By all measures, 2020 was a groundbreaking year for LGBTQ representation in games. As a result, the nominations for Outstanding Video Game in the GLAAD Media Awards have been more competitive than ever. This year, GLAAD is incredibly proud to recognize and honor an expanded ten games for their fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community and the issues that affect LGBTQ peoples’ lives.
Without further ado, here is a breakdown of the ten nominees for Outstanding Video Game in the 32nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards:
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Published by Ubisoft
Developed by Ubisoft Montreal
Gay Vikings. Need we say more? Ever since the series began embracing more role-playing elements, Assassin’s Creed has offered an abundance of player choice, and Valhalla is no exception. As players guide protagonist Eivor across the stunning landscapes of Norway and England, they’ll find countless choices to be made—including Eivor’s own gender and whom Eivor pursues romantically. Interestingly, Eivor’s gender can be changed at any point in the game. While this feature is explained as a result of weakened signals in the Animus—not necessarily that Eivor is trans or genderfluid—this nonetheless offers players a welcome tool for self-expression. And no matter which gender the player chooses, Eivor can form same-sex relationships across the game’s vast open world. Player expression is a crucial way that games can empower LGBTQ players, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla brings it in spades.
Borderlands 3: Guns, Love, and Tentacles
Published by 2K Games
Developed by Gearbox Software
It wouldn’t be a Borderlands wedding without a little eldritch-horror-infused mayhem. Borderlands 3: Guns, Love, and Tentacles takes players to the cursed, frozen planet Xylourgos to celebrate the nuptials of everyone’s favorite Borderlands couple, Alastair Hammerlock and Wainwright Jakobs. What impressed us most about this rollicking storyline is just how much it gives a big Borderlands-style crude gesture to the But Not Too Gay tropes that have plagued mainstream depictions of gay couples for too long. Never once does the game shy away from allowing the two men to express their deep affection for each other, nor does it ever resort to euphemistic language or gloss over the nuances of their relationship. And it does all this while staying true to Borderlands’ quirky and irreverent tone. Allowing the player to officiate the wedding is just the cherry on top of what is undoubtedly the most fully realized and authentic portrayal of a same-sex marriage ever to appear in a major studio game.
Published by Young Horses
Developed by Young Horses
Everyone’s talkin’ ‘bout Bugsnax—but especially the LGBTQ community, because Snaktooth Island is, as Gayming Magazine aptly put it, a queer paradise. The central mystery plot of Bugsnax revolves around the adorable lesbian couple Lizbert and Eggabell, but our hearts lie even more with the game’s other gay couple, Snorpy and Chandlo. Those two are making all our nerds-and-jocks-falling-in-love dreams come true. And several aspects of their relationship, like Snorpy’s irrational self-doubt of whether they’re truly dating or just “roommates with benefits,” are comical takes on common queer experiences. While the half-bug, half-snack creatures may be the selling point of the game, Bugsnax offers something even more exotic for a video game—the chance to see gay couples just being playful and happy together.
Published by Supergiant Games
Developed by Supergiant Games
Zagreus is the bicon we needed in 2020. The playable hero of this masterfully designed roguelike is an astonishing achievement in character. It’s rare enough that we get to see a male bisexual character in a video game, but rarer still to see one with such depth, originality, and authenticity. We’d be remiss not to mention the other outstanding LGBTQ representation, from the poignant longing of Achilles and Patroclus to the glorious non-binary Chaos, but Zagreus is, both literally and figuratively, the star of this show. Along with his bisexuality, he’s an exemplar of healthy masculinity. Sure, he holds nothing back in dispatching the forces of the Underworld, but in interactions with shades and his fellow gods he shows the true source of his strength: his empathy, composure, understanding, generosity, patience, forgiveness, and his utmost, unequivocal respect, even toward those who don’t show it in return. Industry, take note: This is how to write a male character in the 21st century.
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Developed by Dreamfeel
If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to even fathom what it was like to live as a transgender woman in deeply-Catholic Ireland in 1993, the same year gay relationships were decriminalized by the government. If Found… doesn’t just imagine that story, it tells it. The game follows the life of 23-year-old Kasio as she returns home from university to an unaccepting family. The events that ensue are revealed to the player through her stunningly-illustrated journal, which must be erased in order to progress. This deceptively simple mechanic is used to profoundly emotional effect. If Found… is a masterclass in both storytelling and game design, a reimagining of the types of queer narratives that games can tell and how they can be told. Kasio teaches us how to forge a better future by deconstructing our past, and we can’t help but feel like there’s an overall meta lesson to be learned here by the games industry as well.
Published by Humble Games
Developed by Happy Ray Games
What do you get when you combine the setting of Harry Potter with the gameplay of Super Mario RPG, but also make it super gay and trans-inclusive? Well, you get what is easily one of the best games of 2020: Ikenfell. Admittedly, those comparisons don’t paint the full picture. While the game’s inspirations are clear, what it offers is something thoroughly unique and refreshing. Ikenfell isn’t just a beguiling school of magic—it’s a world blissfully free from heteronormativity and patriarchy. Maritte, the protagonist who arrives at Ikenfell in search of her missing sister, is queer, as are, well, most of the game’s characters. Indeed, three who join Maritte’s party—Petronella, Rook, and Ima—are non-binary. This delightful and enchanting crew battle their way through Ikenfell to uncover its secrets, learning and growing along the way. The game’s soaring conclusion and moving epilogue left an impact on us that we won’t soon forget. Ikenfell is a lovingly crafted experience with an overwhelmingly queer cast that doesn’t skimp on memorable story or engaging gameplay (or a repeat-worthy soundtrack). What more could you ask for in a game?
