It's when the male elf assassin and the strapping warrior peel off their clothes and start making out that you know you've left the realm of traditional video games far, far behind. This ain't Super Mario Brothers.
It's the prelude to a same-sex love scene in the recently released role-playing game Dragon Age: Origins that has many heralding a major step for the video game industry - and has thrown into relief the homophobia within the gaming community.
"It's not trying to be over the top, it's trying to show a gay relationship in a positive light, which is certainly a big change," says Paul Hunter, managing editor of NextGen Player, a Toronto-based gaming blog.
But while gay and lesbian characters are slowly gaining a place in video games as more than just stereotypical caricatures, the sex scene in the sword and sorcery game, released last month by Edmonton-based company BioWare and available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms, has drawn hateful comments online.
In one scene, players can choose to engage in a gay love scene with a male elf following some coy dialogue ("Is there something in your tent that needs assassinating?"). The two men are shown wearing only underwear as they kiss while lying on top of one another. The scene eventually fades to black.
A clip of the scene posted on YouTube three weeks ago has garnered more than 230,000 views and hundreds of comments. One commenter called the scene a "deranged homo-propaganda campaign." Another said the scene is meant "to promote gayness to youth" - though the game is rated M for mature, meaning for players 17 and older - while another called it "disgusting" and "filthy."
Many others praised the scene. "We've truly come a long way to have this in a video game as a valid option! I mean this sort of scene has happened so many other times with male/female, so why not? Gay people exist too!" one wrote.
Gay and lesbian characters have a long history in video games - rarely, however, have they been anything other than caricatures.
"You would have the lisp, you would have the fey voice, all those things that kind of fall right into that tired and unpleasant stereotype," says Adam Sessler, co-host of X-Play , a television show about video games.
The scene in Dragon Age: Origins is groundbreaking in avoiding stereotypes, especially since it features a main character, Mr. Hunter says.
On the whole, however, the video game industry remains anti-gay, some critics say.
"There is a long history of marginalizing the [gay and lesbian]community. It's not just the players, it's the publishers, the developers, the entire gaming community," Mr. Hunter says.
Earlier this year, to promote Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II , one of the biggest games of the year, the game's developer, Infinity Ward, released a video online asking players to Fight Against Grenade Spam. The company eventually pulled the ad following complaints about the acronym. Jostiq, a popular gaming website, accused Infinity Ward of "catering to the sensibilities of the foul, hateful underbelly of the online gaming community."
Last year, Microsoft was accused of homophobia after banning gay-related gamertags - the names created by Xbox users to identify themselves online - such as theGAYERgamer and RichardGaywood.
In a survey of homosexuality and gaming conducted by the University of Illinois in 2006, more than 50 per cent of respondents said they felt games portray gay people in a stereotypical way. As well, 52 per cent said they believed the gaming community is hostile to gay and lesbian gamers.
The gaming industry has taken some steps to counteract this culture of hostility.
Earlier this year, the U.S.-based Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation held an event featuring representatives from Microsoft's XBox LIVE program, the founder of GayGamer.net and video game publisher Electronic Arts on how to combat homophobia in online games, during which the chat trash talk has been known to get ugly.
Yet as gay players, so-called gaymers, make their presence known through websites such as GayGamer.net and Gaymer.org, the video game industry has begun to recognize it has a broader audience than just heterosexual males, Mr. Sessler says.
In Mass Effect , a female character can initiate sex with a female humanoid. In Fable , a role-playing game released in 2004, players could choose the sexual orientation of their characters and even marry members of the same sex. In Rock Star Games's Bully , a popular title from 2006, the title character could choose to lock lips with another male student within the game's prep school setting.
This year Rock Star Games released Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony , a downloadable game that sees players working for the titular character, whose depiction does not rely on base gay stereotypes.
Jennifer Ruttan, a gamer and president of the University of Toronto's game design and development club, says that a new generation of gamers has no problem with scenes like those in Dragon Age: Origins .
"It gives the players a lot more freedom. It allows them to develop the character in a way that almost represents themselves," she says.
Out of the digital closet
There's a long history of gay characters in video games, from the thinly veiled caricatures to those proudly out of the digital closet. If you've played video games in the past 20 years, chances are you've encountered them.
Character: Don Flamenco
Game: Mike Tyson's Punch-Out
Gayness: Thinly veiled was never so thinly veiled as when Don Flamenco pranced into the ring with a rose between his teeth.
Game: Street Fighter II
Gayness: Shirtless and wearing a bright red sash, Vega enjoyed a preening post-fight routine of dancing and stroking his hair.
Character: Jimmy Hopkins
Gayness: Jimmy could either be a make-out bandit with the ladies or his fellow guys at school, depending on the player's choice.
Character: Commander Shepherd
Game: Mass Effect
Gayness: Both a male and female Commander Shepherd (the character's gender is decided by the player) can romance an alien women who closely resembles a human.
Character: Grey Warden
Game: Dragon Age: Origins
Gayness: Up to the player, but ask yourself: Is there something in your tent that needs assassinating?