This article is part of Pride Month Picks, a collection of pieces that aim to highlight queer representation across games, television, film, books, and more throughout June.
Trans characters in gaming have come a long way in the past decade. They exist, for one thing. Progress has been steady and hopeful, but we're still a long way off where we should be. For all the games that have featured trans characters in notable ways – and there aren't a great deal – only one has really explored the idea of transness as a concept: Tell Me Why. This Pride month, it's worth looking back on and reflecting on how far we've come, and where we still need to go.
While Tyler Ronan, star of Tell Me Why, is the trans character I think of most frequently, for the majority of players it would be Lev from The Last of Us Part 2. TLOU2 is a significantly more popular game than Tell Me Why, and Lev a fan favourite character to boot. It's worth noting that I think Lev is fantastic. I've said before that he is 'imperfectly important' – this is the biggest stage trans characters have ever gotten in games, and that he has been so beloved despite the lurking anti-trans sentiment is an obvious net win. He is deadnamed once via background noise, and like most video games they point-blank refuse to use the word 'transgender' but it's a start. Given the insistence by some that being trans is just a phase or trend that kids will go out of, the fact Lev is a young teenage boy cannot be overlooked either.
Krem in Dragon Age Inquisition and Janeva in Horizon Zero Dawn are two other frequent examples offered. Both have minor tertiary roles (although you can interact with Krem more to hear his backstory), but with their games far better known than Tell Me Why, they also seem at the head of the queue. Krem is something of an attempt to include a trans character – again, without saying 'transgender' – whereas Janeva is more of a winking reference. Trans players will see the signs in Janeva's speech and discomfort, but for most players they will simply blink, and with that, miss it. Janeva is such a small part of Horizon, and his transness such a small part of him, but I feel compelled to mention him here because otherwise, who would I write about?
Tyler Ronan is the exception to these winks, passing references, and plausible deniability. Tell Me Why's star uses the word transgender and, while not defined by the fact he is trans, is far more realistic and relatable in his experiences. He talks about hormones and the effects of them, he has an off-kilter gallows humour to his transition, and he constantly has to measure up when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em when he's with new characters and revisiting those from his past now he’s transitioned. Tyler and Tell Me Why may have their flaws overall – nothing is ever truly perfect – but I don't think transgender representation can get better than Tyler. He shouldn't be the new bar to clear, he should be the new floor. Developers have seen how it should be done, and all future trans rep needs to be at least this good. Hey, one can hope, right?
The only downside to Tyler is that he has no trans woman comparison. Trans men deserve positive representation, and are frequently starved of media spotlight. Video gaming is the one place where the tables are turned, where trans men heavily outnumber trans women. I suspect this is because the 'default' gaming avatar is still seen as a cis white man. Having a character be a trans white man (as Tyler and Krem are) means only changing one aspect of the default. The Last of Us Part 2 gives us a trans man of colour, again underlining Lev's importance, but to my mind there is just one game out there above the smallest indie level where you can play as a trans woman – Poison in Street Fighter, who is white, traditionally beautiful, and frequently sexualised and mocked by the game and community in equal measure. I cannot conceive of a triple-A game ever having a Black trans woman as its protagonist, I just do not think it will ever happen.
You might suggest Cyberpunk 2077 as a game where you can play as a trans woman, owing to its character creator that allows you to paste a big fat cock onto whatever body you wish, but I promise you that does not count. Cyberpunk 2077's highly fetishistic marketing did not help matters, and while the game is tamer than the Mix It Up poster suggests, it still does nothing to consider your character as a trans person. In fact, sex scenes with Judy heavily imply you have a vagina, and with Panam a penis, even though neither are required for those relationships. It also presents a heavily binary world where the secret underground brothel regards you as exotic for being bisexually attracted to gorgeous cis women and beautiful cis men, you dirty little deranged pervert.
Cyberpunk 2077 does have Claire, of course. She is a great character in her own right, but one trans character in a thriving futuristic metropolis where body modification is the hottest trend just isn't realistic – it gets worse when you see the binary sex symbols plastered all around the world in neon. Claire is decent, but she's also pretty much it for trans women in games once you take out all the pornographically sexualised, mocked, or belitted characters. Is that really it? Is that really all we deserve? Is that really even progress?
I hope in a few years time I can revisit this to discuss the leaps and bounds trans representation has come in gaming, with more prominent trans men able to discuss their own transition freely, any trans women at all, and more non-binary characters who aren't just faceless hero shooter characters with 'they/them' pronouns in the lore and no further exploration. Trans representation has come far, but nowhere near far enough.
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