The original Butterfly Soup is named for its ending monologue. Its four main characters, Diya, Min-seo, Noelle, and Akarsha, use the liquefaction of a caterpillar inside a cocoon as a metaphor for the awkward teenage growing phase they’re all in. In the sequel, set a few months later, they find a butterfly with a crumpled wing. It’s a victim of a false spring, having emerged from its cocoon too early due to unseasonably warm weather. One of them worries that they are like the injured insect; forever marked by their early life. And it’s this that Butterfly Soup 2 digs into much more deeply than its predecessor.
If you’re not familiar with the original, Butterfly Soup is a visual novel about four Asian girls navigating high school in the late 2000s, playing baseball, and falling in love. On replaying it to get ready for this review, it made me cry at least twice and laugh out loud a bunch more. It’s pay what you want with no minimum price, and takes about 2-3 hours. I’m also going to spoil parts of it, so go play it already.
Fans will no doubt be pleased to hear that everything I described above remains true in the sequel. But where the original centred on Diya and Min’s blossoming relationship, Butterfly Soup 2 is a wider exploration of all four teens’ hopes and fears. They were always there, but now they’re the focus. For instance, while the previous game sees comic relief character Akarsha admits she uses jokes to mask her lack of self-esteem, this is the heart of her arc in the sequel.
This shift allows every character to come across as both more and less likeable at different points. To continue the example, while Akarsha explores her struggles, Min, who was primarily argumentative and hot-headed before, gets more focus as a supportive friend. On the other hand, her impulsiveness and lack of care lead to a situation that I won’t spoil, but portrays her as very clearly in the wrong. Then again, with the help of other characters, she’s able to see that and begin to make amends, and the situation shines a spotlight on her own inner world, too.
Butterfly Soup 2 being unafraid to put its character's flaws front and centre and its care in navigating their mistakes, while simultaneously refusing to excuse their behaviour, makes the sequel a more nuanced game. The characters themselves are concerned by these flaws, striving for better, but also coming to terms with the fact that nobody’s perfect. Overall, it’s a fundamentally sympathetic portrayal not just of individuals, but of teens as a whole.
"The characters themselves are concerned by these flaws, striving for better, but also coming to terms with the fact that nobody’s perfect"
That’s complemented by developer and writer Brianna Lei’s ability to really capture what it’s like to be in high school. So much of the game made me grateful to my bones that I’m no longer in that time in my life, whether it be the homophobic environment or the pressure of presenting in front of the rest of the class. I have no doubt that the parts I don’t have experiences with, like racist bullying or abusive parents, have the same impact on others.
Also, do not fear: it’s still really gay. Lei is able to get across the feeling of a crush in a way that only the best fanfiction authors can usually achieve, which I mean as my highest possible compliment.
Though it only lasts a couple of hours, the game covers all these topics and more with the light grace of everyday life. It has no problem switching gears between emotional conversations and light-hearted jokes, institutional oppression and one-on-one connection, in the same way that these things really are overlapping at all times.
This was also the case in the original game, but Butterfly Soup 2’s main evolution seems to be the fact that it comes five years after its predecessor. While only a few months have passed in-game, it’s a portrayal of being a teenager that feels much further removed – to its benefit. According to her Tumblr, Lei is currently 28. So am I. My conception of my teenage self is very different from what it was five years ago, and that same shift comes across in the jump between Lei’s original and sequel. Teens can be awful, and things can be awful for them, but they’re usually just trying to make sense of it all and find some joy.
On finding the asymmetrical butterfly, the characters worry that they’re the same – permanently shaped by their experiences thus far. But the title is clear: they’re still in the soup. And not only did that let me extend a little more compassion to my teenage self, but it also comforted me in the present. Teens or not, we’re never really done growing.