This cute, quirky indie game gets VERY REAL about gender
We're going to start this piece off with a content warning for gender dysphoria.
A few nights ago, I was streaming Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. It's a very sweet, quirky game from SundaeMonth, which places you in the tiny spaceboots of, well, a spaceport janitor in a pastel, pixel-y sci-fi town. You have to clean up garbage, sure, but you also do fairly robust trading, talk to the other denizens (examples: friendly green blobs, funky purple fortune tellers, a 2D squid in a top hat), and eke out your existence in this wacky environment.
But there was one mechanic I wasn't at all expecting: gender swapping.
At first, I encountered a gender-shifting kiosk and thought it was a cute extra. Maybe something along the lines of the Saints Row games, where you can change the gender of your character along with your appearance. Streaming with my usual crew, which includes folks from all over the gender spectrum, including trans and non-binary individuals, someone quipped "You can gender shift just like that?" There was some light discussion of it in our chat.
I thought that was it -- that this was a cool, progressive little reference, a nod to a sci-fi universe where one's gender is easily swapped and you can present yourself however you like.
But then, maybe twenty minutes later, things got serious.
A message popped up "your body feels weird and itchy. You need to gendershift." The screen started to tilt oddly. Weird graphical glitches were popping up. The whole world went topsy-turvy.
It was then that I realized that Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor isn't *just* a cute little playful indie thing. I mean, it is that, but it's also a game with a distinct message about gender dysphoria.
By making the need to gendershift as urgent as needing food or sleep -- a biological imperative -- the game is implicitly treating it seriously. By making it a mechanic that requires not only my time and attention, but also my money, it's also commenting on access -- and the fact that here in the real world, many trans folks cannot afford important treatments.
Importantly, the gendershifting is treated seriously within the context of the game, but never breaks Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor's colorful, wacky tone. Upon shifting a few times, I've definitely been a GIRLBEAST and a HELLGIRL a few times.
"The representation of gender in the game was something that we wanted to do from the start, but it actually didn't get fully put in until very late," Said James Shasha, the game's programmer and one of the main developers.
"Maybe it is a pretty direct statement? I'm personally not too sure -- mostly we just wanted to include it as a thing that happens to you, which (like other things in the game) would be really horrible if it weren't cute/hopefully funny/visually interesting."
Naturally, it also fits with the sci-fi theme.
"The actual implementation came together because, as an alien, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for you to have human genders (gender in general doesn't make a whole lot of sense all the time, tbh!) so we felt like we could take some liberties & maybe experiment a bit!" Said Shasha.
"So, in the end, the player has a physical need to go buy this weird medicine, which they can technically ignore without many consequences, and when they eat it they get this wacky new gender and are told they feel amazing. So, just like real life, right?"
Shasha told me that several folks who worked on the game identify as trans or genderqueer. So, the gender shifting mechanic and its in-game effects all come from a pretty real place. Maybe that's why, even though it surprised me when I first encountered it, it never seemed exploitative or wildly out of place.
I did ask Shasha about content warnings, wondering if maybe the team had decided to forgo them in order to make their message punch a bit harder.
"As for the content warnings, that was honestly a bad oversight on our part, and not something we did intentionally," Shasha said. "There's not really a good excuse, it was one of a bunch of important things that didn't come together during our first large-scale game launch. We're updating the game & its pages to have proper labels."
Gender isn't the only real-world, actually-pretty-serious-thing that the game tackles. As Laura Michet pointed out in her review of the game, it also goes hard against classism, putting you in the impoverished shoes of a custodian who gets insulted by total jerks sometimes in their daily life. Who has to eke by on crappy, cheap, vending machine food, when vendors next door sell extravagant baked goods (gentrified bakeries, anyone?) and other delicacies.
As with gender-shifting, the message is clear without the writers and developers having to underline it and circle it in red crayon (or hold some kind of offensive, ill-conceived marketing campaign about it). It fits this world organically. Games about weird cartoon aliens who sell space-porn and games about personal experiences don't have to be mutually exclusive.
In fact, if you do it right, you can make both of those things shine all the brighter, together.