Eric Andrew James

Eric Andrew James is a graduate student in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Northwestern University who studies the fanciful and socio-material relationships between new technologies, their developers,and the communities who use them. His past topics include video games, esports, social media,and absurd digital humor.

Contact information:
Ericjames2020 at

Queer Easter Eggs and their Hierarchies of Play

by Eric Andrew James


Gaming fandoms often discuss “Easter eggs” as objects of intrigue in art and fiction, since finding an Easter egg demonstrates unique and interesting knowledge to video gaming’s historically insider culture. Yet Easter eggs are more than innocuous community-building tools. They are also among the earliest spaces in which queer experiences are represented in mass-market games. In this paper, I argue that while many of these queer Easter eggs offer reparative opportunities for reading queerness into outwardly “straight” games, the fundamental positionality of an Easter egg and the continued repetition of this position does more to hierarchically structure queerness into spaces considered secret, noncanonical, and zany. Through a close reading of a hidden scene in Final Fantasy 7 (1997), I argue that Easter eggs in video games are effective tools for representing queer marginality and silence but that they are also silencing tools themselves, as they fall victim to the rigid heteronormative hierarchy of the gaming industry. Advocating an ambivalent perspective on game design, I connect modern projects on queerness and gaming to these forgotten scenes. I ground current AAA gaming projects that look to be inclusive of queer experiences in the history of this hegemonic ordering.

Keywords: Queer Theory, Ambivalence, Easter Eggs, Final Fantasy 7, BioWare, Sexuality, Archeology

Content note: The section of this article titled "Queer Representability in Final Fantasy 7" includes references to sexual assault. These references provide additional background to the case study and are consigned to the first three paragraphs, so readers sensitive to this material who are interested in the discussion of Final Fantasy 7 may wish to skip to the fourth.


“Easter eggs” have been a staple of video games since the late 1980s. You may remember shooting Doom 2’s (id Software, 1994) final boss in the face to find the head of John Romero, turning off your PlayStation 2 for two weeks to watch The End die of old age in Metal Gear Solid 3 (Konami Computer Entertainment, 2004), or even following a complicated ARG such as the Frog Fractions 2 (aka Glittermitten Grove, Twinbeard, 2016) sigil quest through multiple games. These Easter eggs are hidden artifacts--such as people, messages, places, scenes, or items--that players are not likely to come across in normal play and that require some sort of special attention, game hack, or obtuse combination of player actions to discover. It is strangely satisfying to push on the game in an unpredictable way and watch it give back. Perhaps it has something to do with the sudden openness that a game must have in order to reward players for interacting with it in just such a way. Maybe it is that Easter eggs highlight how many opportunities are out there for new, ludic experiences. Easter eggs tap into players’ desires to be part of the industry they love, to see the developer break the fourth wall and speak directly to them: not to every gamer but to those who are willing to dive deep. As previous work has suggested, finding an Easter egg often signals to players that they are part of an in-crowd, a community made up of both the developers who put that surprise in the game and players clued in on the secret (Bonenfant, 2012; Bailey, 2008).

Easter eggs are more than innocuous community-building tools, however. They are also one of the earliest spaces in which queer experiences are represented in mass-market games [1]. The examples I listed above are tremendously goofy anecdotes. They range from benign throwbacks to established fandoms to game-breaking developments. In other instances though, developers have used Easter eggs to queer character identities and game narratives. Queer artifacts such as the infamous dancing men in speedos that Andy Bichlbaum hid in SimCopter (Maxis, 1996) highlight existing queer subtext and stand in contrast to what is often considered a rigorously male, heteronormative industry (LGBTQ Game Archive). However, while many of these queer Easter eggs offer reparative opportunities for reading queerness into outwardly “straight” games and represent the resistive qualities of queer political identity, the fundamental positionality of an Easter egg and the continued repetition of this position does more to hierarchically structure queerness into domains considered secret, dubious, and zany. Expanding previous calls to consider Easter eggs as vital artifacts in gaming history (Bailey, 2008), I analyze the historical relationship between Easter eggs and current efforts to increase queer representation by AAA developers. Contrasted with both the secrecy of queer Easter eggs and current design philosophies that try to optimize player choice, I argue for a politics of ambivalent game design that emphasizes queer irresolvability. I end by demonstrating this ambivalent politics through a close reading of a hidden gay date scene in Final Fantasy 7 (Square, 1997). There, I critique two simultaneous textual trajectories that are legible through the scene’s status as an Easter egg: one a commentary on social silencing of gay love and the other a sudden and continuous deferral of that recognition. Suggesting only minor revisions to Final Fantasy 7’s upcoming reboot (expected to be released in episodes starting in 2019), I try to articulate a future that builds from the Easter egg’s history in queer gaming representation.

