shapes and sizes to meet and romance one another … without them convulsing and dying from being overwhelmingly gay.

Perhaps Before The Storm will upend this tired trope unexpectedly, and have Chloe and Rachel transform the very fabric of time and reality to transform their death sentences into something more meaningful. Or perhaps nothing will change. This is a prequel, after all.

But after years of watching fictional queers die unfortunate deaths, I’m hoping that the eventual sequel to Life Is Strange, which is currently in development, will feature stories that showcase explicitly queer characters in more uplifting and hopeful scenarios.

The LGBTQ community needs it, and after decades of being stigmatized I think they deserve it.