A lot was made of the newest Assassin’s Creed being Gay. And I don’t mean some wink wink nudge nudge thing, I mean full blown gay relationships and sexual encounters would be in the game, and this was something that… well, it caught my eye when they were hyping the game up. It really didn’t inspire much confidence in me, however, because if you know anything about high budget games, queer issues are, ah, how shall we say, not often handled well.
From careless throwaway lines, horribly written characters, offensive plot points, these are all well and standard things and you can hardly throw a stone at a game without hitting a really shitty moment. So to have such a high profile game just come out and say they’re going to have queer elements in the game, well, it had my attention at the very least. The final product isn’t all they hyped it up to be on that front, being frank. But it’s not a total trainwreck, which is probably the most surprising part of all this. It felt like real care was put into quite a bit of the queer elements of the game. Unfortunately, it can’t help but slide back into tired old, offensive jokes and tropes, which ultimately hamper it from being something amazing.
But let’s back up a bit. To understand any queer representation in games, you have to understand the general context in which queerness is shown in media. Nothing about this is in a vacuum. Being queer means being subjected to a barrage of dehumanization and stereotyping. How many times have you heard gay people compared to bestiality or pedophilia, or trans people being shown as weird “freaks”. Many people don’t appreciate the mere fact that being queer can get you killed in many areas of the world.
This generally extends to media, as well, sadly. The most common way in which queer people are shown in media is… not at all. Think back to all the movies and shows from the last few decades you’ve seen, and queer identity will be a fraction of a percent of all the characters. And often when it is portrayed, it’s flamboyant, creepy, predatory, weird. See Rocky Horror Picture show for a clear example of this: queerness is the other, in media. The weird, the other, the evil, a group to be laughed at, hated, or ignored. Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock T.V. series is a great showing of this awful thing, because he is relentlessly queercoded. He’ll make references to the “stamina” of his men, will sometimes call himself “daddy”, and of course he’s also a crazy evil mastermind who seems a bit off his rocker. His queerness is written as part of his villainy, part of his insanity, part of why he’s weird and bad and creepy. It’s a textbook example of how the historical and current demonization of queer people is used as shorthand for the evil in stories.
This is all to say, there’s no such thing as writing queer people in a vacuum. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with writing a trans man as villainous, or killing off a gay couple. They’re human too and can do human evil and experience tragedy. But it’s the context that you need to stress here. The historical exclusion of gay people and the violence they face makes killing off a gay man in a story reflect that horror, exploiting it for impact, and because you won’t get as much backlash for killing the queer person. The stereotyping of queerness as pedophillic and wrong makes using that shorthand for a villain perpetuate nasty and hurtful stereotypes, and will probably tick your queer audience off majorly. Stories reflect reality, and the reality is not happy for many. Your writing inherently needs to be more sensitive around this topic because of all this. And that is the lens I want to examine Assassins Creed Odyssey through.
So with all that preamble out of the way, what are we looking at here? Well, the game isn’t about queer topics in the main story, rather, the queerness is in a lot of the sidequests. There are many sidequests where you can flirt with and have sex with plenty of NPC’s, and simply, it doesn’t matter what gender you are, every single NPC who is able to be flirted with will have the same dialogue, whether you’re Kassandra or Alexios. It’s not much more complicated than that: take it or leave it, romance who you want and nobody will comment on it or make a fuss about it. In one of the first sidequests I completed, I was able to flirt with a girl named Odessa, we had some “fun times” inside, and then we decided to continue our adventure together, with her as a lieutenant on my ship. It was pretty neat, honestly!
That’s the main strength of Odyssey’s queer rep, that it doesn’t raise a fuss about it when it does happen, and regardless of what else I say here, that is a huge step forward from what we usually get. Previous games had queerness as nothing but a shitty joke (see Leonardo Da Vinci), so to see the series go beyond that is… well, it’s nice! I am loathe to praise corporations for scraps of representation but I can’t deny it’s just really nice to be able to be gay in this game. You so rarely get to see that, and I will give the game praise for even having it.
