In 2003, BioWare developers working on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic hid a fact about one of the game's characters from their own marketing team. This character, the Jedi Knight Juhani, happened to be female and she also happened to be gay. Developers weren't sure how players would receive that trait.
"I think for a long time it was just assumed that nobody would accept it," BioWare lead writer David Gaider said in 2013. Even in the final game, Juhani's sexuality is vague. "We kind of hid it," Gaider continued. "She never says, 'She was my lover.' She just says, 'We are very close.'"
That ended up being a wake-up call for Gaider and a turning point for BioWare. The studio's future games, notably Jade Empire and Mass Effect 3, feature homosexual characters or options for players to engage in the relationship they prefer. Twelve years after Knights of the Old Republic, it's more common to find games featuring gay, female or non-white characters, though these experiences are still in the minority. Most games, especially big-budget titles, stick to the default blockbuster action-hero idea of a protagonist: straight, white and male.
This means that games featuring other types of characters -- racial, gender, identity and sexuality minorities -- immediately stand out. Mirror's Edge stars an Asian woman; over two seasons, The Walking Dead stars Lee and Clementine, two apparently black characters; The Last of Us features gay romance; Guacamelee stars Mexican luchadores; and so on.
Clementine and Lee in season one of The Walking Dead
Experiences like these are becoming more common. The definition of a "normal" game is shifting, and as it does, Gaider's fears from 2003 are fueled online.
"If I deal with non-straights in real life I rarely know it, but for some reason it has to be unnecessarily thrown in my face in games, TV and movies," one Engadget commenter wrote in 2013, in response to Gaider's panel discussion. "[Mass Effect 3] was a let-down, but having a straight character I liked from 1 and 2 go all gay on me was what made a mediocre game a terrible one."
"Gender matters," another commenter wrote in mid-2015. "I don't want to play as a stupid weak girl."
A third reader wrote the following in February on an article about Masquerada, a game featuring gay characters: "God Help Us. We are firmly entrenched in the Age of Messages in Video Games."
Comments like this aren't news to Dr. Kishonna Gray, director of the Critical Gaming Lab at Eastern Kentucky University.
"Those who have always been reflected in any type of media suggest that diversity and accurate representations are unnecessary," she says. "Those who make these comments have always been catered to. They have diverse stories. They have meaningful representations. They are not reduced to perpetual stereotypes."
Guacamelee is a celebration of Mexican culture and platforming action
Guacamelee developer DrinkBox Studios ran into a prickly issue when it was searching for a publisher, studio co-founder Graham Smith says.
"When we were seeking funding early on in the project, we had a big publisher tell us that they were not interested in Guacamelee due to a previous luchador-themed game performing poorly," Smith says. "In their minds, luchadores were not marketable."
DrinkBox was nervous following that chat, but it moved forward with the luchador theme that it loved anyway. Turns out, the studio's instincts were spot-on; plenty of players gobbled up Guacamelee. The project's Mexican-inspired world occurred naturally, as the idea came courtesy of Augusto Quijano, DrinkBox's concept lead who happens to be from Mexico.
"We never discussed the marketability of the characters in either Guacamelee or Severed," Smith says. "We've been more concerned about having characters that work well with the story, theme and gameplay of our games."
DrinkBox's Severed stars a one-armed warrior, Sasha
DrinkBox benefited from a cultural conversation that some studios don't see, considering the industry remains disproportionately white and male, according to the IGDA's 2015 developer satisfaction survey.
Working with diverse developers is the best way to ensure realistic representation in a video game, argues Dr. Gray.
"I don't want these studios diversifying characters if they don't know how to do it without being stereotypical," Dr. Gray says. "If you don't have the skill set to create a gay character without her being ball-busting masculine, don't make her. Or better yet, diversify your staff with people who are either members of these populations or who have done research on these populations."
Some games miss the mark and fall firmly into "ball-busting" exploitation territory -- think Lococycle, Resident Evil 5 or Gay Fighter Extreme. Whether these games are borne of good intentions or a lazy cash-in, Dr. Gray says exploitation is avoidable. When developers take time to understand the characters they're creating, whether via research or personal experience, it shows.
Guacamelee is a great example -- and it's not alone.
The leading ladies of Life is Strange
The young women at the heart of Life is Strange, for example, are complex and engaging, and it feels as if the story couldn't exist without them at its center. That took research, Dontnod artistic director Michel Koch said in 2014:
"We have women in the dev team -- not that many because it's still the video game industry and there are not that many women -- but we have women working on the game. And our writer, which is an American writer we've worked with before, he's consulting with his nieces. He's showing scripts to them, to read it and see if it feels genuine and fresh."
In the same conversation, creative director Jean-Maxime Moris said that Dontnod's short history of featuring female protagonists (starting with Remember Me) was a product of narrative focus, rather than a marketing or activism decision.
"That's not us trying to be different for the sake of being different," he said. "It's not as if we're trying to 'fix the industry.'"
Other studios go out of their way to make minority characters feel authentic and robust, such as Never Alone developer Upper One Games, which partnered with Alaska Native storytellers to create a riveting and educational platformer that respects a culture rarely seen in video game form.
Never Alone is as educational as it is gorgeous
The gaming industry is actually above the US average in terms of representing a variety of sexualities in its work force, according to the IGDA's 2015 survey. More non-straight developers would naturally lead to games featuring broader, more honest sexuality options. Not all games, but certainly some.
Read Only Memories, a project from the founders of LGBT-oriented gaming convention GaymerX, features inclusive gender, sexuality and pronoun options for its main character, but creator Matt Conn has been careful not to focus on those facets. He's always been clear that it's not "a gay game." It's pitched as a retro-styled, narrative-driven cyberpunk adventure game -- because that's what it's all about.
This isn't a matter of hiding a minority character or storyline, as Gaider and BioWare did in 2003. It's about not exploiting these aspects.
Building and selling diverse games is a tricky art, though much of the trouble is naturally avoided when studios invite non-straight, non-white, non-male developers onboard. A broader range of perspectives inherently cultivates different ideas, new angles and representative stories. After that, the game sells itself. There's no need to hide a project's non-traditional aspects -- just as there's no reason to over-sell these same traits.
It's a simple formula, according to Dr. Gray: "Don't tell us. Just do it."