Last night, I finished The Missing. My initial impression of the game was that it’s a sweet but extremely bloody puzzle-platformer, peppered with queer overtones. As I pressed forward, I found a game that was transgressive and shockingly frank in talking about LGTBQA+ issues. It’s been on my mind all morning.
In The Missing, you play as J.J. Macfield, a young woman on a camping trip with her friend Emily. The two are navigating the early stages of some kind of romantic relationship, working to understand their feelings and express themselves. After Emily goes missing, J.J. sets off to find her and is struck by lightning. Instead of dying, J.J gains a new ability: she can’t die. The game’s puzzles involve grievously injuring yourself in order to proceed, from weighing down a platform with your severed torso or lighting yourself on fire to see in a dark tunnel.
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As I initially played, I wondered how this self-harm mechanic would tie into the story. It turns out that it’s absolutely essential to understanding J.J. As the game progresses, players can collect donuts to unlock text messages on J.J’s phone that not only elaborate on her relationship with Emily, but also with her mother, friends, and college teachers. It becomes clear that J.J’s mother puts a lot of pressure on her through an overbearing religious mindset wary of “abnormal relationships” and “coed bathrooms.” As family pressure mounts, J.J.’s mother begins to snoop into J.J’s relationship with Emily, investigating J.J.’s room. She finds a girl’s clothes that J.J. says are Emily’s, but Emily’s mother says are too large for her daughter. J.J.’s mother looks in her diary and finds a “secret” that the game keeps vague. These invasions, along with teasing at school, lead J.J. into a depression that eventually involves self-harm and a suicide attempt.
The self-harm mechanic is both a manifestation of her mother’s intolerance and a sort of punishment that J.J. enacts upon herself for the “sin” of being different. At first, the game wants to make it seem like this is solely related to her relationship with Emily. And this would be enough to mark The Missing as a surprisingly progressive text but the game goes further. The strange island that J.J. navigates is explicitly some type of mindscape that she is exploring after her suicide attempt. Progress means pain, both physical and mental, as she recalls the situation with her mother. While I feared the self-harm mechanic was going to fetishize J.J’s pain, it ends up being something larger. Near the end of the game, she hangs herself in the dreamscape. “That was my mother’s anger,” we are told.
But J.J still doesn’t die, eventually confronting a demon form of herself as she accepts the pain that living brings and awakening in the real world. But when she wakes up, the J.J we know has been replaced by someone who appears to be biologically male. Suddenly, and much to my complete shock, The Missing becomes a transgender text. J.J.’s dream is both about navigating her feelings for Emily and understanding who she really is. The game ends with her and Emily embracing, after J.J.’s been revived from her suicide attempt.
I was floored. Of all the things that SWERY65 and his studio decided to explore, they made a horror game that manages to tell a largely sympathetic queer narrative about a gay trans woman? While this revelation might make some people roll their eyes, looking back, the details of J.J.’s story feel remarkably true to things that I have experienced. I don’t talk about this stuff often.Those too large clothes that J.J.’s mother found were, in retrospect, clothes that J.J.’s bought for crossdressing and experimenting with gender expression. When I was young, my mother found mine. J.J.’s confusing relationship with Emily, where it’s hard to know where the lines are between best friend, supporter, and lover, is a situation I’ve tried to navigate as well. I’ve been far more fortunate in my life than J.J., but 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.
When we celebrated Pride Week this year at Kotaku, I wrote a piece about how I wished that queer characters could receive more happy endings to their stories. It wasn’t about wanting queer characters to be treated differently; what I want is, at least from time to time, stories that can point towards the complexities and contradictions of queer live without always turning queer characters into sacrificial lambs. The Missing does that. J.J. suffers immensely but survives. Instead of dying, she gets to wake up with a clearer sense of self and a partner by her side. In a medium where queer characters are often victimized and then cast aside, it feels downright radical to simply let this game—with all of its blood, horror, and self-loathing—still manage a happy ending.