Figure 1. Dancing speedo men in SimCopter. Screenshot image credit


This project responds to calls to trouble and queer the hegemonic context of popular game production (Bagnall, 2017; Harvey, 2014). There is a long tradition of queer scholarship drawing attention to ways in which designers bring queer experiences to the surface: strategies such as eliminating win-states (Ruberg, 2017; Shaw, 2014), troubling numerical values (Cabiria 2008), and queering player interface (Pow, 2018; Kopas, 2015). Game studies scholars have advocated for player-developers, detailing instances in which mods, hacks, and protests fought back against the uniform representation of AAA development (Taylor, 2006; Crawford and Rutter, 2007; McAllister, 2004). They have also championed games that foreground queer themes and experiences (Malkowski and Russworm, 2017; Shaw, 2014; Anthropy, 2012). However, much of this history of scholarship follows a clear demarcation. Critical works that look to identify heteronormative tendencies in games often largely focus on AAA titles; works that look for queer game design focus on independent titles and small-scale gamer actions.

That a clear demarcation in criticism exists is not surprising, nor does it differ much from criticism of movies, television, books, or any other marketable media. Independent and art games provide fertile soil for theorizing queer gaming mechanics (Conn, 2015; Sharp, 2015). Yet somewhere between Sherry Turkle’s utopian declaration that gamers “become authors not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction” (1995, p. 12) and the nationalist rigidity of early 2000s first-person shooters such as Call of Duty is an archive of popular games that is rigorously heteronormative and yet suspiciously queer. Game studies has parsed instances in which video games reinforce monolithic cultural understandings by resigning players to uncritical flow (Schrank, 2014) or present linear, heteronormative experiences as a scope-defining spectrum (Galloway, 2006), but we need more work that bridges the gap between queer design and popular critique. In the sense that AAA titles represent the most popular works in gaming, they are important sites for understanding current trends in game culture and for making political changes to that culture. As Stuart Hall makes clear, “popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured” (Hall, 1981, p. 239). My goal is to secure popular games as a site of struggle for queer politics.

Looking at queer Easter eggs as both hierarchical scaffolding and artifacts of queer experience, I hope to support the archeology of queer representation in popular games. In some sense, this is necessarily “an archeology of a silence” (Foucault, 2006, p. x-xi). This project approaches the hiddenness of queer Easter eggs to understand them within a system of exclusion or, perhaps more accurately, a system of biopolitical restrictions that structure inclusion. As Zoya Street argues, “A queer history needs to highlight the constant work that games culture puts into producing normativity” (Street, 2017, p. 41). Much attention from developers and media alike to queerness in AAA games emphasizes presence and absence; this practice supports heteronormative hegemonic ordering more often than it resists it (Clark, 2017). Thus, I follow Laine Nooney’s suggestion that archaeologies of marginality in games uncover structural questions. These archeologies require us to get away from questions such as “Where are marginal experiences in gaming?” and move toward a new question: “Why are they there in the way that they are?” (Nooney, 2013).

The Limitations of Queer Easter Eggs

Used now to describe hidden elements of movies and television shows as well as games, Easter eggs have a long legacy in video games. While a recent article by Ed Fries finds the earliest arcade video game Easter egg in Starship 1 (Atari, 1977) (Fries, 2017), the popularity of Easter eggs in game design is often attributed to the influence of Atari’s Adventure (1979). In that game, programmer Warren Robinette, supposedly protesting Atari’s refusal to include programmers in game credits, hid the secret phrase “Created by Warren Robinette.” This phrase would only appear if players stepped on a particular pixel, which is now referred to as the “gray dot.” Described as an Easter egg after the fact by Atari director Steve Wright in gaming magazine Electronic Games (Bonenfant, 2012, p. 178), this hidden message became the first heavily-discussed instance in what would go on to be a long line of Easter eggs in video games. Like Robinette’s addition, most of the Easter eggs discovered from this time period are small attributions to developers. Starship 1’s hidden message, for instance, is a simple “Hi Ron!” created by developer Ron Milner (Fries, 2017). While these simple attributions are still a popular form for gaming Easter eggs, many modern Easter eggs are a whole lot larger. Often, they play with the diegetic environment of the game itself. Some provide whole new levels and areas for players to explore. Perhaps the most memorable of these is the widely-discussed hidden water level in Super Mario World (Nintendo, 1990). Others, such as the aforementioned possible death of The End by old age in Metal Gear Solid 3, offer genuine ludic possibilities for playing the game differently. Mostly, however, these Easter eggs are as humorous, strange, and context-breaking as the literal giant purple bunny that rises from the ocean in Saints Row 2 (2008).

