“Well you’re attracted to men, too, right?”
“Obviously you’re straight, then.”
“This is just a phase. You’ll grow out of it.”
In so many words, this was advice I was given. It’s something I told my teenaged self over and over again until I started to believe it was true.
I spent a tearful while on the phone. I called the only friend I had that, at the time, had any significant degree of sexual experience. She seemed like the only person I could talk to without judgment, who’d reassure me. She seemed so wise. I was coming into a new awareness about my body, my attractions, my desires. Some of that awareness felt “normal.” I knew I liked boys. I giggled about my male crush with the other girls and blushed through whispers and furtive glances. I rationalized liking terrible Johnny Depp movies. I also rationalized gushing over Tia Carrere in Wayne’s World, and Brody Dalle from The Distillers, but only inside my own head.
“It’s the outfit she’s wearing, that’s all. I think it’s cute.”
“She’s kind of boyish, anyway.”
“I can find women attractive without being attracted to them.”
“I was just experimenting. She didn’t mean anything.”
I made conscious decisions to suppress whole parts of myself, in that phone call and thereafter. Now, I don’t think this is necessarily negative, depending on the context. We might seek to control or eliminate behaviours that might be hurtful or alienating out of a quest for self-improvement. But maybe we do it just to be liked. Or to fit in. We seek comfort in a common language. We need labels to define how we understand our identities, even if labels also tend to omit the nuances. I called myself “straight” because it was easy.
What’s in a Name? is a quick little Twine game by Gaming Pixie about the obstacles involved in being accepted as bisexual. It’s about the weight that labels carry. It’s about how identity can be defined by the expectations of others. It’s about stepping out of one closet only to step right into another. It’s exactly what the title suggests.
Your protagonist has effusively come to the conclusion of her own bisexuality. She’s eager to tell people—to find acceptance in a community. She begins participating in a lesbian forum, thinking she’s discovered an open-minded “sisterhood.” But, as she gradually learns, it’s not open for bi women.
“Bi women are just confused lesbian women.”
“Bi women are just lesbian women trying to claim heterosexual privilege.”
“Bi women are just ‘lipstick lesbians‘ that perform for straight men.”
“Bi women are deceptive, greedy and disease-ridden.”
Your protagonist’s newfound sense of self is shaken. She becomes isolated, alienated. She becomes confused and desperate for confirmation. She begins to call herself “lesbian,” because it’s the easiest label to take on that will allow her to achieve that confirmation within this community.
“Hooray, you’ve found a place to belong! And all you have to do to keep it is pretend a part of you no longer exists.”
Playing it was like being shaken out of a daydream. I saw so much of myself not only in the protagonist, but in the barbs of the forum posts she wades through. My insecurities about being defined as “faking it,” or having my identity gatekept as “not queer enough” by some—or some kind of “attention-seeking,” titillating performance by others—are still things that swirl in the back of my head. At the same time, I can’t help but feel as though I relied on trying to “pass” as heterosexual just so that I could hide behind the privileges that come with that label. As of writing this, I’m afraid of being told that what I am is wrong, or doesn’t exist.
There are subtle signs and gestures—not just overt hate—that make a person second-guess themselves and want to hide. In What’s in a Name?, the protagonist feels the “chill” of disapproval from other forum members after she reveals that she is bisexual. She feels “ignored,” rejected and ostracized.
The default template at home for me as a kid was that I was straight, and that I’d grow up to marry a nice, preferably-Jewish boy. In everything from Sex Ed.—which was more like Heterosexual Reproduction Ed.—to the playground politics of pubescent tweens, we acted out the narratives of a culture that privileges monogamous straightness. And you could only be one or the other: straight or gay. Everything outside of that was just experimentation, or a phase. There was no real category for stepping outside of those boundaries.
I don’t blame my high school friend for her dubious advice. It didn’t come from malice. But it was a tangible realization of my own inability to find not only a label that would sit comfortably with me, but, in my adolescence, a social context that would allow me to comfortably proclaim and express the orientation that the label represented.
It’s easy for me to try to pin these realizations on video games’ oft-vaunted capacity to inspire empathy via interaction. But it’s a little more nuanced than that. What’s in a Name?, for me, is far more about introspection and self-actualization via interaction. I wasn’t just embodying the mediated role of an avatar to “step into someone else’s shoes.” In some ways these were also my shoes that I’d left gathering dust in a closet of my own.
There’s a lucidity and bluntness to the way What’s in a Name? is written and paced. The limited number of branches it offers suggests a glimmer of hope for a better outcome. Instead, the protagonist is fed more alienation and self-loathing. All roads converge on the same sense of lonely despair. Yet the gamer in me is wondering where the win condition is. Why haven’t I found it? I’ve tried every possible permutation of hyperlink clicks. Why does this experience have to lead to a dead end?
I didn’t find solidarity in What’s in a Name? through a common label. I’m not sure that “bisexual” is really the right word that applies to me. I’m not sure that my sexual and/or romantic attractions to men and women are evenly split, or that I can apply a term to myself that supports a gender binary I strongly disagree with. I put myself somewhere along the Kinsey scale, but even that is an out-of-date representation of the complexities of human sexuality, though it’s probably the most famous one. I haven’t found the “real category” that exists outside the boundaries I stuffed myself into, even if that category is only one of constant fluctuation.
I found solidarity in What’s in a Name?, through a common absence. I empathize with the feeling of an absence of external validation. I empathize with the feeling of an absence of social acceptance. I empathize with the feeling of the absence that comes when you suppress major parts of your own identity. But more than that, the self-questioning the game forced me to do was a totally personal, individual experience. It’s the kind of thing a game can set up the potential for, but can never really plan. It’s the kind of thing that can only happen if a player communicates with it.
I don’t doubt other games are capable of inspiring profound, life-altering self-realizations in players. I’m certain this is not unique to What’s in a Name? Instead, I can’t help but think that this capacity to inspire not only introspection—but personal growth—in a player is in itself an abstract form of interpretive interaction. It was as if Gaming Pixie offered me a “thought experiment” version of my own life in a very cohesive, frank, self-contained way. Trite though it may sound, What’s in a Name? helped me to characterize myself as a kind of Scrooge staring down the ghosts of my own insecurities and neglected desires.
I was stuck in this game’s dead end years before it even existed.
I just needed to see it in front of me, named.
So that now I can reject it.
About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.