Queer Pain: The Missing and the Mechanics of Self-Harm

by Marielle Neisler // @Lilli_F

Content Warning: Transphobia, self harm, and suicide. Spoilers for
The Missing.

All screenshots are from The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories.

Video games have next-to-no history with trans women, but what does exist is riddled with pitfalls. Most depictions of trans women fall into a few problematic categories. Sometimes the character will be played for laughs, being depicted as really a man in a dress such as with Erica in the game Catherine. Alternatively they can be portrayed as intentionally predatory such as the beach scene in Persona 3 where the protagonists unsuccessfully pick up women until they come across one who is receptive. A spot of facial hair “outs” her as trans and it’s then that the protagonists abandon their search. And, of course, there’s Poison from Final Fight, a character who was made trans because the developers believed that depictions of hitting women would cause problems for an American release.

These sorts of depictions are commonplace in media as a whole, and it’s unsurprising that they’ve found their way into video games. However, there have been a few minor bright spots. Recently, more games have been including trans women into games in either neutral or positive lights. Most frequently these characters are relatively minor NPCs tucked away into one corner of the world, like Mizhena in Baldur’s Gate: Dragonspear or Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect: Andromeda. They are simply trans women existing in their respective universes.

A more prominent example is Vivian from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. In the original Japanese, Vivian’s character is portrayed as a sympathetic trans woman character, but this nuance was dropped in the American release. And there are also numerous positive portrayals of trans women in independent games that are invested in telling stories important to their queer creators: Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy, We Know The Devil by Pillow Fight, or Secret Little Haven by Victoria Dominowski, but rarely is that the case in games produced by larger studios led by non-queer creators.

A game that intersects with all of these issues, and the game that I’m actually interested in talking about here, is The Missing: J. J. Macfield and the Island of Memories. The game is ostensibly about a queer woman named Jackie who is on a camping trip with her girlfriend, Emily. She wakes up to find Emily missing and starts looking for her. During this search the game drip feeds background and characterization to the player via old text message conversations that are unlocked as you progress. These let the player know about Jackie’s relationship with her friends, mother, and one of her professors. These interactions slowly build the background conflict leading up to the events in the game, and they inform the big “reveal” at the end of the game: Jackie is a trans woman, and much of the game is a surreal metaphor for her thoughts and feelings about that transition.

The knowledge that Jackie is a trans woman contextualizes her disinterest in more typically masculine activities, the stream of microaggressions from her mother about growing into the heir her deceased father would have wanted, and the way she treasures her friendship with Emily for not rejecting her upon coming out. The game itself is mechanically focused on graphically harming yourself in various ways to solve puzzles with acts of self-harm ranging from dismemberment to immolation. This is, needless to say, precarious ground for a game to tread upon – especially when focusing on a queer character.

With the primary mechanical interaction being one of self-harm it runs the risk of the game becoming one of spectacle where there is a perverse incentive to find new and inventive ways to make Jackie kill or harm herself. However, the game avoids this pitfall by not rewarding this sort of play. The experience is bloody, but it is also tame and calculated. Jackie’s mechanical deaths lack a strong sense of physicality. There are no unique death animations. When Jackie’s head comes in contact with a hazard it simply disappears instead of splattering into a bloody mess. A short buzz saw sound may play, a low vibration may occur, and there may be a small spread of blood, but it all executes with no fanfare. By contrast, the game conveys Jackie’s regeneration with a flash of light, a rising note, and a satisfying afterglow.

The violence is depicted this way not because of some arbitrary choice, but because it better communicates that the game is about internal struggles and not senseless violence. The dismemberment of the protagonist is in service to something else. It’s a statement about the struggles of coming to terms with transitioning. It is about knowing the possibility of social othering. It is about knowing the attempted suicide rate for trans people being over 40%. It is about knowing the statistics behind the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It is knowing all these struggles and more that come with transitioning, but also knowing that you must confront them to survive. Self-harm and suicide occur at a much higher rate in the trans community than in the population as a whole, much of which is a consequence of the psychological harm enacted upon trans women by these sorts of external forces. However, the game’s violence is not a direct representation of that, and it’s my argument that it instead focuses on the fear of that violence and how it affects the decisions of nascent trans women.

The hairshrieker discussed in the paragraph below.

