PEGBRJE: Secret Little Haven

Get ready for an emotional trip exploring gender through the scanlines of an old Macintosh.

I never thought that I could get so emotionally invested in a past that I never had. Nor did I think that this would take up an entire overview. Page 2 is starting off with a bang.

It’s so cute and hides such a heart-wrenching story.

Secret Little Haven is a narrative ‘computer within a computer’ game made by Victoria Dominowski under the title of Hummingwarp Interactive. The protagonist, Alex Cole, spends the entirety of the game on the computer interacting with friends and fellow forum bloggers of a Magical Girl TV show with an upcoming movie that everyone wants to see. It’s through these awkward and horrifyingly accurate instant messages that the story is told, and the quest for understanding unravels. Alex is a trans girl who at the beginning of the game doesn’t fully understand what her existence really means, nor of the existence of transgenderism. She knows that she is different and ‘weird’, but doesn’t know what to do about it. To make matters more complicated, each of her friends is going through their own struggles as she attempts to juggle her own, all masqueraded via cute >u> emojis until the serious tones drop them entirely. Which it does, boy does it ever.

Let me first mention that a lot of this game’s excellence in writing is built by the atmosphere and UI design. The monitor that you play on is curved to represent an old CRT, with a slight fade and lined appearance to give extra authenticity. The icons and text are created with the old iOS/Windows95 style, giving those beautiful pixels and harsh visible gradients the throwback we didn’t need. To exit or log out, the game requires you to do so as if you were still on an old Macintosh via the File at the top, which triggers the next day of interactions when all of the current days are done. Windows pop up just as I remember them, shifting down and left/right depending on their location on the screen. This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the compilation of little things that add to the authenticity of the world created, which in turn builds up the narrative so you can fully immerse in the plights of the characters. The forums page made me actively excited to see that horrible UI once again, it’s been so long.

Secret Little Haven doesn’t waste its immersion for one second, as within the first day already does Alex have a lot of uncomfortable interactions to define the turn of the millennia. Even without knowing about Alex via the game description, players can tell right away that something is bugging her. She has multiple choices when speaking with friends, which can lead to various results but ultimately not change the overall conversations. Interactions with her childhood friend are strained at best, with constant questioning of why Alex isn’t like she used to be, and trying his best to enforce the ‘manly’ trope whilst also questioning why it isn’t working well for him. Another friend talks about getting the hell out of town, yet refrains from explaining why and deflects questions about their shared interest in a Magical Girl show. Other forum friends share their own issues while gleefully talking about how they loved the upcoming show leaks, which in turn allow Alex to talk more freely about her position.

These conversations shed light into a world I have not experienced, of a teenager scared that her interests are too ‘girly’ for her current state of being yet is not sure why. She just wants to explore her interests freely, yet is also concerned that she’s weird and that there might be something wrong with wanting to be a magical girl like the one in the show.

Unfortunately, I’ve neglected to mention a singular character. John, the father.

Oh god.

John is a father figure in name alone, and only appears during certain sequences to break the entire game apart. On the surface, his appearance is almost like it is out of a creepy pasta: his icon is just an eye, the screen becomes grey and glitchy and you lose the ability to interact with everyone else. Unlike a creepy pasta however, John’s interactions are just terrifying. He confronts Alex about her ‘failures’, referring to her as her full birth name and seemingly corners Alex while he berates her. I’ve never experienced goosebumps coming from a game before, yet at the end of the first John conversation I was nearly left in a cold sweat. His ability to manipulate the conversation makes Alex doubt herself constantly no matter what she says, and no matter what Alex tries it doesn’t matter. John has the final say in everything, and going against him is futile. Once his sequence ends, the game blinks back to the original screen, back to the 90s piano music and neon colours. Conversations are left hanging and Alex’s friends are spamming questions of where she went. As if it never happened. Like a bad dream.

I can never state that I’m able to relate to many of the themes or characters within this narrative, my upbringing was very ‘status quo’, if you will.; yet I felt extreme emotional weight from people that my only connection to was our upbringing on an internet forum. I was scared of what John would do next, I was uncomfortable by Andy’s comments towards everything, I was worried for Sammy’s health. For those of us that cannot relate, it is an exercise in empathy for those going through uncomfortable feelings of gender dysphoria or feeling out of place in a world that won’t accept you. It asks you to explore a world possibly different than your own, to understand the importance of opening up to others about your troubles, all wrapped in a nostalgic 90s Macintosh computer.

I hadn’t planned on writing a full article on just this game, I saw the themes and the style of game and made the assumption that I wouldn’t be able to ‘get it’ and that it ‘wasn’t for me’. I can state with confidence that I there’s no need to ‘get it’ in the way I thought I did, for Secret Little Haven only asks for the player to watch and understand the plight of a sensitive topic that individuals have been fighting for acceptance.

And it does that in spades.

If you wish to understand the troubles and growth of a trans girl through the eyes of the late 90s with way too many ascii emojis, give Secret Little Haven the few hours of your time, and be prepared to become overwhelmingly emotional. I know I did, and I hope you do too. It’s too powerful to ignore.

Game Dev who decided to take on the monumental task of giving an overview of all 59 pages in the bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. We keep going.