Figure 2. The secret purple bunny in Saints Row 2. Screenshot image credit Codie Martin:


Notably, Easter eggs are among the most popular spaces into which developers insert references to other work in the industry. In Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software, 2012), for instance, a secret “Cavern of the Creepers” is filled with the pixelated monsters that chase players in Minecraft (2012). According to Wm. Ruffin Bailey, this industry reflexivity is evidence that Easter eggs have a a major influence on the nostalgia of games culture (Bailey, 2008). Whether to poke fun at, pay homage to, or just generally reference another game or developer, the use of these Easter eggs to break the continuity of the game narrative and speak to games culture is supportive of Jack Yarwood’s claim that Easter eggs are mostly intended to build communities of gamers who love to share their secrets (Yarwood, 2016).

Easter eggs also feature some of the earliest (though certainly not the only) instances of queer representation in video games produced by large developers, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though the gay date scene I will examine from Final Fantasy 7 (henceforth FF7) is only one particularly compelling artifact, other instances appear in games such as SimCopter, Super Mario RPG (Nintendo, 1996), Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2001), Playboy: The Mansion (Cyberlore Studios, 2005), Hitman: Blood Money (IO Interactive, 2006) and more [2]. As I will demonstrate, many of these queer Easter eggs provide games with a powerful queer inflection. In many ways, the rhetoric of Easter eggs is a strong fit for queer critique. For one, queer rhetoric embraces proud strangeness and overturns heteronormative assumptions with sudden gestures. Beyond this, the hiddenness of Easter eggs provides a compelling analogue to queer silence and oppression. In FF7, for instance, the date scene’s status as an Easter egg highlights its portrayal of gay love deferred. Easter eggs have some power to allow queerness to speak its social experience. However, both because of the way that Easter eggs are experienced and because of their status in game communities, they are as likely to structure queerness out of games as give it a voice.

The fundamental problem with queer Easter eggs is that they are permanently structured into secrecy. While most Easter eggs fit into Alexander Galloway’s category of the machine diegetic (Galloway, 2006)--since they are artifacts present in the game world--discovering them often requires that players interact with the game in unintuitive ways that break the diegetic circle of motivator and action. Easter eggs play off the existing and established game world, but because they relate to the game itself only through a nebulous set of actions that differ from how the game is traditionally played, the space of their confirmation is also the space of their dismissal. Maude Bonenfant suggests, “They are ‘extras’ for players and not essential to the games in which they appear” (Bonenfant, 2012, 177). Finding “Toad’s ????” in his dresser in Super Mario RPG plays with an undercurrent of sexual deviance that gamers project onto the character, but it is more a secret artifact shared between fellow gamers than an insight into the story itself.

The structured secrecy of Easter eggs is compounded by the common association of these artifacts with absurdist humor. Examples such as Toad’s ???? and the purple bunny in Saints Row 2 break with the tone of the game and prompt players to giggle at the contrast. In the language of Sianne Ngai’s modern capitalist aesthetic categories, Easter eggs demand attention because they are “zany.” They are notable but only liminally canonical, interesting not because they provide a good story or interpretation but simply because they are there and they are strange. For Ngai, the zany’s “mix of displeasure and pleasure stems not only from its projection of a character exerting herself to extreme lengths to perform a job, but also from the way in which it immediately confronts us with our aversion to that character” (Ngai, 2012, p. 11). Similarly, while Easter eggs may represent queer experiences, they do not prompt players to confront their implications; instead, they foreclose that very possibility by allowing the player to laughingly disdain queerness. This is particularly true in FF7. No matter how compelling a reparative reading of an Easter egg’s queer fit may be, it must always be couched in its humorous dismissal.

This is not to say that video games should do away with Easter eggs completely. The Easter egg is endowed with a certain queer status in game technologies that is necessary for realizing game possibilities. As Edmond Chang notes, “A queer and critical approach must think about ways to play games and make games that take advantage of the affordances of digital computers as well as the happy accidents, workarounds, and transformations that provide alternative practices, opportunities, and endgames” (Chang, 2017, p. 242). Yet critics, players, and developers must also recognize what role they serve for the heteronormative drive of the gaming industry and community. In their standard repetition, queer Easter eggs move from the textual to the systemic. While critics often read games as literary artifacts, we must also recognize them as rhetorical technologies that order our understandings of how the world is structured. If games “provide us with source material for what might be possible, how identities might be constructed, and what worlds we might live in” (Shaw, 2014, p. 3-4), then they necessarily make comments on what is common and what is not, what is primary and what is secondary. As an ordering technology, the Easter egg’s rhetoric is simple. Whatever it may reveal thematically, it is nestled into a small corner of its game. Insurgent as it may be, the queer Easter egg engages a historical hierarchy of interpretations that views queer experiences as secret and secondary. It articulates itself in a space that is essentially about flexing the community ethos, just zany enough to be worth discussion. Engaged and then immediately deferred, a resistive Easter egg can still be worked into the logics of traditional readership because it is only liminally canonical and only liminally valid.

