By Steve Wright
Two developers slave away in their respective home offices, working tirelessly on their indie games. The titles have a similar aesthetic (they feature hand-drawn cartoon animations) and both are defined as gay-themed. In Melbourne, Australia, Luke Miller continually updates his sci-fi adventure gay game, My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant, in an attempt to pass the title through Steam's Greenlight program. In Eureka, USA, Obscura is using a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign to get her erotic dating simulator Coming Out on Top into the hands of gamers.
Miller's title is full of gay themes – "it's a sci-fi adventure about love between two, maybe three guys," he says – but aside from a character who likes to parade around in his underwear, there's no nudity in My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant. On the flipside, Obscura's Coming Out on Top is chock-full of man-on-man action – and lots of cartoon penis – for those who want "to play an adult visual novel".
Despite their differences, the games – and their developers – are defining a new genre: the gay game.
What makes a gay game?
Luke Miller didn’t necessarily set out to make a gay game, but he definitely wanted its characters to be homosexual.
"I tried to make a game where everything was openly gay, from the characters to the vegetables to the aliens," he says. "And not just gay but unapologetically gay."
In My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant gamers are thrust into the shoes of Tycho Minogue (yes, named after the Singing Budgie). Clad only in his underwear, Tycho sets off on a point-and-click adventure to find (clothes, and) his seemingly evil ex-boyfriend. As he visits different planets, he develops relationships with several hunky men.
"I grew up without many gay role models so [Space Tyrant] was definitely in response to that, but also I thought it would make a fun game that would be unique on the market," Miller says.
"But is it a gay game?" He stops to ponder. "The aesthetics alone don't make it gay, but I think Tycho, the main character, and his interactions with other people in the game make it gay. It's hard to describe but as an example I think people intuitively get that the title is homosexual."
The main character isn’t just walking around in his underwear for show.
"I wanted to do something dramatic and bold for an opening," Miller says. "Something that says 'it's gay, let's have some fun with it'. It's also a twist on the old 'start off in a room with amnesia and no equipment' opening that a lot of games use to introduce the setting and characters to the player.
"It was one way the game design overlapped with a gay sensibility better than in straight games. Oh, you want him to start off stripped back to nothing, ready for an adventure? I can do that!" Miller says, laughing. "So those tighty-whities have a technical reason for existing as well as being mere eye candy."
"There was a bug in an earlier version of the game that meant you couldn't unlock the underpants mode," Miller continues, "and I got more complaints about that than any actual game-breaking bug!"
Those weren't the only complaints Miller received at the beginning of the game's development.
"Some gay men [say] that the game is too over-the-top and is making it more difficult for gay guys to be seen as normal," Miller says. "One fellow even suggested there shouldn't be same-sex relationships in the first few gay games so as to ease-in community acceptance of gays."
Compared to Obscura, Miller got off easily. Obscura – a self-professed "dirty old woman who likes to write, draw and game" – is the happily married head of ObscuraSoft Games. She also doesn't want to share that much about herself. After all, "knowing too much about the person who writes your erotica is a boner killer," she jokes.
Well, that and her "neighbours would flip out," she adds, laughing.
According to its Kickstarter page, Coming Out on Top is a dating simulator with "suspense, humor, & erotic situations." In the title, you play as one of four different men; the game's hour-long demo features a university student who's finally accepted the fact that he's gay. You come out to yourself, your roommates, relieve some sexual frustration in your bedroom, hit up a gay bar in a nearby town and meet a mysterious stranger… only to realise that stranger is also out and about on your own campus.
It might be laden with sex, but Coming Out on Top could easily be a primer for coming out of the closet. Playing through the demo myself, I found the game's writing to be spot-on to my own initial coming out experiences. After learning Coming Out on Top was written by a heterosexual woman, I admired Obscura's talent for truly getting into the heads of her characters.
But despite the resonant writing, others couldn’t get past the fact that Obscura wasn’t a gay man.
