“It became a project about portraying a realistic coming out experience, and trying to communicate a lot of the struggles I went through when I was coming to terms with my sexuality,” says Conway. A particular highlight is when a datable character reassures the player that there’s “no wrong way to come out” and “no wrong way to be gay,” advice Conway wishes he could have received when he was “young and scared and closeted.”
In Conway’s view, the indie scene is better equipped to handle such subject matter. “I feel like major studio writers can’t do justice to stories about marginalized characters when the writers are not a part of those groups. And generally, major studio writers are not.”
Dream Daddy, while not from a major studio, was funded by YouTube behemoths Game Grumps. It was praised for its engaging tone, and for giving a queer narrative mainstream attention, but was also criticized for not engaging with gay culture or using queer language. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, but critics could tell that a game about the gay dating scene wasn’t made by gay men. Good representation needs authenticity, and Conway noted that indie games are freed from the market demands and design committees that can compromise accuracy.
“Representation of queer characters in mainstream video games isn’t great, although it’s getting better,” Conway said. “So queer people find they want ways to tell their own stories and represent their identities, and often end up creating games to do so.”
Charissa So and Tida Kietsungden, whose visual novel A Summer’s End portrays a romance between two women amid the rapidly changing world of 1980s Hong Kong, echoed the sentiment that freedom from market demands allows for a more honest portrayal of sexuality. “When sexual content is used as a selling point, the commodification of it produces content that may be disingenuous and lacking in emotional depth,” they wrote. “Distilling sexual content to what’s most marketable to a general audience erases the diversity in human sexuality. As LGBT+ creators, we wanted to depict lesbian sexuality in a way that was authentic and honest.”
Authenticity can sometimes limit appeal. One of Conway’s games, all of which feature queer characters, “received a comment from a player dissatisfied with the fact that the game contained gay sex”—despite a warning on the download page, a second warning within the game, and an option to skip the scene entirely. For Conway, that “was a good reminder that I should just make the games I want to make.” But while games about coming out or the unique social obstacles faced in 1980s Asia may not attract huge audiences, that doesn’t take away from the importance they have to those who do play them.
With authenticity, creators can tackle difficult subject matter in a way that feels productive rather than exploitative. Bobbi Sands’ Knife Sisters, about a nonbinary 19-year-old living in a diverse commune, sees its characters deal with anxiety, peer pressure, and other self-described “dark” subjects. But the game’s intimate moments, which explore BDSM and power dynamics, are always consensual and sex-positive, prompting one reviewer to note: “There are some sex games you play to get off, and there are some sex games you play to explore, to feel, to learn.”
Sands’ goal was to make her characters face hardships without basing those challenges on their identities. The trick, in her words, was “to balance real-world discrimination with the notion of a ‘queer utopia’—I wanted to create a world where it was completely fine to be a LGBTQ+ person, but I also wanted to bring up some issues for discussion.”