This article contains spoilers for The Missing and Deadly Premonition
This article contains talk of transphobia, suicide and violence.
Most of the games I end up liking have custom characters. From skateboarding game to open world mayhem makers it’s easier to put myself into a character that looks like me. Or more that looks like my ideal self. There’s always elements of the perfect you in games. The perfect soldier who can take down 100s of enemies. Even games that are not as violent have it, even my fav romance games include some great leaps of confidence I find myself too nervous to do in real life.
In those games where I couldn’t make my own character I would have to find bits of myself to connect with those characters. That’s just the nature of being a minority in a world where media is more likely to give leading roles to white cis het men. However even when a game would portray someone closer to me I would often push it away. I liked my own creations better. Anytime I saw a trans woman in a game I hated her because she was the ugliest reflection of me possible.
In 2010 future cult classic game Deadly Premonition came out. Both a murder mystery of the Twin Peaks variety and a horror game where you shoot horrible creatures in an alternate world it’s a fascinating game. The story and it’s odd eccentric characters is what drew people to it, full of quotes and moments that were ripe to be spread over the internet. I first found the game through Giant Bomb’s dueling let’s plays that I would jump between. As someone who never saw Twin Peaks I was immediately brought into it’s weird world and then I was violently shoved out of it.
Thomas MacLaine is the assistant of the Sheriff and a bit of a bumbling, meek character. It’s not until a later moment in the game where Thomas is revealed to be involved in the rash of killings the game is about. With this there’s also the reveal of the previously male presenting Thomas in a dress and wig, their stubble suddenly more visible when paired with the lipstick they are wearing.
It’s not clear how Thomas identifies. They are never given a chance to talk about it, instead becoming a raving villain fully dedicated to their love of one of the male main villains. It’s not long after their reveal that they are impaled on a hook in a clock tower and is hoisted off screen, a scene that often elicits laughter for the sheer brutality of it compared to the stereotypical shrieking of Thomas before that. It’s a use of a trope that’s been used over and over in these type of stories. The freaky killer who thinks they are woman despite displaying very obvious male characteristics.
That is not the last time we see Thomas, that’s when the game comes to an end after loads of twists and turns. As main character Zach looks back at the various woman killed over the course of the game (a whole other conversation) Thomas is standing right there in a red dress. The game tries to have sympathy for Thomas but it’s too little too late after the earlier sequence. While the game may perceive Thomas as one of the “Goddesses of The Forest” it’s also is glad to indulge in playing the appearance of them in a dress for shock and horror.
I was still not fully aware of my own trans identity at the time but I for sure knew I wanted to be a girl and that seeing Thomas hurt. It felt like that in a game full of wacky eccentric characters the one that most seemed like me was the freak. Even an aberration in a world of different people. I still like Deadly Premonition. I ended up buying a copy of it and even brought it to PAX. Through a long series of jokes it ended up being signed by Dave Lang to me in a name that is no longer my own. “This game is so you” it read, a little joke that as I stared at it for years on my various bookshelves just ended up making me feel more depressed until I threw it in a box in my closet.
I didn’t play another game designed by SWERY for the next few years. In that time a lot of things changed. I came out as trans, I moved, my taste in games changed and what I was willing to put up with changed as well. I found smaller games that represented me better. Little visual novels made by trans women about our experiences. I followed SWERY’s career both out of interest and just cause he seemed like a nice guy. He leaves birthday messages to people he follows, it’s sweet. However as his latest game came out and I saw people praising it I was scared. Scared that I would be spurned again from that world as the freak.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is a side scrolling puzzle game where you play the titular JJ. She and her friend Emily come to the island for what seems to be a relaxing, possibly romantic, camping trip under the stars. It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. Emily is being chased by a ghostly figure holding boxcutters and JJ is seemingly killed by lightning only to pull herself back together in grisly fashion.