Immortals Fenyx Rising
Published by Ubisoft
Developed by Ubisoft Quebec
Few games in 2020 captivated us quite as much as Immortals Fenyx Rising, the beautifully designed open-world action-adventure from the team behind GLAAD-nominated Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. This similarly Greek mythology-inspired game continues to draw from the fluid sexuality of the source material, led by the game’s protagonist Fenyx—who can be customized with all kinds of gender-unrestricted options—and a comical pair of narrators, Zeus and Prometheus. The bisexual Zeus at times muses on his true love Achilles and remarks on the non-binary child of Hermes and Aphrodite, but what also makes this game truly special is its message of acceptance. As Fenyx crisscrosses the Golden Isle, solving puzzles and defeating enemies, she encounters four of Zeus’s children who have been diabolically transformed by the game’s villain, Typhon. In the process of returning them to their godly forms, Zeus learns how his narrow-minded mistreatment of them has hurt them deeply and comes to see that their personalities—flawed as they may be—are their strengths and worthy of celebration. As a game intended for players young and old, this LGBTQ-inclusive message of acceptance is especially important and needed for a wide audience. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the game is an absolute blast to play as well.
Tell Me Why
Published by Xbox Game Studios
Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment
It’s hard to overstate just how much of an outlier Tyler Ronan is, as the first playable trans character ever to be featured in a game from a major studio and publisher. We love (and recognized) characters like Krem from Dragon Age: Inquisition, who was arguably the tipping point for authentic trans representation in games, but too many trans characters continue to be relegated to secondary and tertiary roles. Tell Me Why smashes through that ceiling once and for all. Even its willingness to say the word “transgender” out loud seems like a breakthrough for an industry that still largely tries to camouflage and downplay LGBTQ storylines, yet in no way does the game stop short of making him a complex, multifaceted character. The story picks up as Tyler (voiced by out trans actor August Black) and his twin sister Alyson reconnect after years of separation and return home to unpack the events of a fateful day in their childhood. Through exploring their small Alaskan hometown and talking to old family friends, Tyler and Alyson embark on an emotional journey of reconciliation and healing. And depending on your choices as a player, Tyler may even end up finding new love. If Tell Me Why heralds a new era for trans representation in games, it will be all the more meaningful, but simply on its own, it’s an authentic and hopeful portrayal of a character that empowers trans players and accelerates acceptance for the trans community.
The Last of Us Part II
Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developed by Naughty Dog
The Last of Us Part II has captured our attention ever since it blew the roof off E3 2018 with its unforgettable trailer. And since its release last year, the game has racked up over 200 Game of the Year awards, so we hardly need to explain how exceptional it is. The Last of Us Part II is a brilliant and thematically complex game that explores how perceptions of the world can shape our understanding of right and wrong. In the context of its unforgiving, post-apocalyptic world, players are offered the perspectives of two protagonists, Ellie and Abby, locked in a violent struggle. Ellie is a lesbian character—indeed, the first to ever headline a AAA game—and her love interest, Dina, is bisexual. Abby’s storyline intersects with Lev, a transgender boy (played by out trans actor Ian Alexander) whom Abby rescues and befriends. Each of these LGBTQ characters is authentic, multifaceted, and compelling, with crucial roles in the game’s story. Few games have had casts as diverse and inclusive as this, but for a title with such a large audience and so many accolades, The Last of Us Part II is historic and consequential. We’ll be talking about this game for years to come, for a variety of reasons, but foremost among them is how it showed once and for all that big-budget games can tell diverse stories while achieving overwhelming critical and commercial success.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
Published by Blizzard Entertainment
Developed by Blizzard Entertainment
In Shadowlands, the eighth expansion pack for World of Warcraft, players cross from the world of Azeroth into the realms of the afterlife. A significant change in setting for the long-running game, Shadowlands also sets a new standard for inclusivity. Early in the story, players meet Pelagos, an outstanding new trans character voiced by out trans actor Elliot Fletcher, who plays a major role in Bastion questing and the Kyrian campaign. Also much to our delight, the expansion dispenses with the dubious notion that everyone in Warcraft lore happens to be heterosexual. The Night Fae campaign introduces a gay couple through the Night Warrior’s Curse questline, and in the companion book Shadows Rising, the fan-favorite pairing of Flynn Fairwind and Mathias Shaw is made canon. A more meta change that came with Shadowlands is the ability for players to change the gender of their characters without having to pay a real-money fee. This is undoubtedly a welcome change for all players, but it’s especially important to remove what often became an unintended tax on trans players who wanted to update their characters to reflect their personal gender identity. Along with a host of additional character customization options, Shadowlands marks a bold new inclusive direction for the seasoned MMO, and we can’t wait to see where Blizzard takes us next.