This piece contains minor spoilers for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Partway through Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, protagonist Adam Jensen is tasked with investigating his boss’s apartment. Although Jensen reports to Director Jim Miller, he suspects Miller is hiding information from him. Obviously the appropriate action for anyone not pleased with their superior is to break in and hack computers.
(I can’t claim Mankind Divided succeeds in story sophistication here.)
After hacking my way into Miller’s place, I appreciated the pictures Miller had of himself mountain biking juxtaposed with evocative paintings in his lush apartment’s entryway. Pillows flooded out from a reading nook under his staircase, and spare videogame controllers rested on pieces of furniture. Mankind Divided excels in creating believable, lived-in environments.
When I snuck up to Miller’s second floor, I was greeted with two family portraits on the wall. The pictures showed Miller (who, up to this point, had been firm, intense and rigidly professional) smiling as a man embraced him. The second picture showed Miller and the same man holding two kids.
“Miller’s gay!” I exclaimed aloud, as I pumped my fist in the air.
By this point I was roughly 15 hours into Mankind Divided and had spoken to Miller a handful of times, but his personal life and sexual orientation had never been disclosed. Until this moment, I figured he was just another typical, older, straight white hardass to whom Jensen reported, but lo and behold, Eidos-Montreal snuck some layers into this character.
A friend of mine sent me a text out of the blue a couple days later to ask me how I thought Mankind Divided handled Miller’s sexuality. At first, I dismissively thought, “Well they really didn’t…”
After letting it simmer, I think they handled perfectly by barely handling it all.
Although I’m glad we live in an age where high-profile celebrities and athletes revealing their non-heterosexual identities often becomes headline news for positive reasons, I strive to live in an age where identifying as anything other than straight isn’t news at all. As a gay man myself, being gay is part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. I don’t shake someone’s hand when I meet them and say “Hi, my name’s Corey, I’m gay”, just as a straight person wouldn’t normally declare their heterosexuality on first contact.
Mankind Divided treats Director Miller the same way. He’s heading an anti-terrorism task force under a time of great duress and oppression in Prague. If he made casual smalltalk about his sexual orientation to Jensen it would seem out of place, especially given Miller’s reputation for keeping his personal life private and remaining strictly professional in the office.
The Division treated one of its central characters, Dr. Jessica Kandel, the same way.
During a tiny snippet of conversation, she mentions her ex-wife. She doesn’t dwell on her sexuality or make it a central point of discussion. She’s not here to chat, she’s working to discover more information on a deadly virus in New York. Much like Director Miller, if Kandel mentioned her sexuality more than she does, it would’ve felt out of place to me. I’m glad to know they’re both gay (or at the very least have had committed, same-sex relationships) and represent the community in video games without developers turning them into stereotypes.
Along the same lines (yet on the other end of the disclosure spectrum) is Steve Cortez — Commander Shepard’s shuttle pilot in Mass Effect 3. He’s a gay man who discusses his orientation heavily if players choose to engage. However, his central conflict is his husband’s death and the lingering heartache and frustration he feels over it. Players can help him along this emotional journey, and male Shepard can even romance him if the relationship develops fully enough.
I have zero issues with Cortez discussing his sexuality in Mass Effect 3 so often because his loss and anguish deeply define him at that point in his life. It would be silly of him not to disclose a major life event to Shepard, but the fact that he remains a peerless shuttle pilot while going through personal hardships bolsters the strength and determination of his character.
Although gay characters are still fairly few and far between in videogames, Deus Ex, The Division and Mass Effect are among the few titles I’ve played that get it right — whether that means a casual mention of orientation or making it important enough to be a character’s central conflict, these characters get just the right amount of disclosure. Although I’ll never stop wanting more characters that accurately portray my own unique, underrepresented identity, I’m glad some developers are making smart moves (however small they are) to pave the way.