Thursday, August 10, 2006


The Gay Kid in Earthbound

It was my pleasure this week to play Earthbound on the Super NES, from start to finish, for the first time in years. Overall, I was pleased with how much I still enjoy the game. The fans keep it on a pretty high pedestal, and its "cult classic" status has made it at least moderately collectible over the years, not to mention the fact that a lot of the Smash Brothers players I know really like to dominate with Ness. Together, these factors give the game a pretty high reputation to live up to. But I wasn't disappointed. My fuzzy, happy memories of the game weren't lying -- I've been enthralled all over again all week.

But this isn't a review.

This week was the first time I've played Earthbound with the knowledge that Tony was gay.

Tony is one of the more important NPCs in the game. He's introduced when the third PC (Jeff, according to Earthbound canon) is trying to escape from his boarding school in Winters. His attraction to Jeff eluded me the first few times I played through the game, but now that I knew about it, I started to pay more attention, and it seemed obvious. When Tony wakes up in the middle of the night, he says he was having a dream that he and Jeff were going for a walk together. Later in the game, you receive a phone call from Tony, and he's particularly anxious that you're taking good care of Jeff. Still later, he's one of a group of people who get kidnapped by aliens, putting him in the usual "damsel in distress" role. When you win the game, you get a letter from Tony that says Jeff's glasses have probably gotten dirty on his adventure and Tony would be glad to clean them for him. When I originally played the game some ten years ago, I just thought, hey... they must be pretty good friends.

I just think the whole thing is kind of interesting for a number of reasons. One is just from a general storytelling standpoint. You don't have to work very hard to suggest that there's a romantic bond between two people of opposite sex in a story -- it's so easy, in fact, that the audience will often pick up on one unintentionally. There doesn't have to be any physical contact or even any explicit interest from either side. The audience will pick up on it just from juxtaposition. In the book version of Jurassic Park, the relationship between Ellie Satler and Alan Grant was purely professional -- in the film version, they're musing over the prospect of having children. How did that happen? Whoever was adapting the story saw a man and a woman working together and figured the next logical step would be a romance between them.

How do you get the same sort of easy association with same-sex couples? How do you show, rather than tell, the audience that, not only are these characters gay but also attracted to each other, and do so without resorting to cliche or stereotypes?

Tony is a fantastic example of an understated gay character. Earthbound is, after all, a game suitable for children. It's no more sexually themed than your typical Super Mario Brothers game. (The shower scene from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is not your typical Super Mario Brothers game.) Not only that, but the characters in the game are very young teenagers, not even kissing age. Nothing about Tony's attraction to Jeff suggests anything physical, nor is there anything flamboyantly gay about his personality. He simply comes across as being slightly doting and perhaps a bit preoccupied -- if he were a girl, I wouldn't have had any problem picking up on his dialogue as signs of a childhood crush.

Another reason I find it interesting is because there was a thread on GameFAQs a while back calling for more homosexual video game characters. I wasn't entirely sure how sincere the poster was in his request, but I thought it was an interesting idea. But again, how do you demonstrate, in a video game, that a character is homosexual? And a better question -- does it even matter?

For video games that rely heavily on the "game" aspect, the player character is really little more than a living pawn, like the thimble in a Monopoly set. It's less a character in its own right and more an extension of the players themselves, perhaps possessing some sort of traits that the players can identify with, but little else. Mario is an Everyman, Link is a noble adventurer, and so on. Just as the question of whether or not the thimble is gay doesn't make any difference in the scope of a Monopoly game, the sexuality of a video game character generally doesn't have a great impact on the way a game actually plays. When you're crossing World 1-3, are you more concerned with landing on those moving platforms, or what Mario's doing when the camera is off? Probably the moving platforms.

Then there's the simulation games that try and simulate social interactions -- games like The Sims, Harvest Moon, and Animal Crossing. Sometimes sexuality does play a role in these games, but more often than not, the only way it's really expressed is by a question of whether or not two same-sex characters are allowed by the game rules to have sex. Because, let's face it -- as good as developers have gotten with making photorealistic graphics, we're still a long, long way from developing video games with meaningful social interaction as an on-the-fly, simulated aspect of the game.

So that leaves us with the heavily-scripted games that try and wow us with their storytelling. It may be relevant to have homosexual characters in simulation games, but this is really the only category of games where you can honestly say that a homosexual character has been done well or poorly, and then it's a matter of how well the script-writers do from a general storytelling perspective. Most importantly, are the characters real? Is there more to them and more to the story than the fact that they're gay? Are they stereotypes, or are they three-dimensional?

And that's the great thing about Tony. Even in a game where a lot of the characters are broad characatures, Tony isn't just a mass-media portrait of a gay guy. He's not overstated, he doesn't steal attention from the main story. He just slips in and out of the story as naturally as a childhood love interest character should.

And if we are going to have more homosexuality in our video games in the future, I hope developers will have the good taste to follow the example set by Earthbound.


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