Troubling Queer Experience as Free Player Choice

The relegation of queer experiences in popular gaming to Easter eggs during the late 90s and early 2000s may offer a helpful explanation for why recent popular attempts to embrace queer experiences in earnest have been so clunky. Though games began to introduce queer characters in much the same manner that film and television did--by beginning with queer sidekicks and episodic queer characters--there has been a recent and awkward transition toward offering players opportunities for queer play in AAA titles.

One studio that has been particularly vocal about queer player choice is BioWare, the developers of such franchises as Knights of the Old Republic (2003-2011), Dragon Age (2009-2014), and Mass Effect (2007-2017). Dragon Age: Origins (2009) was one of the first AAA titles to provide same-sex romance options, yet it did so by flattening sexual orientation. No matter the gender identity of the player’s avatar, the player can romance every recruitable character with few changes to the game’s dialogue. Foregrounding unity over diversity, such attempts to underwrite a history of heterosexuality by annihilating the machine-diegetic differentiation between gay and straight may allow players a more open role-playing fantasy, but they are hard to renconcile with the importance of sexual orientation to modern identity formation.

More explicitly queer than their predecessors, games such as Dragon Age: Origins fail to connect with queerness as a social reality structured in (and against) dominance [2]. This is due in part to the politics of queer secrecy implemented by the resignation of queer representation to spaces such as Easter eggs. During an uptick in representations of queer characters in the early 2000s, developers often described their decisions to include queer characters as if they were breaking entirely new ground and as if queer representation had never been a question in game design. For instance, then BioWare writer Drew Karpyshyn has said of Knights of the Old Republic (2003), “We were just trying to find ways to make the characters unique… but, of course, at the time there weren’t [any] gay characters or bi characters in Star Wars, so we had to tread pretty carefully” (Greer, 2018). Unsurprisingly, as Todd Harper has studied in depth, this developmental politics did not lead BioWare to center queerness in their design (Harper, 2017). Instead, in 2010, when the studio released Mass Effect 2, players were confronted with a game with very few lesbian romance options and no gay ones. When asked why, developers described the decision as a prudent attempt to improve the quality of romance scenes by cutting down on quantity (not surprisingly by culling queer quantity) and reiterated that they firmly believe in the importance of “player choice” (John, 2010). For this design politics, queer characters are an element of game flavor that introduces fun diversity and widens the possibility for player choice. They are precarious, dependent on the availability of budgets that can fit exceptions to heteronormative paths. They are also shallow; queerness is figured as a flavorful alternative and as an element of people, not of worlds, themes, and politics. Thus, while games such as Blizzard’s Overwatch (2016) receive well-deserved attention for featuring iconic and fleshed-out queer characters, the move to address queer themes and issues continues to lag behind.

Notably, some popular studios are beginning to work through the complex political tensions of queer representation as a mode of interacting with their games. BioWare’s most recent title in the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), gave party members established sexual orientations, including strictly gay and lesbian characters and some party members whose orientations are more fluid but are more likely to be interested in one gender over another. Those orientations also influence romantic conversation. This demonstrates some new sensitivity to queer identity on BioWare’s part, but that sensitivity nonetheless emerges out of a popular game design industry that still sees itself reinventing the wheel. Games such as Dragon Age fail to recognize that there is a rich history of queer articulation in popular games of the past. Easter eggs do not register as queer text to most designers. Therefore, whatever genuine reparative possibilities they may provide and whatever insight they may offer into the history of queerness in games, their status as Easter eggs makes them spectacle first and queer second, if at all. Yet despite these flaws, this history of queer Easter eggs actually offers a reparative for the flatness of free player choice. Easter eggs such as the FF7 date are more confrontational about queer experience and provide a stepping stone for thinking about what I will describe in the next section as “ambivalent game design.”

Advocating for Ambivalent Design

If AAA game studios wish to represent queer identities, then they must not be content to simply offer queerness as an option. Developers cannot, as Anna Anthropy describes it, simply ask players to push a “gay button” or avoid queer representation. This “neoliberal approach to representation that puts the responsibility for diversity onto the audience” (Shaw, 2014, p. 34) will never allow games to be truly queer. Representing queerness means coping with queerness; it means projecting directly into the world of possibilities the discomfort between its often straight, cisgender gamers and queer experiences. For example, Carol Liebler, Joseph Schwartz, and Todd Harper write of Harper’s failed attempts to romance Cassandra (a straight female knight) as a woman in Dragon Age: Inquisition:

To be honest, I think that to expect her to go on flirting with me when it makes her uncomfortable is selfish. She, this character, has every right to shut it down … The game lets me make decisions that I know from the start are going to go nowhere, but the point is that the outcome of those decisions doesn’t matter. The journey, my deepening relationship with Cassandra, is the point, and no matter how sad I am that my inquisitor cannot be out there with this amazing knight inquisitor at her side, I am happy she got the chance to try and to see that side of her (Liebler, Schwartz, and Harper 2015).

