Written by Tristan Craig.
Ever since an Italian plumber called Mario entered the world of computer entertainment in 1981 on a never-ending plight to rescue Princess Peach, the damsel-in-distress trope became the driving narrative for the majority of video games in the early days of their development. Just as Perseus slew the beast that threatened his beloved Andromeda, it fell to the might of the male protagonist – who, in his first appearance, was a carpenter referred to as ‘Jumpman’ – to rescue his girlfriend: the somewhat less imaginatively named ‘Lady’. A simple plot device catering to a predominantly white-heterosexual-male market, Super Mario Bros. sold over 40 million copies upon its release in 1985, reviving the home computer following the crash of 1983 and paving the way for the platform format.
This was a format which sold a very large number of games, but which offered remarkably little in the way of representation beyond the white-heterosexual-male binary. As homophobia swelled in the wake of the AIDS epidemic of the same decade, LGBTQ+ inclusion was profoundly absent from the video game industry and those who did feature either did so in a pejorative or peripheral manner. 1986’s text adventure Moonmist is commonly cited as the first to include any illusion to a queer character. Vivien Pentreath, an artist struggling to cope in the aftermath of the suicide of her female lover, Dierdre, is thought to be the first lesbian character to feature in a video game, however at no point is her sexuality explicitly stated. The only reference to her sexual identity is a note in one of four possible endings stating that ‘Vivien was intensely attached to Dierdre’ and that she was jealous of the latter’s heterosexual marriage. It is also worth noting that in this story arch, Vivien emerges as the villain in an otherwise tertiary role.
Whilst the inclusion of non-heterosexual characters was particularly rare, transgender identities were almost non-existent. Following the massive success of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo continued to develop games starring their eponymous hero. The second release in the series, which arrived on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, introduced a character named Birdo: a pink creature of indeterminate species and gender. Birdo arrived in the United States with a manual entry which read ‘He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called “birdetta”’. The game itself provided no further backstory nor allusions of any kind to Birdo’s gender identity, consigning it to a problematically worded blurb in a guide. Future iterations of the game removed any illusion to the concept of Birdo being anything other than a cisgender female – although a 2008 Japan-only release called Captain Rainbow would revisit her canon, in one country at least.
As the larger development companies continued to indulge the majority of their market, the release of HyperCard software for the Macintosh in 1987 allowed independent designers to produce their own software with ease. The first fully LGBTQ+ game, written in HyperCard, subsequently emerged in 1989; Caper in the Castro follows a lesbian private investigator called ‘Tracker McDyke’ as she attempts to find her kidnapped drag queen friend. Released as charityware, a note from creator C.M. Ralph as the game is launched states she ‘wrote this game as a labor of [her] love for the Gay and Lesbian community’ and asks the player to make a donation to an AIDS charity of their choice. The game would be picked up by Heizer Software where it enjoyed success – albeit as the renamed and fully ‘straightwashed’ Murder on Main Street.
The 1990s began making somewhat more progressive steps away from the standard format. 1996 saw the introduction of a female protagonist in the guise of archaeologist Lara Croft. The Tomb Raider series of games broke away from the male dominated lead, yet Croft was lauded and criticised in equal measure for being both a highly intelligent and hypersexualised lead. Her inception, although hugely impactful to the video game market, was once again aimed primarily at a male target audience. But the late 1990s managed to provide a landmark for LGBTQ+ inclusion. Black Isle Studios’ Fallout 2, released in 1998, contained the first same-sex marriage in a video game – 6 years before the first US state would legalise them. Fast forward to the 2000s and the landscape is certainly more diverse. Advances in the technical capabilities of home computing and the subsequent rise of the roleplaying game has allowed players to craft their own identity, free from being forced down a singular heterosexual mode of gameplay. And yet, it is hard to deny the imbalance, particularly in representing gender identities beyond the male-female binary.
So how colourful does the future of gaming look for the LGBTQ+ community? May 2020 is set to welcome to highly anticipated sequel to Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us who first introduced the post-apocalyptic world of Joel and Ellie in 2013. This time, our attention will be turned to Ellie – an openly lesbian protagonist. Following on from DLC, Left Behind features fourteen-year-old Ellie sharing a short but tender kiss with best friend Riley – developers have chosen to fully actualise the sexual identity of their protagonist. But development companies have a long way to go if they want to fully include representation of a large proportion of their demographic, as 2014 documentary Gaming in Colour explored. As 2020 celebrates the 40th anniversary of an Italian plumber and his relentless quest to save his princess, perhaps we ought to reflect not only on how far the video gaming industry has come but on how much further it could and ought to go.
‘Caper in the Castro: Internet Archive’, https://archive.org/details/hypercard_caper-in-the-castro (accessed 15.02.20) (note: you call play an online emulation of the game at this link)
‘Censored or Celebrated (Flouting Margins: Part 2)’, https://www.scholarlygamers.com/feature/2018/04/25/lgbt-flouting-margins-part-two/ (accessed 14.02.20)
‘LGBTQ Video Game Archive’, https://lgbtqgamearchive.com/games/games-by-decade/1980s/ (accessed 14.02.20)