It’s this gory nature that goes throughout the game. JJ throws herself at every object in her way to keep going. Self mutilating herself only to have to pull herself together again every single time. A game with a less deft touch might make JJ’s suffering background noise but here’s it’s always forefront. A late text conversation has JJ tell someone in detail the pain she is feeling in horrifying detail. The person says they know where she’s coming from but how could anyone relate to that feeling.
The game reveals that JJ is keeping a secret pretty early on. Emily knows it and seems particularly happy with it as the two exchange vacation dreams. No one else seems to know though and JJ is worried how her friends and family will react. At first it seems the secret is that JJ is into women, and in a relationship with Emily. Things are more complicated than that though. JJ assures her mother that the girl’s clothes in her room belong to Emily. They aren’t though, they’re much too big.
It’s not until JJ is faced with a public outing against her will that it is made clear. JJ is a trans woman and everyone in her life except for Emily knows her as a man. That is until bullies at her college crudely put together a fake social media account for her as “princess packing extra.” It’s extremely gross and hateful and sends JJ down into a spiral of further self loathing and lashing out. It also mirrors something that has happened to me and many of my friends.
Not long after I came out on Facebook a fake account using an old photo of me with visible facial hair and with a username referencing an old nickname appeared on twitter. It told me that I would always be the man in those photos. It also said I would make a great Buffalo Bill, ironically a fictional character that Thomas Maclaine bears some resemblance to. I reported it and it didn’t out me like JJ was forced out but it was close enough for this moment to hit especially hard
JJ begins to angrily text Emily, saying how she should pretend to not know JJ so no one thinks that she’s a weirdo. When Emily begins to reach out JJ snaps back with language that is later repeated in her assurance that no one can know what it’s like to lose a limb and that’s true. Emily is a cis woman who can’t understand the feelings of your friends and family not calling you by your right name or pronouns. It may not feel exactly like losing an arm but the emotional pain can be overwhelming.
Its also here where JJ calls herself a freak, someone who is only still living because Emily was amused by her and thought that her attempts at femininity were “cute” in the most sneering way. The Emily JJ chases throughout the game is not the real one but more of her own self confidence that she has lost due to being thrown in the deep end. Her mom is taking her to counseling to get her “fixed” and her friend Lily who had a crush on her tells her that she’s weird.
So JJ tries to kill herself.
JJ uses a boxcutter. I thought about jumping from my dorm room and I later thought of running into traffic but was worried I would survive. It’s another moment we unfortunately have in common. It’s something that happens to a tragic number of trans people. When greeted with a society that does not accept us for who we are we sometimes think the only option is to remove ourselves from the world.
In her dream JJ hangs herself after seeing Emily hanging from the rafters. In her mind Emily has given up on her. Of course that’s not the case, we and JJ both relieve the many moments Emily defends us from the taunts of people who don’t understand and she’s there when JJ is lying on the floor losing blood. In one of the most heartfelt moments JJ is told that someone needed her from the moment she was born. That person is Emily of course but its also JJ, who now knows that she must live and become the woman she knows she is.
When JJ wakes up on the gym floor covered in blood she does not look like the long blonde haired woman we played as for most of the game. Her hair is short and dark, her clothes rather androgynous, and her chest flat and bared for the EMT’s to defibrillate. It was a shock when I realized she looked like me at the beginning of the journey.
JJ sees herself as a statuesque blond who can run in heels, much like I saw myself as my ideal self in the characters I created in games. However no character I could make could be more like me then JJ is without going fully into autobiography. JJ has so many of the same worries and pitfalls I had and despite the pain we both faced we have come out on the other side of it with a feeling of knowing ourselves.
I am much happier than I was in 2011 watching and playing Deadly Premonition. I’ve grown in a lot of ways that younger me couldn’t imagine. I get to have a happy ending unlike Thomas. I got to live until the end. As I flick through the post-game content that shows JJ and Emily buying and trying on the outfit she imagined herself in I smile. She doesn’t look like how she wanted to exactly but she’s closer and she’s smiling. JJ is getting to become the person she always wanted to be.
Me too JJ.