Chances are your first thought was the same as mine was years ago, “But wait, there is no ‘Q’ in ‘Retro.’” And you’re right, because throughout most of video game history, anything remotely queer has been censored, altered, or left out entirely. We could spend days discussing the reasons and where to place the blame for this problem, not to mention listing the few rare instances that got past the radar. But instead, I’m going to talk to you about how I started looking for creative ways to put LGBTQ back into games that never had it.
The obvious initial answer to this question is shipping. In case you’ve just joined the internet and/or fandoms, “shipping” is the art of taking characters that were not intended or implicitly stated to be couples, and sort of … smushing them together anyway. That’s a rather awkward, unsatisfying way to describe it, but it’s appropriate, as anyone who’s done much shipping will tell you that it can be exactly that. The truth is, nobody wants to ship their favorite pairings—what they want is for the creators to have officially done that themselves. It involves a lot of reading between the lines, finding hidden meanings where there often aren’t any, and yes, fanfiction. But as much as writing fanfiction can be enjoyable, most fans would rather see their couples be a reality. There’s a certain level of validation that comes from knowing that someone in the industry saw what you see.
If fanfiction can’t quite bring you the level of satisfaction you seek, what do you do then? You may feel like your only alternative is to make your own game with your own characters that fit your needs. But that, too, is unsatisfying in a way, because while there’s joy in creating a piece of media that your own community can enjoy, you personally will never have that enjoyment. You will never get the experience of playing in that new world for the first time, that moment of satisfaction when your favorite character is revealed to be transgender, or the passion of seeing your favorite gay couple together. Both consuming and producing are rewarding, but in completely different ways. Add in the need for skills in programming, art, music, etc, and you may find yourself feeling unable to contribute.
Even if you do manage to succeed in either of these, it doesn’t change games that were made years, even decades ago. Short of building a time machine, what can you really do to fix this? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for a while now, and I’ve come up with a few answers that may alleviate the problem (while being equally as unsatisfying). For me, this means creating lesbians, but it could easily be just about whatever you desire.
Makai Toushi SaGa, better known in the U.S. as The Final Fantasy Legend, was the first RPG released on the Game Boy. As a teenager, I got this game not long after getting Final Fantasy for NES, because while it was already well into the Super Nintendo era, I didn’t have one. We took many long car rides when I was young, and this became one of my go-to games to bring along. It’s not even remotely the best RPG ever, or even on the Game Boy—it’s clunky and weird. The plot is vague, and instead of preset characters, you pick one of five types (Human Male, Human Female, Mutant Male, Mutant Female, and Monster), name them, then enter the game’s first town. You’re tasked with trying to climb a massive tower that connects many different planes on your way to find Paradise or death. To aid you in your quest, you can go to the Adventurer’s Guild and customize three other characters for your party.
There are a lot of weird things about this game, like spells and stats that change at random after battles, characters that gain stats from items, and monsters that transform after beating (and then eating) other monsters. It also has weapons that have a limited number of uses, and you get to fight God. But let’s get back to queer. Because nothing about your party is preset, you can build it however you like. Many people enjoy the challenge of doing solo runs, but me … yep, I do lesbian runs. When starting the game, I typically pick a Mutant Female (magic users, called as Espers in Japan) to start out with, and then recruit a Human Female. I give them flowery-sounding names like “Rose” and “Hana,” then send them on their lesbian quest. Because the game didn’t define the character’s gender or relationships, you can do it yourself!
The same can be done with many RPGs of the era. Final Fantasy‘s White Mage is easily viewed as female, and sometimes a little tweaking of your viewpoint can help too. For example, the main character of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest can be named whatever you want, and their gender is never stated within the game’s script. Give them a female name, and they become super-deformed, nondescript female knight! You could also make a character transgender, or have a party of gay men doing fun things together. It’s the role-playing aspect of these RPGs that makes this possible, and it’s ironically the part of the RPG experience that’s lacking in many modern JRPGs. Fortunately, there are some games such as Etrian Odyssey that allow you to make similar choices.
But even this approach doesn’t solve the problem. I mentioned earlier using a time machine and while that’s not realistic, there is occasionally a way around this. If you scour the internet, you can sometimes find tools that will allow you to change a game’s maps, graphics, or scripts. These editors, while rare, can allow you to do what would otherwise require a lot of programming and game-hacking skills. A year ago, I started a project to completely rework the script of Final Fantasy IV on the SNES into a game with lesbians. My goal was to take the character of Cecil (whose gender, let’s be honest, might as well be female based on the art) and turn him into a female knight named Bree, then follow this change to its logical conclusions.
The result was a script that in some ways improved the other characters and their motivations, adding layers behind their otherwise cardboard personalities. Rosa was no longer the weak damsel in distress to be rescued by a man. She became a physically weaker yet emotionally brave young bisexual who made a tough decision for love and had to deal with its consequences. Kain’s jealousies and betrayals had a deeper resentment behind them, while blunt characters like Palom or Cid have more to wink and nudge about. While the story and characters weren’t always politically correct, there was a feeling of satisfaction in allowing them to overtly talk about things like lesbian sex. The best part, however, was that since the game’s story and script were already there, the process of editing it as I went through the code made the whole experience more organic. I got to experience the same feelings that players would, as I was constantly surprised by the impact of these changes on the plot or dialogue that I hadn’t considered.
The intended title for the game was Final Fantasy: Lunar Hearts, and I was hoping to release it as a patch and possibly even as an unofficial physical release through a local reproduction cart company. Unfortunately, after finishing the entire script, I discovered that one program I was using had a glitch that caused a couple maps to get messed up slightly and the graphics of the ending credits to be distorted. While it’s likely still possible to fix this, I’ve never gotten around to it, and I would probably need the help of a skilled game hacker. The game is still fully playable, so perhaps one day I’ll release it regardless. If anyone reading this is or knows someone who’d be willing to help, feel free to contact me.
While there will never be a perfect way to make LGBTQ voices heard in the games of the past, hopefully I’ve given you a little inspiration. Every small change, even retroactively, makes my heart a little lighter.