Looking For An Answer
Now, my means of coping with difficult situations in my life has always been to fall back on media that I love – namely anime, manga, and video games. The health and sustainability of that is debatable, but that’s how it’s always sort of been for me. I try to find media that represents whatever I might be going through at the time, and that helps give me some clarity on my situation.
The problem I found myself in last year, then, was that so few pieces of media spoke to what I was going through. There are barely any video games, in particular, that deal with trans people at all. When they do, it feels like something forced in for diversity’s sake so a AAA publisher can pat itself on the back, or worse, put in for silly gags. They often just… aren’t what I need, and last year, not what I needed.
What did I need? I needed something, anything, to capture where I was at during that point in time. A point where I was only “out” to a few people, where getting misgendered and deadnamed was commonplace to me because nobody knew. When I’d started becoming increasingly afraid of going outside or being in public, because I’d started dressing and acting more feminine. Where I wanted to break, melt, and mold my body into my ideal, and not the hairy, masculine mess that I felt like it was. At the same time, however, I needed something that offered help. Something that didn’t just wallow in those feelings of self-loathing and anxiety, but gave me guidance through them.
That wasn’t exactly what I expected when I picked up The Missing: J.J. Macfield and The Island of Memories, the latest game from ambitious auteur Suehiro “Swery” Hidetaka. Swery is one of my favorite human beings in gaming, and somebody I’ve followed for over a decade. He’s a game designer who bucks norms and makes what he loves, fueled not by huge budgets or focus groups, but by his own passion. And to me, prior to The Missing, the most notable example of this was Deadly Premonition – one of my all-time favorites.
Yet I would never necessarily expect a Swery production to speak to my experience as a trans woman. Realistically speaking, most high-profile game writers aren’t going to care enough to try and tackle the subject with any delicacy or tact. On top of that, I’d seen Thomas’ flawed depiction in Deadly Premonition, and felt in that moment that Swery’s strengths as a writer might not lie in depicting the struggle of being queer and/or trans. So when I went into The Missing, I expected a charming, quirky game that would distract me from the persistent body horror and social anxiety that comes with transitioning.
After four or five hours, as the credits rolled, I was curled up on my couch. My face was caked with drying tears, and my nose was oozing snot. This was it. This what I needed. From seemingly out of nowhere, The Missing was exactly the piece of media that I was looking for.
A Vacation Gone Awry
The basic setup of The Missing concerns J.J. and Emily, two girls on a camping trip to a mysterious island. Their quality time together is cut short, however, when Emily is snatched away under mysterious circumstances, and it’s up to J.J .to save her. As J.J. traverses the island, she discovers that she’s been imbued with the power to inflict severe bodily harm upon herself and be seemingly unaffected. Electric shocks, severe burns, broken bones, and even total dismemberment don’t kill her, which she uses to her advantage to solve elaborate puzzles placed before her as she explores the almost comically hazardous environments. All the while, J.J. is getting text message dumps from her friends, her college professor, and her mother.
It is through these text messages that I began to suspect that The Missing was trying to be more than a particularly dark platformer – in particular, J.J.’s texts with her mother. Her mom, a little bit into the game, reveals herself to be a pretty big transphobe, which seems to make J.J. uncomfortable.
“Huh, weird,” I thought. “Swery’s tackling the transgender bathroom issue. How random! Wonder what that’s about!”
A little later, they have another exchange. This time, J.J.’s mother has found women’s clothes in J.J.’s room. J.J., seemingly flustered, winds up telling her that they’re Emily’s clothes that she left over there.
“Okay,” I thought. “That’s weird that her mom would be so put off by women’s clothes. J.J.’s a girl, after all. I wonder if it’s because Emily and J.J. slept together, and that’s why she’s uncomfortable about it. Like she doesn’t want her mom to know she’s super gay.”
Then, towards the end of the game, the real gut punch kicks in. J.J.’s mom reveals that she’s been rummaging through her daughter’s diary. She freaks out. She makes plans for J.J. to go to a corrective therapist.
“Fuck, I’m dense,” I thought. “Also, wow, where did these tears come from?”
Related: Erica In Catherine: Full Body Is Gaming’s Best Trans Representation (So Far)
Throwing Subtlety To The Wind
Suddenly, the whole game made sense, and I felt like a real idiot for not catching on sooner. The fact that J.J. is literally killing herself to chase Emily, i.e. a manifestation of ideal femininity. A monster that constantly chases J.J. with a box cutter, i.e. something people frequently use to self-harm. A weird deer doctor that constantly asks J.J., “can you hear me?”, i.e. something that an EMT would ask an unconscious and/or dying person. Everything clicked into place, right before the game reached its truly heartrending climax.