Despite any criticism I may have for BioWare, I see the experience that Liebler, Schwartz, and Harper describe as a powerful one. Similar to Jack Halberstam’s “queer art of failure” (2011), which has been taken up by game scholars such as Bonnie Ruberg (2017) and Jordan Youngblood (2017), this anecdote demonstrates the importance of the player’s inability to turn the world around her desires; it demonstrates a differentiation between the ludic and the freeform. As Bonnie Ruberg argues, an important and ignored element of queer ludic game design is the potential for games to annoy and disappoint (Ruberg, 2015). Queer game design (particularly queer gaming narrative design) requires that the player run up against the irresolvability of queer experience, the discomfort of queer recognition, and at times the refusal to establish a sexual identity--that is, not only to leave interpretation ambiguous for the reader but to directly resist interpretation. What the intersection between an emphasis on player freedom and the historic secrecy of Easter eggs draws to our attention is the need for ambivalent game design.

First introduced in social psychology and popularized in feminist theory by Eve Sedgwick, “ambivalence” refers to the discomfort of recognizing the impossibility of narrowing the gap between self and otherness, particularly for situations in which humanitarian philosophy is at odds with a person’s inability to fully understand outside subjectivities. Often levied as a criticism for explaining the inefficiency of humanitarian action, some scholars have turned to ambivalence as a reparative condition. I suggest ambivalence as a framework for reading and designing games. As valuable as a queer reading of an Easter egg may be, the fact that most players who encounter the game will not see that queerness helps to cement a gaming culture that recognizes queerness as, at best, alternative and, more likely, as zany, secret, and essentially absent. This is not to say that Easter eggs are simply the villains of this history. Rather, as I detailed in the previous section, their hierarchical politics of queer visibility is only one version of queer silencing that has developed through the emphasis on free player choice in many AAA titles today. In fact, as I will demonstrate in my analysis of FF7, the in-your-face approach of queer Easter eggs may be a stronger starting position for thinking about ambivalent design than the current emphasis on free player choice. If what game mechanics do best is structure our experiences--slowing them down and forcing us to examine actions that may otherwise be lost to the general flow of play--then, for popular games to engage with queerness in more meaningful ways, they must begin to push gamers into spaces where they are not comfortable. Players need to run up against the inability to romance Cassandra; they need to be confronted with the possibility that FF7’s Cloud is gay and with the game’s ambivalence (and not ambiguity) surrounding his sexuality. Scholars can help. A push toward ambivalent game design can benefit from literary and rhetorical readings that critique the historical tendencies of game construction: readings that begin to ask not only if games are queer but how they resist hegemonic ordering.

To demonstrate the dangerous limitations of gaming Easter eggs and show possibilities for ambivalent design and critique, I conclude this article with a case study of FF7’s gay date scene between Cloud and Barret. Illustrative of Easter eggs’ possibilities for queer critique, the scene embodies the notion of queer Easter eggs in video games as resistive yet continually deferred. As such, it provides a simple but effective starting point for thinking about ambivalent design.

Queer Representability in Final Fantasy 7

It is hard to overstate the importance of FF7 to modern game culture. This work has become one of the most recognizable referents in everything from cosplay to fan fiction. FF7 is the harrowing story of Cloud Strife and his crew, who team up to combat corporate greed and, eventually, a force that threatens to annihilate humanity altogether. The game is an active-time-battle RPG that builds off existing iterations in the franchise with similar monsters and themes but a totally new story, world, and cast of characters. Compared to other games in the franchise, FF7 is more heavy-handed with its emphasis on anti-techno-determinism, the dangers of pollution, and the inhumanity of scientific methods; set in a world called Gaia, the game contrasts the heavily industrial design of its major cities with a narrative about spiritual energy that emanates from the earth. The world of FF7 is wondrous and strange, and yet it is not the story or the space of FF7 that made the game famous. It is its primary protagonist and antagonist: Cloud Strife and Sephiroth (respectively).

