Queer Games Criticism in 2021 (so Far)

Welcome back gaymers!

Pride Month is a year-round affair here at Critical Distance–the same goes for Wrath Month–but all the same it feels timely in June to highlight some of the best damn queer-themed writing featured in our weekly roundups through the first half of 2021. So let’s do exactly that!

For this issue, the cool thing I want to plug first is the TTRPG Charity Bundle for Trans Support currently being hosted over on Itch throughout the month of June. There’s some stellar talent included in this package, and I’m glad to see a focus on tabletop games, which don’t always get as much attention! Check it out of you can.

Critical State

Let’s open this issue with a pair of bigger-picture perspectives on the state of criticism, thinking and re-thinking through both coalition-building in the scene and resisting categorizion by the wider industry as defined by your identity intersections as a writer. These are challenging pieces and I hope they set the tone for further diverse and richly critical work to come.

  • If We Want To Talk About Diversity In Gaming, We Need To Be Intersectional | TheGamer 
    Stacey Henley offers a necessary reminder here that if we want a more diverse industry–developmental, critical, or otherwise–coalition-building is a vital part of that work. We all need to engage with writing and writers that speak beyond our immediate experiences.
  • The State of The Representation: A manifesto for trans games criticism – Uppercut 
    Autumn Wright’s piece continues to speak to me and invites–no, insists upon–re-reading. It’s a difficult and necessary reflection on both acknowledging your positionality in your writing and refusing to be limited by it–by yourself or by the wider industry. We must reach beyond ourselves as both readers and writers or risk fostering a faux-progressive culture in games writing that homogenizes everybody and represents nobody.

“The trans critic begins to be refigured into the industry rhetorically. As normalization takes the form of assimilation, the trans critic functions as a discursive object that should serve the hegemonic assumptions of games and their players. No epithet progresses this project so much as “this writer is trans.” Cis writers and editors invoke “this writer is trans” to share work that they (may have commissioned but more often) took no part in materially supporting. I hear “this writer is trans” like an admission. “This writer is trans” is often not followed with the presumed clause: “and they agree with me.” “This writer is trans” is not taken up when the writer argues a dissenting opinion from cis perspectives. “This writer is trans” does the work for cis writers, so that they can continue to be complicit in their own criticism. The trans critic is used by cis people, wielded as a sword when a game is too polemical to ignore and sacrificed like a shield when, finally, their voice reaches a general audience. This is how trans voices are brought up, and how they disappear. We don’t exist when there is no AAA discourse for clicks, we are put back into a utility closet for the next big release that raises concerns.”

Locating the Self

Videogames have pretty much always served as important sites of identity formation and exploration, especially when this work of self-discovery is met with barriers and threats to safety in the material world. We see this research formalized with early work from Sherry Turkle, and further challenged and complicated with discussions of racism and sexism by authors like Lisa Nakamura and Kishonna L. Gray. This work continues with players and authors today with games that grant their players the space to think through their (a)gender and (a)sexuality in both present and past frameworks.

“So, what Ghost of Tsushima does, fundamentally, is present an avenue for Jin to do exactly what I’m doing with this piece: to reckon through the written word with the flaws of our fathers or the times we fail them (because it always somehow feels like it’s our fault, too). By looking at how Jin uses poetry to reckon with big, nebulous concepts like legacy and death, we can consider the benefits of trying to wrangle these things within ourselves by externalizing them through the written word. We cannot fully come to terms with things in the handful of syllables present in a haiku, but we could not come to terms with them if we were to write a novel either.”

Productive Failure

We want our games to be better–better at including queer and diverse characters, better at representing those characters beyond their identity intersections, and better at giving those characters meaningful narrative arcs that rise above the easy tropes that our dominant culture has codified. Games, however, like us, live in a society, so sometimes they miss the mark. 2020 saw some powerful critiques of those shortcomings, like Dia Lacina’s review of Tell Me Why. Gathered here are some standout pieces from 2021 taking a critical eye towards titles, trends, and practices that we want to be better.

Tomb Raider used their primary Japanese character as a vector for orientalist takes on ancient mythology, and when she outlived her usefulness, she was slowly destroyed right in front of fans’ eyes. Her relationship with Lara eroded into one built entirely around trauma and resentment, while her fate was relegated to a comic series most players wouldn’t read.”

Making Trouble

Queerness isn’t always explicit or included in games–on the contrary, sometimes games feel aggressively committed to a particular heteronormative worldview. Yet there is often still great value in subverting these games through a queer lens and transforming them. We see that work unfolding in these next pieces, with authors who disrupt games and unpack their underlying assumptions, messages, and possibilities.

  • Kaede | press.exe 
    Talen Lee’s energetic exploration of Neo Geo fight game Last Blade is as laser focused on its central potential polycule tryptich of fight characters as it is wide-reaching in its meditation on the rudimentary minimalism of fighting game stories and the queer readings that minimalism can support.
  • The Emily Is Away trilogy makes DMing your crush into a doomed game | Polygon 
    Maddy Myers squarely identifies an implied heteronormative in this 2000s AIM-themed text adventure–and fights it every step of the way, reinscribing it with her own queer womanhood.
  • Cruising Animal Crossing — Gamers with Glasses 
    Edmond Y. Chang here takes Animal Crossing‘s communities and inscribes them with a subtle and latent queer possibility by expanding upon the fleeting relationships between villagers.
  • Queer Expression in Teardown: Smashing your way to euphoria | Gayming Magazine 
    Oma Keeling reflects here both on the state of the industry and the game in question in this cathartic article. We are getting more and better queer characters in games on the whole, sure, but everything is always threatning to get drowned out in discourse. Sometimes it just feels bettert to break shit, and that’s exactly what Teardown is all about.

