The new game from the creators of 'Gods Will Be Watching" has bold, refreshing ideas about future sex—but also a pitfall into transphobia.
All images courtesy Devolver
This piece contains significant spoilers for The Red Strings Club, as well as a content warning for transphobia.
Editor's note: after initially publishing this piece, we reached out to the game's developers. You can find that follow-up piece here.
The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk adventure game (out today on Steam) that trades in all manner of genre tropes: There are massive corporations to deal with, transhumanism to wrap your unenhanced brain around, sentient androids who seek to understand humanity, and a sleek bar with retro stylings (including a fan and an old piano). It takes place in a far-future metropolis where one mega-corp—Supercontinent—is getting ready to unleash a mysterious program that will either facilitate human happiness or brainwash the population, depending on your point of view.
At its best, the game leans into one of the most exciting—and most often ill-incorporated—aspects of cyberpunk fiction: sexuality, and the ways in which technology can help and hinder it. At its worst, it stumbles on a key aspect of gender identity, so badly that it undercuts its own message.
Early on in the game, you step into the shoes of Akara-184, an android that manufactures implants for humans based on their desires and needs. Many of these needs have to do with sex, power, and influence, tying them in with all manner of social issues. One user wants to be more popular online. You can give her implants that make her more influential, or more immune to online trolls. You can give her “the prince” which makes her more physically attractive. But each solution brings more problems (kind of like life), until you simply move on to a new batch of clients.
This maybe-not-so-subtle commentary is underscored by the fact that all of the problems these people face are complex, with complex solutions. And all of them, crucially, are tied in to social constructs. Money, power, sex—they are all tied together, inextricably. Being sexy might give you more power. You need money to afford these implants. But maybe being sexy gives you too much attention, or not the “right” kind of attention. Maybe more power, or a different form of power, would help with that. Just enough to take the edge off...
Crucially, The Red Strings Club isn’t judgy about sexuality—only about power structures. It adheres to a model that is refreshingly fluid, and something I always want to see in cyberpunk fiction (and often, I’m disappointed).
Main character Donovan is queer. It’s unclear what his specific preferences are, but this appears to be a world where sexuality isn’t a vector for oppression or discrimination. Nor is there any visible body-shaming. While the game is rendered in a 16-bit style, some characters are presented as bigger than others, some are queer, some are people of color, some are gender-non-conforming, and again, it’s all a non-issue. Their identities and desires are seen as valid.
In one memorable sequence, Larissa—a high powered marketing director at Supercontinent —comes in for a drink and an excuse to chat. She has a previous relationship with Donovan—it’s unclear whether it was physical, but she wants it to be. As a bartender, Donovan makes special drinks that appeal to elements of a person’s personality. This is explicit and consensual, the reason why people come to the eponymous Red Strings Club, along with a desire to barter information. As she comes in, she tells him to make something good.
You have four drinks that you can make her, all of which appeal to different aspects of her mood and personality. You can never repeat a drink, but she tells you, upfront, that evenings drinking with Donovan always make her horny (it’s also important to note that there’s no way for Donovan to take advantage of her in this situation.) You can make a drink that appeals to her lustful side and she unapologetically lays it on, clearly desiring Donovan and very interested in talking about sex. At one point, she excitedly recounts an encounter that was “especially wild,” with a scientist who is all bionics from the waist down. She exclaims “he had this set of interchangeable dicks…” and enthusiastically offers to wear a strap-on for Donovan if he wants to sleep with her.
Because this section is presented in a way that it’s consensual, it’s frank, it’s fun, and it’s refreshing. There are a few things going on here: the interchangeable dicks (and other bionics!) signify a future where sex can be enhanced by technology, and that currently unconventional desires (like enjoying various bionic sex organs) can be fulfilled. Maybe you want to change your body. Maybe you want pleasure to be something different every time. This is a world where people feel comfortable talking about those desires, in this case, with a friend and potential partner.
Larissa is a a bigger woman, and never presented as anything but the life of the party and a successful professional (setting aside for a moment that she works for a controversial corporation, the ethics of which are addressed in the game). She’s lusty. She likes sex! I want to celebrate all of this this—and the way that Larissa at first seems to avoid falling into the lazy tropes that so often attend a character like her. But The Red Strings Club casts that entire characterization into doubt with how it handles Larissa in its final act...
A late game puzzle has you literally playing telephone with execs and scientists at Supercontinent. I was enjoying this until it deployed Larissa’s deadname as both a solution to a problem and as a completely tone-deaf late game “reveal.” I really don’t know what the devs were thinking here. At best, it reads like a botched attempt to make a plea for good trans healthcare, but it is clumsy as hell and frankly, offensive. Don’t deadname. Ever. And don’t treat trans characters’ identities like “plot twists,” as if being trans amounts to some wild revelation.
It really sucks, because The Red Strings Club is otherwise doing thoughtful things with gender, bodies, and sexuality. There are other sweet and positive queer moments in the game, including a very late game moment (which also, in my ending, turned to tragedy), and there are big, difficult questions about what it means to build a progressive society.
It all ties into the biggest problem I had with Blade Runner 2049, a beautiful piece of cyberpunk fiction with disappointingly regressive ideas about sex, race, sexuality, and body type. Though you can hear Austin, Rob and I argue about whether that was intended or not in our two and a half -hour spoilercast of the film.
For my money, the best cyberpunk fiction doesn’t just go hard against corporate bullshit and miserable labor politics. It also fights gender stereotypes, musty ideas about sex and sexuality, about what technology can and should do for our bodies.
the best cyberpunk fiction doesn’t just go hard against corporate bullshit and miserable labor politics. It also fights gender stereotypes and musty ideas about sex and sexuality
Minus the deadnaming and treating her transness as a “reveal,” and uncomfortably hitting on the hypersexualized transwoman trope, I’d be singing this game’s praises to the top of the neon cityscape. As is, I’m disappointed and baffled by this awful decision.
As much as I enjoy cyberpunk works that are grim, depressing calls to alarm, I also want the genre to be strong enough to contain hope. Hope looks like freedom from those rigid binaries and ideas about sex, a world where people are free to explore any kind of consensual pleasure they’d like. Hope looks like a set of interchangeable bionic dicks, yes, this is the future that millenials want.
But hope also looks like a future free from deadnaming, stereotyping, or treating trans people differently in any way. And that’s something we can do in the here and now, without super-AI, bionic implants, or ultra-empathetic androids.