We Talked to the 'The Red Strings Club' Devs About Queer Art and Intention
Yesterday, we wrote about deadnaming and a cyberpunk adventure game. Today, we talked to its developers.
All images courtesy Devolver Digital
This piece contains story spoilers for The Red Strings Club, and a content warning for transphobia.
Yesterday, I wrote about my experience playing The Red Strings Club. It’s a story-based cyberpunk game that I found fascinating, with bold ideas about sex and sexuality and body positivity in the context of a complex future society—but a late game decision to deadname a trans character really bothered me.
Deadnaming is the term used to evoke a trans person’s name from before their transition. It’s often seen as an extremely painful thing, and problematic for various reasons, including potentially outing a person and subjecting them to violence, or making a person feel as if their identity is invalid. Deadnaming, however, can also show up in works by trans creators looking to comment on personal experience.
In the game, it wasn’t just that she was deadnamed, but how it happened (her deadname is the password to another character's computer) that put me off. The puzzle involves you (as a hacker character) breaching the phone system of the mega-corp in question, and you call people under false pretenses, working to “solve a mystery” that happens to be a trans woman’s identity. It feels cheap and gross.
I was frankly loving the game before this happened, and an earlier draft of this piece (before I encountered this late puzzle) was positively glowing. As I wrote yesterday, if it weren’t for this decision, “I’d be singing this game’s praises to the top of the neon cityscape.”
I pissed off some people in my reading of the game. I’d like to be extremely clear here: I think the game does many things very well, and I’m very sympathetic to this point of view, but the deadnaming, as I read it, was a bad move.
After my piece went live, the developers at Deconstructeam reached out to me, looking to fill in some context about the game and the decision to include the deadnaming in the puzzle. They told me this was an intentional choice to paint one of the main characters in a negative light. I didn’t have that context when I played the game, but the developers had clearly given this decision a lot of thought.
Paula from Deconstructeam sent me the following about that decision and her experiences working on the team. I’m pasting it here, in full.
Hey, this is Paula.
I am part of the three person development team at Deconstructeam. I am trans. Both of my teammates have been incredibly supportive towards my transition and everything related to it.When we started making the game I was still deep in the closet and I came out in the middle of the development of it, and we all learned a lot about all of this through my experiences. Your perspective on the game is not inappropriate.
We agree it's important to talk about all this stuff and denounce it, but it's also important to look at all angles of a story. Not every single trans person is offended in the same way to every single kind of transphobic bullshit, so when Jordi told me about his ideas on all of the narrative and story we had long discussions about it and ultimately moved to the final version which you played.
About deadnaming itself I just want to say that even if deadnaming really sucks, it's a thing I have to live with as I'm still early in my transition and in the country where we live I still have lots of months of waiting until I can legally change my name. Deadnaming sucks, but it's also a part of trans people's realities, and the game tries to capture that bit too, maybe not in the depth it should according to you, but at no moment was its use frivolous.
I mean, with me having worked on previous titles with Deconstructeam you can easily find my deadname everywhere and it's not something I like but also know it's not something I can fight against so I just try my best to live with it.
Anyway, even if I understand why you reacted that way to this specific bit of the game, I just hope that now that you know all of this and the fact that even you acknowledged that everything else in the game puts queer stuff in a really positive light, I can convince you that we didn't do this as some kind of way to harm transgender people. It saddens me that this article might keep trans people from playing a game in which we tried our best to be inclusive and make characters relatable to people not usually represented in this media.
Jordi de Paco, the writer at Deconstructeam, thanked me for being open to dialogue and stressed that the intention with Larissa’s character (the character who is deadnamed) is to challenge stereotypes: “Being one of the members of our 3 people team a trans girl, and with Larissa's character, our intention was to add visibility and normalize trans characters. That said, we don't see it as the narrative of the game being transphobic, but a character being so: basically, Edgar is a douche who is in love with Larissa and kept her deadname as part of his password as some sort of twisted trophy."
For whatever it’s worth, that didn’t come across to me in playing the game. Edgar certainly comes off as a self-centered asshole, but the transphobia feels like it comes out of left field. In-game, you are impersonating other people by using their “voiceprints.” This wasn’t just “oh, I found her deadname in an old notebook,” it’s calling people under false pretenses, getting them to breach her privacy.
“I understand how this can be offensive and easily misinterpreted,” de Paco said, “but in the same way the game aims to make ideas clash such as sexism, racism, and other phobias, this was meant to be another side of this coin. Paula is not only a team member but also my girlfriend and the last thing I would want to do is to hurt her or any other trans person in any way.”
De Paco was keen to emphasize intent in answering some of my questions about the puzzle and how it came about. “The intention was to retroactively break the stereotype of the unashamed femme fatale that entered the club in the previous chapter. It starts with her body type, pushing body-positivism through her, to begin with, and her not being cisgender was an important part to me to rework this kind of characters in The Red Strings Club. We used Edgar's stupidity as a vehicle and also made a puzzle out of it.”
He also pointed out that there was discussion around the decision to deadname a character. “We discussed it and were aware of how delicate it was. Of course, there are different ways of making this chapter happen.” De Paco said that this wasn’t something the team did lightly or maliciously, but that they went with it “because it's also a matter of character building, and to me, an important part in picturing Edgar's lack of touch.”
I asked if the team was expecting any blowback from players, given that deadnaming, as I understand it, is a major slight. “We understand deadnames isn't a pleasant topic for trans people and how it can produce negative reactions in players,” he said. “But then again, the game works in that way with other many topics, like if allowing depression lead to suicide, sexual violence, racism, and more. This bit wasn't meant as hate, but as picturing another part of trans realities.”
Finally, I asked how the team feels about the read that this deadnaming was transphobic. De Paco expressed serious upset: “We are really sad to see your reaction here since we feel that context is important. This is really important to us since it affects us personally and to our friends and family.”
The context that the team gave me during this interview does make me more sympathetic to Deconstructeam’s intentions and position, but at the end of the day, most people are going to play the game without this interview to look back on. I read the deadnaming as a stumble, and I can’t be dishonest about that reaction.
It’s my belief that all creators, queer or otherwise, be taken seriously for their work.
Deconstructeam should be lauded for its other work here, and praised for the risks they took that really paid off. The game has bold ideas about sexuality, a vision for a cyberpunk future inclusive of hope for marginalized people. Hell, it manages to have one of the freshest and most fun discussions of sex in any game I’ve played.
What I tried to do here was write an honest take on a game that I loved 90% of, but still felt had a major problem at the end. There are points to be praised, and points to be critiqued. It’s my belief that all creators, queer or otherwise, deserve to be taken seriously for their work.