Designer: Ryan Best
GayBlade was a role-playing game developed by Ryan Best in 1992. According to the manual: “GayBlade takes players into an ancient and dark dungeon on a terrifying Quest—to rescue Empress Nelda from the disgusting right-wing creatures inhabiting the dungeon. Fortunately, the rescue party is made up of heroic Drag Queens, Queers, Lesbians, and others who will stop at nothing to get their beloved Empress back to luxurious Castle GayKeep. But can they succeed when so many others have failed before them?”
When the game starts, players in table-top RPG fashion, roll to create a team of characters (Jones,1993). Each type of character has a different ability set encouraging players to create a balanced coalition team. “Armor” in the game includes leather jackets, aprons, tiaras, and condoms, and “weapons” include purses, mace, press-on nails and blo-driers. Enemies in the game include TV evangelists, young republicans, rednecks, homophonic cops, etc., as well as some STIs. The evil forces are led by Lord Nanahcub (or Buchanan backwards) (Nissenbaum 1993). The castle includes 1300 rooms, 13 levels, and 100 bad guys (USA Today, 1993). Much of the coverage of the game asserted it was the “first” LGBTQ game, however this is because its creator and journalists covering the game were unaware of Caper in the Castro.
We stumbled across this game during our archival research into early 1980s and 1990s gay and lesbian newspapers, looking hard for any additional LGBTQ specific games. This otherwise undocumented piece of LGBTQ digital game history was actually widely covered at the time of its original release. According to creator Ryan Best it achieved a large amount of press coverage (particularly for an indie queer game in 1993): “It took me by surprise how much press coverage GayBlade received. My phone was ringing day and night with calls for interviews,” Best said. “Coverage included National Public Radio, USA Today, dozens of national and international GLBT newspapers, Der Spiegel magazine, and I was interviewed by Howard Stern on his radio show.”
We were able to find some of these articles including coverage from the Bay Area Reporter, Village Voice, The Advocate, USA Today, The Boston Globe, and UPI Newstrack.
We were also able to find the Der Spiegel article, which was translated for us by Twitter follower, game dev, journalist and researcher Nina Kiel
Best’s press kit for the game also includes additional articles and a clipping from Australia’s Sydney Star Observer (GayBlade press kit). The game was even accused by one pro-life activist website as being part of the “homosexual agenda” (see page 21, about halfway through the page).
At the time, it appeared the source code to the game had been lost. He did however scan the an incomplete copy of the manual (we are still in search of a complete copy) which you can find here: GayBade manual.
Best was a long time digital game player: “As a 19-year old, I would sneak into CERL (Computer Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois) and spend hours and hours playing computer games on orange glowing PLATO terminals. I would literally hike through winter snowstorms in the middle of the night to get to CERL then play Oubliette, Empire and some of the first computer games ever invented. What a great geeky life.”
When GayBlade was originally released, reporting differed on whether the game was originally a “standard sword-and-sorcery game christened DragonBlade” (Clark, 1993) or also marketed as “DragonBlade, a straight version of GayBlade.” To get more information Adrienne Shaw interviewed Ryan Best in January 2018 about how GayBlade came to be. In that interview Best explained that he originally had written a more mainstream game called Citadel of the Dead, but having signed a bad contract did not make any money from the sales. He decided he would use the 40,000 lines of DragonBlade coding to make a gay and lesbian spoof … and GayBlade was born.
Best said “I grew up in downstate Illinois, rural, redneck Illinois. I had just entered high school, when I was outed by a friend who knew about me. That was on a Friday, by Monday the entire high school knew about me and the tormenting, threats, and bullying started and didn’t stop. I would come home from school in tears. It got so bad I even tried to commit suicide. Eventually, I made my way westward to California and was in the Castro when I started work on the game. But even there I still carried around emotional scars of what happened to me in high school,” Best said. “In a very real way, GayBlade became my therapy. I put every type of person that had bullied me into the game as a monster you had to destroy. And I was like, you know what? I don’t care anymore. When the game was finished and released, it was as if all of my baggage was gone. I felt confident and stopped being intimidated by my memories of Illinois. It was very empowering,” Best said. “But I really didn’t think anyone would ever buy the game, and then it started selling hundreds then thousands of copies! I donated a lot of copies to charities because I wanted to help the community. It was all about just—back then, it was during the AIDS crisis, and there wasn’t too much fun, too much good things happening. This was one of the small ways I hoped to lighten, even if just for a moment or two, the heavy burdens and sorrows of many people.”
The name GayBlade was inspired by a film he happened to watch around that time, Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981). Best did not make any more games, though he started a few, in part because of his bad contract experience. Ultimately, he ended up creating and directing online education development groups at the Los Angeles Unified School District; 2U, Inc., the University of Southern California, and others. At the time of the interview, Best resided in Toluca Lake, California with his spouse, Cliburn.
UPDATE: In 2019, right before he arrived in Berlin for the closing of Rainbow Arcade, the LGBTQ game history exhibit at the Schwules Museum which was co-curated by Sarah Rudolph, Jan Schnorrenberg, and Adrienne Shaw, Best had found the original game files. Matthias Oborski, of the Computerspiele Museum and who provided technical support for the exhibit took copies of the files and was able to successfully make the game playable again! And once again we were able to work with Jason Scott of the Internet Archive to make the game available to the public! You can find it here.
American Life League. (1997). Chapter 118: Homosexual Tactics: Anything Goes. Pro-Life Activist’s Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://maistre.uni.cx:70/ple/plae118.html
Clark, Joe. (1993, July 13). Dungeons and drag queens. Village Voice 38(28), p. 46
Cobb, Nathan. (1993, August 5). Alternative cyberstyles. Boston Globe. P. 60.
Haarfön-Helden. (1993, November 8). Der Spiegel. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel//print//d-9290737.html
Jones, Malcolm. (1993, May 14). GayBlade: The world’s first pink fantasy game. Sydney Star Observer.
Nissenbaum, Dion. (1993, April 4). Egads! Empress Nelda has been captured by the forces… UPI NewsTrack.
Provenzano, Jim. (1993, April 8). Dungeons and Drag Queens. Bay Area Reporter. P. 46.
Taking a byte out of the bad guys. (1993, April 6). The Advocate. Page 10.
Vigoda, Arlene. (1993, August 3). Fun and games. USA Today. 1D.