Ugly? That does it!
(Author’s note: this review will spoil elements of THE MISSING’s plot)
The Missing isn’t a game I would’ve expected from the notorious game director SWERY. Responsible for quirky and eccentric games like D4 and Deadly Premonition, the Osaka based developer has never exactly made his reputation on serious topics and ideas. It’s not that The Missing isn’t like those other games- it has surrealism in spades- and it’s not because of any other reasons I could have ever guessed. The Missing is surprising, because it’s a game about me.
On the surface THE MISSING: J.J. Macfield and The Island of Memories seems like a simple puzzle platformer. Similarly to games like Limbo or Inside, the player moves left to right in a continuous stream of environments and situations with little to no interruption. The Missing, however, has the player solving puzzles not just through basic environmental interaction, but through various forms of bodily harm. With the ability to constantly regenerate yourself with the press of a button, the game presents you with dozens of complex puzzles, where the solutions can be anything from dismemberment to self-immolation.
From the outset I was incredibly into the concept of a game about solving puzzles via loss of limbs and other torturous concepts. When I first heard about the game NeverDead back in 2012, I couldn’t get it out of my head how novel of an idea it was (though its implementation left a lot to be desired). Seeing a game actually manage to pull these concepts off inventively and entertainingly is incredibly satisfying, and all the different ways that The Missing is able to create interesting scenarios out of grisly situations in its short playthrough time (about 6 hours) gives it plenty of points for creativity.
Though it seems at first that the game is purely based on the novelty of this core gameplay conceit, The Missing is primarily a story driven game. In the shoes of J.J. Macfield, you’re stuck stranded on an island off the coast of Maine (the titular Island of Memories). Though you came there with your Close Friend™ Emily, you quickly get seperated, and have to navigate through the very lonely and very dangerous island to try and find her.
Most of the story of the game is told through text messages, mostly inspired by the sticker messaging app LINE, where you get to see past conversations between J.J., her mother, Emily, and various other friends. Through these conversations the game gradually shows the sort of life and relationships that J.J. typically has, and you’re able to gradually learn more and more about her. There’s also short sequences with more surrealist tones involving conversations with J.J.’s stuffed animal F.K., and a mysterious deer headed doctor that often appears in pseudo-Lynchian fashion.
Throughout most of the game it seemed to me like The Missing would just be another one of those lesbian subtext games; the type of story where I end up wishing the characters were gay and smooching by the end of it, though the subject matter would never say. I never had expected that the game would slowly show to me the types of situations that I’ve had to experience throughout my life, and in so many of my relationships. I really didn’t think The Missing would transform from a simple eccentric puzzle game, into a metaphorical narrative about what it means to struggle and live as a transgender woman.
As it’s slowly revealed through in-game conversations, J.J. is trans, and closeted at that. As the game continues to explore this, the conversations that you’ve been reading through, and the game as a whole, suddenly take on incredibly different meanings. From the distant way J.J. talks with her friends, to the reluctance in her relationship with Emily, everything suddenly made a lot more sense, in a completely new way.
The game’s conceit of self-harm puzzle solving becomes less of a gimmick and more of a metaphor through this lens. The Missing has J.J. go through extreme physical pain in order to solve every problem she runs into. Though the game displays this through what seems like extreme sacrifices, they can be representative of the small ways that transgender people have to hurt themselves everyday just to get by. Whether it’s dealing with things like being misgendered, having to operate under a dead name, or even just the anxieties of what other people might think, being transgender often involves suffering, and too often it can make us feel like we’re the ones doing it to ourselves.
J.J., however, always bounces back and recovers to keep moving forward, just like anyone has to. Everytime she hurts herself, every time she’s hurt by the world around her, she forces herself to pull everything back together, to get up and continue going on. She does this not just for herself, but because she wants to find Emily, she wants to find the person she cares about the most in this world, even if she can’t parse all of the feelings she has for her. She fights through and past her depressions, she overcomes all the obstacles even if it hurts because it’s for the one person in the world who accepted her as she was.
When I was first coming to terms with being transgender, I went through a lot of the exact same feelings that I saw portrayed in the game. Every action felt like suffering, the people around me quickly abandoned me, rumours were whispered about me, and I felt myself collapse more and more into myself. Throughout that though, I was able to confide in and find respite in my girlfriend, and I kept pushing through day to day because I loved her. I knew that persevering meant that I would get to spend another day loving her, and feeling her warmth made all the conflicted parts of me feel at ease.
Though media has come a long way in the last decade in terms of representation, there have been so few stories about transgender characters, let alone ones done right, that I had never really let myself have high hopes for one. There was a feeling that was incredibly difficult to parse as I played through the game, that I gradually realized is probably natural for so many people, that I really felt wholly for the first time as I played. The Missing is an uplifting game about people like me, it’s a game that operates by all accounts under the same rules and ideas that so many other games have, but this time it’s about an element of my life I never really explore because no media ever really considers it valuable outside of a shock or jeer.
While I would normally feel some trepidation at the way the game almost treats J.J.’s identity as a twist, I think that it’s done in such a respectful and affecting manner that I can hardly take umbrage with it. Throughout The Missing, I cried multiple times as I reflected on the experiences in my own life, and how they were actually being talked about for what felt like the first time ever. To some it might just be another video game with compelling reveals, but to me, The Missing is about me, and that’s not something I could’ve truly said about a game before.