In part I of our exploration, we looked across the media landscape and discussed the growing focus on LGBTQ+ narratives in indie arthouse games, particularly the way in which artists have taken to expressing and re-interpreting their own personal history and traumas. While these stories carry vast importance, we are still in the early days of growth for establishing recognition for these narratives in the mainstream. Throughout a large swath of media, too frequently are the arcs of these characters subsumed by their trauma. While pain is definitely an element of the human condition, it does not define who we are; LGBTQ+ folks live rich and fufilling lives, and we have many things to share about ourselves outside of the pain we find visited upon us.
In Secret Little Haven, the personal history of the protagonist unfolds before the player’s eyes through an interactive simulation of the early 00s internet where they find themselves juggling conversations across multiple message boards, an AOL Instant Messenger analogue, and engage in personal reflection via exploration of the web. Through these tools, the player guides the lead character down her road to discovery of, and coming to terms with, her gender dysphoria.
However, while the game attempts to use this framing in order to convey her agency in the matter with rich presentation, the mechanics through which this is conveyed ultimately undermine the narrative. She is a captive audience to her friends and loved ones, with the story ultimately pivoting on coming out to her father and gaining his acceptance for who she really is. She cannot progress without the approval of her peers and, ultimately, her father. This leads to a sense of seeking permission to live her life from other people instead of seizing it for herself.
The narrative eventually culminates in a ‘final battle’ of sorts that takes place within a conversation to her father, her allies’ messages show up alongside her own in an expression of solidarity and empowerment, but only further illustrate her dependence upon them. There is never a sense that she is fighting her own battles, or making her own decisions; without her community she is adrift and directionless. She is an object, with the narrative inflicted upon her. While this is clearly attempting to portray the power and strength one can derive from a caring and compassionate support network, at times it unwittingly conveys an implicit sense of helplessness, that one cannot overcome the struggles common within the trans experience without the guiding hand of benevolent allies; a support structure that many of us have to learn to cope and fight without as we take our fate and future into our own hands against all odds.
This ferments and reinforces tropes that women are all too often forced into, specifically the role of the helpless femme who requires outside intervention in order to resolve her conflict with an overbearing patriarch, unequipped by the narrative to resolve it on her own. It’s a demonstration of the ways in which oppressed demographics can wind up internalizing harmful stereotypes embedded in society’s assumptions about them. This extends further into the hauntographic window dressings of the scenario; Secret Little Haven exists within an idyllic romanticized recreation of the nostalgic internet, the millennial equivalent to their forebear’s single-family homes with white picket fences.
It isn’t wrong to retain fond memories of this era, but it goes without saying that this period of online history was fraught with strife and angst for queer individuals, predominantly because they faced even higher risks of homelessness, poverty, and often threats of physical violence with little in the way of community infrastructure to turn to. The higher stakes of the time forced many LGBTQ+ to seek acceptance within darker corners of the internet where taboo was less strict, running the risk of encountering fetishists or bad faith actors seeking to ensnare victims via catfishing or other manipulation tactics. Finding anyone else who was also struggling with, let alone had experience in, solving gender dysphoria was like finding a shining unicorn in the woods.
By embedding itself within the framework of an ahistorical, sterilized portrayal of the period, Secret Little Haven’s central thesis leaves the victory feeling hollow. It’s a fantastic representation of one middle class woman’s journey into coming to terms with her identity, but the lack of relatable authenticity given up in exchange for digital pastoral visions of days gone by renders it unrelatable for those many queer individuals who didn’t have the same opportunities and upbringing. In that period of time, few people had access to truly personal computers, and smartphones hadn’t yet come into widespread circulation which left many to rely on a highly scrutinized parental panopticon of the family computer. The World Wide Web was a far more disconnected and stratified place than we like to remember, and while the instant messages within Secret Little Haven work as a useful allegorical shorthand, it fails to fully capture the time-limited access that lead to a greater sense of isolation.
While it is unfair to place the burden of fitting in the representation of every experience within a demographic upon one game, especially one that presents a very personal journey, there is value in reflecting on the ways in which comfortable narratives like this are often held up as exemplars of queer storytelling by larger audiences precisely because they do not challenge them in truly uncomfortable or confronting ways. The day is won, she is reborn, and they never have to examine the ways in which they (the audience) are complicit in perpetuating the very structures that create the invisible suffering of those who have yet to come out, or never do. It, at times, presents an experience that fits into an all too common category of cultural tourism that enables all the emotional catharsis without the years of work put in to achieve the result.
