Bunk Bed #2: Redshirt

Welcome to the 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. 
 
A photo of a bunk bed.

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Redshirt (The Tiniest Shark, PC and Mac, $19.95 USD) is a sci-fi social media simulator that transports the player to a Star Trek-inspired future while lampooning the Facebook of the present. By navigating social media website Spacebook (get it?), the player builds relationships, acquires skills, and climbs the career ladder. Redshirt will be available on November 13th, 2013 on Steam, GoG, and through direct download.

Top Bunk: Samantha

It’s my dream to be queer in outer space. Why? Queerness and outer space are the two coolest things ever, so they should be mind-blowing in combination, right? My partner and I would live on a homey little space station orbiting Jupiter, far away from all the straight people. We’d be so beautifully isolated and, in the stillness of space, I would perfect the art of the Barbarella-esque, zero-gravity striptease.

When I booted up Mitu Khandaker’s Redshirt, I was ready to live out my dreams of sultry space sex. I made a green-skinned Asrion character named Samantha, indicated an erotic interest in women on my profile and began my simulated space sojourn. But alas, the endlessness of space couldn’t shield me from the vagaries of love. Redshirt was not the queer getaway of my dreams but it did produce an unforgettable tale of love and heartbreak.

A screenshot of Samantha's Redshirt avatar: a green woman with blue shoulder-length hair, wearing a futuristic red dress and giving a thumbs-up.

Samantha’s avatar in Redshirt

My first Spacebook private message was from a straight man named Hunter O’Heron who seemed to like me. None of that, please! I explicitly indicated my interest in women only. I replied venomously: “Curse you, Hunter. I will end you. You little holographic dung blob.” Hunter didn’t talk to me again. Good riddance.

It wasn’t long before I wooed a fellow Asrion woman named Red Wet through a series of flirtatious Spacebook statuses and casual hangouts. Of my many Redshirt girlfriends, she had the most provocative name by far. “Ms. Wet,” I would whisper to my computer screen. “Shall we see if you live up to your name?”

Red left me without warning. Space breakups, much like space deaths, are sudden and brutal. One moment you’re feverishly liking each other’s Spacebook statuses and the next you’re alone, with no choice but to vaguebook your feelings.

In Red Wet’s wake, I fell hard for a straight girl named Ular. Despite our blatantly telegraphed  incompatibility, we spent so much platonic time together that she eventually ended up singing the songs of Sappho.

She left me for a man, of course. Never fall for straight girls, Samantha. To add insult to injury, that man was Hunter O’Heron, the very same holographic dung blob that had welcomed me to space with unwanted male attention. I’m happy for them both, in hindsight. They were perfect for each other.

Ten Juun, my next girlfriend, died on an away mission. I only got around to reading her final Spacebook message after she had passed. It read: “I wish we could go on more romantic dates. It feels like you don’t really appreciate me. : (” My heart broke into pieces at the sight of that posthumous frowny face.

A screenshot of a social media message from a green woman named Ten Juun. It reads, I wish we could go on more romantice dates. It feels like you don't really appreciate me :(

Ten’s parting missive.

I gave up on love after Ten; I hunkered down and focused on my career instead. I spent long hours ignoring my friends and doing tedious paperwork to level up my administrative skills. As I was looking at my potential career path, however, I noticed that the highest ranked hiring manager on the station was a lesbian named Kattim Benia. I put on my scheming cap.

I got Kattim in bed as fast as possible and soon we were going steady. It wasn’t a perfect relationship. She was an absolute bore, for one. Whenever we went out with friends, I was happy to see them but she acted sad. All she ever wanted to do was have quiet dinners together. “Let’s go on a romantic date together, soon please? We never spend time together,” she complained.

I’m not proud of this circumstance but I have to be honest: I slept with Kattim solely for the upward economic mobility. After a couple of weeks of dating, I applied for the highest-paying job on the entire station and she gave it to me even though I wasn’t even remotely qualified for it. My income quadrupled overnight.

