Regeneration: Why The Missing is Quietly the Most Important Video Game of 2018
The Missing didn’t change my life, but it made me want to.
[Major heavy spoilers, friends. Don’t read on if you haven’t finished the game. If you’re looking for a reason to play it, just do it. Now. It’s like seven hours. C’mon.]
THE MISSING: JJ MACFIELD AND THE ISLAND OF MEMORIES is a side-scrolling puzzle game by Swery65 about a girl named JJ Macfield, who goes on a camping trip on an island with her close friend Emily (with whom she shares some jokes.. and some kisses). Suddenly, Emily runs away, apparently struggling with a mental breakdown, and while looking for her, JJ finds that on the island she is capable of getting grievously injured and even killed without truly dying, and thus must stumble through puzzles and areas by mutilating her own body in a variety of agonizing ways, sound effects and all.
This game is super weird. I gotta say that before anything. I’m pretty stupid, so I had to blindly stagger through a lot of the puzzles, and the controls are slow and a little clunky sometimes. Having to actively self-harm to progress was, at first, horrifying. The screaming was off-putting, the visuals were gory, the puzzle solutions were absurd. But the story wove my early mixed feelings into the greater message at hand with a graceful and surprising mastery. The visuals, though simple, communicated the tone and ideas perfectly, and the music stunned me at times (even the songs with lyrics, which can be very hit-or-miss in games).
The Missing also has some of the most realistic chatspeak and teen dialogue I’ve ever encountered in any medium; individual and differing dialects and styles, use of certain emoticons and phrases, subtly changing one’s punctuation, spelling or capitalization depending on the recipient– but a certain groundedness, too, an understanding of when to tone those things down, and the intrinsic knowledge that teens and young adults can be incredibly intelligent and self-aware (rather than just pasting the word “selfie” into ham-fisted dialogue and calling it a day).
Now, disclaimer, I knew the game was queer before I even started playing it, but my assumption was that it was about the mental turmoil of coming out as gay, which is still an issue incredibly close to my heart. And it followed those same beats for the most part– secrets kept from the overbearing conservative mother, the joy and confusion of being with Emily, the discomfort when talking to those who didn’t Know; it described a very universal queer experience. And then…
Everyone I talk to about this game has a different moment at which they realized what this game actually was. For some, it took them until the very end, seeing JJ’s body as it was in reality, outside the perfect ideal of her dream-self. For others, it was the texts with Emily, where JJ expressed self-loathing and horror about being outed to her classmates.
For me, it was the texts with her mother; finding the women’s clothes, the secrets in JJ’s literal-and-metaphorical closet, the panic, the bargaining, the excuses, the scrambling to make it all make sense. All too familiar. And I blinked, and the terror began to set in my bones, and I… realized.
And my heart turned to stone in my chest.
So that’s what this story is about.
F.K.: this is
F.K.: a story about regeneration
THE MISSING PLAYS WITH the inherent dualism of one’s perception and the reality beneath it; as you progress through the story, every single aspect and character takes on new meanings with incredible nuance.
The most obvious duality is the identity of JJ herself. When it starts, most would assume that she’s a queer cisgender woman struggling with externalized homophobia. But That Moment, whichever one it was for you, makes it clear that JJ is a trans woman, and only just beginning to physically transition. I’d normally have gripes about centring your plot twist around a character being revealed as trans, as it can be handled very poorly, but The Missing took such care with its characterizations and story that the reveal fit very naturally, without delving into harmful stereotypes or shock value, and served a much greater purpose within the narrative.
Throughout the game, you get text messages from classmates and friends which seem excruciatingly mundane, but under a new light, they become the most crucial part of understanding the complexity of JJ’s life.
Philip is a hilariously aggravating and conceited dudebro with a failing YouTube channel, and your first thought is why the hell does he want to talk to JJ?, and then your second thought is, oh, god, he wants to get in her pants, and then your third thought is I wanna punch this asshat (though that thought doesn’t go away). You then realize he talks to JJ like a tool because he sees her as just one of the guys, which is arguably more horrifying than being a bad flirt.
Speaking of bad flirts… Lily is first apparent as a friend who flirts with JJ hard, which is a little endearing, if clingy– you assume Lily is just desperate to find another woman who loves women. But Lily actually sees JJ as a man, and obsesses over her perception of JJ; to have someone lust over the very focuses of one’s own dysphoria starts to feel less adorable and much more sinister and soul-crushing.
Meanwhile, Abby seems like just a cool punk girl in a band, and a good friend to JJ, but by the end you realize that she’s representative of a seemingly silly dilemma I immediately understood on a molecular level– when you’re closeted, you know people, good people, who seem like they would support you, who are ‘allies’ of a particular type… and yet, you still don’t come out to them– just in case.
It articulates with a frightening sharpness the paralyzing double-life of being closeted. Perhaps a person will support you, but will they keep your secret? Will they truly understand? Will they treat you with a respect that is complete, or just partial? One fears others’ incorrect presumptions, but one also needs them; hiding is a type of safety blanket.
