Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Missing: J. J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, and contains references to self-harm, graphic violence and suicide.
In my continuing campaign to prove that video games are - in fact - art, I decided to do something rather different this week. Since my case is to say that games can be art I decided to look at one of the artiest arty games I could find and deconstruct it for your reading pleasure, and The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is an Arty game with a capital “A”. It’s a 2D platformer with a gloomy aesthetic featuring a lone vulnerable character facing a hostile world. What’s that? Limbo? Inside? Sorry, never heard of them...
I knew very little about The Missing: J. J. Macfield and the Island of Memories going into it aside from the fact that it was developed by a man named Swery65 (real name Hidetaka Suehiro), and that name alone notified me that I was embarking on an adventure into the surreal. Swery65 is a man that, along with Suda51 (another Japanese developer), is known, for making games with very bizarre premises and gameplay loops.
As the eponymous J. J., chasing after your missing girlfriend Emily, you run through a meadow of flowers in a storm and are struck by lightning. A man in a doctor’s coat with the head of a moose runs up and revives you, and at this point you gain the superpower of being able to be brutally dismembered by the hostile environment and, instead of dying, can regenerate your lost limbs, and after some excruciatingly animated snapping of bones back to their correct position can continue on your quest as if nothing had happened. You use this new found gorey power to navigate the hostile environment and solve puzzles, including throwing your own limbs at obstacles, snapping your neck to change the direction of gravity, and setting yourself on fire to burn down barriers.
In terms of bizarre game design, Swery has truly outdone himself.
But this is not a game review, or at least not in isolation. I could talk at length about the somewhat shoddy execution of the game, how disappointingly uninspired it is as far as a puzzle game goes, and the lacklustre sound design, but other game reviewers have done that before me. I want to offer a new perspective: one that examines the narrative for which this game serves as a vehicle.
Through both the in-game text messages – which provide the majority of the story – and through the closing scenes, we learn that J. J. is trans, and is struggling with the trials that can come with that. She is bullied by her classmates, discovers a derogatory fake dating profile someone has created of her, and has to deal with an overbearing parent discovering her secret before she was ready to tell it. This all comes to a head, and she slits her wrists at the university in a public suicide attempt. The majority of the game is set in the delirious, blood-loss-induced fever-dream (or more accurately: nightmare) which ensues - although the player doesn’t realise this until the end - in which she is repeatedly torn apart by both the environment and by sinister monsters including an eerily familiar doll/swiss army knife monstrosity ripped straight from Toy Story’s Sid’s bedroom. Most disturbingly: a ghoulish representation of herself pursues her, attacking with a foot grasping a Stanley knife (which suggests to me both a representation of her hatred of her own body and of self-harm).
However the nightmare does end, and even though at one point in the story it seems certain that she – like too many characters in these kinds of stories of depression and self-loathing – will find her fate at the end of a noose (in the most literal of senses; the game is far from subtle in its portrayal of this), there is a brighter future ahead for J. J.. The moose-doctor turns out to be a real-world paramedic. The lightning: the shock of the defibrillator that has just saved her life. She is greeted by Emily, and a phone call from her mother telling her that she loves her, and J. J. says that the nightmare helped her find what she was looking for.
This is not the first time Swery has addressed trans issues or portrayed transgender characters, Deadly Premonition is another notable work of his which also includes these themes, although he was far from universally praised for that depiction (see here and here). In an interview, he described how he took great care when creating J. J.'s character for this game, and the overall narrative arc: of pushing through the pain and hardships of finding your way as a trans person in an oft-cruel world, is one that was praised widely by game critics, and the game was met with a flood of positive reviews. Personally however, I honestly found myself a little troubled about the way the game presented its issues, and its tone was a big part of that.
The biggest issue is actually the core gameplay loop itself, and how it could be construed given the real-world parallels the game sets up. Throughout the game you’ve broken J. J.’s bones and set her on fire and mangled her body so much the very world turns upside down, all to progress further forward. You later discover that this is meant to represent pushing through pain inflicted on you by the world in the pursuit of your own goals.
This in itself is noble enough, but the game also draws a parallel between this mechanic and self-harm. After all, whilst some of the environment may pursue her, what little of it does is portrayed as constructs of her own imagination, punishing her within her own mind. The rest of the world is not actively trying to hurt J. J., instead it is her that is the one throwing herself into buzz saws and setting her hair alight. She is heavily implied to be inflicting this pain onto herself and the idea that this could be a positive way through which she can find her own identity I think is a dangerous one.
You could argue that the environment is supposed to represent the various real-world ways in which she is being abused. She finds herself in a hostile cathedral quite early on for instance which could refer to her mother’s intolerance (more on that later) and has to find the escape by breaking the stained glass windows. However this doesn’t work so much for the other settings, and still doesn’t get around the fact that the majority of the time the environment isn’t actively trying to hurt her. The sawmill from later in the game isn’t actively trying to attack her, it is just an obstacle in her path. J. J. remains the arbiter of her own self-injury which seems contrary to the game’s message.
The game also nowhere near adequately addresses the attempt on her own life, and whilst the issues of being transgender are explored, the themes of self harm and suicide are almost delegated to being a mere vehicle for the delivery of the plot twists. When talking to Emily at the end, J. J. describes the events of the game we just played as a “bad dream… but I needed it. It helped me find what I was looking for.” I doubt that the intention was to present the suicide attempt as a neccessary step in J. J.’s – or anyone’s – journey to self acceptance, and yet, thanks to the way in which the game presents certain things as representing multiple concepts at once, this is how it comes across.
The Missing also relies heavily on J. J.’s mother’s Christian faith to explain her transphobic views. This is an increasingly worrying trope in narratives whereby instead of a character being portrayed as having bigoted views that they justify through their interpretation (arguably misinterpretation) of a faith, the faith is used as an explanation for the bigoted views that character holds and, by extension, the inference is given that all people of that faith must hold those views. Granted this might be an issue as much with journalism than with the game itself. One article I read described the idea that her mum was “very religious” as an innate character flaw equal to her overprotectiveness and prejudice, and another describes her as having an “overbearing religious mindset”, as if that in and of itself explains her intolerance. It doesn’t, and as a Christian myself I would like to stress most emphatically that I see no justification for discrimination as portrayed within The Missing within faith.
This all culminates into something that’s clumsy and confusing in tone, when it's tackling a subject that requires the utmost care. Despite the gruesomely intricate self-injury mechanics, the fundamental philosophy of the game is too simplistic. J. J. wakes up from her suicide attempt and instead of being rushed to a hospital and being guided to a therapy course, she simply sits up, hugs her friend, and acts as if all will be right in the world from that moment forward. Likewise, her mother is portrayed as cartoonishly overbearing, when her character – as the one whose prejudice would arguably most affect J. J. – really required the most subtlety and development of all the secondary characters.
This is why The Missing should serve as a lesson to all that seek to address serious issues within our art. The way we present complex and grave issues within our forms, and the way we write about the works of others doing the same, are deeply important. We need to take care with the way we present these issues, and the symbolism, language, and characterisation we use need to be chosen and handled with sensitivity, and subjected to the closest scrutiny, so we can present these issues with the weight and gravity that they deserve without unintentionally causing harm.
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