Written by: Gene Cole, Opinions Editor
Ubisoft’s recent open-world game, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, recently got nominated for a GLAAD media award for Outstanding Video Game for letting you romance any character, regardless of whether you choose a male or female playable character.
This nomination came as a pretty significant surprise, though, as earlier in the month the game released a largely disliked piece of downloadable content (DLC) where your character marries a heterosexually-compatible character in one of the final cutscenes as part of the story. This is the only point in the game where you have no control over your romantic partners, rendering your sexual identity relatively pointless.
I do want to disclose that I come at this as an outsider, being cisgendered, straight, and male. But I’ve certainly experienced more than enough heteronormative relationships in video games for a lifetime, even more so in open-world games. Usually the most representation I see is in giving players the option to romance every LGBTQ21A+ character, which is certainly important in a genre where you’re meant to play however you want.
But if Ubisoft’s DLC and this award has shown anything, though, it’s that there’s a huge void in how sexuality appears in open-world games. The only romance options we’re typically given in this genre are the power to choose, or mandatory heteronormative characters. What we need way more of is an open-world game where you specifically aren’t straight.
This is something I was thinking about when reading GLAAD’s foreword about Odyssey’s nomination: “At worst, this sends the harmful message that sexual orientation can be changed at will and that LGBTQ people can choose to conform to heteronormative expectations in spite of their identities.”
A typical way this is solved in games this is to make sure every character is romantically available to you, but it isn’t inherently wrong to have a game that limits a player to their character’s identity. The problem with Odyssey — and several other open world games with heterosexual characters — isn’t that it forces a relationship on the player. Rather, it pushes an overly common heterosexual one, and erases the player’s queer identity.
This isn’t the only alternative, though, as “open world” doesn’t inherently have to mean “infinite choices.” This is especially true with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, as you aren’t playing an avatar of yourself; you’re playing a specific character, either Kassandra or Alexios, with their own history and identity. Others, like Grand Theft Auto, may not include mechanics around romance, but still puts you through the perspective of the cisgendered and straight male playable characters.
It really shouldn’t be so rare for a game to let you explore a world from an LGBTQ21A+ perspective in the same way.
After all, LGBTQ21A+ people don’t have the same experience in the world as the rest of us. Ubisoft has thankfully announced plans to change the ending, but their change is unlikely to make us forget about their original ending. More than that, I doubt it’d be consequential enough to change the problems it still represents in the genre.
I’d guess that the hesitation of developers and publishers is due to fears of marketability to the wider masses, but I have trouble with this idea in seeing the popularity and success of other game genres with greater LGBTQ21A+ playable characters. Story-driven adventure games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Life is Strange are fantastic examples of purposefully queer characters. Just the same, there’s been a surge of playable representation in the lore of less story-based games, particularly Overwatch and even League of Legends.
Being able to explore a world from a distinct perspective of a non-straight character is something that we absolutely need more of. For cis and straight people like myself, it’s an opportunity to see through a perspective we can’t experience in the same way from reading books or watching films about queer life. For everyone else, it’s a perspective they ought to see represented in this massive entertainment medium.