The Highs and Woes of Transmasculine Characters in Video Games

When I sat down to play Pokemon Crystal for the first time at nine years old, I got an unexpected surprise: Are you a boy or a girl? Pokémon Crystal asked. I stared at the screen. No one had ever asked me that question before, let alone a video game.

As a gamer girl, I had never seen myself in games, so the opportunity to actually play as a female protagonist was a huge deal. Although lots of games still forced me to play as a male character, I eventually got to play progressive games that gave me the choice to play as female, too. It was exciting to see myself represented in the games that I loved.

Image source: Pokemon Crystal

When I came out as transgender at the age of 18, that feeling of belonging seemingly evaporated overnight. Games used to make me feel like I could conquer all enemies and become the Hero, but instead, I began to see myself represented in negative ways. According to research by LGBT organization GLAAD examining trans characters in television between 2002-2012, trans characters were cast as victims at least 40% of the time; killers or villains at least 21% of the time; transphobic slurs were used in at least 61% of television programs; and the most common profession for trans characters was as sex workers. There is even less data available for trans representation in video games, although in my experience, the GLAAD research is in line with my experiences. My love for video games never faltered and I continued to enjoy playing as female characters, but I felt an incredible sadness that there were no longer people like me in the universes that I spent so much of my life in.

That is, until I stumbled across Dragon Age: Inquisition and, a year later, Dream Daddy. Finding positive representation, or, in fact any representation of transmasculine characters always felt like like searching for a needle in a haystack, so I flocked to these games with wild anticipation. For the first time, not only was I able to experience positive transmasculine characters, but I could interact with them, fall in love with them, and, most importantly, play as them (in the case of Dream Daddy). But as a transmasculine person, would they ever live up to my expectations?

Krem de la Crème

Image source: Dragon Age: Inquisition

For the past 2-3 years, my love for Dragon Age has dominated my life. Dragon Age is a high fantasy action RPG made by Bioware and includes dragon fighting, adventuring and more romanceable characters than you can shake a stick at. Although this series couldn’t sound more up my street if it tried, I first heard of Dragon Age while attending an LGBTQ+ video game panel at a UK convention where a panel member spoke about a trans character in the third game, Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014). That was enough to make me go out and buy the entire series and thus marked the end of my life as I knew it.

By the time I reached Inquisition, I’d had my heart broken multiple times, gotten into all kinds of shenanigans and made friends with all manner of humans, elves, dwarves, and Qunari. The only thing that could make the series even better was finally meeting the trans character I had been waiting for. Enter Cremisius Aclassi, second in command of The Iron Bull’s Chargers and #1 Inquisition babe.

Introducing a trans character in video games can admittedly be a bit tricky. How do you depict them? What kind of voice actor will you cast? Will you reference them being trans throughout the game, or will the player find out through a brief conversation?

I picked up on Krem’s transness immediately thanks to the voice talent of Jennifer Hale aka FemShep in the Mass Effect series. The husky tones of a female voice actor combined with this very attractive man in his shining armor immediately set the bells ringing in my head and I wanted to find out more. Luckily for me, Krem stuck around for the rest of the game and I was treated to some interesting conversations with him. Approach Krem while you’re running around your camp and you can have a good old chat with him about how he came to serve under The Iron Bull (fleeing his homelands due to insinuated transphobic and sexual violence), what his life was like back in Tevinter, and even “why he decided to live as a man.”

Image source: Dragon Age: Inquisition

In one cutscene, the Inquisitor is introduced to the rest of Bull’s mercenary group and we hear some banter between Bull and Krem about binding. This opens up several dialogue options where the Inquisitor can ask about Krem’s “coming out,” including why he passes as a man, whether he is a woman, and when he knew. (The Inquisitor also has the option of just dropping the subject and moving on.) If you choose to answer ignorantly about Krem’s gender, you are very quickly and forcibly corrected. There’s also a super cute little conversation where Bull explains that under the Qun, Krem would be regarded as “Aqun-Athlok” – someone born in one gender but living like another. When Krem asks if the Qunari treat the Aqun as a “real man,” Bull emphatically tells Krem that he is a real man.

My favourite thing about these conversations with Krem is that the Inquisitor is ignorant as hell. The Inquisitor’s questions are often phrased badly and Krem and Bull are always quick to correct. Ask Krem why he decided to live as a man and he’ll tell you it wasn’t a choice but something he has always been. Follow up with questions about whether he would use magic to change “all the way” and he will react with shock/disgust at the idea, telling you that he is happy with his armor and a well-placed sock.

