Trans characters have little of what could be considered a history in games. There are examples, here and there, but they’re very clearly the exception. They’re obscure cases to be looked for. However, Atlus is fairly unique in being one of the few developers with such a history. Given the state of the industry, it comes as little surprise that it is not a good history.
This history begins with Persona 2: Innocent Sin. It recently reached US shores for the first time via PSP port, though some English speaking fans had played it sooner thanks to a fan translation. It’s not a prominent example, there’s an instance where the player can have a brief conversation with a female-to-male trans person who happens to be wearing a skirt.
In other words, their identity and one element of their presentation are in conflict. In and of itself, this is fairly harmless. It’s arguably even an example of throwing the gender binary out the window, which would be awesome. The issue is what else accompanies this moment. Eikichi, a heterosexual male, looks at the NPC from afar and says, thinking the NPC a girl, that “she looks cute.”
In essence, the scene relies on an unconventional conflict between identity and presentation to make a juvenile joke about heterosexual male finding a man cute. The phrasing of the dialogue and the way the scene is presented make clear that the audience is supposed to find this exchange funny. The creators had no noble intentions with the trans NPC. They merely wanted a cheap laugh.
This is a brief moment of transphobic humor in an otherwise good game. Were it an isolated incident, it would perhaps be forgivable. Sadly, every moment transphobia or transignorance in our society comes with all the weight of what’s come before. They serve as reminders of just how inescapable these things are and just how ignorant our society remains. Worse, Innocent Sin was only a sign of things to come.
Persona 3, in addition to adding more focus on character drama, inflicted another example of anti-trans humor on the audience. Partway into the game, the cast makes a trip to the beach. Here the boys of the group go on “Operation Babe Hunt.” There are already issues with such a thing, forcing heterosexuality down the throat of any non-hetero player who opted to play it, but it gets much worse when the three boys run into an adult woman who actually responds with interest to their flirting. She’s a sexual predator, taking advantage of teenage hormones run wild.
The insulting punchline to this scene is that she’s a trans woman, outed to the cast by the fact that she missed just a bit of stubble when shaving. The trio are shocked by this revelation and promptly lose all interest in here. The player character is now canonically transphobic, as are his friends. The scene even reinforces the all too common belief that trans women are sexual predators eager to take advantage of clueless straight men.
Then Persona 4 did something interesting. It added Naoto. Naoto was a female-assigned-at-birth character who presented as male to the party. If Atlus handled this character properly, it would be the perfect opportunity for them to redeem themselves. Instead, Persona 4 ended up being yet another slap in the face of trans gamers everywhere.
In Persona 4, each dungeon is a metaphor for psychological hurdles a particular character is going through. As an example, one girl who feels trapped by familial obligations is depicted in her dungeon as a princess locked away in a castle. It’s not an incredibly deep metaphor, but it serves its purpose.
Returning to Naoto, all of his role models growing up were the detectives and spies of young adult fiction. At his introduction in the story, he is working as a detective, having taken after the characters he so admired. The dungeon combines Naoto’s childhood, adolescence, and identity as a trans man by taking the form of a secret base wherein he will undergo a horrific, dangerous experiment.
The goal of the surgery is actually for Naoto to become a man. As the hero off to everyone’s rescue, the player’s job is to prevent this. It is also here that the game attempts to convince the audience that Naoto didn’t really want to become a man. Rather, the game argues that Naoto was merely fed up with the infantilizing attitude most police have towards women and was trying to escape that.
Persona 4’s sins are many. It depicts gender reassignment surgery as dangerous and bad, in spite of the fact that there are many trans people for whom it is a necessary part of being comfortable with their bodies. It then forces the player to stand between Naoto and this safe, sometimes necessary surgery. It uses the same rhetoric as those who oppress trans folks by arguing that Naoto wasn’t really trans and was just trying to escape gender roles.
Any one of these would be considered an awful attack on the trans community on its own. By dumping all of them on the player at once, Persona 4 becomes arguably the most anti-trans game Atlus has released.