The game’s core protagonist, Cloud Strife, is one of the most famous characters in video game history. A spikey-blond-haired man with a quiet demeanor and an unreasonably large broadsword, Cloud is the epitome of a traditional, male JRPG hero. However, his adversary, Sephiroth, is arguably even more well known. With long white hair, leather chest straps, a mercilessly calm face, and a sword so thin and long that FF7 fans have been making “length versus girth” jokes for years, Sephiroth has become the definitive antagonist not simply for Final Fantasy games but for JRPGs writ large. The two characters variously serve as both foils and simulacra for one another, and their strange relationship has inspired a wealth of gay fanfiction, as well as queer textual interpretations that do not need to look particularly deep for justification. A conflict based on trust and betrayal, hidden desires, and a whole lot of long-sword penetration, Cloud and Sephiroth are distinctly queer. Yet, as obvious as these queer readings may appear, the canonical fan dispute is actually about whether Cloud is interested in one of two female protagonists, Aerith and Tifa. Queer readings of the men’s relationship are thus wedded to that dreaded realm of connotation that makes them legibly real and yet also writes them out of what may be considered the mainstream reading. Whatever Doty may have believed about the possibility that “the closet of connotation could be dismantled, rejected for the oppressive practice it is” (Doty, 1993, p. xii), the political reality is that queer readings of Cloud and Sephiroth are portrayed almost entirely through slash fiction.

While the relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth has been inspiring and productive for many queer players, FF7’s most famously queer scene is also infamously uncomfortable. At one point in the story, Cloud must cross dress in order to get important information from a brothel owner. Trying to acquire Cloud’s outfit requires that players pilot a visibly uncomfortable Cloud as he flirts with speedo-clad men in a bath house. Supposedly taken with Cloud, these men forcibly restrain and wash him. Already sterotypically collapsing gay male sexuality with wanton sexual assault, the scene reaches a new derogatory high if the player enters the bath’s suggestively named “&$#% Room.” There, Cloud suddenly passes out, presumably from a date-rape drug he has been fed in the previous scene, and wakes up on a pink bed beneath a large bodybuilder that sports a Freddie-Mercury-looking mustache. Insulting Cloud for his poor sexual performance while he was unconscious, the man leaves the room. As players regain control of Cloud, the avatar shrugs, and the game starts moving again. There is no unpacking; there is no justice. Much like the queer Easter eggs I described before, queer experience and sexual assault are collapsed to serve players a dose of zany thrill. In the hidden-scene organization of the game, this is a rape that deserves no remark because it is too silly to be real, because Cloud was already deviant in his search for women’s clothing and because the space of the bath house has its own carnal workings.

Luckily, the queerness of FF7 exists outside its subtextual portrayal of Sephiroth and Cloud or its uncritical presentation of cross dressing and sexual assault. While I do not think there is any undoing or getting past the brazen homophobia of the bath house scene, the game does engage Cloud’s sexuality more directly through his relationship with another character: Barret Wallace, a revolutionary-spirited black man with a Gatling gun for an arm who joins Cloud early in the game. When Cloud and his crew visit a theme park called Gold Saucer, Cloud is asked on a date by one of his allies. There are four possibilities: three women (Aerith, Tifa, and Yuffie) and Barret. Which character approaches Cloud varies depending on how the game has been played to that point. In a manner that resembles early BioWare character approval systems, certain decisions (in both conversations and combat) make characters more or less likely to ask Cloud on a date. Each decision adds to or subtracts from a value attributed to a character, and the character with the highest “approval” will ask Cloud on a date. However, unlike BioWare games, these values are hidden, and there is no in-game indication that the player’s decision will influence this encounter. Most players will be asked on a date by Aerith. Beyond pushing the gamer to care for Aerith and to recognize her as the canonical love interest, FF7 provides a systemic bias toward this character. Before any decision is made, Aerith begins with a higher opening value than the other characters, with Tifa second, Yuffie third, and Barret last. In fact, while it is reasonably possible to end up on a date with Tifa by accident, triggering the date with Barret requires avoiding almost all superfluous conversation with the three other characters and expressing an absolute preference for Barret in story scenes. Hence my willingness to call this an Easter egg; it is a hidden system with one particularly difficult-to-attain result that would have many gamers convinced it was not there to begin with.

On its own, the scene is tremendously awkward, and for most of FF7’s audience, it is not boundary-defining or queering but funny (Fahey, 2012). It is unfortunate that the scene’s status as Easter egg makes it easy for a traditional audience to dismiss it, because it offers some compelling social clues that point to FF7 as a story about gay love. To begin with, all four of the dates begin with the party character entering Cloud’s room and asking him out. No matter what, Cloud joins him/her, but with Aerith, Tifa, and Yuffie, Cloud answers with confused, reluctant muttering after which the women physically push him out of the front door. Only with Barret does Cloud respond affirmatively and leave willingly.

