How Butterfly Soup creates believable characters

butterflysoup

Representation matters but the inclusion of more diverse casts of characters is the starting point, not the goal. Too often, characters with identities other than straight, white male are written as caricatures. They no longer represent an individual but instead represent the sum total of their gender, their sexuality, their race. They become tokenistic stand-ins for the complexities of real people.

Inclusion and representation alone can be ineffective or actively unhelpful if not backed up with strong writing and a level of care about characters that goes beyond the basic facts of their identity. It can be a tricky line to walk but Butterfly Soup, by Brianna Lei, is here to show how to do it right.

Butterfly Soup is very much a game about queer Asian girls. And baseball. Diya, arguably its main character among an ensemble cast, is a socially anxious, hard of hearing, Indian-American lesbian. Much of the game hinges on her growing understanding of her sexuality and her feelings for her friend Min-Seo.

But crucially, she and her story are more than that. Diya loves food – especially anything “blue flavour.” She adores dogs and Discovery Channel documentaries. She spends her free time playing baseball and on instant messenger. The game’s narrative discusses everything from sexuality, gender, racism, mental health, and parental abuse to anime, baseball, pranks, puns, and memes.

This is how people are. Every one of us is an amalgam of qualities; large and small, political and personal. They overlap and intertwine. Well-written characters, then, will show the same spectrum of qualities.

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Writing these characters in ways that show they are more than the sum of their identities is not only a more honest depiction of human experience, it also counters some of the overblown accusations of shoehorning diversity into games. Straight characters are never asked to prove their “relevance” to the plot in the same way LGBTQ+ characters are, for example. No justification should be needed for queer characters either; sometimes characters are gay because sometimes people are gay. It’s realistic. Where representation can stumble is when a character’s identity is centered rather than their personality, role or achievements. A prominent recent example is Mass Effect Andromeda’s Hainly Abrams, who is written in a way that’s both unrealistic and unhelpful to real trans women.

Lei talks about Butterfly Soup being inspired by “the feeling growing up that there wasn’t any media out there made with me in mind.” She mentions that even media that did feature Chinese-Americans like her felt “unrealistic and fake,” and says she aimed to focus on friendships between East and South Asian characters, because those were “a big aspect of [her] daily life.”

And it shows. Diya, Akarsha, Min-Seo, and Noelle often discuss their shared, and differing, experiences as Asian-Americans (Indian, Indian, Korean, and Taiwanese respectively). But they’re also goofy teenagers that are relatable to anyone who was a similar age in the late ’00s, regardless of race. They’re deeply supportive of one another, yet mired in teenage awkwardness and hesitant to discuss their feelings and problems. The way they talk and the jokes they crack all demonstrate that Lei is writing from experience, not as someone trying to imagine how adolescents might speak, clouded by an older perspective.

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Lei comments that “A few times…I actually thought, ‘Is it realistic for that mix of people to be friends?’ even though my childhood was literally like that, in real life. It’s crazy how not seeing it in media can mess with your head.” That’s one of the key reasons that representation is meaningful – sometimes it’s important to see our own truths reflected back at us so that we don’t begin to doubt them.

Persisting with complex, multifaceted, and ultimately credible characters and their interactions paid off in making the game as good as it is. The serious topics that too often go under-discussed thanks to the lack of queer women of colour in media come alongside the everyday humour of teenagers who love sport and animals, because that’s how they happen in real life. Each half of the equation is equally important, because people are diverse and varied and much more than the sum of their identities, and characters should be too.

Butterfly Soup is available from itch.io and you can name your own price.

30 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Well it looks cute anyway. I agree that a lot of times “gay” is almost a character archetype these days, like “stoic” or “warrior”. That’s not good (none of them are good as archetypes for that matter)

    Here’s hoping that the comments aren’t too much of a clusterfuck.

    • ReverendPhoenix says:

      I think that’s one of the big problems in a lot of media, anime is especially guilty of this. Being gay becomes such a central focus that it becomes the only thing that defines the characters actions and personality.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Having a character be the ‘gay’ archetype just makes them feel token. Like the character was written just to say “hey, look how progressive we are, we put in one of those gays”.

        See also ME: Andromeda with the trans character mentioned in the article.

        Just writing characters as, you know, characters, and maybe they’re also gay… that’s more reasonable. Better in every way.

      • Samudaya says:

        The approach in anime is fundamentally different. Diversity as the West understands it is not a prevalent concept in Japan. Queer characters in anime don’t serve representation. What they say about queer people and how they are treated is quite clearly not a concern. Those charcters exists because of the creators imagination which is usually not nice for those characters or indeed real life queer people.

