Updated: Apr 16, 2019
In 2017, Riot Games, developer of League of Legends, developed their first queer storyline for one of the champions of the game, Varus. Queer representation has always been plagued with half-baked stories and overdone tropes, (i.e., “bury your gays,” “queerbaiting,” etc.) and because of this, I am wary when I hear about new queer storyline/character. But Riot Games' depiction of Varus was a welcome surprise. I was blown away by the visual art and compelling storytelling. Varus is a champion made from sacrifice for love, a sacrifice in the name of love between two men. His journey is an astounding example of inclusive storytelling done right. Unfortunately, the League of Legends community at large didn't feel the same way.
Valmar and Kai
The story of Varus begins with Valmar and Kai, two Ionian hunters who have found love and companionship in each other. The foundation of their story is depicted in Varus: Heartlight, an illustrious comic that can be found on the League of Legends website here. The first pages show Kai and Valmar in beautiful colored panels hunting large mythical creatures in the woods.
Later that night, Valmar is recovering from the battle and there is a glimpse of what's to come when they recall what a seer foretold to them, "He said our souls would be as one." This scene depicts the nuances of their relationship; the cooking over a campfire, the way they move toward each other, the handholding that belies the intensity and tenderness of their love.
Soon after, Kai meets Val's family for the first time. Adorably, Kai worries if Val's mother will like him.
The confidence written into this relationship electrified my queer heart. Valmar and Kai are welcomed into Val's hometown like heroes and it becomes clear that, in this world, to be queer isn’t to be hated.
The last pages are undoubtedly my favorite. Kai and Valmar ascend a mountain to give an offering to a temple and Valmar meets with priestess who gives him ominous warnings of pain and torture. "You must leave him Valmar, Walk away from all you feel." Soon after, Noxus invaders raid the temple. The lovers fight valiently to rejoin each other but, unfortunately, Kai is taken down by a volley of arrows.
Valmar, desperate to save his lover, decides to make a deal with the devil and risks everything to use the unknown magic kept at the bottom of a guarded well at the temple. He carries Kai to the well and leaps in, hoping to save his Heart-Light.
The next arc of Varus' story is told through a music video called As We Fall.
The video shows Valmar and Kai being separated from each other by faceless creatures in the well. A dark entity emerges and explodes, disintegrating Valmar’s arm as he reaches toward Kai. Kai and Valmar are ripped apart by this dark entity, which then uses the bodies of both Valmar and Kai to create one being: Varus. The music and animation in the video are stunning. To see such effort and depth given to these two characters set fire to my soul.
The final arc of this story is told after Varus has emerged from the dark well, now a full body made from the flesh of Val and Kai. With Varus’ newfound body, he sets out to cause as much death as possible to the Noxians. Varus utilizes Valmar’s deep-seated feelings of vengeance for his own purposes. Kai can do nothing but watch as Varus uses their body to slaughter Noxians. In a final act of resistance, Kai reminds Valmar, lost in his vengeance, of their love. “Our love is stronger than its hate. You are my one and only Heart-light." This affirmation rips control of their body from Varus. Valmar and Kai, now in control, forge their own in search of a way to rid themselves of the dark entity inside their body.
This captivating story is a result of a retcon initiative by Riot Games to unify storylines and add critical aspects to their world. The overall response to this new background for Varus was as expected: negative. League of Legends fans expounded their distaste across the internet, formulating arguments which mostly consisted of how Varus' new lore was a result of “forced diversity” and just another example “pandering to the gays.” I spent hours researching the response to the, at the time, new lore change. I watched dozens of Youtube reaction videos and read through multiple forums online and found that the the widest response was absolutely against Riot’s revision.
But why? Maybe if Riot had decided to go the way JK Rowling did with Dumbledore, I would wholeheartedly be on the “pandering to the gays” side of the argument -- but this wasn't the case. I was instead stunned at the effort and depth placed into this new Varus story, the story being told through two different mediums, and the superb writing and breathtaking visuals throughout.
After watching a thoughtful thirty-minute Youtube video dissecting the Varus narrative, ultimately rejecting the entire retcon, I realized that individuals and communities who have uncontested rights (read: cisgender/heterosexual/white, etc.) will always find a reason to reject narratives they don't see themselves reflected in. This is to say that queerness reflected in video games is understood by cisgendered/heterosexual individuals as performative inclusivity versus an acknowledgment that queer people exist in real life and deserve to be included. Why would that be? Why does our inclusion in a story like this feel like a performance, whereas white/cis/het depiction is... what? The real thing?
This is the problem with all types of fictional work that includes diverse characters. There always has to be a justification for a character that isn’t cis-gender and/or heterosexual. Queer stories always have to prove their merit to merely exist.
Visibility Leading to Change
According to a 2016 UCLA study, only five countries in the world have explicitly guaranteed equality for citizens based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Visibility blazes a path to protection of individuals who have been consistently on the outskirts of society. It normalizes our existence to those who would rather see us gone. Who believe, in some sense, that our existence is merely a performance. Queer representation like that of Valmar and Kai means people like me are no longer invisible. We matter. We deserve to have our own champions, just like everyone else.