Screenshot from Butterfly Soup, a visual novel created by Brianna Lei.
Trigger Warning: mentions abusive parents (of one of the characters)
Do you ever find yourself clinging to representation? As a queer Asian American individual, I often find myself doing that. With movies such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” it’s certainly a work in progress. Sure, they’re cishet light-skinned representations of Asian Americans, but did I still cry in the theater? (The answer is yes.)
Still, accurate representation is always a work in progress. Queer media is often prone to showing us the romanticized version of queer people. In the case of “Love, Simon,” we saw a cisgender, white teenager with middle-class privilege. It’s overwhelmingly obvious that LGBTQ+ characters in media are nowhere close to showing us all the colors of the rainbow. Where is my disabled, queer person of color? Where is the nonbinary representation? What about genderfluid people, aromantic people, people that can’t fit into society’s boxes?
Is it too much to ask for a story about someone like me? My identity is so much more than just a simple black and white – it’s a gradient of greys that’s often forgotten. Sometimes it’s the stories that need to be told that hits closer to home.
That’s the case with the visual novel Butterfly Soup, a game published by Brianna Lei in 2017.
Four high school friends join their school’s baseball club; for these four, it’s the journey that matters more than the destination. This reflects in the visual novel itself, which focuses on the characters rather than a decisive plot. For them, they go through life as queer Asian-Americans, but the story doesn’t necessarily focus on that. We go through each character, whether it be one character’s social anxiety or another character’s strategy of coping through humor.
PC Gamer rated it as the best visual novel in 2017, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s a coming-of-age story for those who were left in the margins of other people’s stories. In a world where it’s our white, straight, cisgender counterparts who are often the main characters in their stories, it is Butterfly Soup that breaks the mold.
For me, Butterfly Soup hits closer to home than any other piece of media out there.
I played this visual novel on the day it came out. While I should have been working on homework for class, I put it to the side and secretly downloaded this game. I played it through in one sitting, on the edge of my seat to learn more about these characters that I saw myself reflected in.
The game starts off with a flashback to when childhood friends are separated when Min-seo moves away to Florida, leaving Diya in California. Back to the present (in 2008, when the story takes place), Diya, Akarsha, and Noelle are friends in high school. We get to understand their dynamic through a school day filled with shenanigans. Then, they join the baseball club, to which the three friends discover that Min-seo has moved back to California. The four of them spend more time together, playing baseball and learning more about their group dynamic as friendships are solidified.
I clearly remember messaging my friends and screaming about relating to all four of the main characters. Diya made me smile as we went through her socially awkward, but not quite quiet, character while watching her impressive baseball skills. I cried during Noelle’s story of trying to maintain her social life while also balancing her parents’ unrealistic expectations. I laughed but felt touched deeply by Akarsha’s internalized fears being covered up by being the group jokester. I felt pain yet also comfort in watching Min-seo’s backstory of her abusive parents, yet I felt my heart jump with glee when it’s implied that she’s nonbinary.
The characters feel so overwhelmingly real, from different perspectives really giving the player a chance to get to know all of the characters. We get to know Noelle’s backstory, but then get to see how the other three characters react to her as either misunderstood or stuck-up. We see Diya regard Min-seo as silly, but we also see Noelle think of her as immature and crude. But then we see near the end that Min-seo and Noelle reach an understanding.
The story here isn’t about some overarching plot. The story here is how these characters live their day-to-day lives. There’s no tension with the weight of the world’s end dropping upon the characters’ shoulders. There’s simply the daily existence of these four queer Asian Americans, seeing them simply trying to exist, trying to live.
The truth is, Butterfly Soup does what I wish more media would do. It delves into the everyday lives of these complex characters not cut from the mold, yet also doesn’t make queerness the plot or the conflict. There’s no need to write stories that make the conflict surround the character’s gay or trans identity. It’s so overdone; it’s so unneeded.
What we need, what hits closer to home, is a story that shows that queer people, especially QTPOC, are people too. We are whole, complex people; we don’t need society to boil down our personality to just one facet of ourselves.
At the end of the game, Min-seo and Diya kiss as a result of growing romantic tension throughout the game. After the moment passes, the characters break the fourth wall to address the audience. Butterfly Soup is a coming-of-age story, with queer main characters. It’s relatable to everyone, whether they’re queer or not. As Diya says, “If you want to be a butterfly, you have to be butterfly soup first.” Caterpillars turn themselves into a cocoon, melting down into a “butterfly soup,” before eventually becoming beautiful butterflies.
While the touching moment is derailed with spiraling banter, the ending struck a chord with 17-year-old me. I was starting to apply to college, getting ready to graduate high school, and still heavily closeted to many of my friends. As I met with this closing scene in the game, I was comforted by these characters, who I found kinship with. I felt as if, somehow, they had become my friends through the process. They said it’s okay to be a dumpster fire, that it’s okay to not fulfill your parents’ expectations, that it’s okay to not know who we are.
After all, we’re all still butterfly soup.