This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
As television shows and movies increasingly feature diverse characters and relationships, another art form is also breaking the heterosexual mold. Video game developers create narratives that are relatable to people who don’t identify with gender or sexuality norms.
While games like Call of Duty, Minecraft and World of Warcraft continue to dominate popular culture, a determined group of art-house game designers create stories that offer universal human experiences.
Queer developers don’t limit themselves to building experiences based on gender identity. This fits with how many players see themselves — “queer” is a term for people who prefer to avoid being labeled or boxed into a certain category.
“There is more to us than just simply being queer,” said Mattie Brice, a game designer and critic. “We have tastes and ideas, goals, differences and lots of other projects that aren’t about trying to get straight people to empathize with us.”
Another thing queer developers and developers of niche games struggle with is funding.
These developers rarely make money from their games. Most work multiple jobs and create in the hours when they should be sleeping.
“Capitalism is very strongly stacked against us … against marginalized artists in particular but against all artists,” said developer Caelyn Sandel, the creator of the interactive fiction Bloom.
“We are seen as doing something non-critical and unimportant.”
Snow McNally, the brains behind the queer video game Little Witch Story, said she works two jobs to finance her passion: creating games that resonate with people.
Despite the lack of a support system for creation or space for their games, queer developers and other marginalized creators are making art games in hopes that players will find something that speaks to them.
Players, in turn, can support queer and other marginalized individuals by advocating for spaces and infrastructure for non-commercial art games.
“There needs to be a clearer idea of what it means to have an art space for games,” said Brice, who explained that making non-commercial art is a public service because it gives people access to games that ignore commercial pressures of what to create.
“Instead of supporting a product, you have to shift your thinking to supporting a person, and finding the ways that you can,” she said.
Here are five games that deal with personal experiences of gender identity and are an entry point to each developer’s complex body of work.
Bloom is a slice-of-life interactive fiction piece that tells the story of Cordelia, a young trans woman trying to know herself.
“Some of them are borrowed from my friends, some of them are borrowed from personal accounts, all of them are very grounded in things that happened,” Sandel said of the scenes in Bloom.
Cordy’s story is not one seen frequently in mainstream depictions of trans women.
With the exception of Transparent and an episode or two of Orange is the New Black, there are few mainstream depictions of trans women that struggle to fit conventional parameters of female beauty — especially when their claim to womanhood is questioned by society.
In Bloom, Cordy struggles with a self-imposed pressure of passing as a woman, discomfort with her body and mental illness. This makes Bloom not only a depiction of a different, oftentimes painful account of the trans experience, but also a relatable narrative.
“Cordelia’s story seems to resonate very strongly with people who are cis, white, hetero, but suffer from mental illness,” Sandel said.
“Every kind of experience is going to be different, but there are going to be threads within them that bear a resemblance to threads of another identity or experience or form of marginalization.”
What started as a way for developer Mattie Brice to share her every day experience as a trans woman with a friend has become an icon of queer games.
The most important aspect of Mainichi is its cyclical nature; gamers cannot win.
Every day, players can make different choices to attempt different outcomes but still encounter the same hostility and ignorance.
At the end of each day, there will still be another day full of it.
“I wanted to show that it’s more complicated, it’s not solvable,” Brice said, recalling the many times she has been told how she should handle harassment by cisgender or heterosexual commentators.
Little Witch Story
Using magic as a metaphor for queerness, Little Witch Story imagines marginalized communities as covens. The design is somewhere between a dating sim and a choose-your-own-adventure story.
In Little Witch Story, the player is an individual who discovers, abruptly and painfully, that she is a witch.
The person is shunned by her school and former friends and forced to wear a different uniform all at once. Players struggles in the aftermath of this sudden change until they meet a group of witches at their school.
“At its core, Little Witch Story is a story about people,” said McNally.
“It’s also, I hope, a mostly optimistic story about community and support and love.”
An examination of the concept of chosen family, the magic-focused text game Ceremony delves deep into the concept of community.
Magic and community are common threads in queer games because these concepts help give power back to queer individuals.
Community, however, is especially vital for queer people and marginalized groups.
For individuals turned out or denied by their families, a community of friends often fill those roles and provide the support system they need to survive.
Ceremony was developed by 23-year-old Xandir, who describes herself as a “queer disabled non-binary weirdo living in the bay area.”
In the game, a group of queer and disabled or chronically ill witches gather in the woods for their monthly ritual to support one another.
From developer Arielle Grimes, Brokenfolx is an amalgam of the struggles of many different queer and disabled folks.
She pairs a pink, fluffy aesthetic and anthropomorphized animal characters with the uncomfortable reality of the everyday misgendering, harassment or abuse the game’s subjects endure.
But Brokenfolx is as much an exercise in validation as it is a frank telling of the daily pains of queer individuals. It ends with a series of affirmations, assuring both the players and the game’s disenfranchised characters that they are worthy of love.
These games tackle many facets of the queer experience, but the core message is the same: You are not alone.
Quotes have been edited for clarity. In addition to the developers above, thank you to Elijah Renaud and Mars B. for helping form this article.