The Game: Always Sometimes Monsters
Publisher: Vagabond Dog
The Critique: I’ve just been kicked out of my apartment, my boyfriend left me a year ago for reasons I don’t know yet, I’m out of money, low on food, my best friend is teetering on the edge of starting heroin use again, and the last mail I receive before my landlord changes the locks is a shitty royalty check and an invitation to my ex’s wedding, which is in 30 days. So, my quest is to make enough money to get to that wedding and stop him before he marries someone that I’m positive must be all wrong for him.
That’s the opening of Vagabond Dog’s effort, Always Sometimes Monsters, a game that wears its indie badge proudly from its loads of dated references to its always sometimes pretentiously over the top storytelling, but I still found myself up until three in the morning finishing the game because it’s one of the few games out there that casually asks me at the beginning if I’m gay or straight, and while being gay factors into the game itself, the game itself isn’t radically different than if you were straight. It’s part of the normalizing trend that’s started to crop up ever since the option to take a guy as your husband for your male PC popped up in a Dungeons and Dragons video game in 2003. Fable actually became famous for allowing the Hero to be gay in 2004, but even as late as 2005, gay romantic options (which you often found out about through rumor) required a lot of digging through internet forums, scrolling past the flamewars of angry geeks who didn’t want “teh ghey” in their games, to suddenly find out that yes, you could in fact romance the charming rogue in Jade Empire even if you were playing a guy.
The irony was that in order to get into a relationship with Sky, the rogue of Jade Empire, you had to tell the game in no uncertain terms that you had zero interest in the games two offered female options if you were playing a man, and you did so by being a total asshole. You have to tell your childhood friend that she’s an irritating clingy bitch and the Emperor’s daughter that she’s a spoiled brat who’s getting off on playing hero, and that you’d rake yourself over hot coals before you’d date either of them. As a result they’re curt with you for the rest of the story, friendship quests are killed off, and even then, the game first thinks, “Well, he could just be a misogynist who despises all women, but what the hell, we’ll see if he’s got this gay thing we heard about”. So once you’ve decimated the feelings of two of your friends and companions, you’re asked three times by Sky why you’re not interested in women, and very specific dialogue options must be selected, or you’re Forever Alone. Once you jump through the hoops though, you’re home free, and even get to have sex before the big battle as is the Bioware tradition.
See how far we’ve come in 9 years?
But that’s not the issue I’m talking about here, because there’s something rather similar in Always Sometimes Monsters that players would likely never know about if they weren’t paying obsessive attention. The game claims to deal with issues of: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mental health, sexual assault, child abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide. See #4 there? I played through the game twice before I even found out there was actual transphobia in the game. In the city of Beaton, a stand-in for Toronto, it’s possible to go into City Hall and find someone wanting to change his gender signifier on his official ID, and getting hassled over the paperwork. For most players, it’s a one-time occurrence, but for those willing to go to specific places at specific times, it’s possible to see him again and again, until you finally meet up with him outside on a public boardwalk, and though the conversation is rather heavy with the subtext, it’s up to the player to figure out that the man is a FtM transgender, at which point you have four options to respond with: “I’m cool with it”, “That’s gross”, “My BF/GF is trans”, and “I’m trans”.
Should you pick option 4, the story doesn’t change all that much, maybe dialogue is slightly tweaked by those in the know, but the game doesn’t suddenly become all about your character being transgendered. In other words, it’s for the most part incidental (AKA, the “happens to be”). You have to deal with the same casual bigotry that PCs of non-white races deal with, but the goal of the game is still to get to the wedding, sell your book, and proclaim your devotion to the one you love. It takes some digging and specifics, but it allows for the game to have a transgendered hero, a baby step toward normalization in other media. Granted, the hero’s reward is similar to that which is found in most romance fictions, a normal, happy married life. Still, it’s often where it starts, normalizing the idea that yes, a minority group is worthy and deserving of a happy ending, even if that ending is just having what everyone else can have.
In 9 years, who knows? Maybe by then we’ll see a AAA game with a transgendered PC, or fully-scripted party member, and that character too can have their chance to save all life as we know it, and we can become less attached to the idea that being a hero is a gender or sexuality-specific job.