The gestures a character can perform in Dark Souls.
First, I snort like a horse a few times. Then I sound out all the vowels in turn, sliding my pitch up and down, up and down. I think of my voice as a river running through me from my lungs to my throat to my lips and I know that I have to change its course.
I dam my voice at my throat and try to make it run through my forehead instead. Then, locking in my pitch as high as I can muster, I read a few pages of a book aloud. I imagine a helium balloon over my head, insistently pulling my intonation upward at the end of each word, each sentence.
And there it is.
For a few minutes, I can sound like me, like Samantha, like how I always imagine myself sounding. I can slough off the dreary baritone I’ve been stuck with since puberty and speak instead in a soft alto that lilts playfully through every phrase. It feels sublime. But it exhausts me.
Like many transgender women, I started taking hormones after puberty had irreversibly thickened my larynx. Apart from a risky surgical procedure, the only way for me to produce a conventionally feminine speaking voice is through practice.
I have just started to do rigorous vocal exercises like the one described above. They’re not going well so far. I can produce a “believable” female voice but I feel like I’m impersonating someone. It’s so hard to get used to the idea that this can be my voice now, that no one has to know how I spoke before my transition.
Singing is even harder for me. If I want to sing at high volume, I need to access characteristically male features of my voice. As much as I love belting out “A Whole New World,” karaoke is off limits unless I’m in a queer-friendly space. When I sing, I can hear disturbingly powerful echoes of the person I once was. It’s uncomfortably dysphoric or, more simply put, it makes me feel weird about my gender.
But when Cameron Kunzelman asked me to record a new version of my song “Transcontinental Alpaca” for the game Alpaca Run, I jumped at the chance; I loved to write music but I had not recorded any new songs since 2009, well before the start of my transition.
Ingrid, the transcontinental alpaca and star of Alpaca Run.
I had missed singing so much, I realized. I listened to my old music and heard prescient hints of changes to come. Through my music, I had been feeling my gender identity out in the dark, finding circumlocutory language to describe a precise but shadowy feeling. In one song, I complain to the addressee: “Don’t tell me to be the man. I’m not. / And neither are you. / So where does that leave us?” In another, I preemptively mourn an impossible future: “I could have made it if I were a man / but I didn’t have a plan for this.”
“Transcontinental Alpaca,” by comparison, was lighter fare indeed. I first recorded the song in 2007 and, at the time, it was a heartfelt song about a boy and his alpaca travelling across the country and an anthem for Ingrid, my beloved alpaca stuffed animal.
When I returned to the song at Cameron’s behest in 2013, I had to ask myself what had changed. Was the narrator of the song still male even though my own gender had changed? The lyrics of “Transcontinental Alpaca” provided no clues; the only pronouns in the song are “I” for the narrator and “she” for Ingrid. Was my relationship to this fictional alpaca gendered in 2007 in ways that had gone completely unexamined at the time? Were Ingrid and I sisters now when once she had been my maternal protector? I even pondered the “trans-” prefix in the chorus (“She’s the transcontinental alpaca…”), a single syllable that sounds so different to me now than it did in 2007.
I tried to push past my puzzling questions but, as I immersed myself in the recording process, my confusion only deepened. How should I sing this song? Should I impersonate the person I had been in 2007 or should I try to sing differently? How comfortable was I leaning into the humor of the falsetto break before the chorus, that peculiarly gendered humor of a “male voice” suddenly sounding “womanly” as it launches itself into a higher register?
The questions piled up, as did my reservations about attaching my voice to the project. This would be most people’s initial experience with my voice and it would not, to my mind, leave them with a convincingly feminine first impression. I didn’t want the audience to hear that voice; I wanted them to hear the lilting alto of my fantasies.
I’d like to say that I came up with an amazing theory as to how my transition had changed the song. I’d like to say that I subtly altered the recording process to reflect the personal shifts that had taken place over the past year. I didn’t. I just sang. I lost myself in the mechanics of the process and shoved the theory aside. I got a good take. I sent it to Cameron. I shelved my trepidation.
When Alpaca Run first came out, most of the people who played it knew who I was. But, as it spread beyond my own queer-affirmative circles, my fears about my voice were quickly justified. One YouTuber, upon seeing the credits of the game, concluded that someone named Samantha Allen could not possibly be the singer of “Transcontinental Alpaca.” I wrote a clarification in the comments and he was understanding. But I wondered how many of Alpaca Run’s thousands of players envision a male narrator as soon as the soundtrack kicks in.
I played Alpaca Run again yesterday for the first time in weeks with a longtime friend looking over my shoulder.
“I don’t like that song,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like you anymore.”
And indeed, in that moment, the song struck me as a strange relic, out of time and out of place. Who was this person singing? Did I sound like myself? How could I not? I am me, after all. And yet, how alienating it was to hear it through her ears. How strange it was that this curious song about an alpaca’s journey across the USA was now a portal through time to a version of myself that I had left by the wayside.
What I’ve discovered through my transition and especially through the process of singing for Alpaca Run is that voice remains of the most powerful perceptual cues that people use to understand each other. Transgender folk wisdom has it that it takes about four female cues to overshadow one male cue. As hormones reshape my body, as my hair grows out, as I hone my makeup skills, more and more female cues are lining up for me. But my voice—my pesky, stubborn voice—can bring them all crashing down in an instant. My voice shapes how people approach me; it changes whether they think of me as a woman or as a “third category.”
It shouldn’t be this way, I know. We should be able to accept a variety of voices coming out of a variety of bodies. Some people choose to thwart conventionally gendered notions of voice and I honor that choice but, in my personal case, I do want to blend sometimes. For me, shifting other people’s perception is worth the labor of vocal training. And so, haltingly, I continue my exercises. First, I snort like a horse…
A couple of weeks ago, I started streaming Dark Souls on Twitch.tv. The stream began as a way for my sagely older brother to guide me through a first playthrough of this notoriously difficult game but others started to tune in as well. Some found my stream through my Twitter and, as such, probably know that I’m transgender. But other chat participants seem blissfully unaware of who I am beyond my bio photo.
In a short time, Twitch has become an escape for me, the one corner of gaming culture in which I can just relax and play a game without wearing my trans hat. When I’m harassed on Twitter during a video game controversy, people intentionally misgender me but, in my little Twitch oasis, chat participants use appropriate pronouns at all times. They have no reason not to. They’re so innocent.
I communicate with the chat through hurried text messages and through the ever comical Dark Souls gesture system. But I want to talk. I want to crack a joke. I want to scream when I run into a trap and cheer when I finally defeat a boss.
Voice has become an increasingly important facet of gaming culture: from podcasts to “Let’s Play” videos to Twitch streams. I want to join the conversation, too.
But I’m scared. I still have so much work to do on my voice. Every time I stream Dark Souls, I look down at the red light on my headset by the words “Mic Mute.” And I wonder what will happen if I turn it green.