Presumption is the basis of our thoughts; we connect new ideas to ones that are more familiar to us. So you presume as you play, you internalize seemingly meaningless pieces of imagery, you laugh at its absurdity, and then That One Moment hits you in the chin and sends you reeling, with a sudden clarity– everything has meaning. Everything ties in. Every pixel of this game was placed to mislead you, until you look at it another way.
Lily isn’t a clingy kid, she’s fetishizing. The hairshrieker isn’t JJ’s mother, it’s a representation of JJ’s own self-loathing, a body made of bodies, a body JJ sees as monstrous. The deer-headed doctor isn’t an absurd hallucination, or even a representation of shock conversion therapy like I suspected; he’s the doctor actively saving JJ’s life in the real world. She encounters various elements of scenery that appear to simply be set-dressing; but an early encounter in an abandoned church expresses the brokenness of religious fundamentalism, and da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man appears in a puzzle as another reminder of the constant expectations of masculinity encircling her. None of this is accidental. (Okay, maybe the creepy-ass monkeys. Man, those are the worst.)
It doesn’t control slowly because it’s oddly programmed, it controls slowly because JJ’s entire life is a struggle, and a test, and an ache (a faster movement speed unlocks at the end of the game). The main mechanic isn’t self-mutilation just as a gimmick, it’s representative of how trans people have to constantly suffer and place themselves into harmful situations in order to even get by in a society that actively seeks to kill them. It hurts. It sucks. But you go on anyway, maybe because of a distant, glimmering hope… or maybe just the simple pleasure of donuts.
And… you get used to it. The screaming takes on a familiar pattern, and the graphic limb removals stop shocking you after a while. When you live as a marginalized person, you have to get used to suffering, which is a feeling that I’ve always found impossible to express correctly, but the very mechanics of the game take you through that entire mental process; it always hurts, always, but it’s what life just is, to you. And at a point, commenting on it further just feels like a waste of your own time.
JJ: You think I’m not scared?
JJ: I wish you could see the shit I just went through.
JJ: You have any idea what it took to make it this far?
JJ: Can you even comprehend the pain I’m going through?
Finally, we realize that Emily isn’t suicidal. JJ is. She’s not chasing love, she’s chasing clarity, she’s chasing her only reason to live through this endless, mortifying pain– a future where she, against all odds, can be happy.
IT ENDS STRANGELY, and a whale is involved.
(You know… because SWERY.)
The ending of this game left me conflicted. JJ defeats the hairshrieker, a self-loathing manifestation of herself, in an incredibly triumphant chase scene. She finds herself back at the campsite, then running through the field where she last saw Emily, and they find each other at last, a humpback whale bursting through the flora in the background in the pearly light as emotional music plays.
Then the deer-headed doctor appears again, and JJ wakes up, and learns that her experiences on the island were a dream she had as she lay dying after a suicide attempt. As she sits, dumbfounded, on the floor of a college lecture hall, she gets a phone call from her mother, who is crying and appears to now accept JJ for who she truly is (after dragging JJ through a living hell throughout the game). She’s then found by Emily, who hugs her and tells her everything will be alright.
When I first played through this, I felt a little stung. It all seemed so… easy. JJ’s mother haunts her throughout the story, hurting her, closing her off, pressuring her, trying to ‘treat’ her… and it’s all just okay in the end after a simple apology? I mean, I was still touched, but it felt off. Because, one has to wonder, do people truly change that rapidly? And do we even have the capacity to forgive those who have abused us? How can we trust those who have hurt us in the past?
And I thought about it again, under a more decidedly uncynical lens. This is a story about regeneration. It’s a story about change. Even though existing as herself causes her so much pain, JJ learns to love that self despite everything that’s happened to her.
When marginalized, we cannot escape pain, even in our dreams. We suffer, and we suffer, and we hurt ourselves, and others hurt us, and we stumble along still, because what else is there to do?
It is so easy to slip into nihilism and bitterness from there. It is so easy to be swallowed up by that pain. And it’s important to recognize that pain, of course it is, but we cannot allow it to eat us alive. There’s an entire universe out there, still, entire lives to be lived, and people with the capacity to love us, and maybe, just maybe, we can heal the wounds the world gave us– or let them scab over, at least.
The Missing doesn’t dumb itself down to be easily digestible. It takes incredible care to tell its story right, but makes sure to leave so much of the real shit in. JJ is rude, and angry, and hurt… but of course she is. She’s human. This game never dissolves into empty platitudes. It’s abrupt and sincere and philosophical and silly and dark and ugly and beautiful and doesn’t care if you think it’s pretentious because god damn it it has things to say.
“What does it mean to live? Were we just born to have sex? When is something really real? Inside and outside… I’m Jackie Jameson. That was my mother’s anger.”
In the end, I don’t think it’s about the mom, really. It’s about… well, everything. When the whole damn world wants to hurt you, it feels like there’s no way out of life’s labyrinth. If every step feels like your bones are shattering, if every person on the planet sees you as a monster, what more can you do but try to help them be better? Isn’t that all we can hope for? Even if it takes your whole body and soul, even if it burns more than you think you can bear, even if it isn’t fair or easy or simple… you move forward. You try again.
And it’s gonna hurt. A fucking lot.
The Missing was developed by White Owls Inc. and published by Arc System Works, and is available on Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Please play it. I’m begging you. I’m on my knees.