Sam de Leve is a performer and a host on Geek and Sundry’s Twitch. They can be found playing RPGs, lifting weights, and avoiding long walks on the beach at all costs. Find Sam on Twitter @ChaiKovsky
Warning: The following article contains spoilers for VAST: Season 1 .
RPGs are a wonderful medium to explore gender and sexuality. They are near-universally run in speculative settings, allowing gamemasters to build new worlds where our society’s rules don’t apply, and players to get inside the minds of people with different life experiences.
These experiences can be a safe space to explore queer and trans identities, and in fact, it is rather common for role-players to play characters with a different gender than one’s own, although we have seen surprisingly little of that in many of the most popular live play RPG shows. VAST, though, brings us some of the best queer moments and queer worldbuilding we’ve seen from a live play RPG show.
Lulu and Sira
You want adorable queer relationships in your RPG? VAST has got your back. In a series of small moments that culminate in a bloom of love, Louvin Yikjaal Muur and Sira the Unbidden create one of the sweetest, achingly perfect romances in RPG.
From the show’s premiere, where Sira rescues the injured and burned Louvin, Lulu and Sira share a bond that could easily be read as supportive crewmates, or a budding friendship. Their intimacy grows in subtle ways episode-by-episode, and at Episode 9, Lulu and Sira arrive at a payoff of unmistakeable love that surprises even the Gamemaster—until he looks back and realizes that the groundwork has been laid all along. The slow burn (if you’ll pardon the pun) between the Flame and Kiraeyi creates a sense of authenticity to their relationship, further drawing us into their love.
It all too bittersweet, then, that the episode where Lulu and Sira’s love becomes clear is the same episode that Sira leaves: we feel the pain of romantic potential unfulfilled. VAST allows us this delicious agony, but without the accompanying frustration of a Bury Your Gays trope.
Instead of letting Sira die and reinforcing the societal notion that LGBTQ+ romance is inextricably linked to death, Sira ascends, leaving with Lulu’s blessing to become something greater than herself. It hurts, yes; it is the right love at the wrong time. But it illustrates the strength of Louvin’s character, and indeed the depth of her love for Sira, that she encourages the person she loves to follow her goals and to make the most of her time in this world.
Louvin and Sira have the only explicit romance of Season One of VAST, and it is absolutely beautiful. Here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of these two together!
Beyond the Gender and Sexual Binary on VAST
Even on Earth, binary gender and sexual dimorphism are far from universal; how much more so, then, that a galaxy of diverse species presents myriad sexual biologies and societal relationships to gender? Season One gave us sixteen species, and just as each has a unique culture, they also have their own idiosyncratic relationship to gender and sexuality. Many species are nonbinary, and VAST gives us an abundance of information on how gender informs those cultures.
The RPG immediately grasps the distinction between biology, reproduction, and gender. For instance, the show features multiple species with asexual reproduction, some of whom present themselves with binary genders, others of whom do not. Until Sira the Unbidden, for instance, Flame had a strictly asexual means of reproduction, and yet the Flame we meet on Season One of VAST have thus far used binary pronouns and indicate some relationship to binary gender identity.
By contrast, the Ilatim are also an asexually reproductive species, but their gender is indisputably nonbinary: the Ilatim use a set of neopronouns based in part on first-person plural (we/our/ourself), but paired with third-person singular verb conjugation. Throughout the Ilatim-focused episode, navigating pronouns and grammar proves difficult, but the cast perseveres in good faith, normalizing the process of adapting to and respecting others’ gendered language. In our own world, where nonbinary language is so often derided, it is gratifying to see an alternative based on mutual respect.
Other species in VAST have been canonically identified as nonbinary or nonconforming, such as Cyryn, whose ability to adapt to new environments means that Cyryn enjoy a variety of relationships to sex and gender, and even the Ta’al Klee, who seem to have binary sexes, but who claim to have “transcended” gender as a social construct.
A nonbinary species whose gender dynamics are explored in depth is the Dieikae. Their society includes a third gender, antigender, who are among the most active participants in Dieikae civic society; excellent worldbuilding ensures that their social structure organically integrates the implications of three genders in a species with a dramatically different reproductive strategy from our own.
