Trigger warning: this piece briefly touches on themes of transphobic and homophobic violence and discrimination, however none are described in detail.
GENDERWRECKED: Journey to Find the True Meaning of GENDER
GENDERWRECKED is a 2018 indie visual novel created by Ryan Rose Aceae, a trans and non-binary maker of “gross queer comix and games.” Aceae describes the game as a “post-apocalyptic genderpunk visual novel about traveling broken lands and kissing/fighting/talking to monsters in an attempt to learn the true meaning of a mysterious force called GENDER.” Nothing about GENDERWRECKED feels straight forward, but this is deeply fitting, for players and characters whose genders defy convention and have descriptions that remain just out of reach.
As the main character, it is your task to journey through the mostly abandoned Floating Islands in order to ask its monstrous inhabitants questions about their experiences with and understandings of gender. Here, you meet a series of gender-diverse and openly queer characters whose descriptions of their genders are as unique and unconventional as they are.
There is Phil, the lonely swamp monster who says that their gender is a “flickering neon vacancy sign outside a hotel,” and who asks that you mark their gender down as “N/A.” There is Mark, the half-robot, half-biological father of 159 meat children, whom he created in order to have a family of his own making without using his uterus, and who reasons that if gender is the most important thing to an individual, then that would make his gender “dad.” There is Fanny, a genderfluid werewolf-woman whose pronouns cycle between he/him and she/her and whose gender, like the phases of the moon, is constantly in shift. There is a nameless entity (which the game allows you to choose a name for and who I elected to call Franklin) that has discarded its physical form long ago but is however unable to permanently get rid of its heart, the place where it says its gender lies.
After each interaction with these monsters, you travel onwards to the next of the Floating Islands, more desolate and surreal as you progress. Your final stop on this journey is an abandoned city located below the Floating Islands. In a series of flashbacks, you are given glimpses into the lives of the monsters before they moved away from this city, except here they do not appear to the player as monsters. Here in the city, they take the form of queer and trans young adults, discussing their plans for the future now that “they” (their oppressors, those who enacted homophobic and transphobic violence against them) are gone.
These flashbacks centre on three specific characters, which we learn through their dialogue are Mark, Fanny, and Franklin. The three used to be roommates in a queer- and trans-dominant neighbourhood of the city, which was once lively and well-populated before the world was suddenly emptied of “murderers and bigots,” and the queer and trans folks who were once restricted to living together out of fear and necessity are now free to move away and make their lives wherever they’d like.
While a world without bigots is undoubtedly a good thing, there is certainly sadness in this now-empty neighbourhood that was once a thriving hub of LGBTQ+ community. The game ends by letting you send a letter to the monsters you have met, telling them of your findings about gender, and imploring them to move back to the city to create a queer and trans community that is built not out of necessity or fear of violence, but instead “somewhere beautiful and monstrous and ours.” The end credits show us exactly this, with artwork depicting the monsters moving back to their old neighbourhood and rebuilding their community to a song by Nightjars.
GENDERWRECKED is a very literal gender journey. It feels intimately familiar to me as a transgender and non-binary person and mirrors the journeys of self-discovery taken up by transgender individuals at all stages of our lives, our transitions, and our coming out processes. In order to understand the meaning of gender, your character seeks out the experiences and opinions of other transgender, non-binary and gender-variant individuals. This quest lasts the duration of the game, as you transverse spaces that are frightening and largely uninhabited, a fitting reference to the fear and isolation trans folks feel as we navigate the formation of our gender identities without (or with only limited) ability to confide in others.
In a piece of internal dialogue received at the game’s mid-point, you wonder, “is this worth it? This journey… It feels like you’ve only just begun. You’re so, so fucking tired.” Your character is frustrated by the scope of the task and, rightfully, exhausted by the work you must do as a trans person attempting to understand your gender identity in a world where the meaning of gender remains unclear (perhaps, in this aspect, a world that is not so much unlike our own). Despite this, the game’s narration urges you onwards, describing that “you pick yourself back up” because “there’s further to go.”
