Perfecting Queer Representation In Gaming

Horizon Forbidden West’s Big LGBTQ+ Story & Why Critics On Both Sides Are Wrong

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Warning: Contains spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West’s Burning Shores DLC

Horizon Forbidden West released its DLC, Burning Shores in April 2023 and became the target of review bombing because it included an LGBTQ+ storyline, but the game’s developers clearly aren’t too concerned. In a post-Gamergate world, it’s hardly surprising that things like this happen. What is perhaps more surprising is that it was the Burning Shores DLC that upset people in particular and that there are people who think the game actually didn’t go far enough when providing a kiss between Aloy and the new Burning Shores character, Seyka.

Review bombing has become the go-to move for homophobes and transphobes as games, TV shows, and movies become more inclusive and representative of society. The low scores rarely line up with the reviews from critics and is primarily a problem on sites like Metacritic. While some recent reviews have made it clear that critic’s ranking system is complicated by external factors, it’s clear that this is really just a vocal minority who hate that not every game is exclusively about white cis-males.

In an interview with Video Games Chronicle, Horizon Forbidden West’s narrative director, Ben McCaw, and the lead writer, Annie Kitain, provided their thoughts on the review bomb effort. The TL;DR might be summed up as “haters gonna hate,” but it goes a step further than that. McCaw noted that when it comes to this sort of ” blatant negativity, I personally find it pretty easy to just compartmentalize and realize that this is a mindset I can never really jive with,” before going on to highlight the very positive feedback that they received from gamers as well. But more importantly, Kitain highlighted the biggest issue here, saying that they appreciate constructive feedback, before going on to say:

But for people who didn’t play the game, or who are just trying to be negative online, we find that pretty easy to ignore.

Annie Kitain, speaking with VGC

The implication from Kitain that the people who are review-bombing the Burning Shores DLC haven’t played the games makes a lot of sense. The people who are review bombing it aren’t the actual players of the games who have gone along with Aloy’s journey and had the experience “ruined” by… whatever homophobic, anti-“woke” tirade they feel like labeling Aloy’s kiss with Seyka with. The element that makes this so obvious is that the Horizon games have always been full of queer characters and stories.

In Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy helps an Oseram man who wants to be able to get in to see a statue that was carved by his husband before he was killed by the Carja. At Sunstone Rock, Aloy meets Janeva, who pushes back on being described as a “sister” and appears to either be transmasc and/or genderqueer to some degree. In Horizon Forbidden West, there are even more examples, with LGBTQ+ identities and relationships being both common and (as far as the clans of the game are considered) unremarkable. Tilda van der Meer and Elisabet Sobeck are revealed to have been in a relationship prior to the Faro Plague, and this appears to be of no surprise to Aloy. And while at the Bulwark, Aloy can meet a wealth of queer Tenakth. One, Penttoh, appears to be gay, with him sharing a moment with another male Tenakth and his sister then teasing him that the guy is “cute.” Perhaps most important though is the Tenakth called Wekatta who is a trans woman who talks of understanding the struggle of having to prove yourself to your clan and is portrayed by none other than Rebecca Root.

With so much LGBTQ+ content in the game, a queer kiss between the protagonist and another woman in the Burning Shores DLC shouldn’t have come as any surprise. If it was only at reaching that point in the game that a player became upset by the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content and an accepting society, then they would have had to be blind to so much of the games’ stories that it’s a wonder they ever reached the DLC.

Homophobia, transphobia, and other hatred aside, there are some who felt that, rather than being a problem to include the kiss, the method of that inclusion presented a problem for queer representation. After flirting with Seyka throughout the DLC, the player is given a choice as to whether or not Aloy kisses Seyka, with one commentator calling the optionality of it “cowardly” and treating it as “press X to be gay.” They compared Aloy’s Horizon Forbidden West DLC storyline with Seyka to that of Ellie in The Last of Us games, holding up the fact that she is explicitly queer throughout the games and the player has no agency in that fact.

While the irritation is understandable, it ignores two key aspects of the situation. First of all, the two games are very different in their structure and narrative design. In The Last of Us games, options are nearly non-existent and the player progresses through the story that is being told without having an impact on it. By contrast, in the Horizon games, the player receives a good number of choices about how to react to situations, how to respond in conversations, and whether to kill someone or spare their life. While these tend not to have a big impact on the wider story, it allows the player to define part of who Aloy is for them—an aspect that is not part of The Last of Us games, and therefore the inclusion of a choice around kissing Seyka makes a lot more sense.

When asked by Video Game Chronicles which option was the canon choice, the devs made it clear that all the options in are intended to be true to Aloy’s character, depending on the player’s own interpretation. McCaw and Kitain highlighted that either option makes sense with the themes of the game and the player can choose whether Aloy is ready for a relationship after all she’s been through.

We strived to make them all fit in the realms of Aloy’s psyche. If you really look at the other two besides the one where she kisses Seyka, they really are reflective of her journey in Forbidden West.
They’re really a continuation of a theme that we have in both games, about her not being ready for various types of social contact, because of her upbringing, but also because of the enormous challenges that she faces ahead. So for me, they’re all viable.

Ben McCaw, speaking with VGC

We wanted to make sure that each of those choices is still in line with Aloy as a character and is still true to the story that had led up to that moment. So the feelings that she’s developed for Seyka, that’s all still true, but just you know, whether the player thinks Aloy’s ready to take that next step and have this romantic encounter or whether Aloy isn’t there yet, it’s valid.

Annie Kitain, speaking with VGC

Ultimately, whether Aloy kisses Seyka or doesn’t can’t make Aloy any less queer. There is plenty of evidence through the games that the gender of someone flirting with her doesn’t make any difference to her, whether she is open to reciprocating or not.

The second (and more important) aspect that the criticism around giving the player the choice not to have Aloy kiss Seyka in Horizon Forbidden West’s DLC is that it neglects the fact that the choice gives something more. Having the kiss be optional offers the opportunity to preserve a rarer type of LGBTQ+ representation. Throughout the Horizon Games, a wide range of people hit on Aloy with varying degrees of persistence. Erend and Avad have both carried a torch for Aloy, as did Varl before he moved on, and Petra is always happy to see “flame-hair” and is perhaps the biggest flirt in the games. However, Aloy responds to all such advances by either awkwardly ignoring them, engaging in some light flirting with no seeming desire to act on it, or by pointing out that with Earth’s future in jeopardy there might be more important things to focus on right now.

There are three very valid potential reasons behind her stoic refusal to engage in romance before the Horizon Forbidden West DLC. One is, as she says, that she has other things to worry about and is singularly focused on her mission. A second is that, growing up as an outcast, Aloy wasn’t well socialized. Rost might have been a strong father figure for Aloy, but he likely struggled to teach her about relationships, and as most people wouldn’t talk to Aloy because of being an outcast, there weren’t a lot of chances for her to explore her sexuality during puberty. This explanation seems to be in line with McCaw’s response about the canon choice around Seyka.

However, the third and crucial reading that makes the inclusion of a choice around kissing Seyka so important is that Horizon’s Aloy can be read as asexual. Ace representation is rare, and rarely done well. However, Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West provide a character who is able to, over time, develop deep emotional relationships with people of different backgrounds without the need for the inclusion of physical intimacy. For asexual players who are happy to see themselves in Aloy and her healthy relationships outsides of sexual contact, railroading Aloy into a kiss with Seyka would not have made the game more strongly LGBTQ+, but would rather have erased an important aspect of Horizon’s true queer representation.♦

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