A screenshot of a social media profile of a human woman nemed Kattim Benia. Her title is HIRING MANAGER. It reads, Your relationship with Kattim: 100. Spacebook friends: yes. Their interests: Xenogastronomy, Self-Indulgence, Delusions of Stardom

I got the job.

And, in the morning, I dumped her for a hot young zero-gravity sports instructor named Shirini. We were perfect together. Thanks to my new job from Kattim, we were fabulously wealthy. We ate at the finest restaurants and drank at the swankiest clubs. And every night, I buried myself in space pussy. I spent the rest of my time on the station drinking the sweet nectars of queer love.

As I look back on this circuitous tale of sex and sorrow, I realize that Redshirt taught me a valuable lesson: space is not a panacea for the woes of love. The romantic quandaries I experience as a terrestrial queer woman followed me across the stratosphere: the inevitability of straight male attention, the surprisingly sudden breakups, the hopeless crushes on heterosexual women. I still want to go to space, someday. I’m not shelving my Barbarella dreams. But now I’ll go with more measured expectations.

Bottom Bunk: Zoya

I think my Redshirt character might be an asshole.

This was not my intention. I just wanted him to have fun, earn his keep, and be helpful to his comrades. But as he started to climb the ranks from janitor to translator, I spotted opportunities for him that were just irresistible; new romances that could lead to promotions, friends who he would be better off dropping, hobbies that I wasn’t really interested in but that could get him access to the right people. Before long, Zoya Stellar was a total phony.

I really hope that Zoya Stellar is not the Jungian shadow of Zoya Street, haunting me with my own cynicism and laughing at my naive attempts at intimacy. I prefer to believe that the world of Redshirt made Stellar who he is.

It is a place where relationships are cold and practical. It’s all happiness bonuses and no conversation. Everything proceeds in a linear fashion: being romantically enmeshed makes you happier, flirting with people makes them like you, and a failure to put in the time will make a relationship quickly end. There is a procedural advantage to being in a relationship, but it takes time and money to maintain one. This is serial monogamy represented as a spreadsheet.

Though people’s Spacebook statuses give hints at their personalities—some are more self-absorbed, others more lecherous, and some are just cheerful, well-adjusted individuals—it didn’t feel like my romances were qualitatively different from one another. No matter who I dated, even if I was courting a space octopus, the procedure was the same: imitate their personal interests, leave flirty messages, and after they have accepted my relationship request, take them out for a romantic dinner once in a while. I never learned anything about their inner life, their secret desires, or how they see the world. I was never even sure that my lovers were really attracted to me. All I knew was that I had spent enough time pretending to like the same things that they liked.

A screenshot of a yellow, one-eyed octopus alien from Redshirt.

“…even if I was courting a space octopus, the procedure was the same..”

In the early game, relationships felt more playful; the game’s optional quest system implored me to try romancing an arbitrarily selected-individual, and my success came with much fanfare and rejoicing. As I took on more intellectually-taxing labour on the spaceship, relationships quickly devolved into a way to make middle-class life easier to cope with; they were the cheapest way to assuage the happiness penalty that comes with jobs higher up the ranks. Sometimes I dreamed of the day that I would be able to buy my happiness through material pleasures and not have to worry about what was happening on Spacebook anymore.

Early-game Stellar wanted some flirty fun, but I soon realised that he was looking for intimacy and affirmation in all the wrong places. Romantic entanglements end up having as much to do with his professional life as his personal needs. Bored of repetitive dates that seemed to have nothing to do with the particular person he was with, I dumped one guy to try and pursue the hiring manager for his next job. I really should have remembered to check her orientation before asking her out. He had been creepily courting a lesbian. He had become that guy.

Thankfully, he had saved a bit of money, so the toll on his mental well-being was temporarily offset by buying some expensive gadgets. It’s always useful to have some money in the bank just in case someone dies on an away mission, or your jelly-cube lover breaks up with you, or you realise that you’re a disgusting dudebro in an empty universe that doesn’t care whether you live or die.

