CW: Transphobia, parental abuse, gaslighting, depression, violence, and suicide.
So here we are at another Trans Day of Rememberence, the day where cis people can bitch about trans social justice warriors and bathrooms while trans people mourn their friends and family who were murdered by cis people, or who killed themselves because cis people felt inconvenienced by their desire to, you know, live.
I’ve used Trans Day of Rememberence as a framing device for my work in the past. Two years ago, I used it for a highly emotional piece where I let my anger and disgust front and center. This time, I’m going to do something a bit different. It just so happened that the next game on my schedule for a review is also very much relevant to Trans Day of Rememberance. Not only is Secret Little Haven made by a trans developer, but it is also a trans centered title with a lot of highly relevant subject matter. It’s also an absolute masterpiece that comes strongly recommended even if you aren’t trans.
Secret Little Haven comes to us from Victoria Dominowski, who appears to be a solo developer from what I could find. While Victoria is trans herself, I can’t ascertain for certain whether or not the events of Secret Little Haven are based on her own experience. What I can say for certain though, is that Secret Little Haven is one of the most deeply personal games I’ve ever played, and I would be more shocked if this game wasn’t based on Victoria’s own life experience.
If one had to slap a genre sticker on Secret Little Haven, then it would be most accurate to say that it is a visual novel with environmental narrative elements. Even before taking the actual story and writing into account, Secret Little Haven gets some serious points for originality in regards to how it is constructed.
The interface of Secret Little Haven is a recreated form of a late 90s operating system, and its story is told through messages on an online forum. You are placed in the role of Alex Cole, a closeted trans girl in an online forum for fans of the fictional magical girl anime, Pretty Guardian Love Force. Secret Little Haven takes place over the course of a week as Alex interacts with her peers, as we see Alex learn to both come to terms with who she is, and how to regain control of her life from her abusive father.
Rather than being like a typical visual novel where conversations advance automatically, the plot is advances by reading through Alex’s text conversations and seeing them advance. You are also given the option to read the forum posts that expand on the background lore of the fictional, in universe, magical girl anime, as well as the game as a whole.
Right away, I need to point out just how immersive this game is, and how well it puts you into Alex’s shoes. Even if one is not trans, there are bound to be many people who can relate to the feeling of using a niche hobby as an escape from a boring, everyday life. And Secret Little Haven is very much about how our hobbies can lead to us learning more about ourselves, and how we can be influenced by them beyond simply “liking them.”
The downside to this immersion is that you can only save at the end of each day, and if you exit the game mid day, you need to re-read all the text you already saw. There are also some puzzles that are beyond cryptic and that most players will pretty much HAVE to look up online. Getting John’s password will especially require some serious outside the box thought. Having to find the passcode from the video description in the trailer in You and Me and Her has NOTHING on what Secret Little Haven will require of you!
The people that Alex interacts with include fellow forum members Samuel, Laguna, Jenni, and Prplsqrl, his irl friend Andy, and the aforementioned abusive father John. Samuel is Alex’s friend at the start of the game who she basks in her general geekiness with, Laguna is a fellow forum member who teaches Alex some basic coding and hacking tricks, Prplsqrl is a forum member who Alex does role play with, and Jenni is the owner of the forum who struggles to keep a balance between running the site and her real life studies. Andy, meanwhile, is pretty much your typical “nice guy” who is stuck pursuing an idealized version of manhood and tries to rope an uninterested Alex into his plans.
With exception to Prplsqrl who is just there to be cute, these characters also have deeper conflicts that are revealed the more you interact with them. Samuel is revealed to not only be a closeted trans girl as well, but to have dangerously repressed her desire due to being stuck living Alabama where living as her true self is made impossible. Laguna is also revealed to be trans and is currently transition, and is where Alex realizes she is trans from. Jenni is caught between running a site that provides a safe haven for many vulnerable young women and her studies, and she struggles with the idea that she may be unable to keep the site going. And Andy’s friendship with Alex is put at risk as he needs to confront the toxic ideals of masculinity that have driven his past behavior.
Seeing Alex and her friends gush over their shared interests felt warm and pure, even though Pretty Guardian Love Force isn’t even a real anime and I haven’t really seen much of the real life anime it seems to be an expy of. But said purity and warmth exists in contrast to the frightening abuse Alex receives from her father John.
I need to give a lot of credit to the presentation for just how well this game puts the player in the shoes of a scared child at the mercy of their abusive father. All of the bright colors and vaporwave music disappear the moment you see that notification from John, and everything goes silent and gray scale. And the most impressive part is that Victoria didn’t just go with the easy method of making John physically abusive. She portrayed him as a a manipulative and controlling; someone who will let Alex have no privacy or self expression beyond what he WANTS her to be.
I love the fact that the focus was on John being a manipulative, gaslighting narcissist precisely because of how often these types go ignored, despite the fact that they can be the most damaging of all. And the worst part is that trans people are constantly at the mercy of their abusive parents precisely because our systems of living are imbued with transphobia and allow them to get away with it. It was even worse in the time period this game took place in, and I was genuinely curious as to how Alex could overcome it.
If there is any criticism I have with this game’s story, it’s that the ending is a bit naive. Without spoiling much, I will say that it IS a happy ending, but it doesn’t really provide many answers to others who are in similar positions right now. But then again, I can’t fault this game too much because this is not a question with an easy answer. For all I know, this could be a fictionalized account of Victoria’s own coming out experience, and she could just be saying what worked for her. The sad truth though, is that it won’t work for everyone.
In a way, that’s what Secret Little Haven does well; it doesn’t claim it will have all the answers, but it refuses to say that things are hopeless. The game ends on the message “she’ll figure it out,” because that’s pretty much the best perspective we can take in this fight. If we keep pushing forward, we will either figure things out or die trying. And we all have each other’s back to.
So this isn’t just a review, but it’s also a reminder of how far we’ve come. It may seem overwhelming now, but just think of how far we’ve come since the stonewall riots, and think of how much better things are in spite of everything working against us. So let’s take a moment to remember our fallen allies and siblings. If there is an afterlife, I do hope that Leelah Alcorn is up there with Marsha P Johnson and every other fallen trans person. And I hope they are smiling on all of us, as we will on the trans people of future generations.
As for Secret Little Haven, it’s only $5 on Steam if you don’t already have it. It was also part of the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality from a few months ago, so if you bought that bundle then you may already have it. So it comes highly recommended.
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