The other day at a cafe, I ordered my small coffee and was ready to pay and be on my way when the person helping me said, “Can I get you anything else, sssss…?” By the awkward look on her face, I could tell that she’d automatically started to say “sir,” which in a way I understand. I’ve worked service jobs before, and I remember how automatic it can get to mindlessly plug “sir” or “ma’am” onto the end of every statement because you’re told it’s expected of you. She then caught herself, because she could tell by my appearance that I didn’t “identify” as a sir, but her brain had nonetheless dropped me into that box. There was no malice in it. It was just one of those reminders I experience all the time, every day, that the world perceives me in a way that’s completely misaligned with my own sense of my identity. It never stops being jarring and alienating, making me feel isolated and alone, like I’m on the outside of life, looking in.
At a certain point in the new game Butterfly Soup 2, one of the game’s main foursome of queer high school students starts giving voice to a feeling they’ve never spoken about before. They, too, have misgivings about how they’re perceived in the world. As a 9th grader in 2009, they don’t exactly have the awareness of identities outside the gender binary that are so much more commonplace, even today, than they were then. Nonetheless, they feel the tension between the box that society has put them into and who they really are.
“I definitely don’t want strangers seeing me to think, ‘Oh, that’s a woman,’” the character says. They acknowledge that it’s complicated, though, as they go on to say things like “I like being a lesbian. I’m not that into the ‘being a girl’ part, but I relate super hard to the ‘no interest in men’ part. It’s more stuff like being called ‘ma’am’ or ‘Mrs.’ that really skeeves me out.” And even though they’re only just beginning to grasp for what feels right to them, they manage to hit on some real truths. “I know it doesn’t make that much sense. Like, gender’s not real in the first place, so…”
Brianna Lei’s original Butterfly Soup was a masterpiece, a rare and profound game that was, for me, one of the defining and essential works of the early Trump era, a time in which I especially needed art to shock me back into contact with my own humanity. Alongside the shattering strangeness and “fix your hearts or die” passion of Twin Peaks: The Return, there was Butterfly Soup, billed by its creator as “a visual novel about gay Asian girls playing baseball and falling in love.” And yes, it was (and still is) radical just for a work to center queer Asian girls the way Butterfly Soup did, so that’s an important part of what made it so great. But the real key to its brilliance was just how keenly observed it was, how complex and three-dimensional the game’s four main characters were, and how all the game’s hilarity and heartbreak was rooted in the kind of intimate portrayal of characters’ inner lives and relationships that so many works aspire to but so very few actually achieve.
Butterfly Soup 2, which is available now on itchio, reunites us with the four main characters of the original, still in 9th grade, just a short while after the events of the original game. While the main story thread of the first game was largely about the tentative, budding romance between the once painfully shy Diya and the endearingly fierce Min, the new entry focuses a bit more on the somewhat naive, uptight Noelle and the incorrigible goofball Akarsha. However, like its predecessor, Butterfly Soup 2 is more character-driven than plot-focused. It’s a game that spends more time in moments that, while arguably not propelling the main story forward much, show these characters’ understandings of themselves and each other in constant flux. The morning walks to school, little lunchtime conversations, and stressful class presentations that make up much of Butterfly Soup 2 give us the chance to just be with these characters as the days pass, and it’s great. Playing through this sequel, I realized that I’d missed more than just Diya, Min, Noelle, and Akarsha. I’d missed games that give us characters who are this alive, complex, and compelling, and do so with such warmth and compassion. Plenty of games may try, but in the current gaming landscape, Lei is practically in a league of her own.
My admiration for the first game was wholehearted and unwavering. As masterful as Butterfly Soup 2 is, and as much as I think it’s head-and-shoulders above most of what games are offering us these days, my love for it is not without its misgivings. Where the central romance of the original felt practically fated and entirely believable, there are times when the major plot arc of this game feels a bit too convenient, set on its rigid course for fan wish fulfillment rather than being a natural, organic development of the dynamic between two characters. And in the end, its vision of happiness among characters who have spent so much of their lives straining against the expectations of their parents and society felt a bit too conventional to me. I want more radical visions of queer liberation from my art. But I concede that the teenagers out there today who feel as fearful and doubtful of their place in the world as Diya, Min, and the gang sometimes do may need this reassurance that such ordinary, recognizable happiness is possible for them, too.
