One of my social activities is playing horror video games with my friends. Which is to say, my housemate does the hard part of actually driving, and me and my best friend sit and watch and offer helpful advice like “oh god, run away!” because we are both giant weenies who forget how to use a PS4 controller when we’re startled. The most recent game we all played together was Remothered: Tormented Fathers. Which we were super excited to play because it’s won a ton of awards.
Remothered is a Clocktower-style game, where you’re basically trapped in a limited map (here it’s three floors of a massive mansion) with an effectively immortal monster that can kill you if they catch you. You have to hide, sneak, use distracting items, and spend a lot of time running in the hopes that you’ll get far enough ahead of your pursuer to dive into a closet–and remain calm when they come hunting past your hiding place. In that mechanical sense, it’s a really good game because all of that is incredibly scary. At the beginning of the game, you’re being pursued by the owner of the house, Richard Felton.
On October 11, we played through several chapters and got to one of the game’s big reveals, which I will spoil here because I think it’s a shitty reveal: Richard Felton is actually the mysterious Jennifer who is mentioned throughout the first several chapters of the game! Shock, horror: the sickle-wielding man who has been chasing you through his house–while wearing only an apron and a pair of rubber farm boots–is actually a woman!
When the reveal came, the three of us actually groaned. For me, I’d had a feeling this was coming, and had kind of braced myself for another shitty “trans person as monster” horror moment–and I was sadly not wrong. As one of my friends eloquently put it, this has been done and done again since Psycho. It’s nothing new or particularly creative–though I will say that Remothered is the first one I’ve personally encountered where the reveal wasn’t transfeminine. Regarding the really damaging trans narratives that are particularly endemic to horror movies (and which to a one center around the shock of the reveal, clearly intended for the titillation of cis audiences), I suggest reading:
- Transgender Representation in Popular Cinema
- Crossdressing Cinema: An Analysis of Transgender Representation in Film (this is a dissertation that posits the “transphobic gaze,” which situates trans characters as objects of fear and disgust.)
- It’s Time to Talk About Transphobia in Horror Films
- Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Trans Woman? On Horror and Trans Femininity
- Horror Movies are Demonizing the Trans Community
- Trans Horror Stories and Society’s Fear of the Transmasculine Body (this one’s a bit different and a very good read)
So anyway, back to Remothered. I typed out my disappointment on Twitter and forgot about it… until, bizarrely, the creator of the game responded.
I have some thoughts about this as a writer, but let’s set those aside for later. First, all right. Let’s analyze why I feel the way I do about Remothered.
The relevant story related to the reveal can be partially summarized as: Jennifer’s father, upon returning home from Ethiopia, decided that he wanted a son rather than a daughter. He forcibly transitioned Jennifer over into a male identity; how much physical alteration was involved is not explicitly stated, but we know there was at least drugs and mesmerism happening to suppress Jennifer’s female identity. “Richard” then grew up as a rather tortured and unhealthy person with “hormonal imbalances” who refused to undergo examinations when being treated for ill health. “Richard” had an arranged marriage that was quite rocky until the couple adopted a girl named Celeste as their daughter; but as Celeste grew up into a young woman, “Richard” began to remember being Jennifer more and more and thus became a threat to Celeste’s safety, thinking that killing Celeste would at last exorcise Jennifer. (This led to Celeste’s disappearance, which is the initial reason the player character comes to the Felton house. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s beyond the scope of what I want to talk about.)
In the following discussion of the gender narrative, I’m going to use the name Jennifer and the she/her pronoun set to refer to the character we start off knowing as “Richard,” because it’s pretty plain that Jennifer is a cis woman who was forced by her father to take on a male identity and characteristics. I will also note here that while I view Remothered as another brick in the transphobic horror genre wall, I don’t know if it’s entirely correct to address Jennifer as a trans person. She’s a cis woman who is forced to “become” trans by the alteration of her body and identity, which is a horror subgenre that’s not exactly rare. Since the entire storyline is evocative of trans bodies, I will refer to her as trans, but understand that I get this is a murky topic.
