By Tom Wolfing
Featured image: Jean-Georges, Beyrouth 2015, from the series “Mectoub” by Scarlett Coten.
Being born in the 80’s and growing up in the 90’s Saudi Arabia was an interesting experience for me, it gave me a peek into the 80’s culture, since fashion trends and technology needed time before reaching Saudi Arabia, like a cultural time capsule, I saw classic video game consoles, Hanna – Barbera and Tex Avery cartoons, and rare second hand comic books, but most importantly it allowed me to see games grow.
I want to say… I love video games… I love reading about them… I love playing them … and above all I love making them whenever I get a chance to do so, I believe video games has the power to tell a compelling story if done right.
My love for video games you could say started then my dad got an Atari 2600, it was a big beast to have in front of our TV, and a pain to set up, but it was worth it.
The early games I played were primitive, just basic shapes and rules that had little meaning behind it, but it was fun for us, it allowed us to imagine stories of our own, but not tell its own story.
My second console was a famicom (family computer/Nes), it had basic stories but nothing mind blowing, the graphics were better, my best childhood memories were related to it, my sister and I used to play battle city constantly, and we even play it today when she needs a break from her kids, there were some classics that I played, like Mario, galaxian, and Spartan X; but battle city connected with me on a emotional level, it was a bonding experience with those who I cared about, just the two of us against an onslaught of enemy tanks protecting our eagle, at this moment you could sense the symbolism here, but trust me when I say battle city is a bonding exercise, some of guys I dated played this game with me this with me, it gave me insight into their day to day behavior, stripped from their polite façade.
My third console was a Sega mega drive; it was the beginning for everything for me, my teen-hood hinged on it, Sega had what a teenager needs to grow, blood, little nudity, and a lot of badass characters, it had the mature content but lacked the maturity, and it was awesome.
My first ever game on the system was sonic the hedgehog 2, since co-op games were my favorite thing, so any game I got had some co-op aspects to it, it started with golden axe, and just to be clear the box art had so much skin on it, it kept me mesmerized for no clear reason, but that was understandable since I haven’t got my pubic hair yet, so it just brushed by my thoughts about sex without addressing them, it was a beat’em with swords and magic, dragons, and monsters, it was like Conan the barbarian but with hilarious battles scenarios. which led me to find another game called streets of rage, we nicknamed it “streets of terror”, its a beat’em up about a gang leader taking over the city, the first one was my favorite, the second was ok, but the third one was … puzzling to say the least, since it was the first time I encounter a gay character.
It happened like this, I was in a game shop, kind of like the arcades but you rent a console for an five riyals per hour, and taking your pick of any game available, we enjoyed doing this for many reasons, so I asked the shop keeper if he had the new Streets of rage game, and gave the cartridge, to my surprise the title screen said Bare knuckles III, I asked the keeper if it was the right game, and he confirmed it.
And he was right; I played it till I got to that one boss character … Ash, this guy was the literal definition of offensive, everything about him was designed to be offensive, his extreme feminine attitude (running, jumping, taunting, posture), wearing a black leotard with violet vest and matching leather officer cap, green leather stocking and black boots, and a goatee to top it off.
I hated that guy not because of his looks, or the way he moved (it was hilarious to say the least), but because he was cheap, unavoidable cheap shots, his constant dodging, and the taunting was the last straw, so I rage quitted, and switched the game.
I told my older brother about it, and decided to get the game as a challenge, we played it together but strangely enough … we didn’t find him, my brother thought I was making it up, or he was a secret boss that I discovered, it was a mystery to me until I figured it out in recent years.
Now according to what I know Saudi Arabia imports its games from the US or Europe, but on cases they import them from Japan or an Asian country, I figured it was Japanese version because the original title of Streets of Rage was “Bare knuckles” in Japan, and Ash was actually a boss character that was cut from the US version.
Interestingly enough some characters stayed a bit longer, with really weird justification, Poison for example was a character in final fight, was originally designed as a female but decided to change it to trans woman as a way to justify her staying in the game (because beating up girls is rude), I could imagine the company tell the people “oh she is not a real girl, she is a man … who had an operation, so it’s ok”.
But you might think that she was the only Trans character in gaming, and you would be wrong.