In some ways, gender identity and one’s journey to fully understand it is in fact never ending. Gender is an on-going process of unlearning traditional binary gender roles and what is expected of us within the roles we have been given based on our assigned sex, as well as re-learning how to constitute our own authentic genders. While the process of discovering one’s non-normative gender can certainly be exhausting, however, an on-going gender journey may not be such a bad thing.
The interactions with the queer and trans characters you encounter in GENDERWRECKED may be oftentimes confusing to both player and character as you struggle to fully understand their unconventional gender identities and shifting pronouns but you leave each interaction with the narration “you think you understand gender a little bit better.” Through these conversations with individuals whose gender identities and expressions challenge systems like cisnormativity, heteronormativity and the gender binary, you are presented alternative ways of being and of conceptualising gender, ways that may even resonate with you as the player and inform your identity in the real world.
There is another type of journey that your character takes up over the course of the game, and that is the search for your transgender and queer community. The way that GENDERWRECKED treats its main character, as well as the way it interacts with you as the player, assumes that a transgender or gender-variant individual is playing it. The game allows you to choose from a variety of pronouns at the beginning, including multiple neo-pronoun options that are not often available in video games or the choice to enter your own pronouns if they are not listed. GENDERWRECKED expects gender and pronoun diversity from its player from the very beginning and treats its protagonist accordingly.
When you enter the abandoned city and are faced with a graffitied wall in the old queer and trans neighbourhood that reads “WE’RE JUST TRYING TO LIVE, BUT THEY CALL US MONSTERS,” you are given two dialogue options to choose from: “you are happy to be a monster” or “you don’t want to be a monster.” Regardless of which you choose, the implication is clear: like the monsters you’ve encountered, you are also transgender or genderqueer, regardless of if you are comfortable embracing the monster metaphor for yourself.
At the game’s end, you are given three options to address your letter, including “my fellow monsters.” This is an acknowledgement that, if trans identity is thought to be equal to monstrosity, you too are a monster. And, in an offhand line of narration that leads up to you jumping from the last of the Floating Islands to the abandoned city below, your character is revealed to have wings, confirming that, in body as well as identity, you are just as non-human and monstrous as the friends you have met along the way.
This makes a lot of sense considering the game’s story and brings more meaning to the gender journey narrative, as your character is gender diverse or transgender themselves, seeking answers about gender identity and a community in which to belong. Whether this is true to you as the player currently, the wish for a community that understands and shares your experiences surrounding your transness (be that transition, transphobia, gender euphoria or feeling ‘monstrous’ in one’s own skin) is common, and it feels good to explore that desire in the play space of GENDERWRECKED.
When addressing the monsters directly in the letter at the end of the game, you have a choice to include the line “I think this city was supposed to be my home.” This is such a clear expression of your character’s (and perhaps your own, if you felt compelled to choose this option as the player) longing for community.
Adding to the complicated and intimate relationship that GENDERWRECKED establishes between its player and its main character, you are given the option to write your own unique postscript to your letter. I did, as someone who feels as though I am on the never-ending gender journey captured by the game. Among other things, I typed the following: “I’m looking forward to beginning again with you all.”
In this world free from transphobic and homophobic violence that GENDERWRECKED gives to us, its transgender, non-binary, gender-variant and otherwise queer characters are free to begin again in a community based on hope for the future, love and joy, rather than fear of violence, repression and oppression. And I hope I can begin again with them.
About the reviewer
Danny McLaren is a queer, trans and non-binary writer who uses they/them pronouns. They most often write about trans existence and resistance or video games, or both, if they can pull it off. They currently have a poetry chapbook with Ethel Press entitled Two-Way Town and a micro-chap with Post Ghost Press entitled Sorry It’s Not Better New Volume Two. Danny can be found on twitter at @dannymclrn.
Picture credit: gendervamp.itch.io/genderwrecked