Capturing the feeling of early AOL chats can be difficult, while crafting an engrossing LGBT narrative can be ever harder. Secret Little Haven nails both, transporting players to the earlier days of the internet and telling a story that is both empathetic and believable.
Made by Victoria Dominowski, Secret Little Haven tells the story of Alex, a young transgender student struggling to balance her online passions with real world pressure. While she spends most of her time goofily chatting with friends and nerding out over the latest magical girl anime, she also struggles to come out to her friend both in the real world and online. She is split between two worlds: The seemingly limitless, expressive world of online anonymity and the expectation-heavy reality of school friends and parents. It isn't necessarily a new story, but what makes Secret Little Haven work is how much care is put into the storytelling.
The game looks like Alex's computer desktop; players rummage through files and have conversations with Alex's friends through instant messenger. Players select from pre-written dialog responses to guide the conversation, and can also open an in-game web browser or play games found on Alex's desktop. It's possible to move between multiple conversations at once while also scrolling through forum posts or playing with a Tamagotchi. This familiar feeling of multitasking helps players identify with Alex, which paves the way for the game's exploration of gender and identity.
I sometimes struggle with games focused on exploring queer identity. Often, I find that they are either too saccharine or paint too broadly. I've played through numerous bathroom scenarios that lack nuance and always go the worst possible way. I've endured enough butterfly metaphors and too much preciousness that glosses over the raw anger and frustration of feeling trapped in your own body. Secret Little Haven occasionally hits these sugary heights - the use of magical girl anime imagery feels a bit too obvious for my ageing gay soul - but the conversations feel real. Alex is nervous to chat with her favourite forum's admin, struggles to explain why she doesn't want to go to a shooting range with a friend, and launches into lengthy tangents about her favourite anime characters. As the story develops, Alex's situation felt less like a cliche and far more like a mirror of my own experiences. I've had these conversations too, endured the moments where a turn of phrase leads a friend to ask if "something is up" and the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to say. After all, if it was easy, I personally wouldn't have taken nearly a decade to speak up. Alex's nervousness rings true, and the dialog has a natural flow to it.
Much of this has to do with the gameplay of juggling too many instant message conversations while simultaneously sifting through internet forums and inboxes. We've all had to carry on multiple conversations online, managing that strange line between our real world friends and internet compatriots. We've all asked questions to someone only to wait, breath held, for minutes to see if they understood and really heard what we were trying to say. Secret Little Haven captures the cadence and pace of online conversations with rapid fire messages, surprise friend requests and sudden log offs.
I haven't finished Secret Little Haven yet, but it evokes a strange feeling of nostalgia in me that I'm eager to explore further. This game won't be for everyone - abandon hope all ye exhausted with visual novels - but if you're looking for a chance to walk in someone's shoes while reclaiming some of those lost childhood AOL memories, Secret Little Haven is a wonderful game for that particular itch.
You can play Secret Little Haven on PC, Mac,\ and Linux.