Having Krem in Inquisition warms my heart beyond measure and I’m thankful to the writers for including a trans man in their game. However, like any representation, Krem’s isn’t perfect. Whether online or at conventions, a lot of heated discussions from fans stems from Inquisition’s the lack of a “me too” response to Krem coming out to the Inquisitor. A short, sweet “me too” could have really taken Inquisition to another level. Not only would you be able to interact with a trans character, but you could be one too. I was also bothered by Inquisition’s lack of romance options with Krem. It’s not enough to just have a trans character in your games, especially in games where you can romance the hell out of other characters. Poor little me didn’t even realise until near the end of the game that my desire to find out more about Krem’s well-placed sock was never going to come to fruition.

I Dream of Trans Daddies

Image source: Dream Daddy

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long for the opportunity to date and play a transmasculine character thanks to indie developer Game Grumps’ release of the overwhelmingly popular dating simulator Dream Daddy (2017). Turns out the internet couldn’t get enough out of role-playing a dad dating other dads! Fresh out of my Krem disappointment, Dream Daddy seemed to fill in  Inquisition’s unfortunate gaps  by letting me play and date transmasculine characters and I was over the moon when one of my best friends purchased the game for me.

Right from the start, I was blown away that Dream Daddy let me choose between multiple types of “dad bods,” including whether you wanted your dad to have a “tank bod” or a “binder bod.” I must admit, on my first playthrough, the reference to wearing a binder completely flew over my head because I can sometimes have the awareness of a teaspoon. However, I definitely didn’t miss the conversation that you have with your dad’s daughter, the amazing Amanda, at the beginning of the game. When talking to Amanda, you have a few dialogue options that allow you to set up your family’s backstory. Was your co-parent a dad or a mum/mom? Did you give birth to Amanda or did you adopt her?

Image source: Dream Daddy

These two simple options rendered me speechless. I rarely saw trans characters in games, let alone ever had the option to be a gay trans dad who had given birth to his daughter. Such representation, especially positive representation, was groundbreaking and proved how easy it could be for developers to include trans characters in their games.

I avoided as many spoilers as I could before playing the game, but I’d heard that one of the dateable characters was a trans man. Needless to say, this was very exciting. With seven potential dads to date, there is lots of room to experiment and lots of diversity among the dads. As I had avoided spoilers, I had a lot of fun trying to work out which dad would be a fellow trans dad. The sporty jock dad? The shady dad who always hangs out at the bar? The Victorian Goth dad? The suspiciously pure Christian dad?

After my first two playthroughs I was none the wiser about who the other trans dad could be, so I did some digging to find out who I should be pursuing. Of course, it turned out to be one of the dads that I had had absolutely no interest in dating, but in the pursuit of “science,” I played through the game again in the hopes of fulfilling all of my trans dad dreams.

Unfortunately, to say that I was underwhelmed would be putting it mildly. I reached the end of the playthrough with the dad in question without once picking up on any hints that he was trans. There was no “coming out,” no shared experiences, no “me too” moments. In fact, I had to go searching on the internet (again) to find out if I missed something really obvious. Turns out that the one hint you get is that the character wears binders, but it is entirely possible to miss this if you don’t choose the correct dialogue option. I did actually prompt the dialogue in my game but, once again, it went straight over my head (I clearly need some reflex lessons from Drax).

Image result for drax reflexes gif
Image source: Guardians of the Galaxy

While part of me was relieved that the developers didn’t make the character’s entire story revolve around them being trans to the point of ignoring everything else about them, part of me was disappointed. The reference was so subtle that even I had missed it and, sadly, in my experience not being explicitly clear results in fans actively erasing a character’s identity to make themselves feel more comfortable. And to be honest, part of me wanted a character who spoke openly about being trans throughout the game like Krem did.

Representation is tricky to get right. Too much emphasis can make it seem like trans people’s entire lives revolve around being trans. Too subtle and fans — even fans who are trans themselves — might completely miss the references. Although Krem’s representation felt pretty much perfect to me, Inquisition’s lack of a “me too” option and my character’s inability to date Krem upset me. In my experiences with film, television and video games, trans people are almost always portrayed as asexual and/or aromantic beings who are never attracted to anybody and nobody is ever attracted to them (and not in a way that validates asexual and aromantic trans people either!)  To some extent, Dream Daddy offered me a gaming experience that fulfilled these desires, but it could have made more space to explore trans identities in the game rather than through a single one-liner dialogue option. Dream Daddy never mentioned neither my dad’s nor his dream daddy’s trans identity again. This provided me with an experience that was completely groundbreaking in some respects, but also resulted in representation that felt incredibly 2D.

So, to sum up my feelings…

  • Yay! Positive representations of transmasculine characters!

What do I want?

  • Multiple representations of trans characters in video games

When do I want it?

  • In my face immediately

Featured image source: Dream Daddy (left) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (right).

Avery Delany

Avery Delany

Avery is a transmasculine/genderqueer person from London who doesn't have the British accent that you want, but the one that you need. When not looking after dogs for a living, he is at home cuddling his own dog, being a #diversebookblogger, and generally having a lot of Feels about Stuff.
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