We Need to Talk About Gay Relationships in JRPGs

Why we need more gay representation in JRPGs and how narrative design and character writing can improve

We Need to Talk About Gay Relationships in JRPGs
Source: Author.

If you’re a regular reader of my stories, it’s no secret that I frequently delve into RPG discussions. However, what might surprise some of you is my fondness for Boy’s Love (BL) narratives and my tendency to 'ship male characters in the JRPGs I play.

As a gay person and passionate RPG fan, I want to discuss the lack of gay characters and couples in Japanese RPGs and the narrative design issues associated with this.

Dragon Age: Inquisition. Source: Nintendo Blast.

Asymmetry of LGBTQ+ Representation in WRPGs and JRPGs

As the title suggests, the games in this story are JRPGs, but this selection was not by random choice. It is worth explaining why this segment of the RPG genre deserves separate consideration from other titles. I previously discussed the differences between Western and Japanese RPGs, including narrative design aspects, but there is a specific reason to focus on JRPGs: there's a lack of LGBTQ+ representation and more complex issues still needing attention.

Let’s start with representation. In the late 1990s, we saw sexual orientation as a more significant part of world-building and character writing in RPGs. In this context, we must highlight BioWare’s games. Specifically, in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn from 2000, the player controls an avatar who, throughout their journey, can develop relationships with characters of both opposite and same sex.

Baldur's Gate III. Source: Nintendo Blast.

Over the years, BioWare's PC RPGs consistently improved the freedom and experience of sexual orientation diversity in their games, introducing more relationship options in terms of characters and races, more elaborate and believable romance storylines, and themes such as prejudice and taboo regarding LGBTQ+ relationships.

These advancements can be seen in the expansion of Baldur's Gate II in 2001 and its 2012 edition, in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic from 2003, and in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age trilogies.

Mass Effect: Andromeda. Source: Nintendo Blast.

BioWare’s RPGs are renowned for LGBTQ+ representation, but there are many other games that include gay relationships. We see this frequently in the Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, in The Witcher III, and in various indie RPGs such as I Was a Teenage Exocolonist.

Following trends of counterculture, modernism, identity movements, and new scientific research, we see an early and prominent concern among Western RPG developers for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ representation. The growing demand for this content over the last decade has further fueled this movement.

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist. Source: Nintendo Blast.

On the other hand, Japanese RPGs have long avoided addressing non-heterosexual relationships or presented very subtle, comedic, or merely eccentric representations of LGBTQ+ characters. This continues to occur today, although to a lesser extent. An example is the marriage between Vivi and Quina in Final Fantasy IX, which can easily go unnoticed by players. And we can more recently recall the effeminate and flamboyant stereotype in Sylvando and his troupe in Dragon Quest XI.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona has traditionally stood out the most with LGBTQ+ themes. Among its entries, Persona 2, Persona 3 Portable, and Persona 4 have particularly shone a light on these aspects. These games include certain scenes with homosexual undertones and, notably in Persona 4, an explicit exploration of sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, it is important to acknowledge that despite the series’ strides, there are still instances of prejudiced jokes and unnecessary stereotypes within games like Persona 4 and Persona 5, which have faced criticism from the LGBTQ+ community.

In recent years, we have seen (albeit timid) advancements in the inclusion of gay characters and relationships in JRPGs. Final Fantasy XIV has allowed players to form same-sex romantic bonds online. In NieR: Replicant, we witnessed Emil as an important gay character, which was confirmed by Yoko Taro since 2011 (Grimoire NieR); his sexual orientation was unclear in the Western version of 2010.

We can also recall that Fire Emblem: Fates, released in 2015, introduced the possibility of same-sex relationships in the series, which has been reiterated in subsequent Fire Emblem games. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of gay representation in JRPGs.

The Markers of a Good Gay Character

To consider what needs improvement in gay representation in JRPGs, we need to reflect on what makes a “good gay character.” This concept can lead to the misconception that there is an ideal formula for writing a gay character. There definitely is not one, just as there is not an ideal way to “be gay” as a person. However, we can analyze from two different angles what it means to write a “good gay character”:

  • A good character who happens to be gay;
  • Someone believably gay who happens to be fictional.

Let’s start with the first perspective. Some authors and critics argue that a good gay character is simply a good character who also is gay. One author who follows this line of thinking is Yoko Taro (director/writer of the Drakengard/NieR series):

"How would you define “unusual”, is the question. If we look around, we can definitely see homosexuals, few in number they may be. I’m not trying to say “Don’t discriminate” or anything like that, just “People like that exist. It’s simply the way the world works.” They’re labeled with “normal”, “unusual” and compared quite often, but the difference between people with certain sexual preferences lies purely in number. Some are quite abundant, some are not, but we’re all in the same world. I never intended for them to appear as special."

This is an interesting perspective that aligns with the idea that a real gay person does not have distinct behaviors simply because they are gay. Gay men aren't necessarily more feminine or vain, even though stereotypes can reinforce these and other traits and influence the community.

Persona 2. Source: Nintendo Blast.

