For most people November 20 is just another day on the calendar, but for a good subset of the population it is a very important date. It is the day where we take a moment to remember those who have taken their lives or have had their lives taken by bigotry and bullying just for being “born in the wrong body”. For those that don’t know what this day represents, it’s known in the LGBT circles as the “Transgender Day of Rememberance” and for people like myself who have had to not only struggle with our own gender identity but also have been the recipient of hate this is a somber day. But, while we most certainly have plenty of close-minded bigots out there making our lives miserable there are also plenty of cis allies out there that are trying to help fight the anti-trans hatred right alongside us.
Unfortunately, popular media also has a tendency to treat transgender individuals as a joke, usually by putting us in the position of the villain or a comedic caricature that perpetuates the stereotypes that we’re to be laughed at. At the same time, though, there has been a resurgence of roles that have taken what we are and cast a new light upon our plight. Including video games. Which is what this article is really about. Instead of lashing out at the negativity I wanted to look at some trans characters that are treated at least with respect if not reflect upon what being transgender means to those who have gone through the experience themselves. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but these are the games that I’ve personally played that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the years.
Birdo (Super Mario Bros 2)
Nintendophiles would probably filet me alive if I didn’t talk about Birdo. This pink egg spitting character was originally an enemy in the second Super Mario Bros game and the original Japanese manual stated that he believed himself to be female and wanted to be called “Catherine”. Future installments, including the North American release of the game, have gone back and forth between Birdo’s self-identified gender or even omitting their gender identity altogether. Birdo also earns distinction as possibly the very first transgender character ever featured in a video game. I’ll be completely honest here and did not know any of this until a few years back.
Max Lao (Technobabylon)
A very recent Cyberpunk adventure game published by Wadjet Eye Games featured a transgender cop called Max Lao. The thing is that this little tidbit was only brought up once in the entire game and it could be easily missed if you don’t talk to everyone about everything. Early on in Technobabylon Max and Charlie Regis are sent to investigate a murder and she lets it slip out that she used to be male during a conversation between the two of them about what happened. It ended up being a moment showcasing just how far society can come in the future where nobody cares who or what you are as even this grizzled old man didn’t bat an eyelash at the revelation. It also helped that Dave Gilbert asked actual transwomen (myself included) how to treat this without making him seem like a bigoted asshole. You can catch the whole discussion via a video I captured of the moment here.
TOMCAT (Read Only Memories)
Not all awesome transgender characters fit the binary societal roles of male or female and Read Only Memories features one of my favorite “genderqueer” people in a video game. It’s never outright stated in the game itself (to my knowledge) but TOMCAT, the sassy hacker with pink hair, is a much more gender fluid character and doesn’t really identity as a man or a woman but somewhere in the middle of the ever expanding spectrum. I like to joke that there are fifty shades of gender but honestly this is very close to the truth and ROM tackles this issue both in the form of the mentioned character and with Turing’s brief consideration of what gender might mean to an artificial construct. The struggles of hybrids (human/animal splices) can also echo the plight of both trans and other queer individuals in today’s society.
Marcus Cordale (Queen At Arms)
The visual novel Queen At Arms is a tale about self discovery and how one views the world not just based on gender or sexuality but also as a human being. Marcus is the long since thought dead princess rescued by her mother during a bloody coup on the royal family. She was brought up as male, given a male name, and was expected to act male in order not to be found out and possibly killed for being who she was. That’s it. The only real shocking thing about being forced to reveal this towards the end of the game was that she was royalty, not that she was actually a woman pretending to be a man for survival. I loved the entire narrative but this angle obviously hit the closest to home.
Pretty Much Everyone (Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme)
Not all transgender characters need to be serious takes on the community. Sometimes you just want to play a game that treats it with respect but throws in a heaping serving of hilarity. Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme is about two scientists mucking with the forces of nature to find a way to change their sex the quick and easy way instead of spending years on hormones. An accident occurs and everyone in the lab gets turned into women, causing one insane spectacle after another. The thing here is that when I first heard about this title I was willing to dismiss it as just another “fetish game”, but I was honestly surprised at how bloody funny it was while still being respectful to the subject matter. My favorite “gender bent” character was Aleanne, who was apparently one of the backer characters. And her path actually did cover a lot of how one deals with gender dysphoria.
So Many Characters to List (Max’s Big Bust)
Max’s Big Bust was another “gender bender” visual novel being done by half of the same team that brought us GBDNATE, this time with vastly improved character designs and a more cohesive story. There’s also a lot of overlap between the two games, but the focus is on Max finding a weird marble that turns him into a busty girl who wants nothing but to turn back into a guy. What I love about what I’ve seen so far (it’s still being worked on) is that, like the above title it doesn’t take being transgender too seriously but also treats it with respect. I’ll also point out here that the game will also feature at least one honest-to-god trans character as I took the plunge and decided to take one of the backer character slots. I also made it clear that I wanted her background to reflect this. So far I haven’t been disappointed in my decision.
Rex Nebular (Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender)
This is honestly one that I was on the fence about including or not, but in the end it’s worth a mention. Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender is a bad game. In the sense that it’s B-movie bad, not necessarily because it’s an awful game. The titular character is tasked with stealing some priceless vase and crash lands on a planet populated entirely by women. Apparently the male half of the population died off and in order to keep society running the women invented a device that let you swap sexes at will to propagate the species. Rex ends up being forced to undergo this process in order to get what he’s after. I actually only played this for the first time earlier this year out of pure curiosity but it ended up being worth the playthrough even if it did make me cringe more than once. Of course, I also love bad sci-fi.
I know that these aren’t the only strong transgender characters in video games but this list is based off of all of the games that I personally played myself. If there are any that I missed it’s most likely because it was in a genre that I don’t particularly care for or are in games that I have yet to play. The sad thing here is that I can count so very few games that feature trans characters that aren’t treated like a bad guy or as comic relief. I’d love to see more games try to tackle gender dysphoria and what it means to be transgender, or at least to include more trans characters that people who have gone through it can relate to at least on some level. I’m an open-minded person who’s willing to give even the most crazy idea a chance. And while some of my favorite games feature trans characters too many completely miss the mark and end up making me wish I could get my money back.