Nobody has sex in Redshirt, and I did wonder if what Stellar really needed was a good shag. Forget this nonsense about going on dates when he could be studying for work, and getting an ambient sense of well-being from having kept his boyfriend happy for another day: can’t he just enjoy a bit of rumpy pumpy with his neighbor and ride through life on the wave of endorphins that would follow?

You begin Redshirt working as a cleaner, which in the real world does not pay a living wage but in this game simply means that you don’t have any disposable income. As you progress you earn more and more extra money that you can spend on entertaining friends. I wasn’t really worried about my survival so much as how much hedonism I could squeeze out of the world. Friendships and romantic relationships only existed in service to this singular goal. The impending threat of unspecified oblivion only served to push Stellar further into the holodeck’s empty chasm of worldly pleasures.

A screenshot of cartoon teal humanoids; green text at the top reads, INITIALIZING RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES. ENGAGED.

“The impending threat of unspecified oblivion only served to push Stellar further into the holodeck’s empty chasm of worldly pleasures.”

Redshirt simulates a relatively egalitarian society, where even the poorest are guaranteed a modicum of health and security, and anyone can get ahead in life if they manage their relationships skilfully enough. I wonder what it would be like to give the game the same socio-economic structure as modern America. I feel like it could take a Roguelike turn. Flirting my way up to the top wouldn’t just be a product of ambition; without it, Stellar might become insolvent. Perhaps then I would feel a little more sympathy for the way that he cynically used people’s hearts to fulfill his own need for happiness and wealth.

Redshirt did give me pause: is Facebook, like Spacebook, reducing my friendships down to a meaningless set of transactions? The answer is no. I’ve had enough social-media-induced spirals of worry and sadness to know that I actually do give a shit. Relationships carried out through web apps are never just a game. For me, Redshirt hits the limitations of procedural rhetoric. Making relationship maintenance into a game changes its significance, creating an uncanny distortion of reality. Nevertheless, there is plenty of comedy to be found in the spreadsheet-ification of a 20-year-old’s love life.

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is a contributor for The Daily Beast and her opinion pieces appear regularly at The Daily Dot. Her work has also appeared on Salon, Huffington Post, The Advocate, Mic, Kinsey Confidential, Jacobin, and in Adult Magazine. Samantha is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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2 Responses to Bunk Bed #2: Redshirt

  1. I should not be here, as I am in a whirlwind of preparing for Wednesday’s release, but I just wanted to stop by and say how much I really appreciated this piece, and how fascinating (and amusing!) it was to read each of your individual experiences with the game and how things played out for each of you. This was a really great read, both of you.

    It was interesting that each of you encountered different sides of the way that Redshirt deals with sexuality; basically, what we put on our profiles is one thing; whether or not others respect that is up to them. While Zoya found himself becoming ‘that guy’ and creepily hitting on his lesbian boss, Samantha you saw that even though you explicitly identified as being into ladies-only, a particularly gross heterosexual male character decided to pursue you anyway; particularly because you were a green-skinned lady, I imagine. Asrions get the worst of this deal, being the male-wish-fulfillment-sci-fi-trope that they are. (I was trying to go for slightly different dynamics for when you play as an Asrion.) It’s worth noting that it’s NPCs with a high bigotry attribute who will tend to do this. SPACE!

    Zoya, I accept your criticisms of the game as ‘hitting the limits of procedural rhetoric'; this was of course part of the challenge in creating Redshirt, both telling and creating dynamic stories through the limited interface of Spacebook. I hope at least I’ve managed to do that to an extent that will at least provide interesting and memorable experiences, like the ones (I hope!) you’ve both described here. Anyway, I really appreciated this, thank you again!

    If anyone else has any questions for me about the game in the comments, feel free to ask away!

    (Also, I am so amused by the name ‘Red Wet’ as that’s a name that the system generated totally 100% randomly by stringing letters together, haha. Excellent.)

  2. BourneApprox says:

    Aw, dang, this comes out TOMORROW? I’d been looking forward to this, and it sounds like quite a bit of fun. At the very least, it’s great to have a “relationship sim” which is completely honest about its relationships-as-game approach. *Puts on to-buy list.*

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