The Missing is a game about a closeted trans woman pushed into suicide. As players guide her through metaphorical stand-ins for her self-harm, they’re slowly getting her closer and closer to an ambiguous goal. Is it really just Emily? Is it death? Or something else? Look, I don’t want to spoil everything, so I’ll leave that for you to figure out.
What I will say about the ending, however, is that it kicked me right in the teeth. For most of 2018, I had been pussyfooting around my transition, much to the chagrin of my former partner. They knew that I was trans as early as May, but I’d failed to communicate different aspects of my transition to them, to the point where I changed my legal name without actually telling them. They were heartbroken and upset that I was making huge changes without telling them and had every right to be. For somebody who’d stuck by me for so long, they deserved better.
This wasn’t because I wanted to keep them in the dark or anything, but because I was deeply afraid. I was afraid of making a claim to my gender, and afraid of change. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. Which, now that I’m actually typing it, was really ignorant of me. What would be harder for them – gradually adapting to something I’m telling them, or making major changes that would totally blindside them?
The Missing, however, really helped drive home the fact that I couldn’t live like this anymore. If I kept making big decisions by myself, kept agonizing over every little thing, kept trying to hide the truth about myself for as long as possible, I was going to die. Suicide ideations are nothing new to me, and are something I used to grapple with pretty frequently as a teenager. But transitioning got me closer to acting those thoughts than I had been in ages. As I started to realize things about myself and decided to hold them all inside, it started to feel like I was going to burst. I started resigning myself to bleak sentiments like, “well, if I can’t get on hormones, maybe I’ll just die,” or, “maybe it’d be easier to just kill myself instead of put up with telling my parents and watching them mess up for years,” or, “dying would be better than the rampant, violent transphobia out there.”
(Wow, those sound pretty bad, now that I’m talking about them. Jeez!)
The Missing turned all that around, though. Witnessing J.J.’s suicide attempt and how it nearly broke her best friend destroyed me. I realized two things, in that moment. Firstly, I had to fully commit to my transition. I couldn’t wait any longer, because if I did, the internal invalidation of my true self would inevitably drive me down a self-destructive path. Second, dying was not an option. I had to live. I wanted to. Because I didn’t want to give up the chance at a happy life, however hard that might be when people love to straight-up murder trans people for existing, and because I didn’t want to hurt the people closest to me. There was a chance for me to be myself and be happy, and I had to take it, no matter how hard a battle it would be to fight.
Right then, The Missing provided clarity to everything I’d been going through. It answered my questions with a single question of its own.
“Do you want to live as yourself?”
No matter how bad things get, I knew the answer. “Yes.”
The year after The Missing has been a roller coaster. I’ve been on HRT for a little over a year now, and for all its validations, that’s also been a financial hit and emotional trip. I blew up my aforementioned relationship in a moment of trauma-fueled panic, and rebounded into the arms of a borderline alcoholic for a month or two. I moved across the country twice in a year just to figure out where I’m happiest, which let me tell you, I wouldn’t recommend.
Yet despite the difficulties, things are beginning to stabilize. Working at a wonderful job that I count myself lucky every day for having. Nursing my tenuous relationship with my parents that exploded in a fiery mess this year. Growing a beautiful love with a best friend that I trust implicitly, and healing a fractured friendship with somebody who’s had my back since I was a little kid. Shit’s tough, I’ve fucked up a lot, and I’m more than a bit tired of hemorrhaging money, but… I’m thriving despite it all.
I’m thriving because I’m doing it as myself.
Which was what The Missing helped me see the value in. The game opens with the epitaph, “This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.” Whenever I feel down, I think about that sentiment a lot. That somebody out there saw my plight, and the plights of thousands of others like me, and decided to make a video game about it. Not only that, but they made the game with the intent of sharing it with everybody, no matter who they are, in the hopes that more and more people of any demographic can understand and empathize with their fellow human beings. That’s art at its finest, to me, and something that lies at the heart of everything Swery’s done for the past decade or so.
The Missing helped me see the beauty in myself and in what I am. I woke up from the delusion and lie I’d spent twenty-four years of my life trapped inside of. And if it weren’t for Swery, beautiful human being that he is, I’m not sure I’d be able to say that.
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