Genderwrecked, by artist Ryan Rose Aceae and developer Heather Robertson, isn't a space made for me. It belongs to the monsters who live in it, each of them a bizarre and fanciful grotesque, whether they are a belligerent tree who resents being reminded that plants can't walk because they don't have feet or 159 children made out of meat by their pun-loving robot father. Each has their own concerns and only the friendliest of them seem pleased with my arrival on a quest to discover the meaning of GENDER—always written in all caps—which was lost in whatever apocalypse reduced the world to isolated islands sketched in ASCII art. I'm intruding in their homes, breaking their solitude, and eavesdropping on, in their own words, their gay-ass private moments.
They're fairly understanding about it though, once you get to know them. Depending on your mood you can talk with them, fight them, or (if you're charming or forward enough) engage in sweaty make-out sessions, whether that's with a raging ball of everburning flame named Larry or the severed head of a wolf-person who is infatuated with the moon.
Each of the residents is a little self-absorbed, but charming in their own way, and with a little coaxing each of them shyly opens up about their insecurities. Whatever the apocalypse was, it left an impression that lasts. It's still easy to feel bad about the way you look when your body is a squirming mass of worms and maggots, even in this bizarre world.
Genderwrecked affects only the simplest game-like conventions. You can choose whether to ask to talk or fight or kiss someone, but their mind is probably already made up about how they're going to react to that, and there is largely only one way forward. Despite being made in visual novel builder Ren'Py and containing the possibility of make-outs, Genderwrecked isn't a dating game either. You're here on a quest to rediscover GENDER, and that quest entails speaking to each of the monsters until you find how to get them to confide in you and help you along your way.
Once you've earned their trust, each of the strange inhabitants of Genderwrecked confides in you about how they define their own gender, and each definition is as fanciful and profane as their appearances and personalities. Phil, an introverted slime creature with a protruding skeleton and a gaping hole in their chest, describes their own gender as a flickering vacancy sign outside a hotel abandoned even by the cockroaches. Maggie and Lucy are "gay as hell," whatever that means to a tiny, human-shaped colony of maggots and a walking mummified corpse.
Sharing personal definitions of gender, made up of a collection of associated images and concepts, feels intensely vulnerable. It exists in the long shadow of online mockery and hatred toward people whose identities don't match social norms, or who reject gender constructs altogether.
"I identify as an attack helicopter" is a staple of casual transphobia, so endemic to gaming communities that Sega apparently doesn't mind placing it in their mascot's mouth on social media. In this place, though, if one character calls another a "massive furry nerd," it's the gentle teasing of a friend, with the ironic awareness of that scorn but none of its bite.
Vulnerability isn't fashionable, even when it isn't subject to direct mockery. There's a lot of pressure on creators to create queer characters who have neat and clean lives with no handholds for bigots—a pressure to have queer stories where the characters live figured-out lives, without trauma that reminds fans of their own pain, even if the creators themselves don't live figured-out lives and might not even know what a life without trauma is supposed to look like. Genderwrecked defies any pressure to be the right kind of representation. Nobody here is anything like perfect: some of them don't know who or what they are, some of them hurt in ways that can't be fixed, and some of them will just screw with you even if you try to help.
Each of the monsters of these nameless islands is not only queer, but a product of real-life queer subculture. In the post-apocalypse it still means something to be gay as hell, although it isn't entirely clear what. They offer their pronouns in the same breath as their names. It subtly hints that each of the adults on this island remembers a time of hierarchical, taxonomic gender, where even if you rejected the idea that male and female was a strict binary, gender was still a system of categorizing people.
No matter what it is, a pronoun necessarily implies a category, even if it's a category of one. In Genderwrecked the social pressure to conform to those categories is mostly gone, but removing that pressure doesn't mean it has been forgotten. Neither did it solve the difficulties many of Genderwrecked's residents have with figuring out and making peace with who they are.
There's a bittersweet optimism here. Nobody is going to make fun of Phil for their nihilistic view of gender or life in general—unless that's something you bring to Genderwrecked yourself—but, even so, their only advice is to "go talk to other people who actually have their shit together." While gender is largely forgotten in Genderwrecked, and nobody is even recognizably human any more, it hasn't removed the human desire to belong to something, or the equally human desire to reject that need for belonging.
A fragment of the old world, found late in the game, is inscribed with "what if the real GENDER is the friends we made along the way :)" It's as close as Genderwrecked comes to a thesis, and is at once a self-deprecating cliche and also an earnest affirmation of this space where someone can safely be something messy and monstrous that doesn't have their shit together.
There's something deeply honest and sweet about this post-apocalyptic fantasy world where everyone has a place to figure out who they want to be and how they want to fit in. It's a messy and small and imperfect game about people who are messy and small and imperfect. Playing it, I can't help but feel like a tourist, a voyeur looking into their lives. Even so, I was welcome to visit for a hour or so, and I'm glad I did.
Genderwrecked is available on itch.io, with a free demo of the first chapters.