The Gunk is a lovely little game. You play as Rani, a confident scavenger with a robotic arm who finds herself on the surface on an unknown planet. The landscape is wrought with a corrupt substance that is suffocating nature and causing wildlife to hide away, and it’s your job to clear away the debris and allow the world to breathe freely once again. It’s a hamfisted metaphor for environmental destruction that seeks to analyse how we’re impacting our own planet, but is done with such abrasive subtly that you can’t help but roll your eyes.
Yet it carries the experience, a simplistic framing device that works and doesn’t seek to stretch beyond its intended purpose. The real magic comes from the game’s main duo of characters – Rani and Becks – a pair of two women who have spent years exploring the fringes of space in search of abandoned planets and rusted colonies ripe with resources yet to be claimed by the galaxy’s wider powers. This planet is new and mysterious, so Rani can’t help but let excitement overwhelm her as she ventures further and further away from the safety of her companion. She’s spurred onward by her own curiosity, and it’s adorable.
Becks is more grounded, a humble mechanic and pilot who chooses to watch the shop and turn their temporary camp into a worthwhile home as she communicates with Rani over the radio. There’s a warmth in their interactions, a chemistry formed through past struggles and a level of intimacy you only ever form with your closest friend. Becks refuses to eat dinner until Rani returns from her adventures, her voice cracking whenever her partner stumbles into the slightest sign of danger. She cares so much about Rani, and when threats emerge later into the game it’s clear that the two would do anything for one another.
My colleague Eric Switzer communicated these interactions to me ahead of publishing his review, asking if he was silly for assuming their relationship was more than platonic, that The Gunk was trying to imply an element of romance without ever quite committing to it. Part of me thought he just missed an obvious piece of dialogue or couldn’t read the room, but he was right. There’s a first time for everything. This is a game that could have been an undeniably queer experience, yet instead it teeters on the edge and suffers as a result. They have a mortgage together, that’s pretty gay.
I’m not saying that two adult women aren’t able to maintain a close friendship without venturing into romance, and I love so many games, shows, and films that explore such a dynamic, but The Gunk feels like so much more than that. There’s a closeness in the tone of Rani and Beck’s dialogue that implies something more, small moments of bickering softening into loving admiration as they reminisce about mistakes made in the past and how this planet could be the key to their eventual future. I care about my friends, but I wouldn’t flirt with them over wireless communication or take out a mortgage on a spaceship with them. Calling Rani and Beck little more than business associates feels disingenuous.
In the game Rani is outfitted with a scanner that is designed to analyse all manner of fauna and wildlife on this new planet, adding things to her database while simultaneously earning experience for future upgrades. It’s a nifty mechanic, yet it also serves a narrative purpose with small descriptions detailing the origin and purpose of whatever you come across. Becks can also be scanned, and her biography is sickeningly sweet, further reinforcing the queerness at the centre of The Gunk that is begging for further commitment.
Instead, we have to beat around the bush and add this subtext ourselves, either that or Thunderful Games wants to actively avoid putting a label on things, so players can describe them as friends, lovers, or something else entirely. I saw one review describe them as a mother/daughter duo and I’m very sorry but were we playing the same game? They’re of a similar age, bicker like close friends, and are clearly in the same line of work. Becks doesn’t care for Rani in a way that feels motherly, regardless of the tenderness that eludes from so many of her actions.
“The best friend and partner a spacefaring woman could ask for. Thoroughly underappreciated,” reads Beck’s description, which was written by Rani herself as she labelled her estimated worth as ‘invaluable’ in her database of plants, bugs, animals, and presumably lesbians judging by the language used here. It’s so soft and saccharine, the companionship between these two girls wearing all of the hardship of surviving in a strange, alien universe. Their respective backgrounds aren’t touched upon much, with the exception of small conversations and environmental storytelling that frames them as two of many outcasts making a living in the wild wastes of the outer stars.
It reminds me of Haven, a game which also focused on two characters exploring the unknowing vastness of space as they carved out an unsure life together. Except that focuses on a straight relationship, and thus the intentions are far more specific and unafraid to delve into the explicitness of such a bond. It would have been amazing to see The Gunk move forward with as much confidence, two space-faring sapphics reaching for the stars as they encounter new challenges while trying to help one another survive. Perhaps that was always the intention and the game just didn’t want to put a label on things, but in a case like this, it would be far stronger and much more memorable if it did.
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