A Game About Queer Girls Who Love Baseball and Each Other
Butterfly Soup is an honest, hilarious visual novel about growing up queer in the Bay.
All images courtesy Brianna Lei
Butterfly Soup came out of nowhere for me—but this visual novel about queer, baseball-playing Asian American young people from the San Francisco Bay Area is definitely a hidden gem for narrative games in 2017. I don't say that lightly, as this has been a fantastic year for story-based games, with What Remains of Edith Finch, Tacoma, Pyre (and Prey!). I think Brianna Lei's personal, intensely funny vision stands among them. Maybe even on top.
It's the story of four teens: Diya, Noelle, Akarsha, and Min, who live in the East Bay, go to high school, and like girls. They also share a love of baseball and the Oakland Athletics, though not for the same reasons. Athletic Diya is a naturally gifted jock, but shy and socially terrified. Noelle is a brilliant, studious girl under the care of fiercely strict parents who see every other child as competition for their daughter's spot at an Ivy League college. Akarsha is a jokester and social butterfly who tries to out-weird everyone, but she struggles with depression and feelings of inadequacy. Min is a troubled kid who has been in love with Diya since they were in third grade.
The story unfolds in chapters, each from the point of view of one of the girls. You play out her life, going to class, chatting with friends, and tearing it up on the baseball field. Some scenes allow some limited interaction with the environment, and you're constantly making dialogue decisions, forging your own path through the narrative. But largely, this is a linear—and devilishly well-written—experience.
One thing Butterfly Soup does beautifully is convey a very specific experience: that of young, queer, Asian-American girls living in the San Francisco Bay area. I obviously cannot speak from experience on every aspect of that, but everything from the language—the girls drop "hellas" all the time—to examinations of extremely strict parental mores, to experiences at Oakland Athletics games speaks to an authentic, richly detailed vision. One girl, Noelle, has strict parents who demand she get perfect grades. Her mother cuts out a story about a boy who lives nearby and got accepted to every Ivy League college to "motivate" her. When she talks about getting test scores back, she refers to "failure" vs "Asian failure" where anything less than an A is unacceptable.
In other scenes, Min and Diya teach each other phrases in their respective languages, and learn to steer around various parental expectations to remain friends. When Min returns to the Bay after an extended stay in Florida, she laments both the racism of the white kids there and the total lack of bubble tea. "I had to drink milkshakes!" she screams.
These details inform everything about the game, and ground these characters in a very real place and time. The game also takes place during the 2008 election timeframe, where anti-gay activists were trying to pass prop 8 (an anti-marriage equality piece of legislation that ultimately passed).
All of the main characters are Asian-American and queer. And all of them are growing up in this time, with increased acceptance in the wider culture and organized hate campaigns like yes on 8. Diya, Min, Noelle and Akarsha are all figuring themselves out—and what each person means to each other—in a wildly heightened and dramatic time.
As funny as the game is—and it is uproarious at times, with appropriately dramatic music—it's also heartfelt. The girls struggle to come out, to deal with difficult situations at home, and to reconcile feelings that don't conform to the "norm." My heart broke for these characters, especially in an instance where overprotective parenting and rigid gender expectations tipped fully over into abuse.
It is mostly a very funny and heartfelt love letter to the most awkward years of adolescence, where messy identities start to form in earnest, and friendships begin to mean much more. I literally squealed at the ending, and giggled in delight at many points throughout the journey. I can't help but wish I had known kids as smart, feisty, and wonderfully weird as Diya, Noelle, Akarsha and Min when I was a messy, confused high school kid myself.