“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 Edgestars 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.
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…”