    • AlienEyes says:

      The problem is that if we starting making characters witch a personnality which happen to be gay, it means that some of these characters will also do questionable thing or ben straight up evil.

      It’s like making an asshole character which happens to be a feminist. It will be interpreted as an anti-gay or anti-feminist agenda. That’s already happen by the way, at the beginning of christianity, some christian authors used any story with homosexual characters having bad behaviour to prove themselves right (and ignoring everything else).

      That’s why I think it’s currently only doable in certain kinds of games, where you can have more or less complex characters in settings where there’s no evil or good. But most games use these notions so the player can have enemies and friends – including bioware games – but remember that in Dragon Age Origins, you have that gay (or bi? don’t remember) elven assassin which I think is complex enough to stop that unecessary bashing on Bioware. At least, they try, and they aren’t systematically doing archetypes.

  2. Ansob says:

    Just commenting to second that this was a really cute and funny VN.

  3. cpt_freakout says:

    I’ve mostly recoiled from the usual VN aesthetic and themes so this seems like a breath of fresh air. Might be time to give the genre a shot again.

  4. parsley says:

    This was such a cute game.

  5. Lieutenant_Scrotes says:

    Mass Effect had a homosexual romance option from the very first game. I thought sexuality was well integrated into characterisation across the whole series (ME 1-3), although I haven’t played ME: Andromeda.

    • Samudaya says:

      Not really. Yes, Mass Effect 1 had bisexual Liara. At that point Bioware still claimed Asari were monogendered and not female. Not that anyone took it seriously. But Mass Effect 2 only had flirt options with Samara and Morinth. Kelly Chambers was more of a fling. She did not give the romance achievement. Shadowbroker DLC brought bisexual Liara back. I’m not sure she counted as full relationship either. Of course neither ME 1 nor ME 2 had male homosexual romance. Gays completely did not exist in the Mass Effect universe.

      • Lieutenant_Scrotes says:

        Maybe I should have put ‘in’ the very first game, rather than ‘from’, to make it clearer what I was referring to. Which is that Mass Effect has included characters of varying sexuality (not that you can necessarily romance them) from the first game. But that the sexuality of these characters is but a small part of their personality.

        The same with the Dragon Age series, which represented sexuality more realistically with each sequel. I remember trying to romance the Sera character (as a male) in Dragon Age: Inquisition only to be surprised (and delighted) when she refused my advances on the basis that she “doesn’t swing that way”. The same when Iron Bull flirted with my male character and I turned him down. I hadn’t experienced that in a game before, but it felt integrated in a way that didn’t impinge on their personalities.

        I thought this worth mentioning since the only critical example was about Bioware’s poorly represented transgender character. When I feel that Bioware are one of the better developers when it comes to including characters of varying sexuality in their games.

  6. Samudaya says:

    Speaking of Mass Effect Andromeda. The gay romance is literally about a completely different character who says gays are bad for not having kids. Of course alien lovers and lesbians never get to hear that. And then the gay dude decides have a baby through a surrogate. He’s also a token brown guy, so is the lesbian. Just like they were in Mass Effect 3 but the straight women for male protagonists are always white. There were some articles about the messed up trans character but only Kotaku bothered to write about how Bioware lied to gay players which is why they turned Jaal bisexual afterwards.

    Dishonored, Witcher, Borderlands, Prey, Mass Effect, Overwatch, bisexual and lesbian women are the safe choice. Gamers with fragile masculinities won’t by offended by them. They obidiently remember the proper etiquette for straight males is to like lesbians nowadays. You’ll find some gender-neutral romance, bisexual or player-sexual romance options in games. But actual gay men are extremely rare. Especially for Visual Novels with female protagonists it’s pretty much standard to have at least one lesbian option.

    • Turkey says:

      I’ve always found it hilarious how transparent homophobia is. It truly just boils down to dudes being icked out over dudes making out.

  7. GeoX says:

    You know what I really appreciated? Undertale’s low-key queer context. Everything’s so open and gender-fluid with basically no calling attention to itself. There’s a lesbian romance between an otaku dinosaur and a weird fish-orc person, but it’s so understated that you think, wait, can this actually be HAPPENING, given that it’s so out-there and yet no one’s, like, commenting on it in any way? But it is, and their orientation doesn’t even remotely define who they are and it’s ridiculous but sweet as heck.

  8. SaintAn says:

    They’re lesbians and bi, not gay. Gays are men attracted to men, these are not men.

    • Traipse says:

      Not so; “gay” is a general term for “homosexual”, and is often but not exclusively used to describe gay men due to the lack of a gender-specific term like “lesbian” for men.