That said. Odyssey is remarkably less successful when it does anything beyond what is essentially just genderswapping one party in a heterosexual relationship. When it actually tries to do anything with queerness, explicitly gay characters, or write queer stories, it tends to fall flat on its face. I knew this might be a problem with the first gay couple I encountered. Well, couple in past tense, because one of them was already dead, and the quest was based around discovering this fact and reporting it to her lover. Gay people have a much higher mortality rate in stories than anyone else, and the trope of using that tragedy as storytelling is played out, hurtful to representation, and reflects a mindset where queer people are more disposable and not as worthy.
That doesn’t even cover the worst of it: Alkibiades. It’s an obvious one: a flamboyant, effeminate man who constantly talks about his love for men and makes sexual innuendos every other sentence. Oh, and did I mention you get introduced to him drunk and nude, with several other men, while a goat… walks out of his… room. That is, um. Incredible in how terrible of a joke it is in every single way. I thought we’d gotten past conflating gayness with bestiality? I guess not.
I don’t even hate Alkibiades in a vacuum, is the thing. On his own, divorced from all context, he’s entertaining enough. The problem is: c’mon. No media exists in a vacuum, you know it, I know it, and Alkibades is just the most glaring example of Odyssey’s use of harmful and/or offensive stereotypes about queerness. It doesn’t pervade the entire game, but it hurts that the writers still, somehow, thought any of this was acceptable. There is a context to the tropes, characters, and storytelling you choose to use.
Another notable issue throughout the game is the lack of transgender characters, or, well at least a refusal to show any playing with gender. It can be difficult to say “just put a trans character” in more ancient societies because they did often not view gender as something you were, but something you performed. This is reflected in Ancient Greece’s views on sexual orientation, which were much more focused around the act you’d perform during sex (e.x. penetrative). But the refusal to acknowledge any playing of gender roles is quite notable: there were absolutely records of groups who would perform roles and dress as the “opposite” gender: particularly men who would assume the feminine role. Being intersex was also something known and accepted in Greece, though not as emphasized because of society’s focus on performance instead of who you innately are.
This isn’t to say Odyssey would have needed to be perfect here. The records and history here are often unclear, but it is clear that a modern understanding of “transgender” would not map easily onto the ancient world. However, what is telling is their utter refusal to engage with the subject, and the refusal to even broach the topic of gender. Nowhere in the game is there anyone who plays with their gender roles of the time, or if there is, it’s so buried and hidden to be pointless. It is ridiculous. Do even a bit of research on this subject and it’s clear the ideas of sexuality and gender were not rigid then. To acknowledge the first but not the second is a gross rejection of this fact, and giving the cold shoulder to almost every trans and intersex person who plays it now. It could have been something great, a small part of the game where Ubisoft showed how gender can be played with and how it has been. But they instead chose to just, ignore it. It’s shameful.
The most damning thing I can say about Odyssey is that whenever they try to breach the topic of queerness explicitly, they utterly fail at it in every way. Earlier, I said that the same sex relationships were often good, and they are. But I cannot shake the feeling that all they did was write a heterosexual relationship and genderswap one party, because whenever they try to explicitly write a gay character or romance, it falls into stereotypes and offensive jokes. Queer relationships are not exactly like straight ones. They’re just not. The queer experience is different and should be celebrated for that difference, then and now. To act like they’re exactly like non-queer experiences is absolutely wrong and kind of offensive, honestly, denying how we experience the world for a comforting lie of “we’re all the same” and “they’re like us, right?” No. That is not how any of this is. Queerness is different, weird, awesome, and beautiful. It was like that thousands of years ago, and it is like that now.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a step. A singular step in the direction of respectfully showing queerness in media. It does manage to show gay relationships and not make a big deal about it. I will give it credit for that. But there’s a lot more that needs to be done. I didn’t love the queer representation in this game. But I didn’t utterly hate it. That’s gotta be worth something, right?
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