"I remember the first time I went on Reddit’s gaymers community with my idea for the game," she confesses. "I got this guy challenging me right away, asking how a straight woman could possibly know anything about the gay experience--I mean--did I even know what Grindr was, for God’s sakes?
"In reply, I sent him a screenshot of the 'Brofinder' parody app [based on the real-life Grindr app] that’s in my game. Admittedly, I might have flunked his harder 'are you fit to write about gay people' exam-type questions, but alas, I never heard from him again."
He could have stopped complaining because he couldn’t be bothered, but it’s a safer bet that he was simply proven wrong. That idea is given precedence due to the amount of people that incorrectly judge the game before they play it… and then backpedal quickly.
"Sceptics have written me saying they’re much less critical once they played the demo, recognizing the game for what it was: a character-focused comedy about a couple of college-aged kids," Obscura says. "The bottom line is that it’s neither a hardcore sex game nor a game with any overt social or political agenda. It’s a story-based relationship game that’s supposed to be fun and entertaining."
Obscura always intended to create a dating sim. "I like [them] because I like the idea of creating characters who are fun to be around, whose buttons you can literally push," she admits. "The thing I’ve loved most about Black Isle, Bioware, and Rockstar games have always been the colourful characters and their interactions; a dating sim is a very distilled form of just the relationship aspect."
As for homosexual characters and sex? "I admit it’s purely superficial," Obscura answers. "I like the male physique, I like watching men in porn. The idea of men having sex is something that I find appealing."
Men + sex = gay games?
The problem with making a gay video game is that there haven't been that many trailblazers to really define what a homosexual title should be. Sure, there have been gay themes in games for a while now – BioWare's Mass Effect 3 and its same-sex relationships, man-on-man coupling dating back to The Sims and the gender-bending Birdo of Super Mario Bros. 2, to name a few – but not enough to found a genre on.
Looking to the internet, there are countless examples of gay Flash games by artists like Humbuged, but they largely consist of five minute interactive experiences where your objective is to undress a cartoon male and make him orgasm. My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant and Coming Out on Top differentiate themselves with deep, engaging storylines.
"Space Tyrant is at its best when all three of the main elements -- gay, science fiction, adventure -- are complimenting each other," Miller says.
Sure, but other gay games of note have been balls-deep (pun very intended, this time) [UGH] in sex. "If it does [need sex] then it will be in there -- just maybe not in the way people expect. The mind is the biggest sexual organ anyway," Miller replies, coyly.
"Initially I thought the game had to have sex it in. It never occurred to me, and I think to most people, that a 'gay game' could be non-pornographic," Miller continues. "But, as I worked on it, I realised that I wasn't making a sex game; I was making an adventure game.
"Tycho is literally having an adventure in space. If it led to sex that would be fine by me but it's not essential. Pretty early on in development I dumped the hardcore stuff."
The decision went in the reverse for Obscura. "I made the early version entirely PG because the developer boards for Renpy -- the game engine -- seemed to indicate very few people wanted to play an adult visual novel, of any kind.
"Not knowing any better I made a PG rated version for one of the storylines last year. Afterwards I put a poll on my website asking if I should make this into a hardcore sex version. 95% of the respondents said yes," she says. "Obviously I started off on the wrong foot!"
But is sex expected in a gay game? "I’m not sure," Obscura replies. "I do know there is a whole category of games and comics called ‘boy-love’ that has no sex whatsoever.”
Mandatory or not, it's very important to realise that Coming Out on Top is much more than the sex simulator others may think of it as at first glance. "Each storyline is a combination of sex, relationship issues, and the personal struggle each guy faces. It's really not a 'meet guy A, try to sleep with him' game, so much as a game where you’re thrown into the lives of different guys who have a larger life goal but are facing a particular obstacle," Obscura affirms.
I asked Obscura if she'd be receptive to a PG-version of the game, catering to those in the middle of the coming out process. She seemed taken-aback. "I never thought that a PG version might help someone with the actual coming out process," she admits. "But it’d make me very happy if it did.
"I am indeed planning on a PG version after the initial release," she adds. "There are a handful of straight men and ladies who’ve requested this, since they prefer a game, shockingly, without wall-to-wall penis."
