While there has been some notable improvement lately, video games have not historically done a fantastic job of representing queer identities (or really anything other than “straight white dude”). The days of overt homophobia and extreme stereotypes are mostly behind us, but to put it bluntly, LGBTQ+ gamers usually take what we can get in the representation realm. Sometimes, that means playing as a gay character with very little actual identity beyond a statistic on a character sheet. In many cases, it means there is a female character who can be romanced by any gender of player character but basically is just gay or straight depending on your play-through, rather than a realistic portrayal of a bisexual woman. In an increasing number of cases, an NPC (usually one you can’t romance) is presented as canonically gay, but this either comes off as tokenization or even as baiting. It acknowledges that queer people exist within the world of the game, but doesn’t really allow queer gamers to roleplay authentically, unless you count “one dimensional flirting with that person I have no chance of hooking up with” as an authentic roleplaying experience.
As the trend toward inclusiveness increases, we often see developers either avoid defining a character’s sexuality if it doesn’t directly come up in gameplay or taking a “let’s just make everyone pansexual so players can make their own canon” approach (like many Bethesda and Bioware games). While there is actually something to be said for that second approach, particularly in an open RPG where making your own story is the point of the game, there is also something to be said for explicitly defining those identities and making players deal with the reality of not everyone on earth being bi/pan.
The debate over the portrayal of sexuality in games has been going on for quite a while (anyone remember the controversy surrounding Juhani from KOTOR 1?), but gender is only just starting to get addressed along these lines, and finding solid representation of BTQ characters is often much harder than finding LG representation. Recently, Dragon Age 3 took a bold stance and allowed players to define not only their sexuality but their gender identity. The success of that game and the fact that the inclusiveness certainly didn’t hurt sales has opened some doors, and developers are starting to cautiously move toward them.
The recently released Torment: Tides of Numenera falls squarely into that category, exploring these concepts in a way that’s actually inclusive but not quite taking it to the level of DA3 in terms of how that is done. Like much about Torment, it’s a solid step in the right direction if not quite a running start.
Let’s start with the character creation screens. Unlike most RPG games, Torment’s character creation is fairly simple; most of the attributes that define you are unlocked by actually playing rather than making a backstory. Your character is meant to be something of a blank slate and their personality before the events of the game literally no longer inhabits their body by the time you get to control them.
The gender options are interesting and this choice is one of the few moments that directly, explicitly, addresses gender. Initially you only get to pick “male” or “female”. This seems to be limiting right off the bat, but it’s almost immediately followed with a “pick your pronoun” screen. The options here are “he”, “she”, and “they”, with your choice in the previous screen not limiting this choice. So, in my case, I picked “female” and then “they”, making my character, canonically, a nonbinary person.
At that point, I hadn’t even picked a class or assigned starter points, and Tides of Numenera doesn’t have a visual character design element, but I already felt a stronger connection to the character because of that one option. The “male or female” option seemed to be, in reality, asking “AFAB or AMAB”. Presumably, the guy who created your body (yeah, you’re sort of a Frankenstein’s Prometheus) didn’t make anyone who was intersex, at least not in a way that those bodies couldn’t be called “male body type” or “female body type”. While far from the level of depth that making a trans Qunari in DA3 offers, having the ability to make a character who has a sex and gender that don’t match, or a nonbinary gender option, was immensely cool and one that started the game off right. I was able to role play as “nonbinary homoflexible woman”, which is generally an identity confined to headcanon or the product of presentation alone (ie my Fallout character usually presents as nonbinary, but the game still only sees the “IsFemale” flag as a binary variable). While I picked “they”, a character could be canon trans by picking a sex and pronoun that are opposed, providing a much more complex set of options for romance/sexuality as well.
So how does Torment handle sexuality? Well, this is much closer to the “whatever you want” approach mentioned earlier, but with some key exceptions. First, for those not familiar with the world in which this game is set, Torment is set a billion years in the future after dozens of civilizations have risen and fallen. The game’s “magic” is known to be technology that people have figured out how to use without having a clue how it works. This approach is also applied to gender, with creator Colin McComb stating, “This is a billion years in the future, so I don’t think there will be much reactivity of people saying that you’re a woman, and you’re not capable of… there’s a billion years of gender equality.” While this quote applies to binary gender roles, the nonbinary and trans characters get the same treatment.
There are no actual romance plots with your companions, at least not explicit ones. The characters react to how you act while they are in your party and treat you accordingly. Since there are no clear romance decisions, you have some wiggle room here. One of your companions is canonically bi and another two are presented as a gay man and a lesbian accordingly, but none of them directly comment on a romantic relationship with you. It’s all indirect and somewhat ambiguous. My initial crush (a woman named Casllistege, who is a manifestation of every quantum variant of herself at once) ended up saying “I adore you. What more is there to say?” However, she never clearly stated a romantic involvement aside from some subtle innuendo in certain dialogue choices. Another fave (a bloodthirsty assassin named Matkina who was betrayed by a woman implied to be her lover) seems to react differently to a woman with a female pronoun than she does to anyone else, implying both an openness to romance and a kinship based on gender identity, but this is not made explicit in the dialogue and is left somewhat vague, leaving the player to infer meaning based on those subtle reactions. But even in those moments, the concept of “I am physically attracted to you, but I love women and you aren’t exactly that, so what does that make us?” is indirectly explored in a way I rarely see in pop culture, let alone just in video games.
While on the whole I’d say that there is a lot of room to flesh out the gender/sexuality stuff in Torment, that’s honestly true about much of the game’s content. Rather than overwhelming you, you are left to discover and infer as you roleplay and make your story. If I want to hook up with the assassin who sees me as both a man and a woman, the game doesn’t ruin that. If I want to roleplay as a trans lesbian or a gay cis man, the game doesn’t ruin that either. It doesn’t go all in on providing a ton of opportunities to explicitly roleplay those identities, but it does officially and clearly acknowledge them as valid options, and that is something I can get behind. While I haven’t played enough different characters to get a full sense of the difference, the framework has been laid for Torment to allow a great deal of narrative freedom in that regard, and I eagerly look forward to seeing what else they add to flesh it out and if future games using the Pillars of Eternity version of Unity follow the same path.
Torment makes a point of leaving some things vague, the disjointed lore of a billion years of history being the central point of the game, but it would be nice to see a bit more definitive sexual and romantic orientation in future content. It is fantastic to get a chance to widen the gender options in a game, but it also sometimes feels like the developers just didn’t (or couldn’t) figure out how to account for all the potential romantic compatibility options in the dialogue trees. Given that this game (and Pillars of Eternity, which uses the same mechanics and dialogue engine) is so heavily about choice and narrative replayability, it would be nice to see this be an area they expand. I, for one, would love to see Matkina react differently to my nonbinary lady (I finally settled on demigirl for her identity as I progressed through the story) than she would to a cis woman or trans woman; or to a trans man for that matter.
At the end of the day, not only is Torment: Tides of Numenera a fantastic narrative-driven RPG, but it is a solid example of a game that opens gender identity to the same level of role playing flexibility as it does other aspects of our fictional identities. I really hope they get a chance to expand and go deeper with how that identity interacts with the game’s world in future DLC or sequels.