There has been a recent buzz around the presence of homosexuals in the public sphere. More and more we see positive portrayals of gay characters met with favorable reactions from internet media. Overall people are happy about L.G.B.T. issues being well represented not only in current politics but also in our collective culture. Of course there will always be those who are apathetic or hostile to L.G.B.T. issues, but they don’t represent nearly as much of an issue as the growing trend of half-assed support for homosexuals. More and more we are seeing gay characters shoe-horned into television, film, and video games without any context or relevance to the narrative.
The most glaring offender in recent memory is EA’s trilogy crucifying title, Mass Effect 3. The developers of the series are indeed no strangers to controversy. They previously used lesbian-on-alien action to create buzz around the first Mass Effect. After producing a good but safe sequel, the next logical barrier was to approach male on male homosexuality. This is done to prove that they were not only trying to cater to a diverse fan base, but also not simply trying to entice casual gamers with promises of interspecies lesbian softcore. Bioware after all has a long history of integrating romance into their stories with tact and sensitivity and their award-winning sci-fi series should be no exception, right?
Unfortunately something strange has been brewing within Bioware. Fans first became aware of it with the launch of Dragon Age II which featured several characters who were romanceable regardless of the gender chosen for your Champion of Kirkwall. Though the game fell short in terms of story and dialog overall, the coexistence of a western style monotheistic religion with open bisexuality seemed anachronistic to fans. While the setting of Dragon Age is indeed fictional, it draws a great deal from medieval society. Creating a hodgepodge of values from various cultures breaks immersion. The same problem would arise if one were to make a game set in ancient Rome in which the protagonist champions environmentalism. Sadly, Dragon Age II’s strong sales and critical reception along with a well-publicized incident of an employee “standing up” for gay gamers seems to have taught them that this was overall a positive move. With Mass Effect 3 though, a series that fans had not yet given up on, a seemingly good PR move turned many of the series’ fans against Bioware.
But then there’s Cortez. Though lauded by many journalists as a positive and unconventional portrayal of a gay man, Lieutenant Steve Cortez may very well be the most offensive character Bioware has ever created. The first instance where you find out that he’s more than just a bit character, he is mourning the loss of his husband Robert. Tears stream down his face as he mentions the Collector assault on Robert’s colony though he is quickly able to compose himself in the presence of his commander. Very clever Bioware! The cliche of the overly emotional gay man has been deftly sidestepped by giving him a shallow veneer of military professionalism. In the next encounter, we see Cortez at the memorial wall in the citadel. Again we see him torn up over the death of his husband but this time his utter helplessness is flat out stated. He tells the commander with a straight face “You give me strength.” A short time afterwards we are of course shown that this brave but sensitive man also has a love of dancing and picking up men at clubs. He also gets weak in the knees when Shepard attempts to pick him up and from there the dialog takes a painful melodramatic turn. “I’m used to seeing you step off my shuttle right into hell. Then I wait and worry about whether you’ll make it back.” You begin to wonder if Bioware didn’t hand off the writing to an unknown third party. That like many moments in the game is what makes it easy to hate the entire series. What we have here isn’t an example of a gay man defying stereotypes, we have a man who’s utterly broken until an authority figure shows romantic interest in him and then resumes a rather clichéd and unremarkable gay life. The message here is pretty simple: in spite of the developer’s attempts at creating an unconventional gay man, every single interaction with Steve Cortez highlights his homosexuality by referencing the death of his partner and by having him surrender instantly to Shepard’s advances (putting him one notch below Kelly Chambers).
But that isn’t even the worst thing about Mass Effect 3’s portrayal of gays. In almost every idealized futuristic setting, we seem to be entering a universe where the prejudices that have defined our species are erased from history. Then prejudices about alien species arise because it’s a totally different issue? For better or for worse, one of the defining characteristics of homosexuality in modern culture is homophobia itself. This isn’t an issue that can be glossed over conveniently like the simple conversion of racism to speciesism but it is one that is important if you want to address the gay experience in a meaningful way. Honestly, what do we learn from the sterilized and taboo free world of Mass Effect about homosexuality? That in a future still full of prejudice against sapient life-forms, that modern liberal values will take root in all of humanity? That male-female, male-male, and female-female couples have the exact same dynamics and that centuries of culture built around sexual outliers is now irrelevant? For a series that has put immense effort into branding itself as hard science fiction and for the overall trend of taking the gravity of realism and translating into new settings (be they science fiction, fantasy, etc.) this is frankly sophomoric. Even if you don’t feel that Cortez is a negative portrayal of gay men, his non-issue homosexuality represents the cheapest and most blatant attempt at filling a diversity quota. It’s the same degree of social commentary and realism that you would find in The Sims. Since these are multi-million dollar franchises though, expect these half-hearted attempts at social commentary to soon be considered standard considerations for the sake of appeasing a diverse and socially conscious market.
This isn’t to say that there are no positive examples of homosexuals in gaming or that there never will be. That’s just another article altogether.