This feature was originally written for One Hit Pixel and can be found here.
Sometimes you just feel like breaking something.
Sometimes, you’ll feel better once you’ve absolutely dominated your aggressors, laid waste to the weak, and are told that you’re a force to be reckoned with. Doing that down the pub on a Friday night will put you in a holding cell, but thankfully we have video games to provide that experience instead.
It’s the power fantasy, being whisked away to somewhere where you’re stronger, smarter and more capable than what you can achieve in meatspace, and you’re awed for it. It’s probably the easiest experience to obtain in our current gaming landscape – almost every action game is about empowerment beyond your normal means.
However, this empowerment comes in precious few flavours. Either you’re a dashing white guy with a cocksure attitude or you’re a grizzled white guy with a macho attitude.
It’s not random coincidence – the image of the ‘bald space marine’ been an in-joke among gaming enthusiasts for years. To indulge in a power fantasy in a game is to invariably be straight, white and male.
Being only one third of those things, I find those experiences rather restricting in multiple ways. From a purely academic standpoint, having the same protagonists regurgitated is woefully trite. But emotionally, it’s rather chilling – even alienating – to not see someone like you act in a role of power.
As a black person, am I not allowed to see myself lead (in ways other than raw muscle)? As a gay person, am I not allowed to goddamn see myself in any capacity?
Fortunately, Porpentine’s games raise two middle fingers to that, with long fake nails and chunky diamond rings.
Cyber-dominatrix game development
For the uninitiated, Porpentine makes interactive fiction in Twine. Short but explosive stories that meld together sexuality, retrofuturism and pop music. One of them in particular, ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL, is a five-to-ten minute story that, despite not having branching paths, is brimming with an intensity and a subversion that is definitely not your straight storytelling.
You can play it in-browser here and I strongly recommend you do so. Come back once you have.
Played it? Good.
That part where the music kicks in? Where the nature of your tasks change and it’s like a breath of fresh air? It actually left me gasping. Then pumping my fist along with the music.
While the game is more abstract and extreme than real life, being given life goals and expectations that don’t fit you, but are implied to be ‘natural’ is a pressure many minority folk have to deal with.
Gaming has included such characters, but often from an aim to be ridiculed. Makoto from Enchanted Arms comes to mind as most obvious, but Ash from King of Fighters might be a less obscure example. Even in gay communities, there are some who have internalised the outside pressure to be conventionally masculine, and decry those who diverge.
So then, the ability to be given the choice, the means to say “screw that”, to take options and express yourself differently is indeed INSANELY POWERFUL.
Alienation hiding in plain sight
However, if the status quo already falls in line with you, noticing that there’s a problem for others can be difficult.
The same is true of game design. What looks like a reasonable character creator turns out to be frustrating for the people who want a different skin tone, or believable natural hair.
What looks like a reasonably wide range of different armours for many is actually arbitrarily and exclusively split into genders.
What’s established as game writing poking fun at ‘acceptable targets’ is taking verbal steaming dumps on minorities because Family Guy got away with it, and there’s no way people of colour or LGBT people or – ugh – women would play video games, right?
If games can offer escapism and agency in a way other media can’t imitate, why aren’t there more experiences like INSANELY POWERFUL? A safe space to embrace a queer identity is often lacking in real life, and video games are a perfect fit.
Beyond that, experiencing stories told by and for different demographics is personally enriching. Like how I find self-worth in seeing stories like my experience told, others can see knowledge in those same stories – that they may not even realise could be told.
A night out with The Saints
What has been surprisingly great about both letting players express themselves the way they want AND being an incredible power fantasy is the Saints Row series. From Saints Row 2 onwards, the games have had a huge commitment to letting you be awesome, no matter who you are.
Fat? Thin? Latino? Androgynous? Transitioning? You are literally The Boss in Saints Row – a figure who commands respect, and has the skills and the strength to back that up.
Outside of you own character; the supporting cast have a healthy balance of genders and are wonderfully multicultural. The writing deftly avoids being racist or homophobic (Saints Row 3 has some brief flirting with misogyny, but it’s not mood-ruining).
GTA V on the other hand is comfortable with using the N-word some 60 times in the opening hour and a half (The video is NSFW, naturally) in the laziest parroting of African-American culture since Justin Bieber. Or maybe Macklemore.
Saints Row 4, while being the ‘cheapest’ game due to its development process, offers the best power fantasy. I can sprint up the side of a building in the most outrageous apparel, before hitting up my headquarters and making out with half of the male cast; and the game not only allows, but also encourages it.
It’s almost comparable to Porpentine’s aesthetics – supercharged with neon, virtual landscapes and unbridled superpower.
Queering up the industry
Experiencing this side of Saints Row is entirely optional however. I don’t doubt that the majority of the player base plays with the default male lead and voice. It would be incredibly daring for the triple-A gaming industry to have a queer protagonist, especially when they’re already so incredibly resistant to even having female leads.
The war is slowly being fought on the indie level, though. With with no conservative publishers to tell them no, minority voices can forge gaming experiences with the lead characters they want to see.
Though I have no way of directing the games industry, what I want out of 2014 is at least one mainstream title with an unambiguously non-straight protagonist.
We’re already starting to edge into territory where games are discussing social justices issues with Watch Dogs and InFamous: Second Son – we just need them to realise that these stories of underdogs pushing back against the establishment is already heavily populated by minorities, and it’s about time we got to see ourselves succeed – even if it’s only within a digital realm. For now.
For me, the next best thing to having an ignorant community respect the minority populace is giving them a damn good reason to fear it. The glitter cannons have been primed.
N.B.: The screenshots from Saints Row 3 have been supplied by AK Fedeau, whose genderfluid Boss design was a perfect fit for this piece. Many thanks to them!