When The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories released in late 2018, I actively avoided playing it. I tend to love games by Hidetaka Suehiro, better known as Swery, for his over-the-top characters and ludicrously heavy-handed approaches resolving situations. But I wasn't confident in his ability to tell a calm and contemplative work about something serious and timely in a way I would enjoy.
The day The Missing was released, I was flooded with spoilers on Twitter, from well-meaning people wanting to know what I thought of aspects of the plot that mirrored my own life. I didn't have the luxury of going into the game blind. I knew the twist; I was being pressured to play it for what felt like superficial reasons, and so I left it untouched, waiting for the right time to give it another go.
I'm so happy I came back and gave The Missing the time it deserved.
On its surface, The Missing: J.J Macfield and the Island of Memories is a story about fearing loss. You play as the titular J.J., a young woman in university whose close friend and implied romantic companion Emily goes missing on a mysterious island during a camping trip. After being struck by lightning, J.J. realises she cannot die, with the ability to deliberately injure yourself becoming a core part of the gameplay. You can get your arm removed in order to throw it like a projectile, become just a head to squeeze through small gaps, set yourself on fire to light obstacles ablaze, and throw yourself at sawblades, relying on your momentum to carry parts of you to safety. J.J. might not be able to die, but she does feel pain from these self inflicted injuries, and has to push through that to progress.
But under the surface, it's about so much more than that. The Missing is a story about a young woman who moves away to university, finally escaping her hyper-religious mother, deciding it's finally time for her to live her life presenting as female full-time. You see, the playable protagonist of The Missing is a transgender woman, and while her story is set into motion by tragedy, ultimately she gets to have the kind of happy ending all too few LGBT characters get.
So, here's how things all shake out. J.J. leaves her home town and her mother, deciding to live full time as female from then on out. She doesn't tell anyone back home about the change, particularly not her mother who has fundamentalist Christian views and expects her child to become her "heir". She doesn't really tell anyone in her new town about her being trans beside Emily; she just tries to get on with living life. Unfortunately, that all eventually falls apart.
J.J.'s mother discovers female clothing in her childhood bedroom, and tries to get J.J. sent to conversion therapy to stop her being transgender. An overly inquisitive old friend spreads word of her trans status at the new university where she becomes a point of ridicule. She feels so alone and worthless that she takes off her wig, and makes a public suicide attempt in the middle of the school.
For so many trans characters in media, this is about as far as we ever get. We are presented as people to be proud of, brave people being ourselves in spite of the world, but who will always have tragic endings. So often our stories end with us being killed, or killing ourselves, or becoming okay with being alone forever. For so many actual trans lives, harassment and subsequent suicide is where our stories are cut short. However, for J.J., her death is barely the beginning.
While unconscious on the floor, bleeding out, she has an elaborate hallucination in which the majority of the game takes place. There are a lot of themes explored, but largely the hallucination focuses on J.J. running from what she's done in the form of a demon chasing her with a box cutter, and chasing after Emily, who is ultimately just a stand in for J.J.'s actions so she can see them from a detached perspective and feel what they do to those around her.
She eventually comes to terms with the fact she still has things to live for, and that killing herself because of other people's bigoted preconceptions isn't the right move. She fights through the pain and suffering she's endured, fights to keep living, and wakes up feeling okay. She's met by Emily, relieved that she's alive, and the two share a long deep embrace, emblematic of the care and trust these two young women have for each other. They walk off hand in hand, with the implication that J.J. learns to care less what her mother and peers think, and gets on with loving the life she gets to live with Emily.
As a transgender woman, a lot of The Missing's story resonated for me in ways I rarely feel from media spearheaded by non-trans creators. It's clear Swery went out of his way to seek consultants, with names of trans creators I recognised in the credits, but the sheer accuracy with which it portrays life as a newly out trans person was incredibly familiar.
Between the ages of 18 and 22, I tried to kill myself multiple times. Some of that was clinical depression, but some of it was fear and anxiety regarding my status as a trans person. From a biological relative refusing to have anything more to do with me, websites dedicated to chronicling my every failure of femininity, to people attacking me in bathrooms, life as a trans person in my early years post transition was tough. I lost jobs, I lost friends, I lost parts of my family for a while, and I feared my life was doomed to be constant fear and misery. I had no reason to hope that things would ever get better.
When I talk about my suicide attempts post transition, some people tell me it's a sign trans people are mentally unstable, that some aspect of me being trans inherently made me want to die. Truth is, I never wanted to die; I just wanted to be happy, free of the pain being thrown at me day after day. The final time I tried to take my own life, I was relieved when I had failed. I knew I wanted to make my life better, so I wouldn't feel that way ever again.
And you know what? Those dark moments are never as bad as they seem in the moment. For J.J., it was realising that Emily was still there for her, no matter what the rest of the world thought. For me, it was finally making games criticism my full-time job, an industry where for the most part people have accepted me for who I am at face value. Those darkest moments can so often come just before moments of renewal, improvement, and light that changes everything.
Sure, J.J.'s mother doesn't respect her transition, but she's successfully moved away. Her mum can't control her ability to transition if she doesn't let her. Sure, her classmates make jokes about her, but she's doing better than most of her peers academically; she's going to get a great job some day and leave them in the dust. The person closest to her loves her for who she is, and sometimes that one person validating your identity can be enough to keep you going.
Vitally, The Missing ends on a message of hope. Even though J.J.'s lying topless, flat chested, with short hair when Emily sees her following her suicide attempt, she still respects her name, pronouns, and identity. She's no less valid to Emily for the lack of set dressing; she's still a woman deserving of love and support. It's not about the wig, the dress, or the voice. It's about supporting her for who she inherently is. That kind of a message – that there are people out there who still love and respect you after you come out as trans – is something I wish I had known myself during the rougher years of transition.
When my biological father was refusing to acknowledge I had transitioned, and my mother thought I was being brainwashed, and I had no job, I really could have done with a video game telling me I was strong enough to push through the pain, push through the injuries, and that on the other end, someone would be there to make me feel valid as a woman.
I must give credit where credit is due. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is an incredibly brave game for Swery to put his weight behind. In Japan, where gay and lesbian acceptance is still a work in progress and trans acceptance is considerably behind that, seeing this game tackle the subject with such tact was very surprising.
That The Missing is the first mainstream video game I can think of where you only have one playable character, a trans woman, and she gets to have a happy ending, is something rather incredible.