Bunk Bed #1: Everlove

Welcome to the first ever Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Everlove: Rose (Silicon Sisters Interactive, iOS, $3.99 USD) is a romance game by women-run Canadian games studio Silicon Sisters. The studio is committed to improving the representation of women in games, and recently ran a game jam for projects with female protagonists. This medieval fantasy adventure combines branching dialogue with hidden object and jigsaw puzzles. Everlove also allows the player to romance four different men (albeit one at a time). Beyond the flirtation, another story unfolds, a story about magic, control and resistance to power.

Top Bunk: Zoya

I have never been a woman in love, but I spent many years of my life roleplaying as one. Even before I used the word “transgender,” I knew I could never be a woman on the inside, but I felt that I had to learn to act as one. Nobody would ever love me otherwise, I thought.

I remember the first time we kissed. I remember it as the first time in years that I actually had enough friends to have a proper birthday party. It was working. I was finally lovable. When I broke up with him years later, I learned that he didn’t kiss me because I was lovable. He kissed me because I was vulnerable. I was easy to manipulate. I wasn’t going to say no.

I was nervous about playing romance game Everlove. Other romance games that I have encountered have taken me back to that dark place in my life when, in trying to be a good girl, I lost control of my own boundaries. Romance games are so often about trying to please other people.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

The protagonist, Rose, is undergoing past life regression therapy, which feels functionally similar to time travel. She wakes up in the body of a past life version of herself in medieval Europe. Immediately, one of the dialogue options you can choose for her is “I’m not sure about this… being in someone else’s body and taking control of it.”

This concern for consent is carried through fairly consistently. When Rose gets the opportunity for a tryst with the man you have chosen to pursue, you can decide to refuse his advances. The same applies when he proposes marriage. It seems obvious now that choosing to pursue a man isn’t the same as wanting to sleep with him, but I was brought up to think that it is wrong to disappoint a man after you’ve “led him on.” Everlove imagines Rose’s motivations more complexly than that.

Rose’s dreams are haunted by a frightening creature called The Beast. It is hinted that The Beast may really be about social control, but Rose has decided to try and work out what in herself is causing these terrible dreams.

Rose is discovering who she is through her relationships with men from her past life. Acting in a way that is true to how you want to play the character is always rewarded with personality points. In addition to Rose’s own self-discovery, the men she is pursuing are attracted to some traits more than others, each one having different preferences. Although Rose has to reach a minimum level of compatibility with at least one man in order to complete the game, beyond that she doesn’t have to change herself to please any of them. Every romance can end in failure and still be the right outcome for Rose as an individual.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

Everlove is at its strongest when romancing swarthy woodsman Garrett. I loved the witty banter between him and Rose. When she stood up for herself, he admired her all the more. I trusted him with her, because he seemed secure in himself. The weaker personalities in the game reminded me too much of the fragile ego of that boyfriend who so needed me to be a perfect girl so that he could feel like the perfect man. Because I trusted Garrett, I trusted Rose, and because I trusted Rose, I trusted myself a little bit more. Roleplaying as her gave me some space to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

In the end, Rose has to find a way to release the hold The Beast has on her, or else she is destined to become The Beast too. Escaping its influence won’t be easy, but I hope that she and I can get there together.

Bottom Bunk: Samantha

The experience of having a man hit on me would be funny if it didn’t make me feel so uncomfortable. As a queer woman and a transgender sex radical, I am so far outside of a straight man’s erotic economy that a successful bedding isn’t even a remote possibility. It’s like watching an octopus try to have sex with a hummingbird: I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish but it’s not going to happen.

Getting hit on is an incessant reminder that so many men instantly perceive women as objects to be valued, owned and exchanged. It’s like they’re all wearing little RoboCop visors and, as soon as they register a woman’s face, their programming kicks in. Prime directive number one? “Sleep with her.”

For me, Everlove is a horror game about the discomfort of being a queer woman in a heteronormative world. The men of Everlove are relentless in their advances; no matter how often I rebuff them, they always come back for more. In the absence of an “I’m so gay and even if I weren’t you wouldn’t stand a chance!” dialogue option, I have to settle for the next most hostile response: “You try anything and you’ll be so ridiculously sorry!”

But Everlove translates my resistance into romance. When I utter the above warning to a befurred mountain man named Garrett, for example, a little heart pops up to let me know that my self-defensive threats have piqued his interest. He likes my “will,” it seems. He finds it endearing. The game encourages me to play up the “traits” that appeal to my desired mate. I shudder to think of Everlove in the hands of young girls, the game implicitly instructing them that saying “no” is just another way of saying “yes.”