      See the informative Wikipedia article for “Gay” for more details. It’s a fairly fascinating bit of linguistic history.

      link to en.wikipedia.org

      • Seafoam says:

        Usually from what I’ve seen lesbians, bi and pan people like to call themselves gay.
        It seems to be a nice umbrella term. It also works as a noun, adjective and a verb.

        I wouldn’t say its dictionary levels of accurate. But who has the right to dictate slang anyway?

  9. Deviija says:

    “Too often, characters with identities other than straight, white male are written as caricatures. They no longer represent an individual but instead represent the sum total of their gender, their sexuality, their race. They become tokenistic stand-ins for the complexities of real people.”

    Tangentially related, this does bring up something that bothers me with how queer and minority characters need justification to simply exist in media, and reasons for why they are a minority and why they are being included (and apparently whenever I see critiques of inclusion/diversity it boils down to “it better be a really valid and the most expertly written reason” for inclusion), when none of that is ever demanded or expected of straight characters, of white characters, of men characters. They and their identities are never looked at and critiqued in the same way of how the story needs to explain *why* they’re straight or *why* a white dude is included into the story. If the answer is simply, “well, they’re the default,” that is not only wrong but also not a compelling answer.

    • Ephant says:

      Why do people always assume that every white man (or every character in general) in media of any kind is straight, especially since sexuality is almost never mentioned in the slightest?

  10. RedViv says:

    I ship Ketchup Man and Pee Pee Girl and NOBODY WILL STOP ME.

    Love this game. If you enjoy the humour and especially like dog puns, do as well check out Lei’s first, Pom Gets Wi-Fi.

  11. Jumpyshark says:

    The last three games I have played have been Dream Daddy, VA-11 HALL-A and Butterfly Soup which have all been such a delightful experience. It’s great to see well-crafted games exploring what big-budget media all too often baulks at for cynical reasons.

    Thrilled to see Butterfly Soup get a mention on RPS, and well-done for the beautifully articulated arguments for true representation around it.

  12. Michael Fogg says:

    This game looks well made and interesting, but the article doesn’t do it much favours. Instead of encouraging people to play it and experience something unique, especially that it’s free, or encouraging people to make similar personal projects, it takes a top-down didactical approach. It’s aimed at no one in paricular and is irritatingly sanctimonious.

  13. coldvvvave says:

    > 23 comments
    > 17 comments

    Heh, love the Internet.

    • Premium User Badge

      Aerothorn says:

      I was going to say, this is a surprisingly thoughtful comments section! Guess the mods must be active today. Sigh.

      • Premium User Badge

        Graham Smith says:

        o/

        It was actually just two bad comments from someone who is now banned, but others responded to them and they made no sense on their own so the whole thread had to go.

  14. ffordesoon says:

    I haven’t played it yet, but the writing looks excellent – closely observed and almost painfully accurate. I can tell Lei is writing from experience just from these few pictures. Really strong work.

  15. Manburger says:

    Great piece! I love this game, genuinely uplifting and laugh-out-loud funny. Hadn’t really played any visual novels until this year, when I suddenly played Butterfly Soup and Dream Daddy, games I feel are kindred spirits. Recommend ’em both!

  16. Vasily R says:

    I don’t really care about a character’s race or sexuality. All I care about, is that the character is well written and voiced (if the game has voice acting of course). So as presented in the article, I’m hoping more games move towards making race or sexuality just an element of a character rather than the defining characteristic in which the whole personality is based on. It’s things like this that will help games simulate more realistic humans.

  17. Kinsky says:

    Terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” and “representation” tend to steer me away these days because they’ve pretty much become doublespeak for “token one-dimensional characters that exist solely as walking checkboxes” rather than the “multifaceted characters that flout boring archetypes” it’s touted as. Case in point: BioWare franchises. Heralded by many as a leader in the realms of “diversity” and “inclusion”, all BioWare’s brand really boils down to is hearing the same excruciatingly stilted dimestore romance novel dialogue between different combinations of genders. Hooray, a male-on-male/female-on-female/male-on-female “relationship” in which the player’s counterpart is reduced to yet another video game goal you can grind towards by repeatedly choosing the lamest of a handful of conversation options, and then doing a “loyalty” quest that usually involves murdering people. It’s stupid. I’ve yet to find a game that wears its “diversity” credentials on its sleeve that made convincing strides towards normalizing diversity in race, culture, or sexuality.

    • Kinsky says:

      It’s doubly infuriating when people who take issue with this lack of substantial representation are sidelined as opponents of The Cause, because no matter how asinine, it’s important that this material is out there on the off chance it injects a hot dose of woke into some broke-brained bigot out there. It seems like everyone is an upstart propagandist in the culture war these days. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

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