Let me tell you a spooky story about gender. By which I mean, I’m reviewing GENDERWRECKED by Ryro.
Josie bought me this game when I realized that I was extremely gender weird at the very normal time of 3AM. I craved answers, and I was frustrated by reassurances that “you’re allowed to do whatever you want with your gender”. I didn’t want to do whatever I want! I wanted to be told how to “do” my gender!
GENDERWRECKED seemed like the perfect opportunity to be prescribed a gender. Help me, Dr. Gender. This is a game where the protagonist (you) journeys to a mysterious island that still remembers gender. You come from a world where gender had been completely wiped out. That doesn’t mean that you can’t express preconceived notions about gender through your choices, but your character is also believably polite about new genders.
I’m on a quest to find gender, even though there’s not a quest log to tell me when I’ve found it.
The first thing that I noticed about the characters was how inhuman their appearances were. When I started playing this game, I didn’t like that. Transgender and non-binary folks already struggle so much with being perceived as normal people, I didn’t know why GENDERWRECKED went out of its way to give them monstrous appearances.
Phil scared the shit out of me.
Believe it or not, they’re much more terrifying with the ominous musical accompaniment. What did take my edge off was their reluctance to answer any of my gender quest questions. What kind of NPC are they? They’re totally failing at their job!
Then it hit me.
This scene, Phil’s physical appearance, my intrusive questions about gender — none of this was really my business. They’ve pointed out that I’m stepping on their lawn. They’ve expressed their annoyance, and I’ve been showing up out of nowhere to demand gender answers. Phil didn’t owe me the kind of answer that I wanted, and it was a frustrating experience for someone who was used to playing video games with much more pliant NPCs.
Okay Phil, you win. I think what makes GENDERWRECKED deviate from most visual novels is that there’s usually a mystery to solve in VNs. Not here. In fact, the game seems dead-set on delaying the answer from you for as long as possible. This can be frustrating if you’re used to a more conventional visual novel experience. The emotional payoff are the friends that we made along the way.
Jolene put all the pieces together for me (pronoun: hoo). What really helps is hoo’s consistency. Even though the talking tree is trying to ask you to assign a gender for hoo, Jolene has very specific ideas about what hoo’s pronoun should do in social situations. Even though the tree had been insulting me throughout our entire interaction, I liked that I had a little ten-minute scene to watch hoo assert hoo’s boundaries.
Jolene doesn’t know which pronoun is best until the very end, but hoo knows exactly how hoo feels about them. That’s gender goals right there.
One design criticism I have of GENDERWRECKED was how I was forced to interact with the characters. The player is basically forced to cycle through “talk”, “fight”, and “kiss”. While I understand that fights are often unavoidable in games, the kissing mandate was a little uncomfortable. GENDERWRECKED comes off as a game that encourages personal roleplaying rather than fictional roleplaying, so I really would have appreciated an option to opt-out of makeouts.
Is gender real? Are any of us real? It was nice to meet characters who felt bad about their gender. I feel like a lot of the public-facing gender content is overwhelmingly positive in order to stoke the empathy of cisgendered people, it was nice to have an hour in a place where gender didn’t have to be good. Sometimes gender likes to punch me in the face repeatedly! Sometimes it tells me to cancel all my plans! Okay, that last one is on me.
As a game designer, I often like to figure out what the ‘canon’ route was. What was the ‘default’ path that the developer created? I saw a common theme throughout the game. Save for the memories of the three young teenagers, the people on this gender island were all monstrous. This confused me, since there was no gender commonality among the island’s inhabitants. I met both gendered and agender characters. Why aren’t any of them human looking?
Is my character even human? At the end of the game, the protagonist muses to themselves that they are a monster. There’s only one problem: I never consented to be one (then again, who does?). It’s a gutsy assertion when the game doesn’t know the gender of the player. The game simply assumes that you have failed to uphold the gendered standards that make you human.
Maybe everyone is an incomprehensible monster in a world without gender norms. I don’t really know if that makes gender good or bad. What do I know about gender?
Not much, apparently. Like Jolene the tree, all we have are our boundaries and the genders that we can accept.
GENDERWRECKED is both fatalistic and forgiving. It tries to give the player a headspace to think about gender in a place free of judgement. Apparently, that space can exist on a floating island at the end of the world.
You can find Sisi on Twitter.
Special thanks to Josie for buying me this game!