As of Season One, we have been privy only to a limited view of Dieikae society, which may give us a misleadingly utopian view of their culture: are reproductive members truly equal participants in society who happen to opt for childrearing in large numbers, or have antigender Dieikae constructed a form of nonbinary patriarchy by which reproduction acts as a barrier to career? The rich worldbuilding on VAST invites so many questions about the galaxy’s inhabitants, with respect to gender just as anything else.
VAST Gets Trans
What’s novel about VAST, though, is a story of a character who is trasngender in a way that we might understand it: someone who was assigned a sex and gender at birth, but who ultimately transitions away from that assigned role, in this case both hormonally and socially. This offers trans people an opportunity to see more than just alternately-gendered societies, but also a reflection of our own experiences: the struggles of transition, the lack of acceptance from others, the journey to accept oneself. Those stories can only be told when a character diverges from their society’s notions of gender, and it is a story highlighted by no less than a captain of one of the two ships.
And seriously, Visionary Destroyer may have my single favorite trans storyline of all time.
Visionary Destroyer sees an opportunity to hormonally transition, and she immediately gravitates toward it (we later learn that she has wanted this for a long time—or at least her player has). At the first opportunity, she takes it, and we can see how she, although always confident, reaches a new level of satisfaction and sense of self. After so long feeling as though she doesn’t measure up to what is expected of her, she defies expectations and in so doing, becomes who she was meant to be.
Her reunion with her brother could have shattered that nascent sense of self. Noble Defender doesn’t accept her, at first, and we see him going through stages of denial (“That can’t be our ship if it’s captained by a woman!”) and bargaining (“I just need my brother back”). Meanwhile, we see Visionary Destroyer is totally serene in the face of her brother’s reaction, asserting herself (“Call me your sister”) and letting Noble come to her, rather than minimizing her identity in any way for his comfort. Just as discomfort with trans people is something that cis people have to process, rather than something that is incumbent on trans people to resolve, Visionary Destroyer sets out her terms, and Noble Defender needs to get on the party bus, so to speak.
But the culmination of this conflict arrives when the Screaming Valor comes to Pupil for Visionary Destroyer to confront the Mother and the Fathers, who are disgusted by her new form. Visionary Destroyer’s new body earns her the name “Horrifying Monstrosity” from the Mother and rejection from her Father in a scene that has harsh, painful resonance for all the trans people who have dealt with unsupportive, hostile parents and transphobic society at large. And what does Visionary Destroyer do?
She demands that they look upon her, that they accept her. And when she is refused, Visionary Destroyer kills her god and eats that god’s face.
It is a moment of magnificent catharsis, not just for Visionary Destroyer, but for anyone who has been called a monster for being different. It is a sequence with grand ramifications on the scale of galactic politics, but intensely personal ones as well: even after This Might Be A Good Idea is freed from the loyalty switch that compels him to support Visionary Destroyer and the Brightest Eye at large, Good Idea still fervently speaks up in favor of Visionary Destroyer and her “magnificent transformation.”
Despite all the conflict between the two characters throughout the show, Good Idea supports Visionary Destroyer in this pivotal moment, even when he doesn’t have to. It is a sweet instance of comradeship that stands in stark contrast against a backdrop of savage rejection by the Mother and Fathers, and it is just as welcome as any show of support and respect for a trans friend.
Certainly, Visionary Destroyer’s story is uniquely Brightest Eye, but again and again, her story touches on trans themes and experiences that resonate far beyond its giant space-cockroach origins.
VAST shows us a galaxy greater than ourselves, and its fundamental message is that there is more than just one perspective. The queer and trans themes of VAST reinforce that message by revealing so many ways life in our galaxy might defy our limited perspective.
VAST is here, it is queer, and I am into it.
You can watch VAST every Monday at 7PM only on ALPHA. If you don’t already have ALPHA, sign-up today to start over at Project ALPHA right now to catch up on past episodes after they air or watch the show live.