Welcome to Weasel Heights. It's your typical middle school in a nondescript suburb, with an out-of-touch principal, a trio of mean girls, and an oddball group of friends. The backdrop for the Toronto-developed dating sim LongStory has all the makings of a John Hughes film, except with openly queer and trans characters.
Players decide what they look like and whether they want to go by "he," "she" or "they." Regardless of gender, players can date one of five different characters: two boys, two girls, and the school's turkey hawk mascot. The sixth episode, which will be released in July, will explore LGBTQ dating even more—and include a very awkward "healthy relationships" workshop run by the school.
LongStory is cute and sometimes silly but political in its own way. It might not seem as bold as the Pride Parade that will cap off a month of celebrations in Toronto on Sunday, or as pointed as protests in several cities decrying the corporatization of Pride. But LongStory is doing something radical. It's offering an inclusive alternative to a gaming space that has, for years and years, been dominated by a single narrative—and that hasn't historically been welcoming to diverse players.
LongStory came in response to the harsher realities outside of Weasel Heights. Bloom Digital Media founder Miriam Verburg initially pitched the mobile game as an alternative dating sim for teen girls following Amanda Todd's death in 2012. The Canadian teen, who was bullied in school, committed suicide after a man stalked her and used webcam photos to extort her. Verburg hoped that LongStory could be a way to address mental health, bullying and sexuality.
A few years later, Verburg was play-testing the first version of the game. A queer and trans youth group in Toronto loved it but had a problem with the character builder.
"So you want a girl and a boy? " she asked the teens. "Oh no, we want a slider," they said, which would let players select where they identify along a gender spectrum. If Verburg had a larger budget, she said she would love to put one in the game, but for now, LongStory offers a third gender option and storylines that work across characters.
One of the highlights is your first kiss. If you as a player are pursuing the moody Marcel, that kiss happens on an empty staircase while rehearsing lines for Romeo and Juliet—even if you could both appear as Romeos in some cases. You can't help but get nervous scrolling through the conversation and deciding whether to play it hot or cold, but either way it leads to the classic kiss closeup.
"It lets you explore identity and it's not this big dramatic thing," said Michael Lyons, the Toronto writer behind recent LongStory episodes that introduce Em, a trans character.
Growing up in the small town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, on Canada's East coast, Lyons can understand LongStory's tumblr fanbase and the desire to reach out to people who understand you online. It's anonymous and teens can navigate their identities in ways that might feel safer than they do in real life.
"It's sort of the game I wish I'd been able to play when I was younger," said Lyons, who identifies as queer.
LongStory has been downloaded more than 600,000 times since it was launched in 2014. The most important metric of its success is the vibrancy of its tumblr community of 4,000, which has produced an endless stream of fan art and fanfics.
"This game is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It has really gotten me through a lot of stuff," wrote the-fluffy-dragon117 with an art submission.
"Oh and sorry I added my self … just because I am the player and these characters made quite an impact on me."
Verburg has considered bringing LongStory into classrooms, where it might find a wider audience, but "it's a struggle," in her words. On one hand, most students get their sexual education through school. But on the other, it would mean dealing with teachers and fitting within a curriculum.
LongStory seems to acknowledge how sex ed programs don't always succeed at addressing real-life concerns or creating an open environment for teens, as characters in the game mock Weasel Heights' Principal Chevy for his new age approach to meditation and his "healthy relationships" workshop.
"If it gets institutionalized, it takes a lot of the pleasure out of it," she said.
Much of LongStory's success comes from being an indie game. Introducing a trans character and exploring non-heteronormative relationships, especially for youth, is a gamble that bigger companies aren't really willing to take, Verburg said.
In the world of big budget AAA gaming, stories overwhelmingly focus on a male protagonist, although there are a few trans and non-binary characters in popular games. In a recent survey, respondents pointed to Dragon Age as their favourite representation of diverse genders and sexualities. Krem, Dragon Age's first transgender character, subtly reveals his female-to-male transition in a storyline about signing up for the men's army and how his family reacted.
Verburg isn't opposed to AAA gaming and said she would like to see LongStory reach a larger audience. But it seems to be at odds with the formulaic nature of mainstream games, not to mention the darker side of gaming culture.
Verburg said she has been relatively quiet about political issues such as harassment in the gaming community in order to protect LongStory's young audience.
"I would not want to have them live through that," she said.
LongStory has not faced the same backlash as other games for tackling gender issues. Verburg wants it to stay a safe space.
If there's one criticism to be made, it's perhaps how a player can go through the entire game without really facing any discrimination for dating a certain person, or for going by a certain pronoun. In reality, a mom, sibling, or principal might not be nearly as excited about your relationship. But there is enough ugliness outside of Weasel Heights. LongStory gives LGBTQ youth the chance to just focus on surviving the average drudgery of their teenage years.