Hey folks. Sorry I’ve been gone for so long. The class I took over the summer ended up being more intense than expected, with a great deal of papers, presentations, and writing in general. And since it was such a short period of time, I was consumed with the work. We finished the semester a couple weeks ago, but I’ve still been busy doing paperwork trying to get approval from the IRB (Independent Review Board) to do my senior research. An IRB exists to ensure ethical guidelines are followed in research involving human subjects, and even though I’m just conducting interviews for my paper on trans people in kink communities, it follows under their auspices so I have to get approval before I can start. Additionally, I’ve begun the process of being weaned off of my antidepressants in the hopes of getting off of them completely, now that the military’s ban on transgender service is being lifted. That coupled with all the murders and the cissexism in general have left me with no energy to do anything, not even watch TV with any ability to follow the plot. And yeah, the recent string of murders has left me sad and angry, as has the fact that a local(ish) pizza place has decided to use transphobia in their marketing, and then when called out on it, issued a severe notpology. On a happier note, I’m nearing the end of my time in therapy and will soon be cleared off.
That said, in my lucid/free moments, I have been still gaming some. And while today’s post won’t be about the one I wanted to discuss a while back, it is in the same relative genre. See, I’ve stumbled across a visual novel/dating sim that was in my Steam wishlist for some time (the game is in early access still, and back then it was male romances over, with the promise of female romance in the future), and I finally got it a couple weeks ago. This game is called Backstage Pass, and I was playing it some this morning as yet another update went through, and it managed to floor me once more. Where do I begin to describe how amazing this game is in regards to its feminist ways?
How about with the basic backstory. You play as Sian Goodin, an 18 year old girl who is the daughter of a professional makeup artist and have assisted your mother on a few films. As the game begins, you’re serving as the personal makeup artist for your best friend since childhood, Adam Eaton, as he finishes his very first concert tour and gets used to his rise to pop stardom. The two of you grew up in Hawaii and are now going to university in Steel City (an expy of Chicago or Detroit or some similar place). A day or two into the semester, your father takes a fall at work and shatters his knee, leaving you worrying about how to make ends meet. So, though you don’t want to work within the industry your mother does (wanting something more stable), you make use of your skills and begin working on a starter TV show, while also balancing school and other side jobs, as well as making friends and maybe romance.
Ok, pretty glam scenario, basic stuff right? Here’s the interesting hook. The main reason your character doesn’t want to work in show business, beyond the lack of stability, is that Sian suffers from social anxiety. Throughout the game, there are a number of times where she suffers a panic attack, and it is probably the best depiction of having a mental illness I have ever seen. There’s even one point, in the latter half of the game, where you’re at work, preparing to touch up makeup of the cast between shots, when suddenly a panic attack comes on, and Sian even replies to herself “what? Why now?” And she’s not the only character with a mental illness. Another character suffers from some form of psychosis (such as schizophrenia), though it’s never explicitly stated which illness it is. However, you do see her have a break, where she begins having delusions and is unable to tell the difference between reality and the story of the show you work on. If you’re on a certain character’s path (John, an actor and Adam’s producer), you’re the one she blows up on, and thus she comes back later to apologize to Sian, and in the talk they have, it’s clear that they both suffer in similar ways. There’s even the comment about how hard it is dealing with people saying things like “but you don’t look sick.” By the way, that same character’s path that you need to be on to get this scene? At the start of the game, he doesn’t realize Sian suffers from these attacks, and so when she’s on the verge of one and is about to run from the triggering situation (the backstage guard at one of Adam’s concerts), he chews her out for being selfish in trying to avoid an uncomfortable situation. However, later on after he learns about Sian’s anxiety issues, he apologizes, saying he was harsh on her early on. Here, let me give you an excerpt of the chat between the two girls to show you what I mean about the portrayal, as well as to give you an idea of how mental illness is treated both in game and real life. To spare spoilers for anyone who wants to play it, I won’t use the name of the character who has the break.
???: Some people like to joke about how crazy they are, but for me it’s a reality, and it’s honestly not that funny. It’s like having a demon inside of you. Someone who whispers in your ear at every turn. And then one day you wake up and realize that that voice is you. It’s always been you. As a kid, it wasn’t so bad. My medication did its job, and I had plenty of friends. Back then, I didn’t think I was that different. Then my doctor decided to try something new. I don’t remember what it was called, but I remember exactly how it made me feel. Everything inside of me was carved out one piece at a time. As I watched myself slip away, I cared less and less. There wasn’t any point anymore. So I figured I’d just stop. Everything.
Overdose. If you’re curious. I finished off a whole bottle of meds in one night. The doctors say my survival was a miracle, but it felt a lot more like a punishment. My friends came to see me, but they were too afraid to say anything. They moved on pretty quickly after that. I spent days at home watching TV and doing little else.