There is one character in Everlove, however, that manages to pique my interest: my best friend Fendrel. She’s strong and stubborn with a brooding energy behind her eyes. But there is a sweetness in her loyalty that tempers her otherwise hard-nosed demeanor. And, like me, Fendrel seems to inhabit a space outside of the world of men and royals. We share a similar social station, a common lot in life.

Corey and Samantha.

Corey and Samantha.

Fendrel reminds me a lot of my own partner, actually. Corey and I are a study in contrasts. My California girl skips like a stone across her deep pool of New York cool. Her dark, wavy hair makes my fluffy blondeness pop. But we are also held together by a fundamental sameness. We are both women, both queer, both soft in the right places. My eroticism is located in this interplay between sameness and difference, not in the heterosexual mystification of difference itself.

One late night in Bloomington, Indiana, Corey and I stopped for a slice at Rockits on the way home. As we sprinkled some crushed red pepper on our greasy pizza, a man came up to us and told us that we should each be out with individual, male partners. We’re depriving the world of women by spending our night with each other instead, he explained. He would make a great Everlove character.

Suffice it to say that I tried my hardest to be with Fendrel. I repudiated all four of my male suitors and said the sweetest possible things to Fendrel. Corey thought I was cute. Fendrel would too, right? But an early turn in the plot took Fendrel away for a time, leaving me stranded with four overeager medieval men.

My experience with Everlove—mercifully—came to an early end. My therapist-cum-aunt informed me that I was “not very compatible with any of the men of Heart’s Home”—quelle surprise!—and that I would have to “revisit previous conversations to generate additional compatibility points” with at least one of my suitors. Some games have a gear check; Everlove has a heterosexuality check.

I exited my conversation with my therapist and looked again at the overworld map. Sure enough, there were four paths with men’s names by them but no path for Fendrel. I closed the game and I haven’t opened it since. Four roads diverged in a yellow wood and I turned around and drove away in my U-Haul.

The heterosexual gate.

The heterosexual gate.

11 thoughts on “Bunk Bed #1: Everlove

  1. I just saw a comment on a Women in Games Facebook group from one of the creators of the game, Brenda Bailey.

    “I’d like to get other’s insight into this. “Bunk Bed” is probably the most interesting thing written about our romance game, Everlove: Rose so far. Two queer women dissect the game and share their experience playing the game, ending up in very different places. Both authors are very insightful and open in their writing. I struggled, hard, with whether or not to include the female blacksmith, Fendrel as a playable lesbian track. It was written that way, that was our original intention, and we were close to shipping it with that line included. We didn’t, largely because of feedback from gay friends that one gay option and four strait options felt like tokenism. We were at the end of our budget (and then some) and couldn’t add more characters. A decision had to be made. We decided that Everlove would be a heterosexual game, and that making a game with more choice would be next. Still don’t know if that was the right call, but making a tokenist game didn’t seem right either. How do we get it right next time?”

    Thoughts?

    1. Don’t feel it’s tokenist to make an effort to include something that otherwise isn’t represented at all. Personally, intention counts, even if the attempt may not be perfect at the start.

      A game we’re working on will include our first lesbian/gay content because we decided to have a statement of support and respect for our LGBT players, even though it’s still a minority of the story. Will that go down well with them? I hope so, but if it isn’t, at least we can iterate and do better in the next one.

      All said, in their SS case – I can understand the budget pressure of having to develop extra characters, especially if it involves developing all new systems and extra QA etc.. indie life aint easy.

  2. First of all, by referring to the article as the work of “two queer women,” the developer misgenders Zoya. Zoya writes “I knew I could never be a woman on the inside” and also references his identification as transgender.

    Also, the solution to tokenism is never to strip away but always to do more. If there wasn’t the budget to do more, then the developers should have made the game’s exclusions more clear. As it stands, the description on the app store says that the game is a “narrative game of Romance and Mystery.” It should be clearer that it is only about heterosexual romance, especially when Fendrel seems like a potential love interest in the early game.

    Lastly, I’d invite Brenda to repost that comment here (minus the misgendering) and get feedback from our readers, many of whom are queer women with ideas about what they’d like to see in future titles.

    1. As Samantha suggested, I have corrected my misgendering of Zoya, and am reposting here, with a request for feedback. Zoya, I apologize to you for not being more attentive to describing your gender as a queer man. I feel like Samantha has called me on a couple things today, and while it stings to fuck up, I’d rather be called on it than not, so thank you Samantha.

