I played: Secret Little Haven

After I accepted that I was trans the first person I came out to was my mum and that was so uncomfortable an experience I’ve actively resisted doing it ever since. There have been a few times when things came to a head and the situation felt fairly chill and natural but those have been in my experience a real small minority. I’m naturally a private person when it comes to offline relationships and I’ve learned that if I keep doing things while not talking about them, eventually people get what’s going on.

Folks at work are already having the ‘so brave’ conversation with me and even then they’ll avoid the word like the fucking plague. There’s something about it that just makes people awkward.

I guess it’s why so many of us approach questioning ourselves sideways like. The thought that something about us is so violently wrong can be unthinkable, easier to try construct a better world through more manageable steps.

I remember the news articles and the jokes that were being told around the release of James Cameron’s Avatar those weirdo maladjusts who were more than willing to discard human life for the fantasy of Pandora. I never quite got what people were making fun of, it is a better place than reality: you seriously wouldn’t give this place up if you got the chance? School wasn’t a happy place for me and at home I felt isolated.

It was around this time that I found my own fantasyland online.

Secret Little Haven is a game in which you play a fifteen year old integrating with an online community in the days of dial-up. You start with a few folks in your chat window and the homepage of a magical girl anime fansite and through gentle investigation figure out what this community is and help your character find their place in it.

It’s neatly observed, the virtual monitor crackling with that CRT glow, the hacked together website suggesting a border of the early internet that was threatening, and not really for consumption on a family computer. My mother was distrustful of technology and we never really had any money. I didn’t get a mobile phone until I was like 16, never had a personal laptop. I spent a lot of time on the computer with my head turned halfway around to keep an eye on the door.

It was a space that, despite being mine, felt threateningly fragile. This game gets that. The world it paints is hastily sketched, a side effect of being a place still under construction. All the recognisable characters are there, the troll, the couple, the smug-pretentious-guy, and the more humble one who’s actually able to effortlessly hang him out to dry. The slow tense burn of those conversations that drag out over days, and the rush that comes with a popular post or a fast moving board.

I guess the choice of it being a (what sounds to be very campy) Magical Girl show is pretty on the nose, given how the story progresses. I mean, you probably have an idea given the context I’m writing it in. But I know the first proper home I had online was spread amongst a few forums of that My Little Pony reboot so maybe our lives are allowed to be overly didactic sometimes.

What it nails far more than the embodiment of this virtual space is how it feels to participate in one. The majority of the plot, as it goes, is laid out in a series of livechats with various friends. It’s fun to read as I’ve now been in all of these roles: the nervous fifteen year old, trying to fit in; the adult who’s around to have fun but also has to moderate themselves because there’s kids about; and the admin who’s trying to keep everything running smooth despite feeling ill fitted to the task.

It understands the vastly different realms that each of these friendships must live in, and how the characters moderate their communication to each. There’s this wonderful, beautifully observed moment where you’re being bombarded with messages as one friend enthusiastically RPs with you, while in another channel you’re witnessing the disintegration of a meaningful friendship, and it’s impossible to give either the attention it deserves.

You’re so often spread between windows, trying to figure out and correlate the information that’ll help you make sense of a situation. The only time it pulls you into a focused encounter is in the conversation’s with the character’s father. Which, like, writing an abusive relationship is hard. Some of the things that come up have literally been conversations between me and my father (we don’t communicate too much anymore) and the way the entire world is twisted to become threatening and queasy feels a sort of authentic.

The text based nature of the game can’t quite keep up here. It’s trying, but after the initial shock that comes with the intrusion, the thing loses its power and unlike the powerful immediacy that comes with the rest of the game one rather feels like they’re being forced to roleplay an abused child and it’s not a nice feeling.

So much is left to inference, picking up on people’s lives through the clues scattered about in their posting history. Making this aspect so clear cut feels like overreaching, and I get that it’s an important thing to see visualised — the game begins with some content warnings, which is nice — it just feels off.

Same when it starts to feel self-conscious about not being ‘game’ enough and tries to insert some hacking elements, a trope that comes up a lot in this sorta thing and which has only really been done well in Christine Love’s genre defining Digital: A Love StoryIt’s sorta a distraction, the solution to one puzzle in particular is totally obtuse, and it just serves to gate off the story in a super annoying way.

There’s something to be said about how these games so resolutely keep taking place in the past. Maybe because the creators are delving into their own techno-nostalgia as a part of the creative process. Maybe because they’re exploring a time things felt new and unfamiliar. There’s something ethereal about the alternate technological realities they construct, these worlds that exist half remembered, just off than how they actually were. They let us imagine our avatars grow, the suggestion of the past implicitly inviting us to imagine potential futures.

I kinda wanna compare it to another game that covers similar ground: Accidental Queens’ A Normal Lost Phone which, through it’s construction manages to take a lot of the same elements and feel uncomfortable and voyeuristic. Both tell tales of a form of liberation, that one’s even goes further in its dramatic developments, but the ending kinda feels apocalyptic.

Modern tech is cold and impersonal, and our existences are warped into something for the explicit benefit of capital. The possibility of liberation in such a system feels slim. That game begins with the dramatic question: ‘is this person who’s life you’re intruding dead?’ And that’s a lot.

One time when presenting story concepts to my theatre company (this was before I came out) I wrote an outline for a play about my experiences ‘being a girl online’, I still probably have it somewhere. They decided it needed more work, they couldn’t see where the drama was. Our plays mostly feature at least one murder, I can see why it’s out of character, and I wan’t in the right place to actually explain why it would work and why it meant more than I was letting on.

This, despite its flaws captures the meaning of all that perfectly. It articulates properly what I couldn’t those two and a half years ago. It’s the first game in a while I’ve properly loved.

Secret Little Haven is a game by Victoria Dominowski and is currently available to purchase on Steam or Itch.io. For the next week it’s discounted by 50% as a part of their summer sales.

Image courtesy of Victoria Dominowski

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