Why does gaming, uniquely as a medium, lack openly heterosexual women protagonists? And why do developers pretend that catering to the male gaze with lesbian protagonists is in any way progressive, when even romantically involved straight women leads are almost absent from AAA western games?
Even as the industry has diversified in recent years, openly straight women – especially women who are romantically involved with men over the course of the story – are in remarkably short supply as protagonists in games. Excluding role-playing games where players can determine romantic partners, growing numbers of women protagonists are overwhelmingly asexual/aromantic, have a distant or narratively irrelevant romantic partner kept deliberately vague, simply never discuss or mention attraction, or are gay.
In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, over the last few years in the western AAA space there are more games with explicitly gay women protagonists than straight ones whose romance is actively depicted ingame. This is the reverse of the situation in movies, where women action or pulp heroes (eg. recently Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman) usually have male partners or are at least depicted as interested in sex or love, as might be expected.
The reason for this is obvious, of course – lesbian women still titillate an imagined demographic of focus-tested straight male players in a way that a straight woman falling in love with a man would not. There’s also some suggestion that male players would feel ‘protective’ of a female protagonist dating a guy (as I recall this was used to avoid giving Lara Croft male partners in the games; she had them in the older movies).
Absurd as this reasoning is (men seem perfectly willing to watch women led superhero movies if they’re good, including those with heterosexual romantic subplots), it has clearly had an effect on games: Ellie in The Last of Us 2 can be openly lesbian in the year’s biggest adventure game, and a lesbian-exclusive romance in Cyberpunk 2077 is the game’s most detailed, but an Uncharted game led by a straight Natalie Drake with a male Alan Fisher is almost hysterically unimaginable. If Drake was a woman, she’d probably be in a relationship with Chloe. Even Uncharted: The Lost Legacy arguably hints at romance between Chloe and Nadine. The most recent Tomb Raider trilogy fastidiously avoids any depiction of attraction, and the only official comment was when the writer of the first two entries said she wished she had been able to make Lara gay.
What frustrates me most of all is the implicit idea of bravery. While gay women exist and accordingly ought to be protagonists in games, their inclusion is clearly not particularly ‘brave’ in the modern west. The only thing less brave is a straight man. Indeed, because the archetypal ‘dude bro’ is a guy who only watches lesbian pornography because he ‘doesn’t like to see a dick’, it might even be less brave.
Bravery would certainly be having an inarguably (ie not as an optional choice) gay male protagonist, although even Hollywood has held out on that front for the last twenty years. But it’s become more obvious to me that even having a straight woman, a woman who is romantically involved with men over the course of the game’s story, is a leap too far for many an otherwise progressive developer.
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