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

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.

Comments

"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?"

I think the solution to this isn’t to not kill queer characters, but it’s to have MORE queer characters so that when you DO kill one off it’s no different than killing off a straight character. Because queer characters are still a bit of a rarity it’s still a problem to write them out of the story by death or other means.

I think for stories like Life is Strange and Last of Us, they’re particularly depressing stories in general. They’re not going to end well for anybody involved, regardless of gender or sexuality or anything else, especially in something like Last of Us.

Side-Note: I can’t begrudge Life is Strange for any queerbaiting or anything since they tried to give you the freedom to choose Max’s sexuality for yourself. Even though I didn’t end up in ANY relationship by the end of the game, I really liked that aspect and freedom to it.

A common rebuttal I hear from people who don’t see the issue here is "well, plenty of straight people die in fiction and that’s not really an issue." As you pointed out, though, there’s plenty of straight people who don’t die when their romantic feelings are realised and go on to live a happy and fulfilling life throughout the rest of that fiction.

Brute forcing it and pumping gay characters into everything is one way to approach it. I would prefer that creators simply increase their media literacy and put more thought into their decisions around queer characters. Why am I including them? What am I trying to say? And how does that shake out when compared to the rest of media?

Popular culture is pretty good at martyring queer characters. Now they just need to nurture them and show more good endings.

I would prefer that creators simply increase their media literacy and put more thought into their decisions around queer characters. Why am I including them? What am I trying to say?

Hit the nail on the head.

True, but then more gay people need to start making games. Im not gay and have no clue how I would write one which hits the nail without tropes.

Its easy to say e need more gay charcacters. But Poly criticm of LIS was that men cant write teenage girls. How are we going to write gay then? And I doubt every gay is interchangeable. Repersentation also means getting active and making shit yourselves instead of blaming an effort by others from a lazy chair saying you’re doing it wrong.

Its called writing the other,.and its incredibly important for all writers. Can you create an entire story based only on your own 1st hand experiences? Other than an autobiography no. Writing a gay character (as a straight man) is no more dificult than writing a female character, or a soldier if you haven’t served yourself.

Anyone can do the research. Listen to stories of LGBTQ people, there’s no shortage out there. Make friends, hell, just ask them what they think. This is also where diverse beta-readers and editors.are helpful.

Here’s a relevant episode of Writing Excuses: http://www.writingexcuses.com/2012/09/30/writing-excuses-7-40-writing-the-other/

Theres dozens or more of examples of writing the other and being chastized for trying it. If writing the other needs to happen then people need to get of the "how can they write them if they’re not women/gay/black/etc" horse. It’s an argument which immediatley pops up whenever someone tries to write another. Perfect writing doesnt exist.

You’re right though. There seems to be a divide or difference in opinions that are essentially creating this inconsistency towards whats considered acceptable and whats not. There seems to be a similar problem with the representation argument in general. As some are just wanting to see themselves represented in their media, and some want it to be more than that and representative of something positive. This is even supported in the comment section.

In reference to the polygon article you’ve mentioned above and If i remember correctly without reading the article again. The argument was to promote more women working within the industry. Sadly, they used a terrible theory to support the end cause as it further dilutes everything.

It’s an argument which immediatley pops up whenever someone tries to write another. Perfect writing doesnt exist.

It’s an argument that tends to pop up when people write the other badly, or with tone-deaf marketing (Benioff and Weiss’s upcoming show).

There was some talk of this recently by Sam Sanders of NPR. He pointed out that The Color Purple is pretty damn well regarded It was directed by Steven Spielberg, and the screenplay was adapted by a Dutchman.

Or for another medium. Garth Nix’s Sabriel has a damn well-written teenage female protagonist.

Yes, these are specific high-quality examples, but the point is that good art is good art. A good artist, who does the work, can tell a great story about experiences and lives they have not had. A bad artist is probably going to tell a bad story whether it stars a version of themselves, or someone completely different.

I think were overestimating videogame writing in general here. Most games revolve around a premise which basically kills most good writing compared to the depth movies can deliver. The likes of the color purple is a period drama without having to reach some binary conclusion in the end. Just compare LOTR the book to the movie to the hack and slash game and you’ll see the lacknof depth games can have cause stories in games are mostly vehicles for gameplay.

I feel that the way you would prefer has an issue of not seeing queer people as equal people which might not help the situation and might lead to some unconscious prejudice. " Why am I including straight people?" is like a version of the question you proposed. This would say that straight people are not the default. The same question " Why am I including queer people?" is a problem within itself because it’s like saying they are the alternative and not the default.

A good example of a positive queer character situation: Character is male and is wearing make up and a dress. No one mentions it and it has no consequence and happens occasionally.

A bad example that stems from separation: Character mentions they are queer, is a bad ass but is in danger and straight male character protects them with anger and it is applauded.

It’s good at face value but it does nothing to help normalize queer people in public. It’s in every piece of media and stuff that protecting oppressed or changing the system is very popular but has done nothing for the past 40+ years. Something beyond " homophobia is bad, beat up the homophobes!" Because the same people who would say that are the same to unconsciously say or do thing that a problomatic causing more problems than they help.

I personally prefer Yoko Taro level of inclusion
"Yokoo: How would you define "unusual", is the question. If we look around, we can definitely see homosexuals, few in number they may be. I’m not trying to say "Don’t discriminate" or anything like that, just "People like that exist. It’s simply the way the world works." They’re labeled with "normal", "unusual" and compared quite often, but the difference between people with certain sexual preferences lies purely in number. Some are quite abundant, some are not, but we’re all in the same world. I never intended for them to appear as special."

