written by Tylyn Anson
Secret Little Haven is a 2018 video game from designer Victoria Dominowski – or more officially, publisher/developer Hummingwarp Interactive – about a youngster named Alex in 1995 spending time on their Sanctuary OS Computer (a Mac ersatz, given context clues) instead of dealing with the issues in their own life. Alex writes fan fiction, surfs the net, chats with friends in an IM client while learning rudimentary coding – basically, everything that someone growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s like myself did as we were discovering ourselves in our youth.
That’s all there is to it, gameplay-wise, and yet it’s one of my favorite games of the year so far, possibly one of my all-time favorites.
SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT
The plot is fairly simple. You play as Alex, a fifteen-year-old in 1999, and a fan of the show “Pretty Guardian Love Force” (think Sailor Moon, but not technically Sailor Moon). You spend your after-school hours on a PGLF fan forum, and chatting with people from said forum (aside from one friend from school). You talk about the show, and real life drama, and get advice about your overbearing father while a cool college friend teaches you how to code, all the while learning about yourself. At the end of each day/session, you have a stylized IM chat with your father, in what can arguably be described in the game as a boss battle.
The gameplay itself is also fairly simple. Aside from the coding mechanics, most of the game plays as a visual novel, with dialogue options for you to click on. What’s notable about this is that the game uses its setting of 1995 instant messaging to have all of these conversations going on at once. This serves to make the game feel packed and the world authentic, and to capture that feeling of growing up with the internet, juggling conversations between your friends – helping one friend with a crisis, and engaging in a text role-play session with another friend, all the while in another window, fighting with the friend you know in real life. It’s somewhat simplified, and Dominowski keeps the writing well-paced and functional. You’re never stuck waiting too long for someone to reply in a conversation, and each day is written to hit certain dramatic beats by the time you log off the computer, rather than just middling about.
Structured or not, however, this part of the game lends itself to an interpretation of this game as a love letter to the internet of old. An internet of fan forums, of separate IM clients, and of the internet itself feeling simultaneously smaller and more free. In fact, most of what little coverage I’ve seen the game receive has largely focused on the aspect of Secret Little Haven as a love letter to this older idea of the World Wide Web. I highly recommend the recent video essay from Errant Signal, which also takes a personal tone in discussing how he relates to the concept of growing up online.
However, that isn’t the ground I want to focus on, and it’s not the particular lens I can provide for this game.
You see, I buried the lede a little up above. Secret Little Haven isn’t just about finding yourself in the vague, general sense. It’s about what it’s like to grow up confused, scared of the future and uncomfortable with what the world expects of you even though you’re unable to figure out exactly why, and what happens when someone gives you the key to understanding something true to your core, even if it creates more questions than it answers.
Secret Little Haven is a game about being young, scared, and the moment in your life when you realize that you’re transgender.
To say I can see a lot of my younger self in Alex would be an understatement. It’s not a complete match, granted – I was a few years older when I realized I was trans, and my internet halcyon days were more planted in the mid-to-late 2000s than the ’90s. Both differences are more significant than you might think. Still, I remember growing up unsure of who I was, or why I spent so much time fantasizing about the life that could be. I was even the weird “boy” who liked “girl shows” like Sailor Moon.
I also know what it’s like to meet someone just a little older than you who guides you through it, and having another friend on the internet who, a little after your own discovery, realizes that she’s trans as well (I can’t explain how, but we all seem to find each other, sometimes before we even realize it). Most importantly, I know what it’s like to feel like all of those friends and people – who could accurately be labeled your support network – are hanging by a thread, ready to be severed by one decision from a parent. I also know what it’s like to dislike and even actively fear your parents while still feeling responsible for their happiness.
There are some areas where the game stretches belief, or at least is clearly edited for time. Secret Little Haven compresses an incredibly long, complicated journey of self-discovery into about four days, for essentially two characters realizing they’re trans. Alex herself goes from “learning trans people exist” to “identifying as a girl” in the span of, at most, two days. By comparison, I hemmed and hawed over the question for a year between those two points alone. College students, even young ones like Laguna and Jenni, bond in a serious way with Alex in almost no time at all.
However, even with a somewhat unrealistically condensed timeline, the game tells a story that still feels authentic. Alex’s journey of self-discovery is particularly well-structured in the narrative beats it hits, in clearly defined ways. At the end of the second day, Alex, already confused about who she is, finds out that trans people exist:
JENNI: The world thought [Laguna] was a boy, but she realized that was wrong and so decided to live as a girl instead.