This character writing strategy seems promising in games that are not focusing on romance or issues of sexual orientation. In such cases, the writer can simply focus on creating a good character within their role in the story, whether they are a hero, an anti-hero, a villain, or other possibilities.

Following this model, fictional characters may eventually express romantic desires, as it may be strange otherwise with long open-world journeys. Depending on the number of characters in the world, we can expect that at least some of them will be seen as gay.

The aforementioned Emil is an example of this. He is clearly an excellent character, even the favorite of many fans of the game, and his gay identity is only hinted at as a secondary aspect, just like with the straight characters, as the focus of the plot is not on romance.

NieR: Replicant. Source: Nintendo Blast.

There are authors and critics, however, who argue that a well-developed gay character implies, above all, being believably gay. Fiction (sometimes even more than reality) seeks verisimilitude to give concreteness to its characters. Making characters more “natural” allows us to more easily connect with them and take their roles and concerns in the story more seriously. Following this trend in literature, Ernest Hemingway (Death in the Afternoon, 1932) even disliked considering his characters as “characters”, but as “people”.

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel."

The question now becomes: “What makes a believable gay character?” This is a challenging question to begin writing a character, but make no mistake, it is equally challenging to start with questions like “How should a hero act without being caricatured?” or “What should a villain with credible motivations be like?” Thinking beyond easy caricatures is not a simple task and invariably requires the writer to observe people’s behavior in the real world attentively.

Beyond stereotypes, it is difficult to accurately describe what naturally “looks gay,” but I can assure you that this appearance is noticeable, especially to other gay people. When I talk about “appearance,” I refer not only to aesthetics but also to behavior, way of speaking, preferences, and desires. There is a combination of probabilistic factors that contribute to what we popularly call “gaydar.” This mechanism also functions when we interact with fictional characters, even if it is not explicitly stated whether or not they are straight.

Tales of Zestiria. Source: Nintendo Blast.

This primary concern in character writing is important when there is a significant focus on a genuine romantic relationship. In these cases, it is not enough for the character to be a “good character who happens to be gay” because they are involved in a romantic relationship that occupies a dedicated part of the plot. Therefore, their appearance (especially in behaviors and words) must reflect what they feel and think. Only then can they fulfill their role effectively in these situations.

In my experience, it is rare to find good gay characters portrayed in this believable manner, especially in Japanese games and anime. When attempting to easily communicate this "gay appearance" to a broad audience (or to girls who enjoy BL), writers often limit themselves to replicating gay stereotypes in characters who are either too direct or excessively cute, effeminate, elegant, or flamboyant.

Dragon Quest XI. Source: Nintendo Blast.

Issues With Role-Playing and Scriptwriting in Gay Couples

However, script and world-building in JRPGs also contribute to the issues with gay representation, not only character writing. The problem starts with the absence of representation. There are few JRPGs with simulation elements that allow for same-sex relationships (with Fire Emblem being one of the few), and it is even rarer to see minimal development of a gay couple in JRPGs.

We need to consider that, unlike WRPGs, a significant portion of Japanese RPGs does not provide players with the same level of freedom to experience an “avatar” role, which partially explains the lack of freedom in relationships. However, there are important JRPG series that simulate relationships with NPCs and still rarely allow for same-sex relationships, such as the aforementioned Persona series. In contrast, in games like Final Fantasy XIV Online, gay marriage among players is possible.

Final Fantasy XIV. Source: Nintendo Blast.

Nevertheless, even when role-playing in a same-sex relationship is allowed, there are at least two basic problems that still need to be addressed. First, the lack of options. For example, in Persona 3 Portable, there is only the possibility of a lesbian relationship, and in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there is only three possible male same-sex relationship (excluding DLC).

Furthermore, these simulation contexts often only consider heterosexual and bisexual characters. It’s as if homosexual characters do not exist. Including different possibilities of same-sex relationships adds realism to the game's search for a romantic partner.

Persona 3 Portable. Source: reddit.

Last, let’s discuss some issues with the script. In RPGs where relationship simulation is secondary or even completely optional, it is understandable that we may not see a deeply developed bonds between characters. However, it is still crucial that these relationships are at least convincing and engaging. Often, these relationships are overly simplistic, sometimes reduced to mere association between two characters without a compelling reason for them being together.

Unfortunately, these gay relationships are almost the only ones in JRPGs currently. Most Japanese RPGs have linear stories with some peripheral romantic developments between main or secondary characters, but it is extremely rare to see any gay relationships in these cases. When they do exist, they are overly subtle and ambiguous. Let's take the Final Fantasy series as an example. We have various romances or at least explicit love interests in practically every game in the series, but they are always purely heterosexual relationships.

From left to right: Final Fantasy VIII; Final Fantasy X. Source: Nintendo Blast.

Sometimes this scenario in JRPGs is intriguing because there are many easily "shippable" boys. There are countless occasions where the line between friendship and love can be crossed through suggestion and players' imagination (mine included).

Furthermore, many pairs of “good friends” in JRPGs have better chemistry as a couple than many explicit heterosexual relationships in-game. This proves that many Japanese RPGs already possess the charisma for the construction of gay couples; now it’s time to include them in their stories.

This text was originally published on Nintendo Blast in Portuguese.


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