[Content Warning: This piece is pretty gay. Discussion of sex scenes, smoochin’, and how we view gender as a society ensues. Genitals are also discussed.]
Trying to sum up the average college experience always comes across as trite, belittling, or painting in strokes too broad to relate with most folks. For many, it’s the first time away from parents or familiar friends, thrust into a world of responsibility and curiosity. It’s a vulnerable time rife with shameless self-indulgence in an effort to explore the horizons of oneself to understand who you want to be. Ultimately, it’s a life-event that can define a lot of a person’s future for the next several years, and one that is all too often summed up in stoner comedies or coming-of-age dramas intent to approach the topic with nothing more than a navel-gazing story made up of cheap morals and feel-good solutions.
Playing through the demo of Gay Monster Kiss Club from Ryan Rose Aceae (@gendervamp), it’s easy to see GMKC for what it is: something special in the medium. It’s a comedic dating sim, rife with adult content. In it, the player is the president of their university’s Gay-Straight Alliance chapter, running meetings and hanging out with a colourful cast. A lot of titles that play within this space tend to provide a wealth of characters for the player to simply pick and choose from, consume, and move on to the next, especially when the VN has an erotic bent to it. GMKC, however, takes its own path as it drifts from bearing witness to its characters’ development and appreciating its story to the sex scenes that fit with and facilitate the development of the central characters within it. In this, it significantly goes against the grain of the oft stock-standard consumptive aspects of the subgenre.
Unlike many VNs, GMKC is, as the name implies, incredibly queer. Most of the time, VNs like this assume the player is a heterosexual cis man with romance options being limited to a cast of heterosexual cis women. GMKC, on the other hand, not only allows players to choose pronouns for their character but also gives players a choice of gender (going so far as to allow write-ins, much like the pronouns, should the list of provided options prove limiting), as well as allowing players a secondary gender identity. The protagonist will always be a dragon, but on top of the flexible gender identifier options, the player is also able to further tailor the experience for themselves by being able to choose their type of genitals, which changes the way in which sex scenes play out.
These choices further feed into which characters are available to romance for the protagonist. Rather than all options being available regardless, Ryan imbues the characters with the ability to exist within their own sexualities and gives them agency. Depending on the gender identity the protagonist has, some characters (such as Parker, who is a lesbian) won’t take a romantic interest in the player based on their gender identity, not their genitals, creating a distinction between biology and gender. The cast is not there simply to be romanced or sexualized, but to create a comfortable space to be themselves and facilitate the player to do so as well. Scenes that include multiple characters are modified based on this, allowing for a cohesive experience that doesn’t punish anyone for their sexual or gender identities — player or character alike.
Similarly, the design of each character elicits a strong sense of individuality. You have quite a line-up of creatures to bond with, including but not limited to a kraken, an eyeless demon, a fish-man, and a living tree woman. While these unique traits create the wonderful sense of a ragtag band of punks, their quirks and differences also help to illustrate the alien nature many human bodies can have, especially for the inexperienced, come sexual engagement. A scene where you, Parker, and Harley get frisky reveals that beneath the cloak of darkness hiding Parker’s face is some sort of flowery orifice, petals parted like lips. The bizarre nature of it remains romantic and erotic, while still being completely foreign and surreal. Ryan strikes an impeccable balance between these moments of lust and romantic indulgence, happy-go-lucky upbeat scenes with the cast, and subtle, intimate moments.
If the first few routes of GMKC reveal anything about the deeper designs of the plot, it’s that Ryan is ready to explore the horizons of what these identifiers mean. For instance, your roommate and friend, Jude, identifies as a straight cis man. When their identity is brought up, they either seem defensive or reluctant about voicing it. A few lines jab at the possibility of them having some kind of greater depth about the issue, but it isn’t until they can roleplay as a nonbinary character in a tabletop game that they realize how hollow those words are when applied to them. A conversation between you two reveals that Jude doesn’t exactly feel great about calling themselves cis or male, and ponders the societal impulse to assign those traits as the “default” for a person.
While, they don’t outright come out to you, there’s a strong vulnerability in their confession. It’s a tender moment, one that resolves in a deeper confession of their feelings for you. Ryan’s previous work, GENDERWRECKED (a collaboration with Heather Flowers), similarly ventured to prod the notions of gender, sexuality, and ultimately how these identities feed into the concept of personhood. GMKC, however, proves to be something far more confident and interested in tearing down the sexual and gendered expectations of society as a whole. It’s so much more than simply being a “queer narrative” acting as a direct catalyst for the player to step into a skin that may not be their own, but one that allows them to reflect their innermost feelings. A space in which they can safely explore how it feels to be referred to by pronouns different than the ones they’ve used their whole life, to entertain the questions they’ve built up about gender and how they relate to it, to gain a sense of what romance and sex feel like when not having a gender imposed on you but to experience it with the one that you have chosen.
As a trans woman, GMKC resonates deeply with me. It’s the kind of game I wish I would’ve had a few years ago. Frankly, this is the kind of game the LGBTQ+ community needs and deserves. Unlike a lot of games that miss the mark, it doesn’t ride trauma tourism but is instead wholly optimistic; bright and funny, GMKC approaches “hopepunk” in the grandest of ways. It’s a beautiful lens and mirror for queer identities and gender fluidity, and I eagerly await its completed version.
Gay Monster Kiss Club currently has a demo available to play on itch.io.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.