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How Major Video Games Subverted Cultural Taboos Without Anyone Noticing

In 2014, side stories and spin offs quietly pushed cultural boundaries in otherwise blockbuster games.

by Jagger Gravning
Dec 30 2014, 7:30pm

Screenshot: Assassin's Creed: Rogue trailer

Ellie and Riley are two middle-school age girls who seem to be in love.

"What do we do now?" Ellie says after their feelings for one another have been revealed after a bout of dancing.

"We'll figure it out," says Riley.

As it happens, Ellie and Riley are leading characters in The Last of Us: Left Behind, a video game published this year by Sony as an expansion to one of its biggest releases last year.

In an increasingly volatile video gaming culture, bestraught with crippling backlashes, precipitating everything from the retail banishment of certain games, the fleeing of crucial advertisers, to literal death threats against females in the community, including developers and critics, it's clear why major publishers tend to shelter caution as far away from the wind as possible.

But over the last year, the tendency of triple-A game developers to carefully slip their most socially taboo content into the side stories of major franchises—content often released many months after the primary source material, when the media spotlight is far more dim—became evident. 

I wouldn't ​be the first to comment on the development of a sort of "monohero" developed for the monomyth of triple-A gaming; the white, brown-haired, heavily-stubbled hero with a smoking weapon in one hand, brooding, for our benefit, on the cover of so many video game jewel cases. Last year, two particularly quintessential renditions of this hero (both even voiced by the same actor, Troy Baker) arrived in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us

In 2014, however, both of these games released expansions featuring protagonists that defied the strict conservatism of the main games. The Last of Us' 2014 expansion, Left Behind, explores the intimacy between two young teenage girls, Ellie and Riley, one of whom is the player character. As the pair walks through a post-apocalyptic mall, it's ultimately made clear, through a kiss, that there is, in fact, a romance between them.

To play a triple-A game, at least this downloadable expansion to one, released by a major publisher (Sony) with an explicitly-acknowledged gay love story at it's heart (and mixed-race to boot) is so totally unprecedented that ​commenters on ​forums tried to develop alternative theories as to why the kissing scene in Left Behind didn't necessarily indicate a lesbian relationship. Straight teenage girls can be very physically affectionate! Mebbe they love each other but that doesn't necessarily mean it's 'love-love!' 

Gamers' rabid disbelief over the notion that these protagonists might simply be queer—and not just as a player RPG option subject to the whim of the player, but the protagonists in the story actually, unalterably written as such —was so pervasive that ultimately the game's creative director, Neil Druckman, had to put a stake through the heart of all those spurious theories. 

"If you had any doubts, [the kiss] takes those doubts away,"  ​Druckman told Kotaku. "Or at least it should." 

I'm deliberately not putting a spoiler warning for the above information about Left Behind; nearly a year has passed (the game was released on Valentine's Day) and if you haven't played the game and were still not aware of this defining moment in mainstream gaming history, maybe knowing it now will prompt you to play it. It's also entirely possible, in some dramatic contexts, that viewing someone's sexual orientation as a spoiler tantamount to an unwanted forewarning of your own surprise party, might just be very silly.

Viewing someone's sexual orientation as a spoiler tantamount to an unwanted forewarning of your own surprise party, might just be very silly.

Last year's BioShock Infinite had a notable 2014 expansion called Burial at Sea Episode 2. The parent game had an archetypical damsel, Elizabeth, a saucer-eyed teenage girl with the slender physique of a Disney princess who is literally locked in the top of a tower with her animal friend. But when we get to Burial at Sea Episode 2, Elizabeth is forced to fend for herself as the player-character. 

Elizabeth is physically weaker than the main game's protagonist, Booker DeWitt, and dies more readily during combat, forcing her to rely more on stealth (she also carries a more petite version of Booker's iconic  ​Skyhook melee death instrument). Still, she can also wield guns and let slip the power of weaponized pseudo-science to proactively murder swathes of creepy, dangerous men with little to no mercy. 

To indicate how unexpected it is to have a woman as the player character in a first person shooter, when the parent game, BioShock Infinite, had been published, back in 2013, the game's creative director, Ken Levine ​went "around to a bunch of frat houses" to consult on the box art, and based on their feedback ultimately burned all that was feminine from the cover. (After some fan complaints about this, Elizabeth was finally included on the concealed side of a ​reversible cover.) 

These examples, of women and lesbian protagonists, would for many people be seen as positive forms of mainstream subversion that might just be considered hard to market in the primary game. But in other cases, developers slipped in some more shocking or challenging material into a franchise by way of these expansions and side stories. 

In this year's Infamous: Second Son, you play as Delsin Rowe (yet again voiced by Troy Baker) a superhero/villain who at one point rescues "hookers" who are being "used as human shields" by drug dealers. When he frees them ​he says, "Live, love…just not professionally." 

His words imply they have a choice, that these women are professional sex workers who happened to get kidnapped to be used as shields. But in the standalone expansion Infamous: Last Light, we are introduced to an even more sinister situation: In a very long and unavoidable investigative sequence wherein the player must examine several sequences of video footage, we see a woman being followed by a man on the streets of Seattle, who ultimately corners her in an alley and kidnaps her at gunpoint. He's trafficking women.

The game, this small expansion to a triple-A blockbuster, is dealing with sex slavery. But there was little comment on this, even though in the same year Grand Theft Auto V was pulled from shelves in Australian Targets after ​concerns over players committing crimes against sex workers in that game. 

The player must deliberately choose to do those things in Grand Theft Auto V. However, the human trafficking sequence in Last Light is a mandatory part of the progression, albeit the player is not the one committing the kidnapping. But the player can also kill non-combatant women on the streets of Seattle in a variety of ways in both Infamous: Second Son as well as the expansion Last Light, just as easily as in GTAV.

Yet another 2014 game that allows you to kill non-combatant women, including prostitutes, in myriad ways—with your bare fists, poison, shooting, swords, knifes, strangulation—is Assassin's Creed: Rogue, the 2014 last-gen effort developed by Ubisoft's Bulgarian B-team studio Ubisoft Sofia, a technically perfunctory game released alongside the series' larger-budgeted, current-gen Assassin's Creed: Unity.

The ability to kill civilian women at will is nothing new to the Assassin's Creed series. But Rogue has the player, who joins the series' villains early on during the French and Indian War, literally killing members of the Abenaki, a historically oppressed people who, through a real life eugenics program in Vermont, were ​being sterilized without informed consent as late as 1957. In the game, you get more points if you don't take damage while you are ​stealthily killing them.

One could easily imagine, in an era of increased sensitivity to the medium's participatory Grand Guignol, elements of these games causing more blowback from people on either side of the political spectrum. But, released as they were, as adjuncts to popular franchises, they never gained quite enough attention to gain cultural traction. Rogue, for example, ​sold only a third of what Unity did.

These expansions, these spin-offs, these paths less trodden, represent a dimension in mainstream gaming where more socially challenging, controversial, and perhaps offensive content is being tested by developers. And this year, triple-A gaming's boundaries were pushed as far as ever.

Video Games
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