“While it hasn’t always been the case, the gaming industry has made strides in representing transgender identities over the past few years. Yet, this sadly stands at odds with the real world around us, as transphobia, anti-trans legislation and violence, as well as vocal anti-trans proponents, have increased. As such, there are still often stigmas, misinformation, disinformation, and common tropes that trans representation can sometimes fall into. So, we want to highlight a few games that not only feature transgender characters, creators, or themes but also discuss what makes them exemplars of how to integrate trans characters that don’t tokenize them or highlight transgender characters within the game worlds themselves.
Tell Me Why
Prior to Tell Me Why, developer Dontnod had already garnered a positive reputation within the LGBTQ+ community for its acclaimed queer-focused game Life is Strange. Despite some issues with the game, such as its focus on a “Bury Your Gays” trope in one of its two endings, which was directly confronted in the game’s excellent follow-up comic series, it was revelatory upon its release due to a lack of LGBTQ+ games from AAA publishers like Square Enix. So, it was no surprise that Dontnod continued its groundbreaking representation with the Xbox-published Tell Me Why.
The first game from a large publisher with a transgender lead protagonist, with gameplay similar to its popular sister series, Tell Me Why follows twins Tyler and Allison Ronan who uncover a mystery surrounding the death of their mother several years earlier. Tyler himself is trans, and the story allows him to feel like a full character outside of his trans identity, yet also doesn’t shy away from how the small Alaskan town in which the story is set reacts to his gender identity either.
Some in the trans community had critiqued the game’s story, such as how Tyler’s early life is defined by sensationalized trauma stemming from his trans identity, which is an overplayed trope when it comes to trans characters in media. While this trope is often meant to be sympathetic towards trans people, for decades many stories that focus on trans people have only highlighted how trans people are harmed because we are trans instead of the joy that we get to experience by being ourselves or just showing us living our daily lives.
See movies like Boys Don’t Cry or The Danish Girl for well-known examples. However, while Tell Me Why does use this trope, it handles that story with care and emotional depth unseen in most other versions of the story. Tyler’s relationship with his mother and his trauma stemming from it is given more nuance as you unravel the game’s mysteries. What’s more, Tyler has more relationships and sides to his character besides just being trans. Heartwarming moments of the game involve Tyler developing a romantic relationship with Michael if you choose to pursue it.
The game itself is gorgeous and vibrant, filled with an intriguing mystery that takes you on several twists and turns throughout its three episodes. Tell Me Why is a game that showcases that if you write a trans character authentically, you can find a good balance between discussing their transness while not tokenizing, pigeonholing, or stereotyping.
The Last of Us Part II
Despite the character of Abby having garnered transphobic backlash before the game’s release due to her non-traditionally feminine appearance, it was surprising that the actual trans character within the game was mostly left undiscussed. Lev, played by Star Trek: Discovery actor Ian Alexander, is in many ways a reflection of Ellie from the first game, with Abby herself becoming Joel, learning to find empathy and redemption through her relationship with Lev and his sister.
Lev himself was ostracized from his Seattle-based religious cult due to his gender identity and was forced to Fend for himself, setting him on a collision course with Abby and eventually Ellie herself.
It’s through the character of Lev that the game’s themes of breaking the cycle of revenge and violence become crystallized, with Ellie, Abby, and Lev themselves all working to find who they are besides needing to seek violent retribution on those who caused them hurt and harm. While Lev’s main trauma and whole story centre around his trans identity, it fits perfectly within the bleak and despairing future of The Last of Us franchise.
The Last of Us Part 2 uses Lev’s trauma to tell a meaningful story that allows Lev to have a complete arc while also featuring prominently in the arcs of other characters. In short, he’s a full character unto himself but also there to support others. It’s a hard balance to find, and The Last of Us Part 2 walks it with delicacy.
While there is something to be said about games that feature and centralize stories about transgender characters, it’s also worthwhile to just have characters who happen to be trans within the larger game’s context. Enter Apex Legends, which has both a trans woman and a non-binary playable character as part of its roster. Bloodhound, who is part of the game’s initial roster, is known as one of the greatest game hunters in the frontier. Catalyst, who was added later to the game, was introduced as an adept witch who found herself involved in the world of eco-terrorism.
Both Bloodhound and Catalyst are unique in that while their non-binary and trans identities were part of their characters from their inception, neither character’s gender identity has become the focus of their character. It’s often easy to market and build minority characters off their marginalized identity alone, but developer Respawn made sure to make them full people who just happen to be under the trans and non-binary umbrella.
