GENDERWRECKED is an independently produced interactive visual novel by Ryan Rose Aceae, a trans and non-binary individual who describes themself as a maker of “gross queer comix and games” (2018b; n.d). GENDERWRECKED, according to its description on Itch.io (a site for independent game creators to upload, share, and sell their games online and the current host of GENDERWRECKED, which can be purchased for $6.66 US), is 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” (Aceae 2018b). As the main character, it is your task to journey through a mostly abandoned area called the Floating Islands in order to ask its monstrous inhabitants questions about their experiences with and understanding of gender (stylized as GENDER, implying its status as a powerful force that is not yet understood by yourself or those you encounter) (Aceae 2018a). 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 where the air is so stagnant and the silence is so perfect that you feel like you’re downing in stillness,” and who asks that you mark their gender down as “N/A” (Aceae 2018a). There is Mark, the half-robot, half-biological father of the 159 meat children he created in order to have a family of his own making without using his uterus, who reasons that if gender is the most important thing to an individual, then that would make his gender ‘dad’ (Aceae 2018a). 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 (Aceae 2018a). 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 (Aceae 2018a).
After each interaction with these monsters, you travel onwards to the next of the Floating Islands, more desolate and surreal as your progress (Aceae 2018a). The final place you visit on your journey is a completely 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, but rather as queer and trans young adults, discussing their plans for the future now that “they” (implied to be their oppressors, those who enacted homophobic and transphobic violence against them) are gone (Aceae 2018a). These flashbacks centre on three specific characters, which we learn through their dialogue are Mark, Fanny, and Franklin, who used to be roommates in a queer- and trans-dominant neighbourhood of the city (Aceae 2018a). This neighborhood 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 choose (Aceae 2018a). While a world without bigots is undoubtedly a good thing, there is certainly sadness in this now empty neighborhood that was once a thriving hub of LGBTQ+ community (Aceae 2018a). 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 for fear of violence, but created to be “somewhere beautiful and monstrous and ours” (Aceae 2018a). The end credits show us the monsters moving back to their old neighborhood and rebuilding their trans community (Aceae 2018a).
GENDERWRECKED tells the story of a very literal ‘gender journey,’ similar to those undertaken by transgender individuals at all stages of our lives, our transitions, and our and 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 (Aceae 2018a). This journey lasts the duration of the game, as you transverse spaces that are frightening and largely uninhabited, in what is likely a 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, “[i]s this worth it? This journey… It feels like you’ve only just begun. You’re so, so fucking tired” (Aceae 2018a). From this dialogue, your character appears frustrated by the scope of the task and, rightfully, exhausted at 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 to you. And though you may be contemplating giving up, the following narrations describe that despite your worry that this journey will never end, “[y]ou pick yourself back up” because “[t]here’s further to go” (Aceae 2018a). In some ways, gender identity and one’s journey to fully understand it is in fact never ending, as 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. However, while the exhaustion this creates for trans individuals who do not have the privilege of identifying with our assigned sex is immense, I do not think an on-going gender journey is entirely 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 “[y]ou think you understand gender a little bit better” (Aceae 2018a). Through these conversations with individuals whose gender identities and expressions challenge oppressive systems like cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and the gender binary, you are presented alternative ways of being and of conceptualizing 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 has also undertaken over the course of the game, and that is the search for your own trans 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-pronouns that are not often available in video games, or the choice to enter your own pronouns if they are not listed (Aceae 2018a). The game expects gender and pronoun diversity from its player from the beginning, and treats its protagonist as such, through internal dialogue and narration that crop up throughout the game. When your character enters the abandoned city and is faced with a graffitied wall in the old queer and trans neighborhood that reads, “WE’RE JUST TRYING TO LIVE, BUT THEY CALL US MONSTERS,” you are given the choice to respond to this with either “[y]ou are happy to be a monster” or “[y]ou don’t want to be a monster” (Aceae 2018a). Regardless of what you choose, the implication here is that you, like the monsters you’ve encountered, are also transgender or gender-variant, regardless of if you are comfortable embracing the monster metaphor for yourself. Additionally, at the end of the game, once you have reached the abandoned city and begin to write your letter to the monsters, you have the choice to address this letter to your “fellow monsters,” an acknowledgement that, if trans identity is thought of to be equal to monstrosity, you, too, are a monster (Aceae 2018a). 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 (Aceae 2018a). This makes a lot of sense considering the game’s story, and brings more meaning to the gender journey narrative, as your character is presumably a newly-out transgender individual who is seeking not only answers about gender identity, but is seeking a community in which to belong. Whether this is true to you 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 a common experience shared by many trans, non-binary, and gender-variant people. 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,” showing the character’s (and perhaps your own, if you felt compelled to choose this option as a player) longing for a trans community (Aceae 2018a). And, 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 this fictional letter (Aceae 2018a). I did, as a non-binary and transgender individual who similarly feels as though I am on a never-ending journey of discovering and re-discovering my gender identity over and over, and who is constantly in search of a transgender and queer community to call my own. 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 describes, 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.
GENDERWRECKED tells a familiar story of the journey towards understanding one’s gender and finding one’s trans community in a creative and unconventional way. Given the interactive nature of a visual novel, the game allows you as the (presumably) trans, non-binary, or gender-variant player to control the course of the narrative and, importantly, choose the questions that you ask the monsters you encounter, perhaps ones that you are personally struggling with. You are able to draw your own conclusions about gender as player and character, able to choose dialogue options that agree or disagree with the statements your monster friends make about gender (Aceae 2018a). And, at the end, in the letter you craft yourself from many dialogue options, you decide, to a certain extent, what your findings about gender truly are (Aceae 2018a). Aimed towards a transgender audience, GENDERWRECKED is a story, but it is also a tool in asking (and answering) questions about your own gender while you guide your character through a similar journey. The game uses copious metaphors like the portrayal of transgender individuals as monsters, gender as a mysterious and powerful force, and desolate islands fractioning off a once vibrant queer and trans community, and has characters describe their gender in dialogue that often reads like poetry (Aceae 2018a). Nothing about GENDERWRECKED feels straight forward, but I feel this is fitting, especially for us players whose own genders defy convention, have descriptions that remain just out of reach, and refuse to resemble anything remotely straight forward. And, reading through the comments left on Aceae’s Itch.io about the immense impact the game had on its trans-dominant player base, I believe we are the ones for whom GENDERWRECKED was made.
Worked Cited (ASA Format)
Aceae, Ryan R. 2018a. GENDERWRECKED [Video Game]. Itch.io.
Aceae, Ryan R. 2018b. “GENDERWRECKED.” Itch.io. Retrieved February 3, 2020 (https://gendervamp.itch.io/genderwrecked).
Aceae, Ryan R. n.d. “@gendervamp.” Twitter.com. Retrieved February 3, 2020 (https://twitter.com/gendervamp).
Danny McLaren is a queer, trans, and non-binary writer who uses they/them pronouns. They write about trans existence and resistance or video games, or both, if they can pull it off. They currently have a micro-chap with Post Ghost Press titled Sorry It’s Not better News and a forthcoming chapbook with Ethel press. They can be found on twitter at @dannymclrn.