Prototype is a game about a monster. It’s a game about science run amok. It’s a game about a nightmarish virus that wipes out most of New York City. And I can’t help but feel that it’s also a game about being transsexual.
Developed by the now-defunct Radical Entertainment and released in 2009, Prototype is an open world action game that places the player in the role of Alex Mercer. The narrative begins with Mercer’s body lying cold in a morgue — but immediately before the autopsy, he returns to life, fleeing from the building while being pursued by the military. During his escape, Mercer discovers that he has somehow been granted inhuman abilities: strength, speed, shapeshifting, and the power to “consume” humans, a fatal (and messy) process that assimilates the victim’s flesh and memories, allowing Mercer to take the form and knowledge of any person he devours. Mercer also discovers that he has no memory of his life prior to his rebirth, and so sets out to piece together the truth via the memories he steals from his victims.
How does any of this make Prototype a game about being transsexual? In order to answer that question, I have to take a little detour away from the game itself to talk about the connection between monster stories on the one hand and transsexual stories on the other.
In an influential essay titled “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage”, historian Susan Stryker argued for a reclamation of monstrous imagery by transgender people. Stryker especially plays up the similarities between the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the contemporary transsexual who has sought out surgical interventions to alter their body. Both, Stryker says, have been called into being by science — both have been shaped by scalpels wielded by men who believe themselves to be above and beyond nature. But, Stryker argues, this does not preclude either the monster or the transsexual from rebelling against their creators, from seeking out and occupying ways of being that were not predicted or desired by those who made them what they are.
In Prototype, Mercer is a monster created by science. He is something both less and more than human, a creature with the ability to blend in with humanity but that has ultimately been set apart from others by the irrevocable changes wrought upon him by the synthetically-developed BLACKLIGHT virus. And the game begins with a literal rebirth — Mercer has died and been resurrected by scientific powers as something different. He rises from the operating table with his past erased, echoing the requirements placed upon the transsexual by medicine to disavow their life history prior to surgery.
If this were the extent of the similarities, then Prototype would be unremarkable. After all, Prototype’s story is so recognizable because it is so common – the plot point of the monster born of the excesses of science is not exactly a novel one. Indeed, Radical Entertainment also developed an Incredible Hulk game with very similar gameplay — it seems like they also may have drawn narrative inspiration from that character, also a normal human forever changed by the power of science. But Prototype’s story differs from more classic formulations of the human-created monster in a few key ways that make it especially resonate with me as a trans narrative.
Unlike the Hulk or any other number of similar monsters, Mercer’s mere presence is disruptive to the world around him. It becomes apparent partway through the game that Mercer is unknowingly spreading the virus within him to others. Thus, even when blending in with humanity, he is unwittingly warping and twisting the world around him. Throughout the game, the player periodically receives an update on the percentage of New York City that has been infected with the BLACKLIGHT virus, which continually increases regardless of the player’s actions. The fact of Mercer’s existence, like the fact of transsexual existence, radically disrupts the taken-for-granted state of the world.
Additionally, whereas Bruce Banner simply gains the alter-ego of the Hulk, Mercer’s transformation is not so simple. Late in the game, the player learns that Mercer himself released the BLACKLIGHT virus into the city immediately before being gunned down by his former employers, for whom he was working on the virus project. At this point, it becomes clear that the character the player has been controlling is not even really human at all, and it certainly isn’t whatever was once called Alex Mercer. It’s something else entirely – Mercer’s body reconstructed and revived by the virus itself. This is hit home by the game’s conclusion, in which Mercer diverts a nuclear strike from the city and is reduced to inhuman remains that regenerate themselves after consuming a crow.
Mercer’s existence as human/not-human raises a number of interesting philosophical questions about realness and humanity than the game mostly avoids exploring. In the same way, transsexual bodies, Stryker says, force us to confront the “constructedness of the natural order.” For Stryker, “transsexual embodiment, like the embodiment of the monster, places its subject in an unassimilable, antagonistic, queer relationship to a Nature in which it must nevertheless exist.” Mercer’s unassimilable relationship to the natural world around him
Nonetheless, it would be easy to read Prototype as a pretty standard power fantasy. Open world games generally present the player with a great deal of freedom and the ability to intervene upon the world as they see fit. Additionally, Mercer is tremendously fast and strong from the start, capable of tearing across Manhattan in minutes and ripping apart entire squads of enemy soliders and masses of infected zombies without much effort. However, I think there is value in a reading of the game as trans narrative, a reading supported by the fact that the sense of power the game provides is coupled with an ever-present vulnerability. This is brought about by the knowledge that at any time, military forces might mobilize to hunt Mercer down until he temporarily repels them or is able to escape.
This feeling only becomes more palpable as the game goes on and the military develops more and more sophisticated methods of detection: first installing stationary sensors around their bases, then deploying UAVs, and finally developing a very mobile form of supersolider with the ability to see Mercer for what he “really” is. These changes force the player into an awareness of their surroundings and to be ready to run at the moment the stealth indicator flashes red, signaling detection. For anyone who has monitored and worried about the uptake of their gendered presentation in public, this is an all-too familiar sensation.
And here, one might ask what the value of this sort of reading is. Is a non-trans player likely to experience Prototype in this way? It seems unlikely. Certainly, games are going to mean different things for different people. So why look for queer and trans stories in games that were never meant to tell them, and that often reproduce or at least leave unchallenged sexist and heterosexist ideologies?
For me, that is precisely the point. There is power finding our own stories in unexpected places and claiming narratives that were never meant to represent us. Doing so, and sharing those experiences publicly, is a means of expanding the potential of games. Much in the same way as some have argued for a queer cinema, I want to argue for a queer gaming that reclaims “bad” representations of gender and sexual minorities, and that recycles and reinterprets content that was never intended as queer. Ultimately, I see queer readings of “non-queer” games as having a place alongside pushes for greater visibility of marginalized groups and an expansion of authorship beyond the traditional circle of white men, in the project of making games more interesting, useful, and accessible.