In February of 2017, the big-budget game Horizon Zero Dawn launched to critical acclaim and resounding commercial success. Although the game was based on a new and unfamiliar Playstation IP, players were quickly won over by its post-apocalyptic solarpunk setting and innovative open-world gameplay. To top it all off, its compelling protagonist provided the backbone of the experience. Aloy stood out thanks to her unwavering dedication to fight for herself and the world around her, and she represented the growing inclusion of female protagonists in a medium oversaturated with male leads. Five years later, developer Guerilla Games released a much-anticipated sequel, Horizon Forbidden West. Much like its predecessor, Forbidden West captured the hearts of players by refining the series with astounding next-gen graphics, fine-tuned gameplay, and an even grander story. The stage was set for an easy win when the game’s DLC storyline Burning Shores was released in April of this year. And yet, the beloved franchise suddenly became mired in controversy as an angry contingent of fans flooded sites like Metacritic with hundreds of negative reviews. The reason? An optional same-sex kiss.
For years, players speculated about Aloy’s sexual orientation. Despite being pursued by several potential love interests during the span of both games, she never fully reciprocated those advances, and players were left unsure if this meant she was on the asexual or aromantic spectrum or just not ready to pursue a relationship. She does, after all, lead the life of a fighter, accustomed to being an outcast and working independently to accomplish emotionally and physically strenuous tasks. Though many LGBTQ players were happy to claim her as an unofficial queer icon, the Burning Shores DLC finally provided a definitive answer, giving her an opportunity to romance and kiss Seyka, a woman from the Quen tribe that fights and explores alongside Aloy in the new content.
Confident, compassionate, and fierce, Seyka’s quite unlike anyone Aloy has ever encountered!
We’re welcoming Kylie to the cast of Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores. Come with us behind the scenes, as we find out more about Aloy’s new companion!
— Guerrilla (@Guerrilla) April 17, 2023
This confirmation of a sapphic Aloy took gaming news by storm. Burning Shores immediately suffered the all-too-familiar review bombing that many queer movies, shows, and games are subjected to, as disgruntled players objected to the inclusion of an ‘unnecessary’ romance storyline, a criticism that is disproportionately directed at fictional queer relationships. But for many other players, this moment was a long time coming. Guerilla Games’ Horizon universe is well-known for having a plethora of LGBTQ characters, and Aloy herself is a genetic clone of a queer woman. So conversations about Aloy’s sexual orientation were abundant in the Horizon fan community. However, considering that both Horizon Zero Dawn and the base game of Horizon Forbidden West always saw Aloy turning down potential romance options, people had started to assume that her sexuality would never be addressed.
That assumption should come as no surprise given just how rare LGBTQ video game characters actually are. In 2021, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media conducted a study that analyzed 27,564 characters that appeared in the top video games streamed on Twitch. Out of the large pool of characters, only 0.03% were identified as being LGBTQ.
While there is a small percentage of explicitly LGBTQ characters, there are many, many other characters who exist in a state of limbo. Though they might be read as queer by many players, the characters’ actual sexual or romantic orientation is never confirmed by the game. Therefore, a consensus regarding their sexuality cannot be reached. The Persona series is notorious for this, creating characters that occupy queer spaces while simultaneously preventing them from ever having a canon queer identity. Kanji from Persona 4 is perhaps the most notable because he develops an immediate crush on a character that is originally introduced as a man, but because the character is later revealed to be a girl, his original feelings are often discredited by the game’s fanbase. Instead of his feelings being explored in the game itself or in Persona 4 spinoffs, his sexual orientation became the target of jokes and controversy. Kanji’s voice actor for the English version of Persona 4, Troy Baker, expressed at EXP Con 2009 that both he and the Atlus team interpreted the character as gay, but without any in-game scenes that confirm this he cannot ever truly be claimed as LGBTQ representation. Despite his story resonating with the LGBTQ community, there still remains an active argument in the Persona 4 fanbase that interpretations of Kanji being gay or bisexual are incorrect.
Video games are also no stranger to creating relationships with homoerotic undertones without ever allowing those interactions to be canonically queer. In the Bayonetta series, Umbra Witch Bayonetta is known for her hyperfemininity and overt sexuality. She regularly flirts with fellow Umbra Witch Jeanne and is revealed to be living with her in Bayonetta 2. But there are no official in-game moments that confirm the two witches were in a romantic or sexual relationship, so it’s unclear whether Bayonetta is attracted to Jeanne or whether that’s just her personality. A misinterpreted tweet by the chief game designer, Hideki Kamiya, made people believe that there was an off-screen romance between Bayonetta and Jeanne due to his use of the word ‘couple’ in reference to them. He later clarified that his usage of ‘couple’ in his tweet simply meant a pair without the romantic subtext (see his follow-up tweet here).
— 島崎麻里/10/28「ベヨネッタ3」発売 (@MariShimazaki) February 13, 2014
Still, art by the official character illustrator, Mari Shimazaki, often depicts Bayonetta and Jeanne being emotionally and physically close in a way that fans have interpreted as being romantic or sexual in nature. There is no shortage of Bayonetta and Jeanne fanshippers (fans who imagine the relationships they want to see through their own art and writing), and Shimazaki’s art has fueled speculation that the vaguely romantic undertones between the two witches does, in fact, hint at something bigger between them. Like Persona 4 and its unwillingness to be definitive about Kanji’s sexuality, the Bayonetta series insists on keeping its LGBTQ fans looking for subtext. Bayonetta has a queer-enough reputation to be touted as a bisexual icon, but players who dislike the idea of a queer Bayonetta still have the benefit of the doubt that she and Jeanne were never romantically involved. For LGBTQ players, this uncertainty is a familiar disappointment.
So for Burning Shores to give fans a scene where Aloy and Seyka admit their feelings for each other in-game is a larger moment than some might assume. Burning Shores puts an end to the debate over Aloy’s sexual orientation and chooses to stand behind a queer protagonist rather than trying to make her palatable for audiences that do not wish to see LGBTQ characters in leading roles. In doing so, Guerilla Games acknowledges their LGBTQ fans and gives them a heartwarming moment of romantic and authentic representation..
Never cried so hard in a video game! To see Aloy overcome her anger, trauma, and pain felt so relatable as a queer person. But for her to be able to open her heart, trust, and fall in love with Seyka just just like ugh this game means so much to me. pic.twitter.com/dUOdLe3NAc
— Noah (@johurimam) May 1, 2023
It’s encouraging to see developers confirm a character’s sexual orientation by addressing it in the game itself, especially since LGBTQ protagonists – and characters in general – are still a rare sight in mainstream games. While queer fanships and headcanons will persist as a part of any diverse fanbase, the confirmation of Aloy’s queerness is a reminder that it should not always be the responsibility of the player to create, imagine, and interpret the representation they wish to see. Since Guerilla Games has already announced their plans for another mainline game in the Horizon series, all eyes will be on them to see if they can meet the high standards they’ve set for themselves. With any luck, players will see Seyka return as an important character in Aloy’s upcoming journey, so they can face the dangers of the world together.