And that’s when I saw Knight for the first time. There was some sort of Knight Errant marathon on TV, and there was John, being amazing. He acted selflessly, loved everyone as they were, and would do anything to save someone. The idea that someone would actually be like that… I know it’s all just fiction, but he saved me in real life. He’s the only person who gave me hope.
[Skip ahead a bit]
Sian: You’re not alone.
???: Sure feels like I am. Everyone else just seems frustrated by me.
Sian: They ask you why you can’t just be okay, right? Or they say you’re making a big deal out of nothing.
???: Yeah… they talk as if it’s easy to just make everything go away.
Sian: Ah, and of course there’s the classic “But you look just fine!”
???: I think that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to a compliment. So it’s the same for you?
Sian: Social anxiety. Sometimes when I’m surrounded by people, I just can’t handle it. Everything becomes terrifying, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
It’s not just mental health that’s well represented in this game either. This game is full of realistic diversity. While the four main romance options are all guys, there are three hidden character’s routes you can take, and none of those characters is straight. However, no one ever once says the label of their orientation, instead merely talking about their preferences. The closest you get to outright stating it is the lesbian character remarking that she “has no interest in boys” when Sian remarks in surprise to the girl’s asking Sian to stop complimenting her body as she’s already struggling with her attraction to Sian and doesn’t want to make things worse, thinking Sian doesn’t swing that way. Another character is listed as a friendship route, but having played his route, I got the impression he was more asexual, having romantic feelings but not physical ones and not knowing how to reconcile that with the societal standards of what love should be. I remarked on this on the Steam discussion boards for the game and the devs confirmed that he is an ace. Another hidden character is completely gay and male, and the only way you find this out is while playing on another character’s route, at which point that he tells you the two used to date. That means that we have a gay male character (who only mentions his orientation in order to let you know what a relationship with another character is like), the bi/pan character he was talking about, a lesbian, and an asexual. And these are just confirmed. There are other characters who strike me as LGBT but they just don’t talk about it, because it’s not an issue.
Likewise, this game has a fairly racially diverse cast. The game I was originally going to do my next post on (and I probably will still) only has one non-white character, who happens to be an extreme stereotype. This cast has one character who is of dark complexion (whether she identifies as black, latina, arabic, or other is unclear and never mentioned), plus three characters who are varying levels of mixed race. Adam is primarily white, but in an interview late in the game, he is asked if he is a native Hawaiian, to which he responds “only one quarter.” Likewise, Sian seems to be a mix of white and some form of east Asian (most likely Chinese), given that her mother’s name is Ling and an outfit available in the fall is a traditional Chinese pairing that has the description of “show off your heritage with this matching set.” Finally, one of the four main potential romance options, Benito, is half-Italian and half-Japanese, and on either of his routes, you talk to his (Japanese) father on the phone a couple of times. There are some other characters who may be other ethnicities, such as the TA Alvin, who is ambiguous and could be white or Asian, So out of a cast of 15 characters with portraits (neither your parents nor Benito’s have portraits), there are four characters who are not explicitly white. Take out three of those characters, or reduce them to just one, as they are all family members, and while not the most racially diverse cast, it’s fairly diverse for a video game. And while physical disability isn’t truly shown, there is one character who late in his path gets injured and hospitalized, and you can see him struggling to cope with the injuries in much the same way that someone who is suddenly struck with a physical disability must learn to cope.
Even better is that this game does not assume a romance. There are 16 possible endings, or rather 16 different “best” endings. I say “best” because there are some variations on endings. For example, at the end of the Adam romance ending, he asks you to marry him. The first time I tried to go the friendship route for him, I messed it up, and at the end, at the point where he asked me to marry him in the romance ending, he asked me to go out with him, initiating a lesser romance ending, which the game does not count as one of the 16 endings. So there are friendship endings for each of the main four characters, plus partial endings for them, plus one of the hidden routes is explicitly a friendship ending, with the other two having friendship options. On top of that, there are 4 different independent endings, three where you excel in some way and the fourth where you basically end the year as you started it. Finally, there is a dropout ending which can be achieved while taking any other route if your grades fall low enough.
The game is still in development, serving as early access in its beta, but I still recommend looking into it. The only major difference between how it is now and how it will be when complete is the addition of voice acting. There will be other minor tweaks here and there, making certain endings less difficult to achieve for example, or adding some more dialog along the way, but otherwise it’s essentially complete and fully playable now. I’ve completed 15 of the available 16 endings (and am struggling to unlock that 16th one, it’s one of the more notoriously difficult to get), and I plan to keep playing it for some time.