On Gender Ambiguity in a Binary Paradigm

I had free reign to corner and manipulate any man or woman that Verge had compiled a dossier on, but I'd only ever succeeded in capturing men. What could the reason for this be? And did my record of victims shape who Daily was for me?

Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer

Rated: NR
Players: 1
Price: free
Platforms: PC
Developer: Nicolau Chaud
Release date: 2010-05-04

Whatever else may be said about Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, it's an experience that sticks with you. I don't ascribe this to good writing so much as a great hook with tolerable writing supporting it, but if there is one area where the narrative and characterization grabbed me utterly, and put me at odds with the reviews for the game that I had encountered, it's in the development of the character Daily.

Daily is your protagonist's love interest, a callous and aloof dungeoneer at the head of the field. Daily plans to leave the conventional basement dungeon circuit -- and Verge -- behind in pursuit of higher forms of artistic cruelty. But at no point is this character referred to by pronoun, male or female; instead, the text uses Daily's full name, even in dialogue when such use would become increasingly stilted. Verge keeps an assortment of photos from Daily's "modeling days" on his desk, and the poses and clothing that Daily is shown in emphasize the character's androgyny. So it was striking to me to be brought into the game by reviews (such as this one) that refer to Daily rather consistently in the feminine.

I don't mean to critique the viewpoints of these reviews, as obviously such ambiguity lends itself to multiple valid interpretations. But while Daily's high-pitched screaming in the finale might lend a player toward a certain translation of the text, the absence of gendered pronouns is clearly quite deliberate. That is, it's as justifiable to characterize Daily as male, and Verge's relationship with Daily as homosexual, as it is to assume that Daily is both genders or neither. The character is meant to be archetypal, transcending simple definition or ideas. You could never say that it's entirely revolutionary as a literary device, but the fact that it's rare enough that it might be remarked upon in an article like this points, I think, to certain potential oversights in how we conventionally write about gender and sexuality in video game narratives.

Case in point, the ongoing confusion and at times appalling lack of sensitivity displayed in the popular gaming press with respect to NieR's Kaine, a human girl possessed by a male demon. Apparently unable to parse the complexity of this idea, Kotaku writer Brian Ashcraft once infamously labeled the character a "hermaphrodite," failing to take into account either the technical or political incorrectness of this usage ("NieR's Hermaphrodite Character", Kotaku, 15 Sept 2009). It's hard to say what's worse in this case, that Ashcraft went unrebuked or that examples such as Kaine are just rare enough to remain isolated and for the most part unexamined, discounting mentions such as those in GameSetWatch (Tom Cross, "Sexualization in Video Games", GameSetWatch, 11 Dec 2009). Either way, it seems to bear further comment than it has heretofore received.

From Final Fantasy IX's Kuja to Persona 4's Naoto, notions of characters with differing biology or gender identity from the assumed default are often a tough pill to swallow for many gamers, playing into the larger apparatus of what Cross calls the "confusion, desperation [and] dehumanization" of "white heterosexuality." That is to say, it is not that Daily's possible gender or lack thereof in Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is confrontational as a matter of characterization but that it becomes confrontational as a device when drawn into the context of Verge as an avatar for the player. Thus, Verge's relationship with Daily is your relationship with Daily, toxic as it is, and despite Verge otherwise being quite defined as separate from the player.

(That being said, last week I looked at how the dating sim elements of this game implicate the player of the same sociopathy as Verge. There is a great deal to be said about immersion as a spectrum and as a continuous back and forth, rather than as a "one way" process.)

Upon completing Beautiful Escape, I happened to notice that of all the people that I seduced back to my basement dungeon that only Daily was not unambiguously male. Apart from the one story-asserted male victim, I had free reign to corner and manipulate any man or woman that Verge had compiled a dossier on, but I'd only ever succeeded in capturing men. What could the reason for this be? Was it just my aversion, as a woman, to being a participant in assault against one of my own? Did I just happen to find the male targets' responses easier to figure out, and is it a failing on the part of the designer or an intentional statement? And finally, did my record of victims shape who Daily was for me by implying a sexual connection between my freely chosen subjects and the one that I had no control over?

Ultimately I chose to identify Daily as androgynously male, possibly intersexed. I have no more support for this than reviewers who define Daily as a woman, but constructed in light of my playthrough, Verge as a troubled homosexual man who had been driven even to the abuse and maiming of his brother -- implied incest and fratricide all in one -- made sense to me as a coherent through-line for the story. Certainly it wasn't what I would ever call an empowering storyline, but it struck a note of difference against the dearth of heterosexual men, their desexualized violence, and their hypersexualized femmes fatale that I am used to experiencing in video game narratives. To what extent my own gender played a role in the construction of this narrative from Chaud's components is a more nebulous question, though ruminating on the possibilities reminds me in no small way of my experiences with Loved earlier this year. In this game, the player is also confronted with a question of sexual and gender identity. While Beautiful Escape features an easiness, even essentialness of a transcendental nature, Loved is about the forceful stripping away of identity from the self, using gender as a tactic for dehumanization.

Both Loved and Beautiful Escape, as well as NieR's Kaine, showcase in their reception a certain tendency towards categorizing the experience in binaries and a discomfort with that which lays outside such binaries. If Daily displays anything on the part of designer Nicolau Chaud, it's a willingness to allow players to stitch together for themselves Daily's exact nature -- including if said character even needs one.

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