“When it truly feels like someone, somewhere will always have it out for queer people just trying to exist and play, no game has allowed me to express that frustration, that anger that living in a cycle of multilevel media persecution creates… Except Teardown.”

Situated Readings

Our next section in this issue focuses on queer games in context: the material conditions in which they are made, the heteronormative world in which they are released, and the time the passes by as we experience them.

  • Cyberpunk Is Queer — Just Read The Source Material | Gayming Magazine 
    Angelina Dee here situates Cyberpunk 2077 in relation to its precedents–the TTRPG which directly inspired it, as well as the genre as a whole, with a focus on the queer theoretical underpinnings inherent to the genre. In doing so, she reveals how 2077 ultimately shies away from fully committing to those basic tenets.
  • Looking Back at If Found in 2021 | Gayming Magazine 
    Waverly found a lot to like and to be hopeful about in If Found back in 2020, and while it remains a beautiful game, her experience with it changed after five more months of pandemic living, life changes, and moving across the country. Our lives, loves, and identities are not static, and neither can be our relationship with art, even–especially–when it so deeply moves us.
  • Killing Our Gods: A Wound at the Heart of the World: On Lucah: Born of a Dream – Uppercut 
    Grace Benfell’s column looking at intersections of faith and identity in games of all sizes has made for an oustanding series, and this this is the second issue featured in this collecion. Here, she tackles the question of queer self-determination as a practical, metaphysical, and spiritual problem set against a destructive backdrop of heteronormative order.

“I want to wrap this up with the promise of redemption, with the promise of a body made new, a body of our own. In some ways, Lucah’s final ending would let me do that. But so many of us are fucking dead. For each of us who, by some miracle, get free, there are so many of us that die. None of us emerge unscathed. Even in our escape we cannot totally forget the rules that made us. It is a lifelong battle to rewrite them.”

Found and Chosen Families

The shitty reality for many LGBTQIA+ folks is that the families they are born into aren’t always places where they are welcomed, loved unconditionally, and accepted for their true selves. The concept of the chosen or found family is thus a vital facet of lived queer identity for many people. We’ve three two meditations here on this topic, on three very different games.

  • The Beauty Of Abby’s Found Family In The Last Of Us Part 2 | TheGamer 
    Jade King’s reflection here on TLOU2–rightly critiqued elsewhere for the labour conditions of its development and the fridging of all its named Black characters–highlights what I think is an earnest strength of the game’s story–Abby and Lev’s bond, which survives through the rest of the game’s horrific trials and ordeals.
  • Nier Replicant Still Portrays Queer Bodies with Brutal Honesty | Paste 
    Austin Jones’ article on the recent redux of Nier Replicant looks at how queerness is inscribed on the bodies of Emil and Kainé, and how their society reads their bodies as threatening, causing them to seek solace in one another as found family. This one would be equally at home in either this section or the next one!
  • Bugsnax’s twofold queerness | Freethought Blogs 
    Siggy introduces what I think is a cool framework here in exploring how Bugsnax’s queerness is reflected on both a character level and a thematic level. There’s often anxiety among critics of queerness being restricted to a surface level of representation, so I think this multi-level approach gives this issue some helpful texture.

“What really pleased me about Bugsnax is that it is an excellent example of what I’m calling twofold queer representation. It has queer characters… and queer-coded themes. The queer themes are never explicitly labeled as queer, and have no direct connection to the queerness of the characters. Nonetheless, the significant presence of queer characters cues the player to look for queer interpretations of the rest of the story–and find them.”

Bodies at Play

Re-evaluating one’s gender and gender performance can involve a re-evaluation the body–how it moves, how it acts, how it is coded, how it is policed. We see these anxieties expressed not only in science fiction, where the the body is often opened to transformation via new avenues of technology or social practice, but also in staple elements of games across genres like character creators. Thinking through embodied aspects of queerness and gender also puts queerness and gender in natural conversation with other bodily intersections like race, disability, fatness, and more.

“I was given the choice to build myself into the world, using the tools of the game instead of my imagination. So, while that character also ended up looking nothing like me, she/they/he (posed as such here to reflect my own lack of attachment to any one pronoun, which I see reflected in how I have built this character) represent the truest expression of myself that has ever come out of a character creator.”

Getting It Right

A fundamental element of queerness is disruption–challenging the values, bodies, practices, and lifestyles validated and enshrined by dominant culture. To be queer is to make trouble, both in anger and in joy. The alternative is that queer identities risk being subsumed and sanitized by dominant culture. This is why keeping kink in and keeping cops out of pride is so important, and why it’s important to be critical of rainbow capitalism. All that being said, it’s good–important, even–to go out on a high note, with some pieces celebrating games that make us feel warm, make us laugh, or make us raise our fists in righteous anger–to say “this game gets it.”

“If everything is queer and violent, then nothing is queer and violent; it would be like Mad Max without Tom Hardy. Instead, we crack through these edgy, queer, and violent tropes with sincerity and little rhythm game gags so we can bring the whole world together.”


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