In any case, these feel like nitpicks in the face of how moving, funny, observant, and nourishing so much of Butterfly Soup 2 is. That greatness is a result not only of Lei’s fantastic writing, but also her art. I don’t know what her process is, but the images throughout Butterfly Soup 2 often feel like photographs that have been painted over, creating a sense of place that feels simultaneously specific and universal. (I may never have been in this particular library, that particular classroom, but her art makes them feel so much like places that I have known, while also letting them retain the specificity of their place in the characters’ lives.) By situating her characters in these places, Lei reinforces our sense of them as real, believable people. And when, in one joyous moment, Lei’s art gives way to full, live-action video, the effect is powerful and immediate, like all that life was right there under the surface all along.
But, yes, it’s the writing I just can’t say enough about. Lei knows and understands these characters so well, and as we play both the original game and this sequel, we come to know them too. Akarsha, who stood out in the first game for her hilariously random thoughts (“Imagine biting into a Gusher the size of your hand!”) is as amusing as ever here, prone to saying things like “Well well well, if it isn’t fancy meeting what the cat finally decided to show up.” She’s so much more than just the lighthearted jester of the group, though. Early on in the game, Noelle offers up some insight into her friend, saying things like “You’re worried people won’t like you, so you act like a circus clown” and “You’re insecure about your appearance, so you go out in this outlandish hairdo with this windbreaker and flip-flops outfit.”
She has Akarsha dead to rights, and as the game progresses, we really come to know Akarsha’s profound insecurities, her pain, her feelings that she’s intrinsically unattractive and unlovable. And again, while this is hardly territory that’s unique to Butterfly Soup 2, it’s the honesty, insight, and empathy with which Lei presents it all that makes it so astounding. So much of what Akarsha feels and thinks and says mirrors things that I know so many of us who are othered by the world have felt and thought and said. Common as those feelings are, though, I’ve rarely if ever seen them captured as truthfully and compassionately as they are here. After one difficult interaction with another character, her thoughts start to spiral out of control and she becomes convinced that she’ll go through life never knowing what it is to be loved. “Why doesn’t anyone wanna kiss me?? Am I that unlikable?” she wonders. “Everything just feels so unattainable.” It’s all so relatable it hurts.
Speaking of honesty, there’s a difficult moment in the game where one of the central characters says something truly ignorant and racist. Then, rather than apologizing, the character gets defensive and angry when confronted about it, thinking back on all the hostile racists who’ve verbally abused and threatened them and arguing that what they did isn’t the same at all. It’s…not a great look, but it is totally believable and real, the way it takes the character time to let go of their own anger, to recognize their own blind spots and biases, and take steps to be better. Positive representation doesn’t mean only ever depicting characters in positive ways. We all fuck up, and sometimes being called out for our fuck-ups and our ignorance is painful and difficult.
Throughout it all, one character goes on perhaps a greater journey of self-discovery than the others. She’s thrust into situations that make her confront questions about the strange lottery of life that I think are all too familiar to so many gay and trans young people (and others, too)—why was I born to these parents? What if they’d made this decision instead of that one? Who would I be, what would my life be like if only this had been different, if only that? They’re the kinds of questions that can drive you mad, and yet so many of us obsess over them at one time or another in our lives. And in the game’s final moments, gently nudged by her friends and by the things she’s been through to let go of the limiting ideas she’s internalized, she feels something inside of herself crack. It’s a scary but thrilling moment, as her rigid sense of self breaks open to allow for new possibilities her parents and the world previously taught her to shun and deny. This character’s journey throughout the game was so evocative and real that, in that moment, I almost could have sworn that I felt something in me crack, too. That’s the magic of Butterfly Soup 2.
In that moment, the characters reflect on what they’ve learned and the experiences that have brought them to this particular place with each other. They get a bit philosophical, and one of them even quotes Kant. I was reminded, though, of another great philosopher, the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who, in his song “Anthem,” famously sang, “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Earlier, I said that the first Butterfly Soup was an essential work of art. I think this sequel comes close. But why? What makes it so? To quote another great artist, the writer James Baldwin said this about what books can do:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.
Games, too, can do this. They can remind us of the depth of our connection to all of humanity, even when the world so often makes us feel isolated and alone. They don’t do this often, but they can. Butterfly Soup 2 is proof.