That Cloud only consents to the date with Barret may be attributable to Barret’s dancing around the word “date” in a way that the other characters do not, but the thematic willingness/unwillingness returns later in the scene when the two take a romantic gondola ride to watch some fireworks. Though each of the four dates includes a conversation in the gondola, Cloud only really contributes to this conversation when he’s with Barret. Otherwise, he remains a projectable blank slate. With Aerith and Tifa, Cloud silently listens to them comment on the fireworks and on their relationship, each conversation alluding to a potential romance and solidifying his nature as the silent bad-boy. Cloud speaks on his date with Yuffie, but he does so only after she kisses him on the cheek and demands that he say something in response. After she pushes him to “say something” multiple times, Cloud responds with “….. something,” echoing her own words and refusing to acknowledge her affection.

Figure 3. Cloud and Barret watching fireworks in the Gondola.


With Cloud’s silence on the other dates in mind, his conversation with Barret has a new legibility. After a period of silence Barret begins, “What did you want to see fireworks with me for? … You should’ve asked one of them!” After asking Cloud to join him for the evening, Barret turns, chiding Cloud for not pursuing the women in the party and expressing a trademark rage common to his character when he is confused. Thereafter, the two discuss which of the women Cloud should have asked on a date, prompting Cloud to chant “hoo boy,” an obtuse response (essentially, “women, right?”) in which Cloud both conforms to the expectation for heterosexual courtship and refuses to comment on his own sexuality, dismissing his date with Barret as a reflection on the women in the party. Considering Cloud’s continued silence in the rest of the narrative and in the other gondola scenes especially, the discomfort of this scene--so easily dismissed as a zany possibility for a curious audience--exemplifies the paranoia of homosexual recognition and the tropic overcompensation with straightness. Each man talks about the women he would like to bring. However, through the silence on his date with the women characters, the constantly shifting glances between Cloud and Barret, and Cloud’s comfort with Barret, the game suggests a subtextual explanation: that the characters are happy to be with one another.

This notion of a romance deferred appears earlier in the date when Barret and Cloud try to attend a play but are turned away. Entering the room, they immediately run into a maître d' who exclaims, “Congratulations! You are our 100th couple today … Oh, wait… No you’re not … sorry.” His simultaneous recognition and then refusal speaks to the impossibility for the two to be “out” in a world that does not recognize them as a couple even when they act the part. To confirm this, in the three other romance scenes for which the Barret date is figured as an Easter-egg alternative, the maître d’ does recognize Cloud and his date as a couple. Their prize being the 100th couple is that they will take part in the play. Here, Cloud is told that he is a knight in shining armor sent to defeat a dragon and rescue a princess (his date) in a classic fantasy romance narrative. That Barret and Cloud are not asked to participate in this same ritual is a clear statement of their inability to fit into the gendered spaces of this archetypal romance, a narrative anecdote that is established as the absurd but guiding rendition of love between heroes. This scene, which would inevitably have added to the humor of the Easter egg overall, as it is difficult to imagine either Cloud or Barret playing a feminine role much less the damsel in distress, has more rhetorical power as an absence than an awkward addition. Not only do Cloud and Barret not participate in the play; they never see the play at all. In fact, after the maître d's exclamation, the two turn around and leave without so much as another word to the man. They do not attempt to watch the play as they initially intended. They are denied entry to the performance of traditional gendered romance.

Figure 4. Cloud rescuing the princess in the play on his date with Aerith.


Thus, the men sit in a gondola and strike up their conversation about the women, and Barret says, “You should have asked one of them!” He refers both to women in the party and to women in general. After they list the characters in whom Cloud may have an interest and Cloud responds “hoo boy,” Barret finally turns the conversation to his daughter, Marlene. There is another moment of silence before Barret finally says, “… Marlene. Wish I could’ve brought Marlene here. She’d love the fireworks. Why the hell do I gotta be here with a jackass like you! … The more I think ‘bout it the madder I get! Damn fireworks anyways.” That is the final word. This absence implies that Barret’s feelings for Cloud, have been filled in by the image of the child and a commitment to reproductive futurism. Whatever Barret is thinking, it is Marlene and his desire to protect her that wins out in Barret’s mind, taking the place of any other possibility. Here, rather than the romantic music that plays in the background of the other scenes, the score shifts to Barret’s theme song as he shoots his Gatling gun (we might say he blows his load) into the air. His frustration is perhaps directed at the narrowing of possibility, one that forces him to believe that his date with Cloud threatens the future he has imagined with his daughter. As Lee Edelman explains in No Future:

For politics, however radical the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child. That Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the phantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention (Edelman, 2004, p. 3).

Marlene and the image of the child supersede any romance deferred. This reproductive centrality becomes an articulation of permanent restriction on queer possibilities.

