The sound of rain opens the trailer for 2018’s platform game The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memorie. The image of a blonde girl running through a stormy forest grows onto the screen before a voice calls out, “Emily, where are you?” Lightning strikes. Japanese video game director and writer SWERY’s logo flashes on the screen and slowly disintegrates. The trailer continues with a montage of the titular character, J.J. Macfield, facing horrific harm—getting caught on barbed wire, being set on fire, running into a giant buzz saw, being electrocuted, drowning, getting sucked into a human-sized fan, being eaten by a spider, and being crushed by a cymbal-wielding toy monkey.
This damage is the only way to progress in The Missing. In order to solve puzzles and progress, the player must maim J.J. until she is in literal pieces. At the beginning of the game, it becomes impossible for J.J. to die. Instead, she can be torn apart and reassemble herself at will. This allows her to move through the environments of each level differently than how characters in other platformers do. Instead of figuring out how to avoid traps and obstacles, the player must drive J.J. directly into them, and then figure out how to manipulate her body parts to progress.
Playing through this type of gameplay ranges anywhere from a little troubling to completely emotionally draining. It’s even triggering, depending on your stomach for torture porn or your own experiences with trauma.
The Missing also triggered the queer, gaming side of Twitter. Games critic and podcaster Jackson Tyler tweeted, “tried to play the new swery game, but uh, i didn’t realise what the game actually was and i don’t think i am physically capable of playing it without severe, painful flashbacks which is a shame because it’s cool as f*ck.”
In the thread and over direct messages, they elaborated that because of the game’s exaggerated sound design (bone cracking, specifically), they had a hard time due to their own past experience with breaking a bone.
Tyler isn’t the only one who struggled with the game’s portrayal of violence. Many who started the game—myself included—found the repetitive process of dismemberment, and the sounds that accompanied it, to be extremely hard to get through. This has likely caused many folks to put the game down without finishing it.
Geminiking3, a user on gaming vertical Waypoint’s forums, created a thread there to discuss their initial feelings of discomfort with the gameplay:
“On one hand, I find the characterization really interesting. As you go, you unlock text conversations with people, and I find that really cool. It’s my main reason for playing. On the other hand… oh boy do I find the actual gameplay fairly upsetting… the game isn’t as gory as it could be since you go into a silhouette after taking damage, but the SOUNDS are so rough.”
This use and stylization of violence sonically and visually was a direct choice that players were meant to notice. And we did.
According to Art Director Wataru Nishide, the way that J.J. and the violence she experiences were crafted through art and sound design were specifically meant to affect those who play.
“Using silhouettes to express these instances in The Missing allows players to interpret what they see in their own, unique ways, perhaps sometimes averting their eyes, or sometimes covering up their ears,” Nishide told OUT FRONT. “The reason we made the art relatively simple and bloodless was to allow these depictions to better fit into the players’ hearts and allow for freedom of interpretation.”
Though folks across identities are plowing through this game, The Missing is striking a cord with queer folks. But the queerness of this game is indisputable, and it powerfully resonates with folks who’ve made it all the way to the end.
At the start of the game, some queer themes are alluded to. J.J. is on the titular “Island of Memories” on a camping trip with her friend Emily. It becomes clear through Emily’s dialogue that the two are likely more than friends, and that J.J. is trying to work through those feelings. This implied queerness would honestly be enough to justify the further metaphor of tearing yourself apart to progress and survive in a world that is openly hostile to you.
The Missing doesn’t stop at allusions. As players progress through J.J.’s story and come to its climax, you find out that she is a trans woman. J.J. has decided to live publicly now that she’s at university, despite her mother’s transphobia. Emily is someone who knows J.J.’s truth and supports and loves her unconditionally. This revelation pulls The Missing further into reality, as trans folks often have to hide who they are, or experience physical and/or emotional violence in order to survive in our world, let alone progress and thrive.
Media in general, but video games especially, tend to struggle with depicting trans narratives competently. The first Danganronpa game, Trigger Happy Havoc, for example, is notorious for its poor handling of a character who is revealed to be trans/gender non-conforming. Even more recently, the newest Mass Effect game, Andromeda, was criticized for how its sole trans, non-playable character was depicted.
But, The Missing has seemingly managed to avoid this pitfall.
Emily, another user and moderator on the Waypoint forums, enjoyed the game immensely and found it to be extremely compelling. She could easily see a reflection of her lived experiences with J.J.
“It’s not the most polished game in this mold, and the heavy themes definitely won’t be for everyone, but it spoke to me in a way not many games do,” she said in her original post on a thread about the game. “As a trans woman currently going through university, I found references in the writing to experiences that very closely mirrored my own. At times to the point that it was uncomfortable in its realness. I think it absolutely shows that the developers at White Owls consulted with queer & trans folx while making the game.”
Emily is right in her supposition, according to director Hidetaka Suehiro, aka “SWERY.”
“I asked for opinions from not only trans people, but people from all sexual minorities, as well as professors of psychology, students of psychology, and acquaintances who work in areas of religion,” he replied when asked if any trans people were consulted during the creation of this game.
“I always think of games as mechanics with stories that would never be told if not for the player… after deciding that this game was going to be a game where you need to damage yourself in order to solve puzzles, I thought deeply about what the most fitting theme, story, and main character would be,” Suehiro said of his approach to the game.
This kind of development approach may raise some eyebrows, as queer folks’ experiences and traumas are often used as frameworks for art by people who don’t fit into any queer identities, but Suehiro started with the intention to take this subject matter seriously.
“From very early on in the development, I was confident that it would never turn into a jokey kind of game.
“Even though the way we depicted a cute character getting grotesquely dismembered by a buzzsaw may look realistic, that isn’t one of the themes of The Missing. The pain that J.J. actually experiences is mental pain, not physical. The realistic, brutal depictions are nothing more than that–mere physical depictions,” Nishide elaborated.
The intentional and targeted use of violence, combined with sensitivity towards the subject matter, gives the brutality a meaning that is more than surface level. After finishing The Missing and speaking with other members of the Waypoint forums about their thoughts and experiences with the game, Geminiking3’s feelings changed.
“I think that after hearing everyone’s feedback, the basic framing was earned. I can definitely see how it reinforces the themes. Things like the time it takes to regenerate creating a sort of tedium, the casual violence, they seem to tie into the theme. That, plus the fact that the game is explicitly a horror game, it does feel pretty OK,” they told OUT FRONT via DM.
These depictions of mental and physical pain proved to be an impactful way to drive home the message and themes of the game, but were ultimately successful because they didn’t lead into tragedy for J.J. Despite all the pain and trauma she goes through, J.J.’s experience on the Island of Memories (later revealed to be her own mindscape) helps her to come to terms with her mother’s anger and celebrate her own identity.
Having a game focused on queer and trans experiences that doesn’t end in sorrow is a rare event and one that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It was important to me that this story was not one purely about tragedy, and that by the end J.J had made peace with her identity and found the strength to embrace it,” Emily said in regards to the game’s ending. “So often stories involving trans characters (especially those written by cis writers) are, put simply, tragedy porn. It was refreshing to play a game that, while definitely violent and dealing with heavy themes, was ultimately about a trans character being able to love themselves and to go on living.”
Emily wasn’t the only trans woman who felt this way about J.J.’s story. In an article for Kotaku, games journalist Heather Alexandra expressed similar feelings.
“The Missing’s story, in showing both the sweetness and anguish of J.J.’s situation, helped me recall the trials and victories that made me the person I am. That’s a remarkable achievement for a four-hour-long, horror-themed puzzle game.”