At last our story brings us to the current generation of consoles, for which Atlus released Catherine. Catherine tells the tale of Vincent, who begins having nightmares after he cheats on his longtime girlfriend. Every man who has these nightmares winds up dead and only men are able to have them. Later in the game, these dreams are revealed to be a divine punishment for men who keep partners who want children from having them.
Among the game’s colorful cast is the waitress Erica, who we find out is a trans woman via one of the game’s endings. The audience finds out that she’s trans when a guy who slept with her earlier in the game outs her and refers to her as Eric. However, the game foreshadows this revelation throughout. Vincent and other characters say she’s not a “real” woman, the guy who slept with her says that the sex was “weird” (though Erica has undergone gender reassignment surgery), and Erica ends up having the same nightmares as Vincent.
The dreams are an insult to trans people in two ways. First, the implication is that Erica isn’t a real woman. In this way, the game sides with the transphobic characters who insult her. However, there’s also the fact that Erica having these dreams means that she’s on the receiving end of some divine punishment for being closeted to a guy she slept with. Given the violence and transphobia that trans people become the target of when not closeted, the very idea that a trans woman deserves to be punished for keeping this secret is jawdroppingly ignorant.
The cherry on top of this transphobia sundae is that even the game’s artbook calls Erica a man and refers to her by her birth name. Erica as a character is great, but both Catherine and its artbook insult her and trans people everywhere.
Ultimately, it is Atlus’ Japan division that’s responsible for this. They’re the developers and thus it is their decision to write the game in such a way that these issues are as poorly handled as they are, but it is also worth considering what Atlus USA’s responsibility is in this mess. As translators, they have the opportunity to change transphobic lines and try to frame things in a less hurtful perspective. However, to do so would be to work in contrast to what some believe is a key element of translation: Accuracy.
While accuracy is an important part of any translation, it is generally accepted that there can be no such thing as a perfect translation. Generally speaking, something will always be lost in the process, due to differences in culture, lack of equivalent words, and even words that do match up having slightly different connotations in various situations. Even translations of the same work can have substantial differences depending on which elements of translation were prioritized.
As such, the idea of abandoning accuracy in unique situations is nothing new and could be used to make for better localizations of Atlus games. Seeing Persona 2’s faults in its handling of a trans NPC, it would be perfectly reasonable to change that scenario completely to get a less offensive result. It’s such a small part of the game that the benefit to the product as a whole would be worth far more than any accuracy it cost.
Obviously such changes are harder when significant portions of story are problematic. In this instance, Atlus USA’s responsibility then changes to one of informing. They have better connections with Atlus Japan than the vast majority of their American fans. As such, they’re in a position to let these developers know that if they intend to include trans characters, they should actually consult members of the trans community. They should educate themselves. If they’re going to include trans characters in their games, they have a moral obligation to do it right.
Atlus history with trans characters is a rather bad one, and yet it is worth acknowledging that they’ve actually included gender issues and trans characters beyond simply treating them as a joke. It is more than most any other game has done. This is not so much praise of Atlus as it is damning condemnation of the video game industry.
Both gamers and developers are responsible for the rather backwards nature of games today. Developers have an obligation to help progress move forward by releasing games that are better in this respect. Fans need to be held accountable for their purchases. Between the used games market and game rental services, there’s very little excuse for knowingly supporting games that hold the medium back.
There are those who’ve argued that characters like Naoto and Erica are “stepping stones” to better representation, but, even if they are, that does not erase the harm they do. They still contribute to misunderstandings of trans folks. They still contribute to transphobia, or at least transignorance. They still actively hurt members of the trans community.
Perhaps Atlus will one day handle presentation of trans issues properly, but, until that day comes, their fans should hold their feet to the fire. It helps no one to assume, “They’ll get it right eventually.” There must be a constant push for better portrayals, for better representation, and for better treatment. That push may not always be “nice” or “comfortable” for Atlus or for their cisgender fans, but it is still necessary. Trans gamers and the trans community as a whole deserve it.