Critical Blind Spot

At the end of 2018 I played a game called The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories. Despite its over-the-top gameplay The Missing tells an incredibly real story about the struggles of finding and being yourself, with a more specific focus on the titular character’s LGBTQ+-related hardships. Swery65 and his team at White Owls handle every aspect of the narrative with the utmost care. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a person, particularly in games media, who walked away from the game confused or unimpressed by the story. Knowing all this I was reminded of a problem bouncing around in the back of my mind for a few years now, and with 2018 awards wrapping-up I can’t let this go unsaid any longer. Why does the handling of sensitive topics, particularly of marginalized people, only matter when a developer does it right?

For me this concern started much later in life than it probably should have. I’ve never played any game in the Persona series. When Catherine came out I was interested when I heard there was a trans woman in the game. My interest quickly died as I learned about the rampant transphobia aimed at the character, a woman named Erica Anderson. I never bothered to read reviews after that point because there was no chance I was buying that game. It sucks, but life goes on. (Unfortunately the ugliness of Catherine returned at E3 2018, with a brand new bit of transphobia.)

Much later I looked at reviews and gameplay of Persona 4 shortly after Persona 5 was announced. I knew of the game but never had a chance to play it. I at least wanted some cursory knowledge of what to expect from Persona 5. Everything looked and sounded great. Not a hint of controversy. Same exact story with Persona 5: lots of praise and no controversy. Then I come across a story about Persona 5’s handling of gay characters, and in that story were mentions of Catherine levels of mishandling of trans character Naoto in Persona 4. I had never heard of these issues until that moment, but they were easy to research and even easier to understand the problems as they played out in real time.

How does this happen? How can I scour the internet for reviews of these games, listen to countless year-end awards discussions about these games, and never once hear a word about these issues? I’m not just talking about Persona either. Other heavy-hitters have this problem (GTA, Zelda, Yakuza, etc.). I can understand if the issues didn’t bother the player that much. However, people critique much smaller issues in games in their reviews and/or their awards voting.

To me this has to change. It’s unfortunate enough if you’re the kind of person who just doesn’t notice it. I would hope you’d improve. It’s significantly worse when you’re the kind of person who does, but stays silent. If you’re able to break down the intricacies of a well-paced story about marginalized people and why that matters then you can take a moment to let someone know a trans woman gets harassed in Breath of the Wild, or that there are multiple scenes in Persona 5 where gay men are portrayed as sexual predators. Good or bad these things matter. This goes for people who I don’t know to people I know for a fact are good people. Be better.

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