NOTE: “The character isn’t really trans” isn’t a defense when the shock/horror of the reveal hinges on the character troubling conservative societal boundaries of gender, which trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming people do by our very existence. There has been a long conflation in popular media between trans people and cis people who crossdress, for example, because the entire point in comedy or horror is the challenge the character presents to strict heteronormative society. Whether the character is “really” trans or not, these images and characterizations can feed into incredibly damaging tropes.
First of all, we cannot ignore the “surprise, trans!” reveal, which is a staple of horror and a thoroughly shitty, harmful device. It serves to reinforce the “deceptive trans person” trope, which gets used in the real world as a justification for violence against us (e.g. it’s the foundation of the “trans panic” defense). Narratively, it is also a device that serves to distance the audience from the trans character; the audience is removed from the trans person’s perspective by the necessity of secrecy for the “shocking” reveal, and the reveal itself pushes them further by forcing them to reconsider their understanding of the character. In Remothered, the reveal comes on the heels of having spent several chapters with Jennifer, in her “Richard” persona, chasing the player character, Rosemary, around and trying to kill her; the reveal certainly is not an invitation to reach out toward her in empathy. Rather, it’s one of the game’s call backs to The Silence of the Lambs–and while there are many ways in which that movie is absolutely brilliant, it’s also incredibly transphobic.
Stories in which a cis character’s gender is swapped, often against their will, are common in a lot of genres. I don’t think this plot device must be inherently damaging to trans people. Often, it’s a way for gender to be explored, troubled, and questioned. Some of these stories might come from a place of cis people trying to wrap their heads around what it means to be trans and how it might really feel to know you are one gender when society violently insists you are another. Unfortunately, forced transition narratives are often done in a way that damages trans people and only serve to reinforce the violently conservative nature of binary gender in dominant culture.
This is particularly true of stories about a violent, coercive transition–but even that doesn’t have to be transphobic in its execution. For example, I think Lynn Flewilling’s The Bone Doll’s Twin is absolutely masterful. But you also get movies like The Assignment, in which a mad doctor conducts forcible gender reassignment surgery on a hit man, thus turning him into, oh the horror, a hit woman. The “gender reassignment as horror” trope can be incredibly damaging because it shows gender affirming care (particularly surgery) as a destructive, coercive, and terrifying process that removes cis people from their rightful bodies–which is literally the opposite of what it is. It also often serves to reinforce the essentialist and wrong idea that genital configuration and hormones define gender.
I give Remothered credit that it’s clear Jennifer’s transition also came with what is effectively extreme psychological programming via drugs and mesmerism. In this way it can be seen to lightly touch on the practices such as “conversion therapy” that have harmed and killed real LGBT people throughout the world. However, making a young cis girl–who is presumably straight, though this is admittedly never defined in the game–the subject of such coersion that makes her “trans” is a mirror view of the reality and erases its victims.
When Jennifer is forced to take on her male persona, she develops a plethora of mental issues due to the suppression of her identity. This leads her to become violent and murderous. She kills her own wife. She might have killed Celeste–that’s unclear. Jennifer does have an unhealthy obsession with her own daughter prior to Celeste’s disappearance, which depending on your reading of the lines, can seem pedophiliac. “Trans/gender non-conforming character as insane and violent because of their tortured relationship with gender” goes hand-in-hand with pretty much every other shitty, transphobic horror trope. (e.g.: The Silence of the Lambs and Insidious 2.) That in Remothered, this “insanity”-driven, murderous violence is linked with Jennifer’s struggle to reassert her gender feels like a particular punch at trans people, many of whom do suffer from mental health problems like depression and anxiety because of the way society treats us. I have personally gallows-humor joked that being closeted at my previous job made me feel like I was two different people in a very discordant way.