ALEX: you can do that???
After talking with Laguna about how it works, Laguna tries to coach her into answering one simple question: if Alex would want to turn into a girl.
What I especially like about this moment are the diverging options. While both ultimately lead to a “yes”, one dialogue option is to just outright admit it, and the other is to dodge the question repeatedly as Laguna repeats the question to frustration. This is a moment that all of us have to contend with in our journey. From a young age, we so thoroughly absorb the message that this is wrong, gross, freakish and perverted – all doubts that Alex voices to Laguna about herself – that we have trouble coming out those first times at all, even to friends who are also trans.
Finally, after Laguna forces Alex to answer the question, that yes, Alex wants to be a girl, Laguna points out how “if it feels good to think about being a girl, well, that means something big’s up,” and comforts Alex with the notion that if she feels like a girl and wants to be a girl, then she is one. Even as Alex initially protests that “it can’t be that simple”, she ends up taking comfort in the notion. She even employs it shortly afterward in her argument with Sammy, her best internet friend, who she seems to believe is also a pre-realization trans girl.
By the end of the game, Alex is confident in herself and her own identity. She may not know exactly what she wants to do, or how to do it, and the game makes a big point about how transitioning won’t solve all her problems – Alex’s issues with her father, as the biggest example, are shown to go well beyond his own fears that his “son” isn’t “presenting appropriately” enough – but knowing this about herself is an important first step.
This is where the true message of the game comes out, as by the penultimate day of the game (possibly sooner, depending on dialogue options), the motif of “you’ll figure it out” begins to show up in both chats with friends and on the forum. By the last day, every conversation you have with your friends ends with this line repeated, either to Alex or from Alex to another friend, as they all offer their support in preparation for what is essentially the final boss, which is a conversation in which Alex plans to actively confront her father about his behavior. In the structure of this final battle, just as all hope seems lost, all the friends who have declared that they’re “here for you” speak through Alex’s own screen name, helping to convince her father to back off.
While this stretches the reality of what can happen in an IM conversation, it fits the stylized nature of the chats with Alex’s father, and the heavy influence of a Sailor Moon-esque show on Alex’s worldview. The metaphor of calling on the strength of and lessons from your friends to help overcome a problem in your life is a powerful one, and my heart swells with joy any time I encounter it. The ending sequence, with the final message “SHE’LL FIGURE IT OUT” emblazoned over the screen, had me crying after my first playthrough, and still never fails to choke me up.
There’s so much more I could say about this game. My notes for this review talk about how the game demonstrates through the character Andy that expectations of masculinity aren’t just harmful for trans people, but all men. I could talk about relating to how the earliest signs of Alex’s gender are when she is, by her point of view at the time, mistaken for a girl online, and the excitement and confusion that stirs up in her. I could even write a whole entire essay on the way the game portrays Alex’s father, making it clear that he isn’t an evil monster, but is instead lashing out because of his own insecurities and loneliness. This is offered as a reason rather than an excuse, and as something that can be fixed. His final apology and offer to make hamburgers for dinner at the end of their last conversation is, for me, somehow the largest sign that his character can be redeemed.
This game holds a mirror to the youthful realization that one is different, that there is something inside of us we desperately need to explore and express, and how the internet provides a (relatively) safe way to do that. I see myself at that time of my life as Alex, but I also see myself in my twenties as Laguna, and I find myself wondering what these characters would be up to now in their thirties. I want to know because on some level, I see these characters as reflections of myself, and want them to be happy to suggest that I can be happy.
The ambiguity of this ending is slightly uncomfortable, but the whole point is that the story doesn’t really end, that each new answer presents more questions. Rather than present this cynically, however, Secret Little Haven tells us that maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay in the end. That one way or another, we’ll figure it out.
To anyone who grew up on the internet, I encourage you to play this game. To anyone who grew up trans, I encourage you to play this game. For anyone who might be reading this, in Alex’s situation, tucked away in your own corner of a small town, feeling stifled and suffocated by what your family and friends expect you to be and wondering if there’s more, I encourage you to play this game. And to all of you, I offer you this simple prayer:
You’ll figure it out.
Follow Tylyn on Twitter at @Nacirema7.