      I’d like to get other’s insight into this. “Bunk Bed” is probably the most interesting thing written about our romance game, Everlove: Rose so far. A queer woman and a queer man dissect the game and share their experience playing the game, ending up in very different places. Both authors are very insightful and open in their writing. I struggled, hard, with whether or not to include the female blacksmith, Fendrel as a playable lesbian track. It was written that way, that was our original intention, and we were close to shipping it with that line included. We didn’t, largely because of feedback from gay friends that one gay option and four strait options felt like tokenism. We were at the end of our budget (and then some) and couldn’t add more characters. A decision had to be made. We decided that Everlove would be a heterosexual game, and that making a game with more choice would be next. Still don’t know if that was the right call, but making a tokenist game didn’t seem right either. How do we get it right next time?

      1. Thanks Brenda! I’m really glad you posted here. I don’t have a good answer about tokenism but I’m looking forward to learning from other people’s comments.

  3. I am one of the writers on Everlove: Rose, and I want to thank you for this article.

    *Spoiler alert*
    There is a conversation Rose can have with her aunt farther into the game where she can reveal that doesn’t think she’s actually interested in men. Unfortunately, it is walled behind spending a night with one of the men. I wish, as an option, we were able to do this sooner in the game. Being able to play through Everlove without being shoehorned into a romance–even though it is at its heart a romance game–would definitely be something I’d like to include.

    It’s only through critiques of games like this can creators–especially those of us who have the privilege of the majority–learn more about inclusion. So truly, again, thank you.

    -Tonia

    1. [SPOILERS EVERYWHERE IN THIS REPLY]

      Hi Tonia! Thanks for commenting. It’s good to have an open dialogue about this!

      I did get the coming-out scene in my playthrough. It’s a really nice moment in the game. It’s a serious problem that you can only get to it after the ‘heterosexuality check’, but still it’s nice that you can unlock that conversation regardless of whether or not you chose to go for the tryst. It’s another example of how Everlove gives room for you to experience those romances in a way that is true to you as the player.

      Alys’s response had that intrinsic reward of feeling like you’ve found a secret in the game, and on top of that the story itself felt honest, like an intimate moment between lifelong friends. But I was concerned that her story might be playing into the trope of Dead Lesbian Syndrome. I feel like a successful romance with Fendrel would give Rose the happy ending that Alys never got. I think the absence of that relationship leaves the story unfinished.

  4. Sorry for the late reply. I’ve had a lot of things to read this week.

    Thanks, Zoya & Samantha, for a really interesting take on game reviews. I’m looking forward to more :)

    Thanks, Brenda & Tonia, for being open to discussion and willing to learn :)

    I haven’t played Everlove, and can’t because iOS. Having Rose as a subtitle, it looks as if you’re aiming to make it a series? Maybe future games can be made with RenPy (which works on Windows, Mac and Linux, and maybe Android too), or for playing in a browser.

    As for the content, I understand your reasoning, and budget is kind of a hard limit, but I would agree with Samantha that even tokenism is better than no same-sex options at all. Funny how you arrive at that situation from the other side than the disappointingly usual “we never thought about same-sex relations before you pointed it out”.

    Perhaps variations on that ‘not interested in men’ conversation can happen whether you reach that point before or after romancing one of the men.

    Even more inclusive would the game be if it had a no romance at all option. I would definitely choose Fendrel over any of the men, but I’m not sure I’d go so far as romance/a relationship with her. I get that thinking of everything like that would be a headache for developers though, and hard to do on a budget :/

  5. The way I see it, token inclusion is still inclusion. I’d rather see a game with a single lesbian option than none at all.

  6. Hi Kamiko – it’s not iOS only, it’s on android as well – google play, amazon, nook.

    Wish we’d gathered feedback before cutting the fendrel line. It would have been interesting to see how many people would feel that 1 lesbian option was less problematic than none. I did an informal survey of my gay friends and they thought 0 was better, we were sad to cut it, we all had gotten to like fendrel. Weird how characters become part of your universe in a game build.., but they do.

    1. I’m coming late to the party I know. I thought the above article was very insightful and made for an interesting read, especially the two different perspectives on the same character.

      I’d buy the game if the Fendrel path was there. I’d hoped that because it was being reviewed here that there would be queer content, since I tend to prefer pursuing those sorts of paths, and I like to support games which aim for inclusivity.

      I think it’s sad that the idea of including that path could have been dismissed as tokenism. I’d have rather had it there.

      Maybe the next game? Or a DLC/Expansion?

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