The gay game, growing up
Both developers agree that their games won't be able to define the gay genre on their own. For multiple reasons.
"[Another] criticism [of Coming Out on Top] has to do with not catering to enough body types, which is totally valid," Obscura says of her game. "One of the reasons I’m making this game is because the existing yaoi and bara games and comics tend to be extremes of lithe, long-haired boys and rounder, muscular bears. Weirdly, there’s not a whole lot in between.
"It’s an interesting topic actually, one probably worth more [discussion], because I think this ties into one of the challenges with making a game associated with a minority group--the expectation to represent all the diversity within that minority," she continues. "For the main game, I was more concerned with having an Asian and African American have their own storylines at the time I conceived of the characters, than I was with body types, obviously annoying some people, and pleasing others.”
"It boils down to the fact that we need more queer characters in games because no single game can capture every life experience out there," adds Miller. "Some people think being non-masculine or camp is a weakness that must be hidden but in my experience effeminate guys -- the ones that are obviously gay -- are the toughest men out there because they've never had the luxury of hiding it from the bullies. Be yourself, if someone has a problem with that, it's their problem!"
Neither Miller or Obscura will claim ownership of the genre itself, but they’re realising their place as it grows. “[Each gay game] is trailblazing for the fact there are so very few gay games in existence,” Obscura says. “None of them are like the other, and that none of them will be replicated any time soon. If a ‘gay game’ genre exists, it’s so tiny that it should be very encouraging and exciting right now for any developer making a gay-themed game. The kind of game you make is going to be the only one of its kind, at least for a year or two, which I figure is akin to a decade in video game industry years."
“There is unlimited room for gay games from all angles,” Miller agrees. “The more the merrier. Each game cracks open the scene just that little bit more. They bounce off each other and better games are the result. I only made my game because there wasn't a gay sci-fi adventure and I wanted to play one.”
Finding strength in numbers
"I hope Obscura doesn't mind me saying this, but in many ways I consider Coming Out On Top to be a sister project to Space Tyrant," Miller concedes.
"They were both developed basically concurrently, are of a similar scope in terms of content and indie audience, and we both have been learning from each other as we go along,” Miller says. “I think the sensibilities behind the two projects are very similar - mainstream entries in a genre where there has been no mainstream before. Both projects are trying to raise the bar for gay-friendly offerings to gamers.”
He gets serious. “I worry that the press will treat Coming Out On Top as an x-rated affair to be hidden under the table instead of a worthwhile game deserving of respect. ObscuraSoft's engagement with the community has been excellent. I can't think of a gaming project that represents the diversity of the gay community more than Coming Out On Top -- and that's no accident, she has worked incredibly hard on it."
Obscura is as protective of Miller as he is of her and her work. "Compared to its previous system where a couple of admins selected indie games into the system, Steam Greenlight has effectively made it much harder for games not directly catering to straight male gamers.
“At the moment I’m looking at the Greenlight page for My Ex-Boyfriend The Space Tyrant and absolutely cringing at the mentality of many of Greenlight voters,” she says, with sadness in her voice. “I understand Steam’s rationale for putting new games in the hands of its users, but it seems like it’s a way to ensure more of the same for a long time to come.”
A serious accusation of Greenlight to be sure, but Miller seems to take it all in stride. “I slapped ‘gayest game ever made’ on the Greenlight page and it went off like a rocket," he jokes. "I knew it would be a tough sell. Greenlight is a pure democracy; everyone gets one yes or no vote per game. How is a game made for 5% of the population going to get through that, especially when a large chunk of the other 95% are actively downvoting it?"
Despite what happens on or off Steam, both games are already hits. Obscura's hard at work getting Coming Out on Top to salivating fans and Miller's planning his next project.
“I'm still figuring out the answer [to the question of what makes a gay game] myself," Miller says. "After making My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant I am convinced that there is a unique gay experience out there that can be universally understood but is yet to be captured in game form.”
Miller smiles. “I can't wait to play that game."