Game Pile: Secret Little Haven

You can get the game on Steam, and also more importantly over on itch.io.

Script outline follows.

  • Secret Little Haven is a 2018 game by Victoria Dominowski. It’s kind of like a visual novel but crucially not.
  • this is an interesting game set in an alternate-history 1999 where you play a young trans girl working herself out through conversations with her friends on the internet.
  • if you want to know how the game works as a trans narrative, you shouldn’t talk to me.
  • I mean, I understand and it’s very heartwarming that anyone might want to listen to me talk about it as a trans narrative, but as a cis boy, all I can do is tell you how it sounds to me, not how it feels.
  • As a fairly trans-adjacent cis boy, I can say that there are a lot of funny jokes and nods and winks to things that are ‘trans cultural’ now. It’s cute.
  • It’s also fun the way this uses retro tech. It doesn’t use retro tech the way that feels true to me, but I used a PC in this period, not a mac, so while it goes very ‘real’ at points with its terminal usage, it also completely failed me in the ways it gave over the artifice.
  • And what’s more, what’s with indie games deliberately doing stuff like ‘oo, look, I can put files on your hard drive,’ like obviously, yes, I get it, you’re painting the medium I just never find that cute.
  • Uh.
  • Anyway.
  • Notice the pauses?
  • That’s the thing.
  • That’s the thing that stands out to me about this game.
  • So a couple of years ago I wrote about, and pretty much every day since then I’ve been thinking about the 1994 PC adventure game Sam and Max Hit The Road.
  • When those games got a sequel in 2006, I criticised the results because the jokes weren’t as funny. After thorough review I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that the jokes were inherently worse, it’s that the format didn’t serve the kind of jokes they are.
  • Sam & Max was a game where every line of dialogue had to be funny on its own. Because the engine let you skip lines of dialogue, you couldn’t necessarily rely on each line being spaced out from one another for particular types of comedic timing.
  • That meant that you couldn’t treat the comedic elements of the dialogue like you had control over all of them, and the result was dialogue that remained being incredibly tight and self-contained; jokes were usually about the single line, rather than about back and forth of multiple lines with competing timing.
  • That meant the timing of a line, the timing of a single unit of conversation was very important.
  • Language is important, but so are the spaces between it.
  • Secret Little Haven is a videogame that uses the spaces between language exceptionally well.
  • I called it a ‘visual novel’ and that’s a half-truth but it’s also not.
  • See the conventional model of a ‘visual novel’ is a story where there’s a visual element juxtaposed with the text. The visuals behave in a particular way to contextualise the text. An image slides across the screen, it implies a character moving, which adds meaning to the words.
  • In Secret Little Haven the visual for the text is a chat front end from an extremely 1999 kind of program. The context this provides for you as you play the game and read the text, then, is someone typing out the messages they’re sending.
  • The bulk of this game is waiting.
  • And let me tell you, I did not vibe with this game. I could see the arc of it from day one and that meant I was mostly trying to get to the end to make sure that I wasn’t going to be surprised, which meant sitting here rapping on the buttons fast to make sure I got done quick. And when you do that, when you’re not spending time marinating in the forums and fictions and searching for the achievements and all that good Gamer Content, this game is mostly delays.
  • It creates this special kind of intense frustration because I don’t dislike this game.
  • But good god.
  • It’s really well done! It’s really smart!
  • A character who gets really excited will type fast and sloppy and you’ll get a lot of messages quickly! A character who is being careful will have bigger pauses! There’s a character who’s extremely deliberate who makes you wait when they send you messages!
  • That’s some great medium-as-message stuff!
  • If you are at ALL interested in Extremely Trans stories and can handle the content warnings, you should check out Secret Little Haven.

A detail I missed in the video was that this game is part of the Racial Equality Justice Bundle, which is pretty rad.