Cloud x Barret Deferred … and Deferred Again

Alexander Doty notes that “queer readings aren’t alternative readings, wishful or willful misreadings, or ‘reading too much into things’ readings. They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along” (Doty, 1993, p. 16). The interpretation of FF7 as a game about gay love is textual, and to refer to it as alternative or less than the dominant “straight” narrative would be to do it the disservice that critics such as Doty and Butler have looked to reverse. However, there is something about its organizational system that a games critic cannot ignore; the scene above is an Easter egg, a hidden possibility locked in an opaque set of conditions that, in the history of game culture, usually renders the object funny. In some respects, this empowers a reparative reading of the text. While this systemic devaluing makes it less legible to a traditional audience that looks to dismiss the scene, a queer audience may see this status as reflective of the conditions of their own popular culture dismissal. Especially considering that a queer reading of FF7 reveals a text about gay love deferred and forgotten, the secret quality of the scene is appropriate. Yet it also confirms a pattern of queerness hidden in popular texts. This pattern remains subtextual in other artifacts but deliberately inaccessible in video games. Queer scenes in popular gaming have a history of appearing in difficult-to-access ways that become famous more for their strangeness than any queering they perform for the text. This duplicity is the paradox of Easter eggs and the analysis of FF7 that I offer. Easter eggs both confirm a reading and, in their strangeness, suddenness, and intangibility, they immediately move past that reading and return to normalized projection.

There is proof of the Easter egg’s expressive weakness in the legacy of FF7. In the PlayStation Classic version of FF7 currently available on the PlayStation store, players receive a trophy for going on the date with Barret. It is called “best bromance,” a term which simultaneously alludes to the romantic possibilities of male friendship and, immediately upon doing so, laughs at itself, suggesting that it is oxymoronic to equate “bro” and “romance.” The “bromance” authorizes close male friendship by registering it as an acceptable undercurrent of straight masculinity. Such a friendship establishes itself in relationship to a silence. Paranoid, it says, “We are close friends; we are not gay.”

While calls to “correct” a game are rarely as simple as they may appear, the line between comfortable hierarchies and ambivalence in play is often very thin. Picture this: What if FF7’s long-awaited reboot were released next year, and this scene with Barret was retained with absolutely no changes to the dialogue. Instead, what if the developers were change two aspects of the game. First, they change the music on the gondola from Barret’s theme to the romantic one that plays in the other dates, preserving the notion of the scene as intentionally romantic despite Barret’s violent performance and the deferral of that recognition in the text. Second, the developers could level out the starting values of the characters so that the scene is not hidden and give signals that certain actions are enticing Barret. This is not a perfect corrective, and it is nearing the territory of a Bioware game, but it does powerful work for the legibility of FF7. Suddenly, the event is no longer an Easter egg; it is canon, even if not chosen by the player, and critical attention falls less on the scene’s zaniness than on the two masculine personalities trying to explain away their desire for one another.

Though ambivalent design falls short of Maureen Engel’s call to theorize game mechanics that are fundamentally queer (Engel, 2016), it is an important stepping stone in the study of popular games. A commentary on the game’s prevalent heteronormativity, an ambivalent turn in FF7’s gay date scene would engage queer experience far more directly than games that use queerness to optimize player choice. While such a change in the game would break with the queer status of the Easter egg itself, it would preserve the non-uniformity of Cloud’s sexual attraction. It would reassert queer presence (rather than its zany possibility). Gaming Easter eggs are powerful artifacts that have queered mass-market titles, and they will continue to have a place in game design. However, moving into an era of mass-market queer game design means video games must trade their politics of secret resistance for a politics of ambivalent confrontation and irresolvability.


[1] It is notable that in many ways my project flattens the term “queer.” While I use it as a descriptive category that translates to “not heteronormative,” the term “queer” has a vast existing architecture of which my usage is only one example. As a term historically defined by movements such as Queer Nation, queerness is “something different from gay, lesbian, and bisexual assimilationist. [Often] to identify as queer means to be politically radical and ‘in-your-face:’ to paradoxically demand recognition by straight culture while at the same time rejecting this culture” (Doty, 1993, p. xiv). Queerness is permanently ingrained with activism and with the schism of heteronormative rejection of queer identities; for this reason, Judith Butler argues that in addition to an identity, queerness is an attitude that challenges traditional binaries more than articulating individual positions. Readers looking for more thorough definitions of queer possibilities should look to writers such as Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Cathy Cohen, and E. Patrick Johnson. This article should be read in the context of this existing framework, not as a commentary on it.

[2] For a non-exhaustive list of queer gaming Easter eggs, see the LGBTQ Video Game Archive’s Easter Egg category:


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