It's been a pretty good couple months for LGBT gamers. In June we had #MakeJaalBi, the successful fan-driven campaign to restore Mass Effect: Andromeda squadmate Jaal to his original status as a bi love interest, and now comes Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator.
You might not expect a super-fluffy-looking game about dads dating other dads (produced by Game Grumps) to be so well-written and accurate when it comes to queer and trans characters, but it really is. DD:ADDS is cute, funny, and incredibly significant, even - or especially - since the whole thing is just so laid-back and cool about a sensitive issue. The release of this well-crafted game and its overjoyed fan reception is a seriously good sign for LGBT portrayals, and gaming in general.
But Aren't Trans Characters Really Hard To Write?
One of the biggest and most pervasive fan arguments against LGBT inclusion - especially transgender people - is that they're either too fringe/rare to be realistically involved in a story, or too hard to write. Like they're some special, mysterious variety of human whose wants and needs are bizarre, and always trans-related.
Some reluctant writers are quick to say they don't know much about the transgender community... just that they're a minefield. Everything is Offensive. Instead of having hopes, dreams, and fears like any other character, don't "The Transgenders" obsess about bathrooms and surgery and pronouns, things "Normal People" don't worry about? How on Earth are we to envision their minds, or write them without offending? No, surely it's easier to just ignore their problematic existence entirely, and write stories for everyone else.
Well... as actual trans people have been saying for years, it's really not that hard to make a good and inclusive story/game, especially when trans people are consulted and involved themselves. Take a breath, everybody. And take some notes from #DreamDaddy.
Written In Easily, Naturally
It wasn't even advertised ahead of time - again, no sensationalizing - so the fact that you can actually play a trans dad in this game was a huge, wonderful surprise. In the build-a-dad character creator, you can pick a body model wearing a binder. (Or a tank top. Neither one is 'default,' or 'special!') And that's it. Trans dudes are just as dudely as non-trans dudes. And dads are dads!
You can also pick whether Amanda is your biological or adoptive child, and the gender of your previous partner. These are the only choices that change any dialogue in the game, and it's solely about your family backstory. Nobody makes a big deal about your dad's gender identity. (His taste in puns is far more concerning.)
But DD:ADDS doesn't just have player-potential for trans inclusion. One of the dads is trans as well!
Goth Dad Damien drops a couple of casual references to binders (Victorian-style!), and his entire arc is seriously trans-coded: it's clearly about something deeper than a first glance might suggest. Without spoiling - you really have to play it, it's kind of amazing - it's about being afraid to show a loved one a hidden side of yourself, and how amazing it is to be loved and accepted for the whole person you are. It also has really cute giant friendly dogs.
Damien's trans-ness hits a seriously sweet spot: it's not sensationalized, fetishized, or in any way made a big thing, while at the same time, if you look, it really does inform his entire story and character. It's a hugely important part of him, and the game, but it's not a source of stress or conflict. We're never given the opportunity to reject him for it either (unless you decide to go with another Dad).
Like being able to make a trans Dad, it's significant but low-key. Players experience it as a normal, natural part of the game/life - the way many trans people in the real world sorely wish they could be received. And that's seriously cool.
Nothing About Us Without Us
Vernon Shaw and Leighton Gray, the game's co-creators, are both bi themselves. And that really isn't surprising, since when marginalized people actually get to write about themselves, the portrayals tend to be a lot better.
Damien's voice actor, Jason Larock, is also trans himself - which puts DD:ADDS miles ahead of a lot of other big-name game studios known for diversity.
Remember Krem, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, voiced by Bioware veteran actor Jennifer Hale? He's a largely-awesome trans character (with a few awkwardly-written moments) and Hale is obviously a skilled and fan-beloved voice actor. But she's not trans - and yeah, that does make a difference. It's obvious when studios try to write marginalized characters without consultation, and Bioware has run into trouble before. Fans weren't happy with the writing for trans woman Hainley Abrams in the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda, prompting the studio to address their concerns in a post-release patch. Bioware seems receptive and willing to learn from fan feedback, but all of this could have been easily avoided on the front end, as DD:ADDS has proven.
See how this works? If you're making a game with LGBT/specifically trans content, having some LGBT/trans people on your staff is a must-have. It's only logical, and really not an insurmountable challenge. Game studios don't have to do backflips to please a critical fanbase. Simply including and listening to the people they're writing about does wonders, and the fact that it's happening more and more is incredible.
Cute, Fluffy, and Socially Significant
Dream Daddy is super fun and sweet, and it's an amazing vehicle for not just inclusion for gay/bi dads, but trans people as well. Trans guys seeing themselves as good and wholesome and drama-less is incredible, as is seeing themselves being accepted and loved, not in spite of but because of who they are.
DD:ADDS players also see that trans men are just as fun/exciting/endearing as any other character, not weird, mysterious Transgender Aliens. There's no intense pain or sad drama, which is a breath of freakin' fresh air.
In just about everything else, whenever writers try to write The Trans Experience, their characters have to go through at least some obligatory melodramatic angsting over their transitions, or face potentially-traumatic transphobia. None of that here - and maybe that's another reason this game is so good.
The narrative doesn't get into the experience of being trans; it just presents trans characters as they are, with minimal drama, and includes them in the story. Damien is adorable, his route is funny and emotionally satisfying (and... memorable), and all of this adds up to an experience that's enjoyable, super-necessary and just... good.
Hopefully this is the start of a lot more common and easy queer and trans inclusion in gaming. At the very least, it's shown that it can be done, it doesn't need to be a Whole Big Thing, and when done well, it's so good and important. In a perfect world, other big game-names will rise to the occasion and meet the inclusion bar - which, as we've seen, really isn't all that high.
Your move, game studios. Can't wait to see what you come up with next.