Over the years, a lot of the LGBTQ representation in AAA games has come from industry giant BioWare. These days the Canadian development studio is well known for attempting to bring diverse and inclusive games to the table, but it certainly didn’t start out with that goal in mind. Let’s take a look at how its attitude has matured since the turn of the 21st century.
2000: BioWare releases Baldur’s Gate II: Legends of Amn. This sequel expands the original game by introducing the option to romance other members of your party. The game is far from progressive, featuring overt misogyny and no homosexual romance options available out-of-the-box. The modding community jumps in to remedy this lack, providing a number of fully fleshed out non-heteronormative romance extensions.
2003: BioWare creates shockwaves throughout the gaming industry when its developers take a chance and sneak a lesbian character, Juhani, into its blockbuster title Knights of the Old Republic (initially a bug allows her to romance both male and female characters). The developers feel the need to hide this subtle inclusion from even their own marketing team, but their rebellious action inspires openly gay writer and designer David Gaider to eventually start writing homosexual narratives for his characters.
2005: This year heralds the arrival of Jade Empire. Romancing options now include two same-sex pairings, but, where heterosexual couples are permitted an on-screen kiss, the camera pans away and censors gay or lesbian smooches.
2007: In the original Mass Effect BioWare once again subtly includes a lesbian pairing option, but sidesteps the resulting controversy surrounding the (extremely PG) lesbian sex scene by declaring Liara to be a sexless alien and therefore “no homo!”
2009: This year, the company displays mixed messages regarding LGBTQ inclusion. On the one hand, Dragon Age: Origins is released and David Gaider begins to explore homosexual themes in his writing, including lesbian dwarves and two bisexual romance options. On the other hand, Star Wars: The Old Republic’s online forum censors the words “gay,” “lesbian,” and “homosexual.” “These are terms that do not exist in Star Wars,” states Sean Dahlberg, a BioWare community manager. He apologizes for his comment within the day and the offending filters are removed, but it’s clear that there is still work to be done to get all of BioWare’s employees on the same page regarding company values.
2010: Mass Effect 2 takes the same route as Mass Effect Galaxy did the year before, excluding same-sex romance options (apparently in response to the blowback unleashed by the lesbian sex scene in the first title).
2011: Dragon Age II is released, featuring multiple bisexual romance options for each character. David Gaider infamously claps back at a user who accuses the game of not catering to the straight male gamer, stating “The romances in the game are … for everyone.”
2012: Mass Effect 3 allows both male and female versions of Shepard to come out as gay or lesbian. There’s even another tame gay sex scene and controversy ensues yet again. This time, however, Bioware makes no feeble attempts to deny the homosexual hankey-pankey. Breaking new ground, the studio writes full romances exclusively for same-sex characters (Samantha Traynor and Steve Cortez).
2013: Two years after after the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioware clumsily attempts to insert homosexual romance options into the game by adding a segregated gay planet that users must pay to access. Everyone everywhere, gay and straight alike, collectively winces.
2014: In Dragon Age: Inquisition David Gaider debuts Dorian, the mainstream gaming industry’s first “fully gay” (as opposed to bisexual) playable character. This sequel also features the most respectful representation of a transgender individual in any AAA game to date; the success of Krem’s character is attributable to the fact that the studio seeks advice from transgender and non-binary consultants outside of the development team. The “gaymer” community rejoices.
2017: Despite misleading marketing hype, Mass Effect: Andromeda features disappointingly limited gay romance options, with fewer love interests, minimal dialogue, and “sex scenes” that consist only of a kiss that fades to black. BioWare fails to meet the standards it set with Dragon Age: Inquisition and must scramble to adjust its flawed portrayal of transgender NPC Hainly Abrams.
Clearly, BioWare has made huge (if imperfect) strides regarding LGBTQ representation in its games over the past seventeen years. Much of what it has done right has been contributed by important gay team members like David Gaider. Now that Gaider has left BioWare to become Creative Director at Beamdog, it remains to be seen if the studio will be able to continue its growing tradition of inclusivity without him. While Mass Effect: Andromeda was a let-down for many LGBTQ fans of the series, BioWare’s responsiveness to criticism and willingness to self-correct is a promising sign. Hopefully in the future it will take a cue from its own past successes and be sure to consult actual members of the minority communities it attempts to portray before it releases new content.
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