Genderwrecked, a 2017 visual novel about trying to find the meaning of gender— which the game styles as GENDER, like a hellish scream-question—promises the following on its itch.io page:

  • Make out with the sun
  • Be mean to a tree
  • Become parent to ONE HUNDRED FIFTY NINE MEATY BOYS
  • Seduce a robot dad
  • Gay worms
  • Secret ending??????????
  • Blood
  • AND MANY MORE

Having read the above list, I was not expecting to come away from Genderwrecked with much more than a smirk and a great deal of bemusement, but it ended up being such a fascinating, deep look into gender—and how people decide their own—that it made me start to finally get a grasp on the damn thing. Gender is a fuck, friends. Let me try to explain.

The other day, scientists created a new shade of blue.

Perhaps this blue has always existed, nestled inside the color wheel, waiting for us to notice it. Perhaps it only came into being because someone decided they weren’t satisfied with the millions of other blues in existence. The spectrum of colors seems finite, but it is the opposite: tiny, almost indiscernible variations that can mean the difference between a living room painted in soft, relaxing Eggshell versus an off-white Elephant Breath that makes you want to vomit.

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That’s what I picture when I think of the spectrum of gender. Just as some people can discern the difference between shades of gray, and have it mean the world to them, so too does gender work this way. Just because a new blue is discovered, it does not make any other shade of blue less true. It does not water down other colors, or rob them of their brilliance, just by existing.

Like color, gender is often a preference that is achieved much like painting a room, by smearing different things on the, uh, metaphorical wall, and seeing which one makes you feel at home. Probably. It’s sort of… a bit fuzzy. Listen, if scientists are still discovering blues, I think we’re allowed to not have this figured out just yet either.

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It’s with this fuzziness in mind that I began playing Genderwrecked. The hero of the story sets off on a quest to figure out what gender is, and I with them. They (or whatever pronoun you choose at the start) do this not by reading books, or asking scientists, but by setting off into the unknown and posing the question to whomever they meet on the way, because, after all, books and scientists can’t determine or describe the way a person feels about themself. However, as the aforementioned list suggests, this is not always easy.

Asking a cube of eyes and a melting goo-nightmare what they think of when they picture gender is a bit like asking the sun what its favorite cereal is.

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“I WISH I DID NOT CARE ABOUT GENDER,” screams the eye-cube. “IT IS SO INSIGNIFICANT.” Phil, the melting goo-nightmare, says that their gender is a vacancy sign in a run-down hotel. So far, so cryptic, but perhaps that’s the point.

It wasn’t until I got to Lucy—a sort of bone-demon-goat-thing, cradling maggots in her hand—that Genderwrecked clicked with me.

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“I used to not really… feel that great about myself,” says Lucy, in response to your gender question. “Some bad stuff happened to me...and it stuck with me for a long time. I’d just pretty much accepted that I wasn’t worth anything.”

“But with Maggie,” she says, referring to the maggot-ball in her hands, which turns out to be her girlfriend, “I never felt pushed to be anyone, so I guess I just… did my best to be myself? She never tried to make me be anything, but every time I was something, she supported it.”

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“Maybe your gender is about… feeling right? Feeling at peace with yourself? Being with Maggie… I was able to rebuild my outside in order to fit my inside.”

It’s not that Lucy only discovered herself when she found Maggie; it’s that Maggie, unlike past partners, finally gave her the personal and emotional space to expand into her full self, to decide who she had been all along, beneath the masks she wore for other people, and for society. Gender, for Lucy, is who you already are.

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At the end, my character comes to no pre-set conclusion, because gender is not black-and-white but it is the ten billion shades of gray in between. I get to decide my own conclusion. “Gender isn’t any one objective thing,” I write into the box that the game gives me for my answer. “It’s just what we make of it.”

Finally, three options are put in front of me:

“Maybe GENDER only exists when people are together.”

“Maybe understanding GENDER means feeling like you belong somewhere.”

“Maybe GENDER is too complicated for any one of us to understand.”

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It doesn’t really matter which one I chose, though, because there was a much more poignant ending that comes after the choice: “All of these monsters had a point, and none of them were the whole point.”