Posted on November 10, 2010, Jim Sterling Homosexuality and Fallout: New Vegas: A gay marriage made in gay Heaven
(This is the first edition of “</RANT>,” a weekly opinion piece column on FileFront. Check back every week for more).
As much as we like to talk about how videogames are art and worthy of cultural respect, there’s no denying that the medium has a lot of growing up to do. Nowhere is this more evident than with the general treatment of homosexuality within games. I can list on one hand the amount of gay characters I’ve seen in videogames that aren’t treated as borderline offensive jokes or identified almost exclusively by their gender preferences. Even the ones who are portrayed in a serious light are often so overwrought and needlessly camp that it looks patronizing at best and ignorant at worst.
This is why Fallout: New Vegas is such a wonderful game in its portrayal of gay characters. In fact, one character in particular has been realized so superbly, that you might not even know he’s gay at all. His name is Arcade Gannon, a member of the Followers of the Apocalypse. You may have had a high enough Speech Skill to recruit him as one of your companions, and you’ll find that he’s a rather excellent ally to have on your side. He’s armed with a deadly Plasma Rifle and a dry, cynical wit that makes him one of the more affable characters in the game. He’s also gay, and you’d hardly know it. In fact, he only really references his sexual inclination a handful of times should you converse about his life, and even when he talks about it, it’s in an incredibly offhand manner.
While completely downplaying what he insists is a boring and dull life, Arcade sarcastically asks why some man hasn’t come along and swept him off his feet. If you have the Confirmed Bachelor Perk, you can also flirt with him and win his trust, but for anybody else, this is the only real clue we ever get as to which way Arcade leans. This makes him, quite easily, the best gay character a videogame has ever had.
Now, you may be asking what the big deal is, and why something so absolutely forgettable and easy to miss is fantastic and worthy of merit. That’s just the point though — Arcade Gannon’s sexuality isn’t a big deal, and that’s how videogames should play it. Not just videogames, in fact, but all media would do well to not make such a big deal out of homosexuality. Rarely is there a gay character whose identity doesn’t completely revolve around their sexuality. Maybe they have a gay crush on the main character, or are tastelessly camp, or have to struggle in a straight world full of homophobia. Often they tick all three of those boxes. In Fallout: New Vegas, gay characters just … are. Which is how most gay people exist in real life, too. If you’ve grown up watching too much television, you may think that gay people are all lisping, mincing crossdressers who constantly talk about how gay they are, and more often than not try to murder a heterosexual best friend who spurned their gay advances. Unfortunately for you, gay people generally aren’t like that in real life. They’re normal, and as boring as straight people are.
This is what makes me love the character of Arcade Gannon so much. Not only is he a genuinely likable character with a snarky sense of humor and interesting backstory, but his sexuality is so mundane and unremarkable that it may as well have never been mentioned. That’s the kind of down-to-Earth realism that other games totally ignore when it comes to gay characters.
Arcade isn’t the only gay character in New Vegas. There is a lesbian sniper who was raped by a Fiend and becomes more sexually aggressive as a result, but again, the fact that she is talking about women and not men is only incidental. There is a gay male prostitute who, despite falling into dangerously camp territory, reveals quite a sad backstory that implies he’s merely putting on an act for his clients. You’ll also find NPCs around the New Vegas Strip reference sexual preferences as if they’re not a big deal. According to Fallout, war never changes — but enlightened attitudes toward sexuality apparently do! It’s a shame that it apparently took nuclear war in order for folk to become more laid back about LGBT issues.
We need not look too far back to get a nice example of how homosexuality is generally treated in videogames. Just take a look at Enchanted Arms, and the supporting character Makoto. Obsessively in love with the main character to the point of possible insanity, fighting with a saxophone and screaming all of his lines with a gratingly camp voice, Makoto seems to represent everything that the Westboro Baptist Church thinks about gay people. Makoto isn’t the only one, either — we have Shadow Hearts and a character who upgrades male characters by ostensibly raping them. We have Indigo Prophecy and a next door neighbor who goes out of his way to let us know which side of the bread he butters. Deadly Premonition presents its major gay character as a crossdressing psychopath. The classic media interpretation of a gay person is that of an insufferable fool who talks solely in innuendo and thinks exclusively of penis.
There have been more sensitive attempts in the past, and some of them successful. Earthbound, for instance, had Tony, who only vaguely hinted at his sexuality and was confirmed later outside of the source material as gay. Despite his status as a villain, the character of Vamp in the Metal Gear Solid series was a fairly badass bad guy whose sexual inclination was turned into a sensible sub-plot that was never dwelt upon. Fable 2 and 3 don’t really make a distinction between gay and straight relationships. Fallout itself has had a history of being all-inclusive, with Fallout 2 actually allowing the very first in-game same-sex marriages.
I don’t want to say that the LGBT world has been completely mocked or segregated by videogames, but the general portrayal of gay people across all media has always made a massive deal out of the “gay” part and not the “person” portion. Even the media that tries to portray gay people sensibly usually makes such a huge point of that sensibility as to appear disingenuous, like they’re almost patronizingly including a gay character purely to show how progressive they are.
And that’s why, in my mind, Fallout: New Vegas boasts the best gay character I’ve seen. Arcade Gannon is a great character on his own merits, and the very fact that his sexuality neither enhances nor diminishes his character is what truly makes him amazing. I realize that by drawing attention to it, I am in fact making a big deal out of it and thereby undermining my entire point, but there’s really no way to applaud Obsidian for what it did without committing the same crime I’ve accused other media of committing. So, at the risk of being a hypocrite, I simply want to say that Fallout: New Vegas gets a very gay thumbs up from me.