Birdo might be the oldest trans character in the history of gaming, according to the original Super Mario Bro 2 manual, Birdo’s description reads “He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called ‘Birdetta’”, that is an actual Nintendo character outted as a trans woman, though recently they confirm her as a female, probably she got the operation…, another character is Vivian from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, but all references of her sexuality and gender have been removed from the English version.
My last console that I ever owned was a Playstation 1, but I haven’t encountered anything “queer” of those sorts, but there were some moments in RPGs that I played, in final fantasy 7 there is a side quest that requires you going to a gym called “Men’s Hall”, winning in squatting contest, to get a wig so that you can cross dress, and sneak into a sex mansion, yup nothing strange, or maybe the fact you have a group bath with bunch of ‘daddy’ like men, and some maybe off screen suggested sex which results in you getting underwear from them.
But there is one thing that really caught my attention, my first ever crush… Sabin, and I’ll tell you why.
Final fantasy 7 wasn’t really for me, but final fantasy 6 was the first ever RPG I played it to completion, each character has his own lore regardless if you explore or not, so Sabin and Edgar are twin brothers and heirs to the Figaro thrones, their father dies and leave them in charge.
Sabin didn’t want to stay and ran away looking for freedom and other reasons, he disappears for a while and it turns out he was training to be a better martial artist, now the reason why I have a crush on him is because when you meet him for the first time, he refers to himself as a ‘bear’… I know that is not much but if you check his concept art you’ll understand.
Big bare chest beefy man, blond spiky hair, and a glorious daddy beard. This was in 2003, I still had issues figuring out myself, but Sabin kind of helped with that, he was strong, fearless, and sometimes stubborn and childish, willing to help others even if it may harm himself, he was more than just a simple crush, and also he can Suplex a train.
To be honest, games till this point where passing by the idea of sexuality and storytelling, just a random footnote in the character profile.
In some cases some female fighting characters are sometimes identified bisexual as fan service, like Morgan the succubus, while in other time it’s a reference to real people like Eagle, who appears in the original Street Fighter, as well as in Capcom vs. SNK 2, has been confirmed to be gay, as a tribute to Queen singer Freddie Mercury.
Most of the case the characters are hinted to be LGBT, but on some occasions they can be overt, for example the character Rasputin in the World Heroes series is implied to be homosexual. One of his win poses has him trying to hold his robes down while wind blows them up, like the famous Marilyn Monroe pose; And He has a special move in World Heroes Perfect called “The Secret Garden”, in which he pulls characters into bushes and I assume he is having his “fun” with them while hearts float skyward.
Now I know you by now is feeling depressed from these aggravating false portrayal of lgbt character in games, but I have good news … things are getting better.
My favorite character so far is Kenji from Persona 4, where a group of students get trapped in a supernatural parallel reality, where they fight manifestations of their subconscious called “the shadows”, and of course Kenji has issues with his sexuality, he is a rebellious high school teen, he doesn’t care what people think of him, but something caught him off guard, he was attracted to a guy he encountered, in his head he thought he’s a man and men shouldn’t have thoughts like this.
This exactly how I saw myself when I was at the university, confused unsure of what I am, I really hated myself for having those thoughts, I’m not a woman nor a girl.
But then I realized something, all I need is a friend to accept me, with all my faults and imperfections; this was one of those uncanny art imitating life, but within a game.
There are other heroes out there for you to find. Ellie from the game “the last of us”, a game which praised for its representation of gay characters.
“Undertale” had a variety of characters, featuring a gender neutral playable character, Frisk, and depending on the player choices lead to a major plot line is the development of a lesbian relationship.
“Night in the woods” had a gay couple, a non-binary pansexual main character, and a straight Goth friend. Not to mention the games that allows you to have same sex relationships, like Baldur’s gate, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are particularly noted for their inclusion of LGBT characters and same-sex romance options. The Elder Scrolls series made same-sex relationships available in Skyrim. Stardew valley and the Sims allow you to establish a relationship with any gender, and even getting married.
Japanese RPG series are following suit, like Final Fantasy allowed same-sex relationships with a patch to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2014.
From how things are going I have high hopes for the future, better games, for everyone, everywhere.