LOS ANGELES — When the Prince of Albion isn't battling reanimated corpses, searching for mystical medallions or attempting to overthrow his tyrannical brother, he has a pretty nice life at home with his husband, Kyle the Blacksmith, and their two adopted sons, Alex and Tim. It's just one path players can go down as the heroic protagonist of “Fable III.”
While the fight for gay rights remains heated in the United States, same-sex marriage and gays in the military have never been issues in Albion, the virtual nation where “Fable” players battle bandits and other baddies. Though not integral to the plot, gamers have been able to woo characters of the same sex since the sweeping saga launched in 2004.
“We don't require you to be of a certain type to get married,” said Peter Molyneux, creative director at Microsoft Game Studios Europe. “You can be gay. You can be bisexual. You can get married as many times as you like. It's up to you. My fascination is with what that means to people. It means they can be who they are rather than who I require them to be.”
Molyneux and his team at British developer Lionhead Studios are adding another way to play as gay — or otherwise — in the franchise's epic third installment, which tasks players with leading a revolution in the newly industrialized Albion. For the first time in the series, a player's character, regardless of their sexual orientation, can adopt children.
It's the latest example of how gamemakers are giving players methods of portraying gay characters in role-playing games, the genre that bestows gamers with the power to customize characters from the outset. Unlike the static storylines of a TV show or film, role-playing games offer an individualized experience that's usually defined by a player's choices.
“The Sims,” the popular virtual dollhouse franchise from Electronic Arts and Maxis, has included same-sex relationship options since its 2000 debut, though gamers who wanted nuptials for their Sims of the same sex had to wait until the release of “The Sims 3” last year. (Previous editions allowed gay couples to move in together and have a civil union.)
When it comes to legalizing same-sex marriage, the real world is actually behind the virtual world. “Fallout 2,” the post-apocalyptic sequel by Black Isle Studios, was the first game to feature the ability to marry a character of the same sex when it was released in 1998, six years before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
It's not always virtual rainbows and sunshine for gays in games though, especially when reality intervenes. Homophobic slurs and other hate speech are often broadcast by players on Micosoft's Xbox Live and Sony's PlayStation Network online services, as well as within multiplayer online games, such as “World of Warcraft” and “Lord of the Rings Online.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered characters created specifically by developers, not players, are still a rare find in games. There are a few notable exceptions, such as nightclub owner Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince in the shoot-'em-up sequel “Grand Theft Auto IV” and the blue-skinned bisexual alien Liara T'Soni in the galactic hopper “Mass Effect.”
Jeb Havens, a game designer and chairman of the International Game Developers Association's LGBT committee, believes there are fewer such characters in games because publishers fear offending consumers. He said that, even though the industry is generally liberal, he doesn't expect homosexuality to be included in the main plot of a game anytime soon.
“I think the formula that's working for the big publishers who have LGBT content is that it's an option if the player consciously seeks it out,” said Havens. “That way there's no fear of a backlash from players who might think they're being forced to play as a gay character or being forced to fall in love with another guy just to play through the game.”
That's the route lead writer David Gaider and his colleagues at Canadian developer BioWare took when crafting “Dragon Age: Origins,” the fantastical role-playing game released by Electronic Arts last year. Players, if so inclined, could have their character enter into a same-sex relationship with male elvan assassin Zeveran or female human bard Leliana.
“As we were working on the four characters that you could have a romance with in the game, we wondered why couldn't we expand the audience a little bit?” said Gaider. “We weren't creating characters so players could have gay romances. That's not really how our creative process works. If we were doing that, I think we would have gone about it a bit differently.”
In the “Dragon Age” sequel set for release next year, instead of constructing a protagonist from scratch, gamers will play as Hawke, a human refugee who can be a male or female mage, rogue or warrior. Gaider declined to specify if Hawke could pursue the same sex off the battlefield but promised there will be “something for LGBT players to appreciate.”
“Some LGBT players liked what we did in ‘Origins,' and others didn't,” said Gaider. “The only thing that would really disappoint them is to completely abandon it. We're not doing that. There's some things you don't want to fundamentally change. If we're being inclusive of any group of fans, we're not going to suddenly throw them out on the streets.”