"When are we going to se that gay protagonist in a triple-A game? Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it'll impact sales."
Those are the words of Ubisoft Montreal's lead writer Lucien Soulban, an openly gay member of the games biz and also the man who gave us the rather enjoyable Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. He was speaking as part of a short interview on the Ubisoft blog, and his comments came in response to writer Richard Dansky's question on whether he thought we'd ever see a "mid-30s stubbly-bearded brown-haired white guy with a raspy voice who is gay" as a protagonist in a triple-A game.
"I think the real question is, when are we going to get a gay/lesbian triple-A heroine who isn't a one-off joke?" said Soulban. "You look at Javier Bardem in Skyfall, his character's sexuality was total shtick to satisfy one scene. Otherwise, he was a narcissist with mommy issues, and a pedophile to boot. His 'seduction' of Bond was nothing more than vanity because Bond was his reflection, the new 'him.' Yay. So it bothers me when I hear people using his performance as a benchmark for diversity in entertainment, and I have heard it being bandied about."
Soulban believes that although he thinks it will take a while, we will get there eventually once the money men get over the fear of a homosexual protagonist impacting sales. He believes that if and when it does happen, it will come "out of leftfield with Rockstar, Valve, Naughty Dog or Telltale, perhaps" -- but reiterates his desire for the character to be taken seriously rather than to be the butt of jokes.
He also acknowledges that it's not as if we have no gay characters in games right now -- titles like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable and Saints Row all allow you to play your character as homosexual or bisexual and identify as either gender as you wish -- and that games have, on the whole, stopped "announcing" gay characters. "They're introducing them without much fanfare in an effort to say, 'yeah, it's there and pretty normal.' Call it: 'we're here, we're queer, and we're busy working.'" That said, having a game where the protagonist is canonically and non-negotiably gay is something we tend not to see in triple-A.
Interestingly, this aspect of characterization is something that Japanese games appear to be a lot more open-minded about than those from Western developers, and have been for some time. The moe-style RPG series Hyperdimension Neptunia from Compile Heart features an all-female cast, most of whom are strongly implied to be gay, for example, and Cavia's gloriously bleak masterpiece Nier features an intersex character. In both cases, it's just part of who these characters are; there's no big announcement of their sexuality or gender identity at any point, and they just get on with going about their business in the game world.
Back in the West, it's something that independent developers are a lot more willing to engage with. Openly LGBT developers release games that explore the things they've been through in their life -- Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia is a good example -- while others such as Steve Gaynor and The Fullbright Company engage with these themes through the narratives of games like Gone Home. It's a growing part of the industry that has, at times, met with some resistance from certain quarters of the gaming community as a whole -- but on the whole, the diversity of voices and narratives in games is improving gradually over time.
A character's gender or sexuality doesn't have to -- probably shouldn't, actually -- define them or even be relevant to the plot. Ultimately it's up to the individual writers -- and, sadly, as Soulban suggests, the money men in the case of triple-A games -- to tell the story they want to tell using the characters they want to tell it with. More inclusivity is never a bad thing, though, and hopefully we'll continue to see improvement on that front over time.