Jennifer’s creepy obsession with Celeste, and the reveal that her father forced her to “become male” as a child also don’t get to be divorced from modern contexts, for all that the game takes place in the 1970s. Trans rights have become the next frontier on the culture war, since the right wing’s been forced to cede some ground to basic rights for cis gay/lesbian/bisexual people. And lately right wingers and TERFs have joined forces to spread scare stories about how the “transgender agenda” is coming after children–either as predators (see the bigotted funtimes of bathroom bills) or as demonic influences trying to “convince” children that they are trans and handing out puberty blockers like poisoned candy. As Jennifer reacts with increasing violence toward proxies for the femininity that she believes lost to her, that arguably plays into TERF and right-wing scare stories about trans people “recanting” when it’s too late or regretting their transitions. The [coercive] female-to-male transition of Jennifer by her father–literally a patriarch who brainwashes her–and the inescapable reality of Jennifer’s long-denied feminine identity also, intentionally or not, come across as particularly TERF-y in light of how rad fems treat trans men. I’m not going to link to examples of any of the aforementioned absolute trash. It’s easily googleable; just be ready to scrub your internet connection with bleach after going on National Review or the Federalist or Quillette.
As Remothered continues and Jennifer goes from her appearance as “Richard” to wearing a dress, the visual narrative becomes extremely troubling–a transphobic gaze to go with the in-game eyeball stabbing. To begin with, proximal to the big trans reveal, we get a shot of Jennifer putting on lipstick while her blonde wig hangs in her face. To me, it immediately evoked a very standard kind of image we get in both overtly transphobic movies and Very Serious Movies About Trans People That Are Really For Cis Audiences: the moment that a trans woman (invariably played by a cis male actor) sits in front of a mirror and puts makeup on, depicting how pitiably (or disturbingly, in horror) she longs to be feminine but will never truly attain that state due to her physical differences. It may seem odd for me to have immediately grasped that feeling when Jennifer, a cis woman, is performing this action, but the facial features she has as “Richard” remain clear; she wears her hair dangling in front of her face to hide them. Jennifer’s attic hideaway, too, with its creepy collection of female-form manequins and dresses, implies an obsession with the unreachable feminine by a person socially constructed as male. By the coercive actions of her father, Jennifer has been made into someone that cannot comfortably exist as either gender allowed by heteronormative society, an underpinning that the game has little interest in examining.
Instead, we get a woman with “masculine” features that evoke the monstrous horror-movie nightmare of a trans woman, chasing a cis woman (Rosemary) through a dark and claustrophobic space and trying to murder her by filling her face full of ten penny nails. (And I doubt the players have forgotten Jennifer, as “Richard,” screaming at Rosemary that she is a “bitch,” a “cocksucker,” and a “cunt.”) So I suppose it’s an accomplishment that this game has managed to evoke terrible tropes about both trans women and trans men… because again, it’s not about whether a character is de facto a trans person, it’s about how the depiction will be conflated with and reinforce damaging cultural images of trans people.
As the game draws to a close, the last we see of Jennifer is her torture at the hands of and her death directed by another cis woman, Gloria. As Jennifer attempts to articulate what was done to her by her father, Gloria graphically cuts off her tongue with a pair of scissors; while the blood sprays and Rosemary screams at Gloria to stop, Jennifer becomes curiously silent. With her wig removed–another device that is often used in transphobic media to forcibly unmask trans women characters–Jennifer begins to cover herself with some sort of flammable liquid at Gloria’s orders, stumbling nightmarishly toward the captive Rosemary, who has become another proxy for the lost femininity she wants to violently extinguish. Rosemary sets Jennifer on fire with a lighter; the rest of the house is curiously non-flammable. The last we see of Jennifer is a burnt corpse, her lips bright red–lipstick or blood, it’s not clear–as Rosemary moves toward her final battle with Gloria.
Jennifer’s death is not a scene of particular empathy in its moment of occurence. Later, after Gloria has been defeated and lays dying, she and Rosemary do take some time in their curiously long conversation to talk about Jennifer. While at times Rosemary refers to her by her name and proper pronouns, there isn’t any consistency toward it; neither of the characters seem to grasp how they should talk about her. Gloria speaks of Jennifer as an object of disgust, a deviant. Rosemary brings her around to more empathy; at the end, even if they can’t stop misgendering her, they can at least agree that she was her father’s victim, now conveniently dead so that she can be safely pitied. She’s absent from the story of her own trauma, first rendered mute by Gloria’s scissors, then by death.
