Bi Design: A History of Bisexuality in Gaming

Kevin Wright

Video game sexuality is typically depicted in one of two ways: narratively (a character’s sexuality is stated or inferred from their interactions with other characters) and mechanically, as in the case of gamified relationship-building (“reach 150 social points with Husbando McHimbo to unlock the Dating minigame!”). These two spheres often cross over, with relationships informing the plot and vice versa; the degree to which this occurs depends on the type of game. Because of this twofold nature, there are plenty of opportunities for different identities to be represented on screen. And yet, as we know, not all representation is created equal.

Bisexuality in video games has had a tumultuous and surprisingly long history. Until very recently, it’s mostly been relegated to player choice, allowing players to opt into bisexual storylines and relationships. In this sense, there have been relatively few canonically bisexual characters in the medium, but lots of potentially bisexual protagonists, since video games’ way of expressing sexuality usually boils down to which characters the player is allowed to date or sleep with. By that token, whenever a bisexual is present in a game, they’re usually the leading character, front and center; when they’re not the protagonist, they often aren’t present at all. Thus, the canonically bisexual protagonist is a infrequent breed.

As a bi dude, I’m not qualified to speak on the quality of representation other queer identities have had in the past few decades (though by most accounts their trajectories appear similar). But, peering into the mixed bag of video game queerness, I’m struck by some important questions. How’d we obtain here? And are bisexual repopulation campaigns in their natural habitat (video games) yielding any results? To answer those questions, we have to go all the way back to that most arcane of ancient eras: the 1980s.

The 1980s

Early video games, perhaps in an attempt to mirror their target demographic, were mostly sexless. Text-based narrative games like Colossal Cave Adventure and the first MUDs focused more on puzzle-solving than romance. Sex just wasn’t a common theme, let alone the nuances of queer sexual and gender identities. A few fantasy adventures did sport some token hetero romance tropes—Mario earning a smooch from Princess Toadstool being perhaps the most iconic example—but mainstream audiences didn’t see the medium as the place to obtain hot and/or heavy.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t any niche content for the perverts with enough dough to drop on a $5,500 computer they were only ever going to use to play pocketball. That’s right, as the digital age would’ve easily predicted, the first video games were almost immediately followed by the first pornographic video games. Softporn Adventure for the Apple II sold a quarter as numerous units as the computer itself did, saying nothing for the versions that were pirated. Clearly, games weren’t doomed to being a kids-only pastime; they had the potential to explore adult themes, and to titillate rather than merely entertain.

As technology progressed, more gameplay mechanics became possible, and games which heavily featured romance started to become common, but it would be a long time before any bona fide queer romances would take shape. There were a few exceptions in the European homicide mystery game market, some of which had queer-coded villains in the vein of Hayes Code-era films.

Yet explicitly bisexual characters remained rare. Queer characters, when they did appear, were much more likely to be identified as gay or trans, and even then only with a few offhand remarks. Bi characters themselves were usually either sex workers or gimmicky secret disclose bisexuals (or both!), and almost never protagonists.

Still, there’s some cool subversion to be found in the era, in games like Le crime du parking and Le mur de Berlin va sauter. It’s queer representation welded together in a seedy little chopshop, highly reminiscent of the campy subterfuge of queer-coding in the world of early film. That’s bi culture for sure. It’d be nice not to have to operate exclusively in the shadows, though.

The 1990s

One of the new decade’s biggest contributions came in the form of a new genre arriving in earnest: the dating sim. First came Dōkyūsei, a primordial dating sim, and then its acclaimed successor, Tokimeki Memorial, a beloved title which was much less sexually explicit than adult-oriented games before and after. Tokimeki Memorial proved that gamers weren’t necessarily looking for a graphic payoff to in-game romance; sometimes the victory condition of finally pulling their waifu was reward enough.

Soon after, Star Ocean: The Second Story brought the first player-driven romance options that allowed for dating men or women regardless of the player character’s gender. For the first time, the protagonist’s sexuality was entirely subject to the player’s will: the protagonist is bi if the player wants them to be. Fallout 2 allowed players to finally marry either Miria or Davin, making it the first game to feature same-sex marriage. Together, these two games opened the door to bisexuality by way of dating mechanics, which would come to be the place where most queer representation occurs.

And then there’s Persona 2, whose protagonist, Tatsuya, verbally expresses attraction towards men and women, and can date any of them. Mentioning their openness to both confirms that the player character explicitly bisexual, rather than having their sexuality be a reflection of whatever the player’s choices happen to be. This would create them the first hard-canonical bisexual protagonist in video game history.

And, of course, no conversation about dating games in the ‘90s is complete without The Sims. The Sims allowed complete freedom of relationships irrespective of gender, the apotheosis of player selection driving sexuality. The first game didn’t even require players to select sexual preference at character creation, granting complete fluidity of their Sims’ love lives. Then again, Sims aren’t really protagonists in the traditional sense—but, on the other hand, they have arguably the most developed lives of any characters in gaming, and their romantic escapades have a major bearing on gameplay. In other words: yes, I’m willing to call my hipster vampire Sim a leading character, along with the rest of his polycule.

From this point on, bisexual characters started to feature in much more positive ways than they’d been portrayed in other media. While ‘90s movies were treating bisexuality as a punchline or as a shorthand for promiscuity, Fear Effect 2 had a protagonist whose bisexuality was a necessary part of the narrative. While Roseanne was clumsily handling the bisexual Nancy, Metal Gear Solid 2 was including the morally complex Vamp as a major character (even though his name being an antiquated slang term for bisexuals is kind of questionable). In most respects, the ‘90s saw video games skyrocket past TV and movie in terms of positive bi representation. There wasn’t a lot of it, per se, but what was there was at least mostly inoffensive. It would be at least another couple decades before other media started to catch up.