In contrast, ‘We Know The Devil’ approaches the idea of queer self-actualization in a very different way. By removing the majority of non-queer actors and instead choosing to focus only on the interpersonal dynamics of the three protagonists, the subtext shifts to a new realm of interplay. It is a story that delves into the more finite details of how LGBTQ+ communities inflict emotional violence upon each-other, either gatekeeping their ability to grow as people or enabling their flaws to a fault. Each ending represents a different path to resolution, a full picture of how everyone can play a role as a perpetrator as well as a victim. In achieving the best possible ending, the player is taught how to embody rehabilitative justice, the recognition that we exist as holistic, flawed beings regardless of our characteristics, and that through understanding this only then we can resolve our differences harmoniously without it coming at the cost of another person’s well-being.
Trauma simulators can only bridge empathy so far, it isn’t enough to demonstrate how LGBTQ+ folks are hurt, it is vital to demonstrate how they also often solve their own problems out of desire or necessity. Queer characters allow for explorations of the ways in which we can examine our daily actions and how they serve as the foundation for our experiences. Anyone who has stepped inside a therapy session knows that venting about the things that harm you is only half of the battle, the remainder is the long road to taking control over one’s life through reflection. Games can do more than serve as a avant garde blog, instead we should look to them as a set of transcendental tools for surveying and soothing the spirit.
PAGAN 3: AUTOGENY is a tightly queer coded deconstruction of the hauntology that surrounds obscure MMORPGs of yore, portraying the inherent dissociative qualities that come from revisiting the binary ruins of the environment one grew up in. It isn’t a game so much as it is a virtual village that served as the true home town of the protagonist. Much in the same experience that returning to a quaint small town like Night In The Woods explores, PAGAN 3 serves up the familiar palpable disillusionment that comes from revisiting the past unprepared. Old friends remain, old memories, and little else truly changes. The same quests, the same social fixtures can be found frozen in time exactly the way they were left, only now rendered meaningless without the massive population of years gone by. The protagonist and their compatriots have slowly come to the nihilistic realization that PLAZA96 is a glorified time capsule, soon to be just another ghost town; a shell that served as the foundation for the protagonist’s journey into their own identity, not unlike the cocoon left behind after one’s transformation from caterpillar to butterfly.
And just what is the protagonist searching for, what do any of us hope to find when we return to our origins, our homecoming? For many people, it’s answers, for others it is the drive to seek the closure necessary to leave for greener pastures. In its own way, AUTOGENY is also in a sense about seeking permission to move on, but one presented in a relatable way that enables even those who have never struggled with queer identity issues to catch a reflection of themselves in the mirror, allowing an interface that is more universally present within the broader human condition. It is a game that is never explicitly about gender dysphoria or coming out of the closet, instead relying on implicit subtext to convey its themes.
In the past, queer media has often had to rely on implicit narratives to evade censorship, to justify its existence. Conversely we may see implicit narratives as tools of queer liberation, and, in retrospect, a resentful reminder of the superstructures that kept us from free expression. In our rush to explore the new wonderful world of explicit, heavy handed narrative tools that have come with widespread acceptance, we have forgotten the original goal we set out to achieve; for queer narratives to gain the acceptance in society necessary to allow our stories to contain the same narrative richness that majority demographics have had for decades. To not be forced into stereotypes and instead be ourselves.
In our personal lives, many of us have finally emerged from the closet, but we’re still trying to collectively establish that same agency in fiction. Equality means more than just being visible, more than being objectified for our exotic flavor, a cartoon to be employed for the gawking of non-queer audiences.
We more frequently have representation in media, but often it is shallow when done via the hands of those outside the LGBTQ+ community. Without the authenticity granted by seeking out those individuals for consultation or even outright involving them in the writing process, we risk accepting poor two dimensional substitutes in exchange for shallow recognition. It might feel good to be seen in games like JJ Macfield that commodify our pain, but ultimately what the queer community needs is more pragmatic uplifting narratives that give us something in our own lives to aspire to.
We can forever keep reliving our episodes of struggle, or we can move towards higher grounds with games like One Night, Hot Springs that present a more optimistic path to the future. Where Secret Little Haven idealizes the painful but eventually triumphant past, We Know The Devil brings equity to the present, and AUTOGENY presents a way to the future: One Night, Hot Springs romanticizes the future, one nearly in our reach if we work towards it in solidarity.
This analysis, while deeply critical of the above works is not necessarily intended to harshly reflect on them, rather to use them as an example of the difficult obstacles queer media faces in its pursuit of meaningful representation. We view them as heartfelt works that the authors poured their own experiences, energy, and pain into in order to realize them as beautiful, expressive pieces of art. Here, our critique only serves as a lens towards a common goal, a call for us all to Do Better, to never stop striving for equality, dispelling myths and stereotypes that beset our medium. We refuse to be objects, but we can only gain agency if we seize it with our own artistic efforts.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice