In the early 90s, two queer people in the Mission District of San Francisco made games about queer experiences. One was a fantasy role-playing game populated by gay characters, the other a lesbian adventure game. These two developers would never meet. It’s only now, through archival projects like LGBTQ Game Archive, that queer scholars have begun to piece together this history.
In Caper On Castro Street, you play as “a lesbian detective and find a drag queen who’s gone missing in the Castro and uncover other mysteries,” according to LGBTQ Games Archive founder and professor Adrienne Shaw, who described the discovery and history of the game in a phone interview with Kotaku. Lesbian artist C.M. Ralph released the game in 1989. Three years later, developer Ryan Best put out Gayblade, which used code he had written for a different game. Shaw said that Best had signed a shitty contract for an RPG he had worked on and lost a lot of money, but since he still had all the code he had written, he repurposed it for an original fantasy RPG featuring an entirely gay cast.
Best got outed by bullies in high school in rural Illinois, and in an interview with Shaw, he describes how cathartic making Gayblade was for him. “In a very real way, Gayblade became my therapy. I put every type of person that had bullied me into the game as a monster you had to destroy,” he told Shaw. “And I was like, you know what? I don’t care anymore. When the game was finished and released, it was as if all of my baggage was gone.”
According to Best, Gayblade went on to sell thousands of copies. It even got press coverage at the time, touted as the first LGBTQ game; both Best and the reporters covering his game weren’t aware of C.M. Ralph’s work from a few years earlier.
Unike Best, Ralph wasn’t working as a video game developer; Caper on Castro Street was her first project. She was familiar with Hypercard, a programming tool made for Apple Macintosh computers, and thought she could use it to make an interesting interactive fiction experience. Ralph told Shaw that the game was initially released as “Charity Ware,” meaning that people who picked it up were asked to donate a small amount of money to an AIDS-related charity. Ralph, who had recently moved to San Francisco, wanted to give back to her community, and when she released her game in 1989, the AIDS epidemic was front of mind for queer communities all over America.
“Sometimes creative projects are like that,” Ralph told Shaw in an interview on the LGBTQ Games Archive. “They converge around a multitude of different things, and then that’s how this happened. The AIDS epidemic, my impulsive need to create things, and HyperCard’s abilities, everything. It all culminated.”
Shaw, who is an associate professor of media studies at Temple University, started the LGBTQ Games Archive in 2015. She maintains it alongside a few paid interns and some volunteers. The archive is currently comprised of over a thousand games with queer content, dating back to the 70s, although Shaw and her team have only been able to analyze and categorize about 300 of these games so far. Combing through each entry to understand and catalogue the kind of queer content in them can take anywhere from five to eighty hours. “I think I calculated it recently,” she said, “and we already have like over four years of full time labor represented in the archive, which isn’t bad for three years.”
Throughout her career, Shaw said she had always hoped that someone would compile an archive of the queer content in games, but no one rose to the challenge. When Shaw landed a stable job, she decided she may as well do it herself. “I think in a very practical sense, most of the people who do queer work are still grad students or people in precarious employment situations,” she said. “I have the resources and the interest and the training to do this kind of work, and I think it’s really just a culmination of luck.”
The archive began as a list of around 150 games, collected by Shaw herself, but when Shaw took the project public, interested gamers sent her more and more suggestions and helped to build up the archive many times over. Part of what makes it hard for scholars like Shaw to find and analyze these games, especially the earlier indie titles, is that they were rarely covered by media outlets for people who play games or even in publications about LGBTQ issues.
“I did sort of a deep dive into a gay press archive, and Gayblade got written up in a few,” she said. “The gay press just didn’t cover games for a long time. So I think part of it is the community who would have written these histories wasn’t really paying attention either.”
Now, indie games with queer themes feel like they’re ubiquitous. Dating sims with queer themes like Dream Daddy have gotten plenty of coverage in mainstream outlets (including ours). Even big-budget mainstream projects like The Last Of Us Part II and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey plan to include queer romance options alongside straight ones. As queer fans celebrate these recent games for breaking new ground, it’s also important to remember that queer developers making games that reflect their culture isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just that very few people knew about these old games.
These games aren’t even that old, but no one’s ever archived them before, so they’ve gotten lost. “It’s not like people aren’t still alive from this era,” Shaw said. “It’s not that long ago, but it’s harder to find than it is to find out things about gay nightlife in the 30s.”
Shaw believes that documenting and analyzing these games could show modern queer developers the histories that they never knew about before—and perhaps, these past works could lay the groundwork for the queer games scene of the modern day. “You’d think game scholars would be more interested in leveling up,” Shaw said. “You know, grind through the things that people have done before, and then move onto the next thing.” Now, thanks to Shaw’s archive, they can.