The 2000s

Still, even into the new millennium, bisexual protagonists really only ever showed up if the game either had some kind of dating mini game or was a full-on romance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you—just a operate of allowing players to have increasing agency over their characters’ identities through gameplay. BioWare titles like Jade Empire and Mass Effect, as well as Bethesda’s Fallout entries—all lauded for their emphasis on player choice—were the most publicized out of the crop. Then, as the indie game scene exploded in the 2010s, even more representation arrived on the scene thanks to one of our oldest friends: the dating sim.

Most dating sims take the general construction of visual novels, light on mechanics with a greater focus on writing, character design, and dramatic elements. This is a good option for smaller developers who don’t have the budget for fancy graphics and dozens of QC testers, especially those who want to reduce their teeth on some of the basics of game design before moving onto bigger studios.

Regardless of their complexity, dating sim design always comes down to the same goal: obtain the player invested in a relationship with another character (or characters). To do that, you’ve got to tick as numerous boxes as you can in terms of character appeal, meaning any potential relationship blocked off by individual sexual preferences limits the sum of experiences players can select from. The quick fix to this is to unblock all of them. Gender identity and presentation aren’t just present but necessary for most players to find something attractive about someone in your cast of characters; they just can’t have any real bearing on if those characters are accessible as dating partners. No matter how you spin that equation, you obtain the same result: bisexuals. Bisexuals everywhere.

Because of this, dating sims have always been the path of least resistance for bi protagonists, and the 2000s saw them really starting to create good on that. Of course Tokimeki Memorial’s sequels had a protagonist who could charm male and female classmates alike, while Persona 3 allowed the player to date Aigis regardless of gender, but it wasn’t just existing franchises venturing into that territory. All sorts of smaller indie titles were making good strides towards opening up the genre to more diverse sexualities, despite the all-too-predictable backlash from puritanical media outlets. Attitudes toward queer inclusion were easily mapped from the video game sphere to the culture at large, but then Katy Perry tested out another girl’s cherry chapstick and singlehandedly catapulted us into a new era.

The 2010s

Okay, perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic, and perhaps I’m definitely giving Katy too much credit here, but it’s hard not to notice that paradigm shift once the 2000s were out of the way. The 2010s were an absolute treasure trove of bisexual characters, numerous of them showing up in AAA games like Skyrim, Saints Row, The Witcher 3, and Assassin’s Creed—with varying degrees of tact, of course. Early in the decade, bi characters were sowever often reducible to the inventory promiscuous sexpot fantasy bisexual, but that was part of the growing pains of the era. Fortunately, that trope wouldn’t last much longer.

As always seems to be the case, bi representation shined in the indie sphere, with games like Night in the Woods, Stardew Valley, and Octopath Traveler giving the same attention or more to bi/pan characters as mainstream games gave to straight ones. However, AAA games were also surprisingly unabashed about showcasing their bis, especially in fantasy series like Fable III, Fire Emblem Fates, and Dragon Age: Inquisition where real-world stigmas don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) apply. Other major titles (e.g. Life is Strange) took a more oblong approach, technically leaving questions about their leads’ preferences ambiguous but very heavily hinting at their bisexuality.

This all owes to the inherent tension between player selection and hard canon. Different choices will produce a different story, meaning that in stories where the player chooses whom to date, there are plenty of players who will never see their character as queer. In that sense, by the end of the 2010s, there were very few canonical bisexuals. The inclusion of bisexuality is just one of numerous choices the player can check off, something they never even have to interact with if they don’t want to.

For numerous of these choice-based stories, the leading character’s only bi if the player wants them to be. Why don’t we have more linear narratives with a character who’s bi regardless of our personal feelings on the subject? You know, like how real life works!

The 2020s

Fortunately, matters are looking brighter than ever. (Well, at least in terms of the extremely particular criteria mentioned in this article. Everything else is sowever pretty pre-apocalyptic.) Bi representation isn’t just tolerated by the majority of gamers; it’s becoming ubiquitous enough that I hardly even obtain surprised when I see it come up in a game. A few notable recent entries:

  • Granblue Fantasy Versus has a bisexual villain (which happens to be my ideal aesthetic, love that for him)
  • Tell Me Why’s protagonist is a bisexual trans man
  • Hades has Zagreus, who’s basically become the bi/pan mascot for gaming
  • Cyberpunk 2077 lets you select every single detail of your sexuality and gender presentation
  • Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla lets you smash pretty much anybody as Muscle Mommy and/or Daddy Eivor
  • The Last of Us Part II sees Ellie cavorting with on-again off-again partner in bi-crime Dina and it’s somehow the least controversial aspect of the game
  • Life Is Strange: True Colors shows protagonist Alex Chen juggling a male and female love interest (and her singing voice is provided by mxmtoon, a bi woman whose music you should absolutely check out)
  • Indie darling Bugsnax has a whole litany of bi and pan characters
  • Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a visual novel with a compelling story at its core and a cast of good characters, all of whom can fall for you irrespective of gender

Similarly, gaming has seen an impressive influx of gay, lesbian, trans, and otherwise queer characters, numerous of whom had to wait even longer to see themselves represented in the medium. In other words: yes, the repopulation effort is, at present, optimistic. With each passing year, more and more bisexual characters continue to grace our monitors. Whether their orientation is baked into a canonical narrative or a reflection of the player’s will, bisexuals have come a long way from being no more than the subjects of coy innuendo in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There’s no telling where they’ll go next.

Kevin Wright
Freelance writer by day and sleeper by night. Thoughts contain mostly high fantasy, open-world survival games, and movie musicals. Sidon stan. The world needs more queer genre fiction and by golly I'm gonna give it to 'em!