The protagonists meet an android: "Hello? Who are you?"

I played: The Red Strings Club

A beautiful pixel art game that is part mystic bartender sim and part future hacking adventure, created by Deconstructeam in 2018. I first came across the game largely due a controversy at the time about the mandatory path in the hacker portion of the game including discovering the deadname of a trans person and then exploiting this information.

It was met first with condemnation of normalizing of dead naming, followed by a comment from the trans development team member who explained that they felt it was an important inclusion due to it being a reality of being a trans person, particularly their experience. They also pointed out that, this plot point aside it’s very welcoming to LGBT people.

Really the the most confusing part of it all is that is honestly not the inclusion of it, nor the application of it – but rather how oddly it sits within the overall narrative and themes within the game. It also presents an interesting issue in terms of understanding representations of groups one is not a part of… and oddly, perhaps the solution too.

The Red Strings Club is essentially the presentation of a philosophical dialog about free will, morality, mental health and justification of unorthodox actions (lying, breaking laws, etc). Is it better to conform or to raise your middle finger to the rules?

Akara-184 says, "To properly answer that question I'll need to delve deeper into the meaning and implication of "rules"."

The whole process is coated in some amazing world building and character development, but it is essentially video game characters taking the roles of Socrates and the rest of people that Plato (totally reliably, honest) wrote about.

The unique mechanic in the game that facilitates these conversations is the mixing of cocktails with supernatural mood altering powers – a part which I found particularly compelling as a bon vivant. The cocktails can make your patrons depressed, excited or horny. This is the kind of realism in games that I’m all for.

The later portion of the game becomes a “hacking” sequence which, like the bar, reaches surprising levels of realism by not being about solving mini-games or math puzzles disguised as games – but rather through looking for weaknesses in people’s routines and then manipulating people into exposing more weaknesses.

Overall the game is not a conventional game (which I consider a plus), rather it is certainly a pretty interesting exploration issues that are very topic in the world we live in. It is definitely worth the time to play as an arthouse experience – though I strongly recommend that follow the game’s guidance to question everything as play. (Honestly, more games should do this kind of genuine philosophical approach).

The protagonists of the game all ask questions, all question whether something is good or bad – then they draw their own conclusions and contemplate the best path forward.

It doesn’t always work out, but it’s always the best they can do.

Screencap from the bar, Donovan the bartender says, "Ok. But don't be reckless"
This game is full of wisdom.

Further discussion including spoilers is below the cut.

Much like an old school book (with pages, remember those), the game is essentially split into chapters and each is remarkably different in tone and focus – which is, in part, what leads to the odd conflict over dead naming.

The first two sections are intensely philosophical, in the first you take the role of a robot that creates implants for patients to help them overcome their problems in an almost open manner.

For each problem, the robot has a variety of options and each solution is the counter-intuitive solution. If streamer has anxiety about their inability to be a sufficient following, the solution is not to make them a more uninhibited performer or better at predicting trends, but to relieve them of their need for attention.

Patient: "No matter what I do I can't rise my follower count. Please, help me!"
Problem: a cosplayer wants to raise her follower count
Solution: An implant is installed that eliminates the desire for social acceptance.
Solution: an implant that removes the need for social acceptance
Follow up with patient: "I deleted all my social media accounts. Now, I am free."
A happy ending?

This establishes the “threat” of the company that serves as the obvious antagonist of the story.

Ariodne says, "Supercontinent is planning to transform us all into a pile of smiling brainless dolls."
Corporations. Corporations never change.

The second section consists of you playing as a bartender who has given sanctuary to the (runaway) robot from the first section, during this section the bartender must use his powers of mixology and conversation to obtain information vital to the cause. At the end of each interrogation, you are quizzed and rated “objectively” by the robot.

The last section, is, oddly not very philosophical at all – rather instead you play the distinctly non-philosophical hacker who simply believes in his cause and doing what is necessary to progress it. You lie, impersonate people and have the opportunity to inflict chaos on the company – it only becomes philosophical again at the point of the big reveal and final choices.

Where this particular point gets interesting – more interesting than the implications of the philosophical questions (such as “is ethical marketing possible?”) and the consequences is how this dead naming is presented.

When the reviews first game out, they were primarily written from the perspective of cis people wanting to spread awareness of the risks to trans people and protect their trans friends.

Vice Games tweet: Don't deadname. Ever.

And the response from the publisher was… less than inspiring.

Devolver Digital tweet in response to Vice Games tweet: It would be worth taking the time to talk to the developers first before issuing tweets like this one.

There is of course, a long argument that could be had about “death of the author” vs the potential to seek clarification from a live author – and whether publishers should direct how criticism is written. But more directly what followed was an interview with the developers (that included a trans woman) which included a discussion of how the moment felt to Danielle Riendeau (the reviewer) and how it felt to Paula Ruiz (the trans member of the development team).

Having read the original (now renamed) article, the interview, played the game and considered it – I can see how this came about.

Like Danielle I did find the moment icky but not because it was to solve the mystery of a Larissa’s (the trans woman) identity (part of this is I’ve worked as a Fraud Investigator at various points in my life, so solving the mystery of people’s identities tends to feel somewhat natural to me) but it was more due to the revelation attached.

The hacker involved does not need to solve the mystery for the purposes of blackmail, and does not cast an judgement or comment on the character having transitioned or seek to make the knowledge public – he needs it to solve a password and the clue is about that woman’s former name.

That does raise the red flag of the deadname, yes, but focusing on that exclusively overshadows another problem that trans people (including some I know): chasers

The character who has the password is clearly infatuated with Larissa, but there is no evidence this affection is reciprocated and his fixation with her deadname indicates a fixation with her trans status. To me that raised memories of trans friends dealing with being fetishcised, stalked and attacked when chasers’ become embarrassed by their attraction to trans people and feel the need to perform a rejection of trans people.

Is that meant to be a sub-plot? I can’t say. Not just because as a cis person I’ve never had to live that, but also because since every trans experience is unique – I can’t say if Paula has or had not had to deal with a chaser, has friends who have, etc. It’s quite possible she has, instead had positive experiences in romance with people who knew her by her deadname.

I can’t say, and I didn’t reach out to her about it, because its honestly none of my business. Playing her game doesn’t entitle me to know about her romantic life. Really, there shouldn’t have been any expectation on her to draw attention to being trans to justify the writing in her game – or be expected to produce perfectly trans friendly material due to being trans.

As we push for more diverse creators and creations, we also need to push to understand that the creations may not match our expectations. After white cishet men have had centuries to refine their stories, it’s only fair that we allow everyone else the same level of experimentation and sloppiness.

So, when confronted with something like this – what we really should do is assess it, contemplate our options and take the best course of action we can (which includes factoring in that we could be wrong).

Now, if you haven’t already, go play The Red Strings Club.

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