Jennifer fulfills in this way not only trans-person-as-monster, but also trans-person-as-victim. Her body became an instrument that others used to break her mind, making her into a creature incapable of existing outside of the darkened halls of her own home, a prisoner in the mansion as sure as a prisoner in the “masculine” body she did not want to have. Gloria and Rosemary pityingly speak of how Jennifer was forced to live as a man by her father… while often referring to her as a man. She is granted victimhood by acknowledgement of how terrible it must have been, to be forced to be someone she wasn’t. Yet this is the literal lived experience of countless trans, gender non-conforming, and other queer people throughout the world–none of whom spend their days chasing around cis women while wielding a nail gun, I dare say. Jennifer is ultimately a cis person’s image of the horror of “becoming” trans, and she’s equally obviously intended for a cis audience. She does not exist to challenge heteronormative culture, but rather serve as a warning of the madness that comes when someone is “forced” from their place in the binary.
Taken by itself, I think an argument could be made that Remothered doesn’t deserve some of the criticism that I’m leveling at it. But this game doesn’t exist within a cultural or temporal vacuum. The main problem with “trans person as [pitiable] monster” is that it’s done so frequently, with any positive or even neutral depictions of trans people to balance it out nearly nonexistent. In horror, the lack of trans final girls and trans surviving heroes is incredibly pronounced. I am beyond tired of trans people only being the deviants that horror tells audiences they should fear.
Then there’s this:
I’m well aware that American cultural chauvanism is a thing, and I do want to be cautious about it. After reading that tweet, I spent about two hours trying different google search strings to figure out what the hell Mr. Darril was talking about, and I came up with nothing. I do want to be sensitive to cultural differences… however, this isn’t a case of me stomping into Italy, playing this game in its original language, and throwing an American temper tantrum that this doesn’t perfectly fit my experience. What my friends and I played is the official English-language localization of the game. At this point, if there is a cultural context or history that is fundamental to understanding the game that isn’t also readily available or internationally known, it behooves the creator to figure out how to communicate that–or risk being honestly misunderstood.
Which brings me back to those thoughts I mentioned I had as a writer. Envision me taking off my Video Game Player hat and replacing it with my Writer hat, which is rainbow-colored and dotted with cookie- and middle-finger-shaped LEDs.
When I saw Chris Darril’s tweets, my first reaction wasn’t anger or shock. It was a sort of laughing, “Does this man not have any friends?”
Maybe things are different in the video game world. But a conversation that constantly moves through the SFF writer world, and a thing that older writers always try to communicate to younger writers is: you don’t talk back when readers leave negative reviews. Except in vanishingly rare circumstances (e.g.: pushing back on some transphobic asshole is willfully misgendering your characters) you will end up showing your entire ass on the internet and it will not cover you in glory. Don’t be like Anne Rice. There’s nothing quite like a property creator, who is generally in a much higher position of power than a lowly reader (or in this case video game player) coming down on someone and effectively telling them that “you don’t know how to eat!” It’s just not a good look, ever.
And when the reader/player is saying, “Hey, I felt hurt by this”?
You as a creator do not get to control how someone will react to what you’ve made. It’s incredibly frustrating, I know. I’ve had a few moments like that myself, and the urge to argue can be strong… but thankfully I have friends who will materialize out of the ether and slap my phone out of my hands. As artists, once we’ve sent something we’ve made out into the world, it’s no longer ours. It’s in the hands of a multitude of other people, none of whom are us, and all of whom will experience it differently through the unique prism of their lives. If we did a really great job communicating what we’re trying to say, most people will get it. But sometimes that’s not the case. And because we don’t have universal experience, we might have made something that a person will find hurtful because we weren’t able to see it from their perspective. It’s a feature, not a bug, I swear.
And this is the important thing, here, the part where the empathy of being a writer has to extend beyond the characters we create and out to the readers (or players, in this case): When someone says they felt hurt by something you wrote, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong. You listen. You say, “Hey, I really didn’t mean it that way, and I’m sorry.” (None of that, “sorry you feel that way” non-pology crap.) Then you’ve learned something for next time.
I get it. It sucks to realize something you made isn’t being received the way you wanted it to be, but that’s part of the responsibility of creating art and putting it out in the world. It’s tough. But that’s the job.
So Chris, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ve found it educational. I’m really not interested in getting in some kind of Twitter feud with you over it. I’m not the one who will come out looking like an asshole.