Friday, June 21, 2024

Dragon Quest 11’s Sylvando is a Complicated, Gay Character – And That’s Okay

Getting real gay representation in games is a fraught prospect no matter where it comes from. Too often we have heterosexual creators falling back on harmful tropes when including someone like us, or flat-out using us as a punchline. You’ll see characters that are lispy, feminine, wimpy, and even comically predatory. We almost never get to be the hero. That’s what makes Dragon Quest 11’s Sylvando, a gay character and hero, so surprising.

Sylvando is a gay character who isn’t just a joke despite being the stock Jester character class. While he still has some tropey flaws attached to him, he accomplishes one thing that many gay characters utterly fail at: he makes us feel like we can be heroes, too.

Let’s be very clear from the start: one of the biggest faults in Sylvando’s story is that he’s never confirmed to be gay concretely. He never has any relationships with other male characters, and his penchant for attraction to men is only hinted at. Rather, we know he’s meant to be gay because he’s coded as gay using tropes such as his flamboyance, his speech patterns, and some of his special abilities all point to him being a gay man. This is a shame, as we need out and proud gay role models, especially if we want to inspire players who are still in the closet that being gay isn’t just a thing we are, but that it can be awesome.

All that being said, the tropes employed by Square Enix, for the most part, never veer into harmful stereotypes. Sylvando’s flamboyance is never turned up to 11, and he has quiet moments in between the flamboyance. This is an important distinction from gay characters that came before for one key reason: dimensionality. Much of the problem with gay characters up until now is that they were one-dimensional people rather than possessing the complex mannerisms, inner life, and rhythms of a real person. They just exist to be one thing and nothing else. If we want a character that we can look at and see ourselves in, it needs to be more than one thing. Even the best of intentioned gay characters can fall into this trap, so to see a complex gay character portrayed here is a good first step.

What’s more, Sylvando is allowed to be competent at something other than making heterosexual people uncomfortable. In his backstory, he is described as a former knight who walked away from the calling to work for the circus and make people happy. Even before you get those bits of backstory filled in, though, you can tell that he’s a cut above your average circus performer. He performs feats of skill and bravery like they were nothing, and he knows the knight’s code by heart. In another life, Sylvando could have been a general.

So often gay characters are defined by their gayness, or at least a heterosexual view of gayness. The one-dimensional characters that gay people had to endure were also insufferable because their only point was to mock gay people. They weren’t good for anything else or good at anything. We as gay people aren’t allowed to be proficient at anything but being gay. Seeing someone like you thrive at something is invaluable and underrated.

More than anything, though, Dragon Quest 11 paints Sylvando as heroic in ways few games do for their gay characters. His bravery is unmatched in the party, and he often heroically comes to the aid of the cornered main character more than once, doing so with the utmost style. This is where his flamboyance works in his favor, as any time he makes a heroic save, he makes a grand show of it. Not because he wants the attention and praise, but because that’s just how he is. It also highlights how he’s on equal footing with the rest of the characters. It would be so easy to write him off as, again, the stock Jester character if his showiness weren’t aimed at his heroism.

It’s not all positive with Sylvando, though. Dig a little deeper and you still see hints of homophobia underneath. If you look at his abilities, one of them is called Kiss Me Deadly, which involves Sylvando blowing a kiss at an enemy. This, in itself, isn’t unusual aside from the fact that kissing abilities usually go to women characters and charms enemies, implying enemies find the subject desirable enough to forget what they’re doing and zone out. Except that this isn’t what happens when Sylvando blows a kiss. Instead of charming enemies, it poisons them, implying that his affections have a toxic effect, or that his attention makes enemies ill. The trope of a gay man coming onto a straight man and the latter getting sick or freaked out is homophobia. In this light, Sylvando’s sexuality is played for a joke, which undercuts almost all the positive character work Dragon Quest 11 does.

Even though Dragon Quest 11’s Sylvando isn’t handled perfectly, he’s miles better than most other gay characters in games up until this point, and the fact that he even has layers to debate at all speaks well for his portrayal.

Gay people deserve to be treated like we can be something other than creepy perverts. We deserve to be treated like we can be heroic. Most of all, though, we deserve to be the inspiration, to be an example for people, whether they be gay or straight, without hiding the fact that we’re gay. We deserve to be all of who we are and who we can be for everyone to see.

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