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Haven Proves Games Can Be Queer Inclusive If There's the Will

How The Game Bakers made its RPG representative of queer players.

Last week, indie developer The Game Bakers updated Haven to allow players to play a same-sex version of its central romance. The original RPG centers around a woman named Yu and a man named Kay, a couple on the run from a system that would keep them apart. It’s a tragic, yet hopeful story of choosing to defy the safety of abiding by a system in pursuit of true love.

On its face, it’s a universal truth relatable to anyone with romantic leanings, but it’s hard to ignore the real-world parallels this situation has to queer relationships. Those allegories are more apparent than ever with the Couples Update, which adds a male version of Yu and a female version of Kay, letting the player choose one of three versions of the lovers. While the update’s development took over a year of the studio’s time, the team feels like Haven has reached its full potential as a universal story about love, rebellion, and doing right by queer fans who felt alienated by the original story.

For The Game Bakers, this is the actualization of an aspect of Haven’s original pitch. Yu and Kay were initially only one of eight different pairings that the studio intended to let players pick between. This cast included relationships of different make-ups, ages, and even non-romantic dynamics, as among them were two sisters. As the scope for the project scaled back, the story had to change alongside it. This allowed the team to focus on two defined characters and their relationship to each other and the world around them. But according to Creative Director Emeric Thoa, the central love story was always a pillar the team wanted to explore in whatever form Haven took.

Haven's Couples Update Proves Games Can Be Queer Inclusive If There's the Will

“There were different ideas, always with the same intention of exploring a love relationship in a video game,” Thoa tells Fanbyte. “Because that’s not very frequent, or most of the time it’s treated like a love interest but it’s not really important. So we wanted to really put that at the core of the gameplay. But obviously, with eight couples it would have been a different game.”

After Haven launched in 2020, The Game Bakers took about a year to develop the Couples Update. Since the relationship between Yu and Kay is the core of Haven, it meant the team had to overhaul several aspects to create a cohesive experience for each version of them. This includes things both apparent and invisible to the player. Thoa explains it was more than just swapping models and voice acting — it was baked into the code of Haven.

“There were the assets, but there was a lot of work to make the game work with these new couples,” Thoa says. “So a lot of backend code and organization of the assets, and just supporting the feature. The thing that’s never talked about in any post-mortem feature is also all the QA that goes with that. While you develop the game, you have to test that hundreds of times. And yeah, it’s been a bit exhausting, but now it’s done. We are moving on and very happy to have done it. It was worth it, no question.”

Haven's Couples Update Proves Games Can Be Queer Inclusive If There's the Will

But for all the technical overhaul the player would never see, the core of what it means for the player is how they relate to Yu and Kay’s strife and joys as a couple. These are expressed in some presentational changes, from loading screen art and menus that can now feature the same-sex versions of both characters to the 80,000 lines re-recorded to accommodate all three pairings. When it came to recreating the performances, The Game Bakers sought to capture the same chemistry of the original opposite-sex pairing with new actors Lexie Ann Kendrick and Ryan Highley. But it was hard to precisely replicate everything that made female Yu and male Kay’s performances so intertwined.

“For the original couple, first we did a very long casting, then we had both [actors] Chris [Lew Kum Hoi] and Janine [Harouni] come to the studio together to rehearse and [perform] together,” he explains. “Which is, I mean, probably other games have done that before. But in my experience it’s super, extra rare. People don’t play; they read dialogue lines from an Excel sheet. Usually alone in a box. So we had that, we had an audio director guiding them, and we rehearsed the dialogues and recorded. We took a really long time to ensure it was of excellent quality.”

With Kendrick and Highley, The Game Bakers sought to recreate the same performance dynamics, which meant asking them to emulate Lew Kum Hoi and Harouni’s delivery. This helped unify the different versions of Yu and Kay, even if they were of different genders and played by different actors.

“Because we spent so much time polishing the acting and the chemistry between the characters for the new couples, we actually played the original lines for each recorded line,” Thoa says. “We played it and we asked the [actors] to mimic the acting for these lines so that we kept the same quality. Which is actually not an easy job to do, because I tried and couldn’t do it. But they managed to do it very well.”

Haven's Couples Update Proves Games Can Be Queer Inclusive If There's the Will

With no cut corners on the new models, voice acting, and menu assets, Haven now gives players a rich opportunity to see themselves more definitively within the story’s romance. While the team wanted the story to be universal, The Game Bakers realizes certain story beats, such as the forbidden love between Yu and Kay, now hold a greater weight for queer players facing similar scrutiny in their own lives. For example, playing as a gay couple means Kay was originally promised to a woman by the Matchmaker, the system that decides who people will marry in Haven’s fictional world. This adds new layers to what it means for him to have left his home of the Apiary with a man, and Thoa says he welcomes those interpretations.