Apex Legends’ representation and inclusion as part of a roster of larger characters can help normalize queer identities instead of framing them as “other” by tokenizing them even further. While other games like Borderlands 3 have added non-binary characters in a similar world, Apex Legends has done it fast by having Bloodhound themselves be a human being, ensuring non-binary people are seen as humans who can exist rather than aliens, robots, or creatures without gender that they are sometimes relegated to in transgender themes.
These are games that may have transgender characters, but more importantly, their stories and style reflect a transgender experience in a unique way.
A 2D platformer about a young girl climbing a mountain forces you to continually fail over and over again as you attempt to clear increasingly difficult platforming challenges in a vibrant world. Yet, how the gameplay mirrors the story of handling anxiety and failure in the face of a stressful world truly makes Celeste feel meaningful beyond its difficulty. However, what most missed in all the acclaim for the game was the reveal that the main protagonist, Madeline, was transgender.
While there are hints within the game itself, Madeline’s trans identity is never focused on, allowing Madeline to feel like a full character beyond her gender identity. Madeline’s trans identity was only confirmed in 2020 by the game’s writer and creator, transgender Thorson. Thorson revealed that while Madeline didn’t start off as trans, she soon found herself writing her own struggles with her gender into the character, inspiring much of the game’s story aspects.
Such as Madeline facing off against a shadow version of herself, who is ultimately not overcome but integrated into Madeline to become stronger. These aspects are not only universally relatable but can also be viewed in a whole new context given Madeline’s trans identity. Celeste is a terrific example of how transgender lives and experiences are not completely foreign or unrelatable to cisgender people Discovering one’s identity and coming to terms with oneself are universal human experiences.
Sometimes, these experiences are expressed in terms of gender for transgender individuals. Video games, such as Bloodborne by FromSoftware, have been a genre that many LGBTQ+ individuals have found themselves drawn to. These games often explore themes of monsters, hidden knowledge, and societal views that can be seen as twisted or madness-inducing. For those whose identities are sometimes viewed as perversions by hateful groups, these games take on a whole different context.
In particular, is a game that encapsulates many of these themes and directly confronts them. Lilith Walther, a trans woman and developer, resonated with the game due to its portrayal of power dynamics, outsiders, and the exploration of societal hierarchies. The game’s depiction of Eldritch Horror reflects the problems with Gothic horror as a genre, offering a direct response to these issues.
Furthermore, Bloodborne delves into the topic of women’s bodies and how they are often used and dehumanized in violent worlds by men. Characters like the Doll and how the game explores topics of sexual violence and control over women’s bodies resonate with the experiences of trans women and how their healthcare and bodies can be similarly controlled.
To further express her love for Bloodborne, Walther created a “d-make” version of the game that reflects the graphical style of the original PlayStation. This nostalgic recreation of Yharnam, the game’s world, resonates with many young transgender millennials who found a community with other trans people in the growing online world. The “d-make” adds an extra layer of fear and authenticity to what makes Bloodborne resonate with so many players.
Character creators in games have also been significant for trans players, allowing them to explore identities beyond their own. Games like Mass Effect are often mentioned as touchstones in trans communities because they offer the ability to form meaningful relationships with characters who see and respect the player’s gender identity. Some games even allow accidental gender transitions within the game’s narrative, providing a unique and immersive experience for trans players.
However, character creators in games have their limitations. Many of them focus only on binary gender identities, leaving non-binary individuals unable to fully explore their identities within the game. Inclusive attempts by developers can sometimes fall short or exhibit a lack of foresight, reinforcing assumptions about gender. Retrofitting games to include non-binary or trans identities can be challenging due to the initial design and coding.
One game that managed to sidestep these issues is Tiny Tina’s Wonderland, which built its character creator from the ground up with trans and non-binary people in mind. This game showcases a more holistic approach to inclusion, allowing players to choose pronouns, voice actors, hairstyles, and body types independently of each other. It represents a step forward in game design that understands the complexities and fluidity of gender identity.
Overall, video games have the power to evolve, grow, and provide opportunities for players to try on new identities. They offer a medium where limited world views can be transcended, and diverse experiences can be represented. As the understanding of gender and our relationship to it continues to evolve, games have the potential to create more inclusive and affirming digital worlds for all individuals.
Happy Pride! 🌈