Jackie is a young trans woman on the cusp of transitioning. The game’s violence metaphorizes the struggle of choosing to continue living a broken, incomplete life as a man or beginning to transitioning and embracing the difficulties and perils that entails. The metaphor is reinforced during the hairshrieker chase sequences of the game. During these sequences Jackie is chased by the physical embodiment of her fears wielding the tool of her suicide, and she must navigate a series of platforming challenges. Time is an ever present factor in transitioning and can often feel like a pursuer. This lines up with real-world experiences of trans women who know that medically transitioning becomes less effective as you age, with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in particular becoming less effective the older you are. At the same time, not transitioning over time leads to increased rates of suicide with folks giving into despair. It is not a game about how trans womens’ bodies are scary; it is about how being trans is scary.

The power of the game comes from the fact that it is about this pain but it does not focus on it. Instead, it is about the regeneration of Jackie. During the nadir of the game, Jackie climbs to the top of the roof to find a suicide note and Emily’s corpse hanging from a noose. In response Jackie hangs herself next to Emily. However, the note ends with “Sorry mom, Sorry Emily.” Emily’s corpse fades out of existence leaving solely Jackie, and it makes clear that up to this point Emily has acted as the projection of Jackie’s fears about Emily and society at large. Giving voice to the fears and insecurities that Jackie holds about herself. The rope holding Jackie snaps and her body plummets from the tower landing inside the classroom where she slit her wrists. She once more revives before slow walking through the halls where the shadows of her peers harass her, culminating in a scene in which she briefly becomes the hairshrieker before separating from it with new found resolve to face her fears.

There is another, final, confrontation with the hairshrieker, and this time she triumphs over it declaring “I’m ready to accept myself now.” She bests the physical manifestation of her inner demons and awakens once more in the real world. At this point, the game renders explicit two things that had only been implied up to this point: Jackie had attempted to commit suicide and was experiencing a kind of life-flashing-before-your-eyes dream, and Jackie is a pre-transition trans woman. The avatar you had been playing as up until this point is an idealized version of Jackie. A short scene plays during which Jackie is reunited with Emily and it communicates the idea that she is going to be okay.

It is not uncommon for media pieces to reveal someone is trans for either comedic value or to shock someone either in-universe or the audience. This is not the case in Jackie’s reveal. It is a summation of her story, the final piece of the puzzle. The game at no point undermines her womanhood, and at the outset the game states “this game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.” The game handles the reveal well: it does not make her transness her defining characteristic, it does not question the validity of her identity, and the text message conversations give her room to flourish as a character outside of her queer identity.

Furthermore, it gives trans women the opportunity to see themselves in games. It depicts their struggles in a respectful manner. It shows the difficulties that happen with unsupportive family members and the despair that can come with it. It communicates the crushing feeling of societal and familial expectation while still remaining hopeful. It offers a brief glimpse into the experiences and lives of trans women without fetishizing their struggles or pain.

Admittedly all of this is a low bar to clear, representation for trans women in the AAA space is terrible, but I think the handling of the ‘reveal’ of transness in the game is handled surprisingly well.  It is a final note that brings together the narrative of Jackie’s story. Although the game started out as overtly queer with the opening scene featuring a tender romantic moment between Jackie and Emily, but the narrative of strictly a queer love story begins to show holes as it progresses.  These holes are filled by the information that Jackie is trans. Furthermore, by having the reveal take place after the scene most explicitly representing the regeneration and resurrection of Jackie it causes the scene to work twofold. The first being the literal resurrection of Jackie from the brink of death and the second being the rebirth of Jackie as a woman via coming to terms with being trans and moving forward with her transition.  The death and resurrection of Jackie as a woman brings her peace and the strength to accept herself – to continue living despite the pain that comes with it.

Additional Reading

Atlus, We Haven’t Forgotten Your Mishandling of LGBTQ Characters – https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/wjpnam/atlus-we-havent-forgotten-your-mishandling-of-lgbtq-characters-catherine-full-body

It’s Time to Talk About it: Atlus, Naoto, and Transphobia – http://www.mattiebrice.com/its-time-to-talk-about-it-atlus-naoto-and-transphobia/

The Missing Gets Queer Loves Stories Right – https://kotaku.com/the-missing-gets-queer-love-stories-right-1829784922