“We tried to make it not really a story about being forbidden to love each other because of anything like [homophobia],” Thoa says. “But it was just ‘okay, the system chose a match for you. It’s that or nothing,’ and so they go away. Now with [the Couples Update], we can imagine that it’s because they are gay or some other reason. For me, I try to think of it as the most inclusive thing as possible. It’s the story of a couple that is forbidden, and in my opinion, we should be free to love who we want. I think it fits well in all cases, but I know some people could have interpreted things differently with the original couple.”

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When Haven launched in 2020, long before Yu and Kay could be a same-sex couple, it came under a bit of scrutiny for what queer representation it did have. Yu’s mother Erena, who plays a semi-antagonistic role in the story, was assigned to another woman by the Matchmaker. In a plea to see her child return to the Apiary and be with a man they don’t love, she advocates for the systems in place despite the pain it would put her child through. This would also entail a mind-wipe that would make Yu and Kay forget each other and get partnered with whomever the Matchmaker chose for them – a plot point that some compared to the real-world practices of conversion therapy used on queer people to try and “cure” them of their sexuality. Given that she was the only queer representation in the game at the time, Erena’s stance didn’t sit right with some critics. After seeing some criticism on social media, The Game Bakers officially responded on its website, acknowledging the criticism of both Erenda’s role and the overarching comparison to conversion therapy.

“It has been brought to our attention [that] some aspects of Haven[‘s] setting in relation to the character Erena and the Matchmaker are tone deaf to the reality the LGBTQ+ community is facing,” reads the blog post. “To players who have felt unwelcome while playing our game: we’re sorry. This goes against our inclusive values as a team and the theme of the game.”

In the apology, The Game Bakers said it couldn’t dive further into the inner workings of the Matchmaker at the time. But while the team appreciates how these plot points were evaluated under a real-world lens, Thoa says The Game Bakers’ view of the story is more nuanced than a black-and-white or good-and-evil framing.

“Yu’s mother is an ambiguous character because she has a role as a CEO of a company that really didn’t do well, but she’s also a caring mother,” Thoa says. “We try not to have characters that are all good or all bad. She was a super interesting character for us.” Should Haven’s story ever continue with a sequel, the team has ideas for a storyline in which she’s a major character.

Haven's Couples Update Proves Games Can Be Queer Inclusive If There's the Will

While it wasn’t the direct intention of The Game Bakers to address this criticism with the Couples Update, it allowed for new dynamics and interpretations to sprout. Nonetheless, the team was also aware of some more regressive readings that could come out of changing Yu and Kay’s genders. While there are now two versions of both characters, you cannot play the combination of a male Yu and female Kay. When a fan asked why The Game Bakers didn’t also let players choose that couple, the studio responded publicly saying that dynamic “didn’t feel anymore like the modern couple [it] imagined in the first place.” The original version of Haven was subversive in that Yu, a hot-headed and assertive engineer, and Kay, a reserved scientist who loves cooking, didn’t occupy traditional gender roles, and that was an important pillar the team didn’t want to undermine.

“We thought about it, but for several reasons, it was complicated,” Thoa says. “[There is] some dialogue that we don’t feel comfortable with. Like, the guy becomes a mechanic and the girl does the cooking. We tried to avoid that. I like that players would have the freedom to do it, but would they really be aware that it was not the intention originally? I don’t think so. We wanted to stay as close to our initial vision as possible.”

Thoa elaborated further, telling Fanbyte the decision also stemmed from a desire to trim down the team’s workload, as adjusting the game to accommodate the established same-sex couples was already a great deal of work.

Haven's Couples Update Proves Games Can Be Queer Inclusive If There's the Will

Now that the update is out, Thoa says the fan reaction has been “absolutely fantastic.” However, the team has dealt with a slight drop in its positive Steam reviews due to homophobic players rating the game poorly because of the update.

“We have a bunch of morons who are complaining that the game is still exactly the same for them, but better for some other people, and they don’t like that, for some reason,” Thoa says. “I really can’t understand that, but I’ve dropped that fight.”

Thoa says the team is looking to maybe add another small patch, but it wants to move on to a new project after working on the Couples Update for the last year.

“I’m super proud of this update,” he says. “I think it was something we did as much for the players as it is for us. Now that it’s released, I feel proud and happy that more people can play the game.”

In many RPGs where romance is a big draw, lack of inclusion is often attributed to a shortage of resources. A recent example is the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition remasters not including updated romance options to make same-sex relationships available for men across the trilogy. BioWare stated such an update would require voice lines that were never recorded, as well as changes to coding and flags that fell outside the scope of the project. Haven’s Couples Update shows there’s some truth to just how much work it takes to make content as inclusive as possible. But it also crucially underlines that if a studio is willing and eager to do right by its queer fans, it can get the job done.

About the Author

Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.