Fictional operating systems are so far up my street that I need a bus just to reach them. But sometimes it’s worth it. Secret Little Haven is another game like Digital: A Love Story and its computer-within-a-computer companions. It’s about being a teenage fan of a Powerpuff Girls style television show (or probably more like Sailor Moon), getting hyped about a new movie that’s showing at the weekend, and trying to stay true to your fandom when everything else is pressuring you to travel a different route – the route of being a “normal guy” when that’s far from how you feel.
Here’s the blurb from the developer, Victoria Dominowski:
Alex Cole is a teenage trans girl in 1999 who has yet to figure herself out. She spends much of her free time on the internet, browsing a fan forum for her favorite magical girl show, and chatting with her friends… Join her on her story of self-discovery through friendship and media as she explores her computer for the treasures and curiosities of the early internet.
It’s got the obligatory 56k modem and whirring hard drive sound effects that this sub-genre demands, but takes great pains to offer a desktop full of incidental goodies. There’s on-screen petz, forums full of fan fiction, a terminal, a text document called “butts”. Everything familiar to the average teenager of 1999.
The chat program is where most of the story unfolds, as you juggle conversations with people you know from real life and the friendly forum-folk of the Pretty Guardians Love Force fan page. Prplsqrl types super fast, suggesting a machine who pumps out fan fiction faster than you ever will. Your childhood friend Andy bothers you about going to a basketball game at the weekend (but it’s at the same time as the new Pretty Guardians Love Force movie). And Jenni STILL hasn’t accepted your friend request. What if she doesn’t want to talk? :’(
As the chatlogs lengthen you get clues about your friends’ lives. Your net-pal Sam reels at the thought of having to find $6 for a cinema ticket, while it seems like pittance to you. Prplsqrl briefly mentions their “roommates”, implying they’re much older than you. Perfunctory emails from your dad are signed with all the formality of his job.
Disease Control Research Dept Manager
This is just an introduction to some over-bearing parenting that is downright sinister at times. There’s a particular moment when the whole bright environment of the SanctuaryOS is abruptly threatened with the concerns of real life. It’s a short beat, but an excellent depiction of teenage dread, even though you never leave the confines of the computer itself.
I haven’t finished it but it feels like a fleshed-out Arc Symphony. That was a free game which explored similar topics, placing you in an online hotbed of JRPG fans. I like it when writers invent a whole piece of work – a game, a cartoon – and only ever refer to it from the perspective of fans or readers, never showing the Thing itself. Is that what people call Brechtian? Or is it Borgesian? Or am I thinking of Flann O’Brianism? Whatever. Secret Little Haven is one or all of these things, and I don’t care to find out which.
I just need to figure out how to get out of that basketball game…
Secret Little Haven is on Itch.io for $5