Gaming

‘The Red Strings Club’ Shows The Harsh Reality Of A Cyberpunk Future

Weird Games The Red Strings Club

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The Red Strings Club is a low-fi pixel art cyberpunk player adventure game that takes everyday activities you’ve never really seen in a game before and turns them into fascinating mechanics for persuasion.

It features a sexually-diverse and celebrated world, takes philosophical stances on dystopian futures and questions ideas about ownership, the ethics of capitalism and our dependent relationship with technology and our emotions, but it all turns a bit south in the game’s final act.

A World Of Eternal Happiness, Or Mindless Brainwashing?

In the not-too-distant future, people depend on tech implants to solve their everyday problems. While under good intentions, Supercontinent Ltd., the company that designs these implants, plans to create a dystopian utopia with government-supported revolutionary software that can null all negative emotions. A group of rebellious misfits, including a charismatic bartender and information broker, his anarchist cybernetic boyfriend and a rogue empathy bot, try to uncover the truth behind the company and stop the birth of a brainwashed technologically determined world before it’s too late.

Most of the game is told within the walls of the Red Strings Club, the small mysterious jazz bar owned by the implant-less information broker Donovan. Mixing drinks to stir specific emotional responses, you trade information with the bar’s patron and at the end of each interaction, are quizzed on your clientele and the ethics of capitalism from your snazzily-dressed androgynous robot empathy sidekick, Akira.

“Is marketing inherently evil?”

“Does a company still have the right to upgrade a piece of hardware inside you if you’ve paid for it?”

As you learn more about the personalities of Supercontinent Ltd. and chat with Akira, you understand what drives each character and uncover the mystery behind the Social Psyche Welfare System in an intense cyberpunk thriller about an evil corporation.

It’s a really clever and deep player choice mechanic that sincerely makes you question the ethics of capitalism and ownership, but also poetically tells a rad dystopian narrative of queer underdogs taking down society. The developer’s vision of a cyberpunk future is unapologetically queer, it abandons labels and with the help of personality upgrades and mods, lets people be whoever they want. Accompanied by low-fi visuals, jazzy underground environments and a soundtrack by Fingerspit, it’s right up my alley.

The Red Strings Club

But, it kinda falls flat in a single moment.

In the last third of the game, you play as Donovan’s vigilante cyborg boyfriend Brandeis as he hacks into the company’s networks to shut down the system. It’s a fun and engaging sequence that encapsulates all of the characters, decision and connections you met and made in the previous four hours as Donovan and Akira, as you impersonate members of Supercontinent Ltd. on the phone and play off their personalities and relationships to unravel the mystery.

Yet, the password to unlock the security system is Larissa’s deadname. This is the first and only moment that the game reveals that Larissa is trans.

Oof.

Deadnaming Is An Act Of Violence

Deadnaming is when a trans person is referred to by another person as the name they previously were known by and no longer identify as. It’s a haunting reminder of their past self and de-legitimises them in society, specifically in a corporate institution where trans people often have to fight to have their personal records recognise their identity in the first place. Even further, doing so is an act of violence towards trans people.

Waypoint Danielle Riendeau criticised the game during its original release in 2018 as being subtly transphobic. According to her, Larissa’s deadname came across as “both a solution to a problem [in-game] and as a completely tone-deaf late-game reveal,” one that felt clumsy and offensive of trans people’s experiences.

But as Paula Ruiz, one of Deconstructeam’s three-person team and a trans woman, explains, the use of it is justified in the context of the game. The password is made by a douchebag scientist in love with Larissa. He’s written to be a prideful, obnoxiously unlikeable dickwad, and this is merely meant to emphasise that.

Regardless of how you interpret this scene, it’s important to show experiences of being dead-named because it’s a harsh reality of trans people’s lives.

It also I think says something that the way it’s presented here is from someone who represents a pillar of the infrastructure of a corporation. Red Strings Club’s protagonists are socialists and its villains are capitalism. Vilifying the company and their flawed understanding of equality – offering technology that can improve your everyday life but also not recognising Larissa’s true identity in their own personal records – extends to how out of touch they are with humanity.

Up and to this moment, everyone correctly genders Larissa and respects her identity, suggesting that Red Strings Club’s people of the future are more progressive than our own.

And, ultimately as Ruiz continues, regardless of how you interpret this scene, it’s important to show experiences of being dead-named because it’s a harsh reality of trans people’s lives.

“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,” She explained in an article responding to Riendeau.

And Again For Those In The Back: Representation Matters!

In much the same way, local trans game developer Jody Toomey agrees.

“Young kids questioning their gender need to see that their stories don’t stand alone, that there’s other people like them out there,” Toomey told Junkee. “It can be very triggering for people, so it does need to be handled delicately. However, it does need to be told.”

“Trans people love seeing stories they can relate to but, and this is the important part, it has to be well done and realistic for them to connect to. It’s too easy for those stories to drop the ball, often by casting a cis man to play a trans woman.”

“[Dead-naming a trans character here] works as a plot device to make the villain more unlikeable,” She continued. “I can see why the uneducated would arc up about it but, to me, it’s a clever way of using it.”

As a cisgender gay male, I don’t have the authority or experience to say whether representing the experience of deadnaming in pop culture is inherently a bad idea, and I don’t necessarily think Riendeau can either. Why I think Red Strings Club’s trans representation works, however, is because it was made by a trans person for queer and trans people and a reflection of their own experiences.

It’s clear when a queer person wrote a character or storyline in a TV show, film or game because it feels authentic. The character is a slice of the writer’s world and you’re experiencing a part of that as well as feeling like you aren’t alone.

I really do enjoy The Red Strings Club. It’s a captivating, incredibly immersive and rich cyberpunk drama with compellingly original mechanics and in most angles, takes a very progressive approach to cyberpunk fiction. The way it handles Larissa’s identity isn’t crucial to the overall experience of the game. While it was intended by the developer to show the complexities of trans people’s everyday realities, acknowledging the impact it has on players and representation discourse starts a long-needed conversation.

How can we best represent all sides of our trans brothers and sisters’ stories while still showing them they aren’t alone?

“We have a saying,” Toomey concluded. “‘Everyone’s journey is different, we all have to walk it in our own way.’ The same applies to telling such stories in games.”

Now if only AAA games could do the same.

Julian Rizzo-Smith is your friendly neighbourhood queer pop culture and games freelance writer. If he could, he would probably implant a piece of hardware to help him deal with his crippling insomnia. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster.

A retail code was provided to Junkee by Devolver Digital for the recent release of the game on Nintendo Switch.