Early on in The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, the heroine dies. For video games, this isn’t that unusual. What is unusual is what happens afterward: she picks herself up, snaps her bones back into place, and keeps going. J.J., a college student with flowing blonde hair, has a missing friend to find, and if she has to tear her body apart to get where she’s going, she will.
The Missing is not the game it appears to be. The sidescrolling platformer initially seems like the sort of quirky, inventive, and slightly clumsy game we’ve come to expect from its lauded Japanese writer and director, Swery. In reality, The Missing is a stunning queer narrative about the brutality of trying to become who you are, and an argument for why painful, violent stories about queer existence matter. I expected an off-beat romp; I found a broken mirror, instead.
The Missing’s story looks fairly typical for a video game at first, albeit with more gay representation. J.J. is camping when Emily, the woman who appears to be her lover, goes missing. In the classic video game tradition, J.J. has to find and save the damsel in distress, and naturally, she does it by running to the right. J.J. begins dying again and again, but unlike most platformers, she doesn’t just reappear at the beginning of the level, happy and whole.
Instead, as the landscape around her grows more surreal, she discovers she has gained the ability to regenerate from almost any horror, and must use her own physical suffering to progress. She tears off her own legs and arms to solve simple physics puzzles; she immolates herself to break through flammable barriers and carries the fire on her own flesh. She throws her body at her obstacles, again and again, screaming and writhing in pain as she moves forward.
As the horror of J.J.’s suffering slowly fades from startling to mundane — just another weird game conceit in a weird game — the rest of her story begins to reveal itself through cryptic phone calls, archived text messages, and the appearance of a pursuing monster that looks eerily like J.J. (Major spoilers to follow, including the ending of the game. You’ve been warned.)
J.J. refers to having a secret throughout her text conversations with Emily, but the secret she’s harboring is not that she’s gay. It’s that she’s transgender. J.J. is a woman, but her family, her friends — they don’t know that. It seems that only Emily knows.
As J.J. grows closer to finding her best friend and lover, the backstory becomes clearer: J.J.’s mother discovered women’s clothes in her closet, and figured out what was going on. Terrified and in agony over her closeted life, J.J. attempted suicide, and the entire game is a sort of near-death fever dream where J.J.’s identity swims between liminal spaces — closeted and out, alive and dead, whole and in literal pieces.
In the end, J.J. survives. She finds meaning in her own identity, and ultimately reunites with Emily. But even with that ending, this is a queer horror story about a woman unable to fully reckon with her own identity and desires, forced to face them as violent grotesqueries, as frightening and harsh metaphors made real.
It’s easy to imagine that a story like this would be an abject disaster. Media about trans people, and queer people in general, is drowning in trauma porn, stories that dehumanize us and turn us into nothing but vectors for suffering, to be seen and enjoyed by straight, cisgender consumers. These stories are tragedies in the classical sense, with transgender subjects as objects of tragic pity, suffering for the fatal flaw of not being “normal.”
Within that landscape, it’s easy, then, to imagine that tragic or grotesque stories about queer people are best avoided by those interested in treating our stories respectfully. There are regular debates in the LGBTQ communities I’ve been a part of about what stories we should and shouldn’t be telling, and what value they have. I frequently see people who, if they don’t outright condemn dark, sad stories about us, at least prefer to avoid them.
There are understandable reasons for this. Stories about trauma can easily evoke our own trauma, and that’s not always desirable. And there’s no shame in avoiding types of storytelling that don’t suit you. But that avoidance can often calcify into an argument that no one should be telling stories like this, period. That queer stories should be soft, and optimistic, and kind. After all, the world is so cruel already, isn’t it?
But The Missing argues in favor of queer tragedy, or at least queer pain as a locus of storytelling. The central metaphor of the game — J.J.’s constant, deliberate self-mutilation —is a lens that reveals the pain she has experienced as a closeted trans woman. It’s the constant humiliation of playing a role you know isn’t yours. It’s the terror of not being seen as “man enough” by your supposed peers. It’s the silent ache of hearing your parents and friends casually make comments that are insensitive or worse about the kind of person you secretly are. It’s the pain of secrets, of systemic oppression, of a society stacked against you discovering the truth about yourself.
Through the journey of The Missing, J.J. finds power in her experience of this suffering — hate and rage and bravery. She discovers, within the ugliness, the power to fight. Not that this redeems the pain or makes it, somehow, good. It doesn’t. But it allows that pain to be more than just misery porn.
To make stories out of that type of pain is to accept them as true, and important, because they’re ours. Swery is not an openly queer creator, but through consultation and work with various queer people and a desire to tell a story that accepts people where they are, he and White Owls Inc. have crafted an experience that encapsulates everything I find valuable about depicting queer pain. This is not to praise Swery, exactly, or to elevate his work above the countless queer creators working in the same spaces with powerful intimacy. It’s simply to recognize when a story flirts so close to the mainstream while retaining these transgressive, powerful themes, whether those themes are broached on purpose or not.
In an essay on the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive, critic Heather K. Love writes that the desire to avoid tragic or horrific queer subjects in fiction can be an ultimately harmful one.
”According to this view, ‘homosexual tragedy belongs to a different era,” she writes, “to a time when living as a homosexual was nearly impossible. Given that social circumstances have changed so profoundly in the last thirty years, they argue for the need to get over this past, not eroticize it.”
She goes on to say that this view, while understandable, erases those of us still suffering: “Such forward thinking, however, cannot address structural inequalities or the real complexities of desire. Instead, we need a politics that goes ‘all the way down,’ that is attentive to the dark places of affective and erotic life.”
I never had a queer youth. J.J. didn’t either. Both of us spent our bright, optimistic college years pretending to be different people while knowing, deep down, that it wasn’t right. J.J. knew who she was supposed to be; I didn’t. I just knew that the role I was playing was wrong, somehow, in some horrific alien way that I could barely touch. At one point late in the story, J.J. reflects on how much suffering she’s gone through to get to where she is.
“Do you know how it feels to have your body ripped apart?” she asks. “Have you ever lost an arm? First, you feel the skin snapping and ripping off. Then your muscles split apart.”
For J.J., this is the pain of having to hide who she is, and it’s just one of the many pains laid at the feet of queer people. The Missing, by looking that pain dead in the eye, legitimizes it. That’s what queer horror, even queer tragedy, can do. It can let us take that pain and hold it just close enough to touch it, to mark its shape, without fully diving in. There’s freedom in being recognized like that. It gives us power. It can let us snap our bones back into place, brush the fire off our skin, and keep going. Because our pain is a part of us. It doesn’t have to define us, but it shouldn’t be ignored, either.
The Missing is available now on PS4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.