I get what your saying and I might be skipping a couple steps ( mainly because the steps haven’t made any progress) and in theory it should have worked but the real question is " Why is it that I didn’t think it normal to include queer people on a casual level."

While I don’t wish to speak for the original poster I would suggest that the questions they listed, Why am I including them? What am I trying to say? And how does that shake out when compared to the rest of media?, should be asked of all characters regardless of the gender, racial, or other identities they are being written with. Whether the poster intended those questions to be asked that way, I believe that is the correct solution to the problem. It seems to me that if you aren’t asking those kinds of questions about your characters than you may just be including them to take up space. I feel like all stories benefit from a clear authorial intent for each character.

I believe that is how it should work but from what I have heard and seen it seems to fail to produce results.

An example:

  • Why am I including a black character? ( Already bad because it separates but let’s continue)
    I want to include people who aren’t as common. Inclusion and support black characters to help stop racism etc.
  • What am I trying to say?
    I am trying to say racism is bad and unnacceptable
  • How does that shake out when compared to the rest of media?
    It’s uncommon because media has a lot of racism and im being different by attaching emotional significance to a black character and then killing them off to give emotional support to the fight against oppression and racism.

This is a situation where it plays out and in face value it seems positive and helpful. None of that inherently seems wrong or bad in any way but again it makes it so you have to have a reason to include normal people in a story and doesn’t accomplish anything as most people don’t know that they are not unique. There is a cognitive disconnect that is very common there.

The Adventure Zone with the McElroys is a great example of how people who care make the mistake of not realizing they are falling into a common trope because they don’t realize it is common. They did the "bury your gays" trope. They openly acknowledged it once it was brought to there attention and have done way better about it since and are always open to improvement.

A better example to for a positive way to answer these questions.

  • Why am I including black people?
    Back people are people.
  • What am I trying to say?
    People exist
  • How does that shake out when compared to the rest of media?
    Uncommon as black people are usually included as though they are the point in a discussion rather than a character that exists just as any white character.

I am not disagreeing but it’s better to have a character that just so happens to be gay than have the gay character if that makes sense.

nvm, someone else did this better below

I’d say this is partially misleading and more of an outcome of societal appeal based upon demographics, rather than an outward projection of death to specifically lgbt characters. I’m sure that will ruffle feathers, but GLAAD has the representation of LGBT characters at 4.8%, while Williams Institute puts the number of Americans who affiliate as such at roughly 4%. so there’s roughly a 20% over-representation of LGBT characters in TV relative to reality. Going off of Vox’s figures (‘15-16’) of character deaths on TV, about 12% of the character deaths were LGBT. The GLAAD figure for LGBT deaths also includes all characters (recurring or lead, etc).

TV, and Hollywood generally, disproportionately skews to the left socially speaking. There is a bottom line these producers/companies need to maintain, and representing mass-appeal is the simplest (and most pragmatic) means of doing so. This isn’t condemning or disputing the article, I’d just say that there is only so much time that will be spent on representing <5% of the population, and that very figure leads to them being "disposable" to TV programming as opposed to the act of being LGBT.

so if you have 4.8% of characters being LGBT, but 12% of ALL DEATHS are LGBT, that’s a problem. If you wanna get all nitpicky about proportions, it should only be 4.8% of deaths or less.

Not to mention we definitely need more queer representation than the exact percentage of actual queer people in America when suicide of Trans kids is so high. We need everyone to identify with complex, alive, queer characters. They’re not just for people who identify as LGBT.

But this is an oxymoron. GLAAD put 4% of regular characters as LGBT. The shows added more to the "periphery" as recurring or one-time characters. These periphery characters are included in the death statistics. Your regulars are dead on (or over-represented). It’s a statistical workaround of cherry-picking numbers. They add more recurring LGBT characters, but in doing so also have to get rid of them.

I would be interested to see the % of LGBTQ characters present and % killed if you control for media that addresses at least one of the social elements that generally accompanies an LGBTQ character or death of any character. Having an LGBTQ character and killing a character are, for sure, mutually exclusive story elements. However, a game or movie that is willing to address one of these story elements is far more likely to include additional story plots that may involve someone dying.

For example, if we looked at 100 titles with 200 characters and 30 deaths, we would find (based on the article) 10 LGBTQ characters (4.8%) and that 4 of the 30 deaths were LGBTQ (12%). On the surface, we’ve found that a whopping 40% of the LGBTQ characters would be killed.

Now… take out 50 titles that are Action/Comedy/Thriller and incorporate ZERO of the previously discussed story elements. The 50 remaining titles would have fewer total characters and the same number of deaths and LGBTQ characters. So now… the LGBTQ representation in this sample set is 10% (10 of 100) and this is far more in-line with the 12% rate associated with their deaths (still 4 of 30). This could signal that developers don’t necessary kill LGBTQ characters more, often, it simply appears that way because such characters are inherently more prevalent in games with these types of storylines.

Obviously, still not a pretty picture, and I certainly don’t have the raw data to provide better examples, but I still think it’s a thought worth keeping in mind.

Going by those numbers, LGBTQ characters are still being offed at a rate nearly 3 times what it should be statistically speaking. I’m not going to say creators have to match their creations to statistical representation, rather than telling the best story, but that’s ridiculous.

I’m more inclined to blame laziness than maliciousness… But both are creative sins.

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