a new life from Angela He centers lesbians of color

Join gamer and writer Amanda Galemmo for an exploration of the new lesbian video game a new life.

There’s a general misconception, now waning in popularity, that teenage boys are the only people who play and enjoy video games. This idea is so firmly held in our culture that many people feel dissuaded from ever picking up a controller. But video games are more than just console titles: games from the last decade like Farmville and Candy Crush made aunts all over the world hardcore gamers and DIY independent videogames have rapidly diversified the gaming landscape.

In the early stages of the internet, websites like Newgrounds and lightweight animation softwares like Flash allowed anybody to make a video game and publish it on the internet. Some of you might remember Line Rider or QWOP. Now, open marketplaces like itch.io and Steam in combination with free game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine allow anyone to make and sell professional-grade video games all by themselves.

The omniscience and orientation of the gameplay around making A/B choices defines a new life. as a beautifully illustrated interactive novel, making it a smooth introduction for non-gamers into this storytelling medium.

Creator Angela He is prolific on itch.io, with a diverse library of role-playing games, visual novels, and even a simulator. Her most recent published work is the visual novel a new life., a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque story that follows a lesbian couple from the inception of their relationship to its varied ends. Benchmarks in the relationship are influenced by choices the player made over the course of the narrative. You don’t play as any particular character, but rather dictate the choices that both characters make. Some branches lead to immediate dead ends, others push the narrative forward and further explore the couple’s life together. This omniscience and orientation of the gameplay around making A/B choices defines a new life. as a beautifully illustrated interactive novel, making it a smooth introduction for non-gamers into this storytelling medium.

The protagonist, if there is one, is August, a reserved, aesthetic opposite to her bubblegum pink girlfriend May. In the opening scene, August sits alone in the cafeteria when May approaches and asks to join her. The player is given an option–tell May that the extra seat is free, or deny her and say that you’re saving it for someone. If you invite her to sit, a conversation is sparked and the courtship begins. If not, August and May continue their lives separately from each other and the game effectively ends, August’s last thoughts wondering how one small choice influenced her entire life.

On my initial playthrough of the game, I found myself enchanted by He’s art style and the way she’d designed the game to fit around it. Rather than creating a world and character sprites and endless animations for every element, the illustrations are simple paintings against an undulating background of soft brush strokes, giving even the simplest two frame animations a breath of life. I found myself rather invested, making choices that I’d hoped would lead to a long and happy life together for August and May.

Exactly like the spectre of coronavirus that looms over us at every moment, the characters would occasionally receive news updates about “morbigavirus,” the narrative’s Africa-originated equivalent of COVID-19. Swept up in the beauty of young love, however, I brushed aside warnings the game wanted me to take seriously and made cavalier choices for the couple: Yes, invite all friends and family to your wedding! Oh, May’s going to the grocery store? Great, I’ll have August ask her to buy snacks. Everything was going wonderfully. My gays were happy and in love, just up until tragedy struck. May had contracted morbigavirus and died in the hospital.

The story wasn’t really over, though. Yes, I hit a (literal) dead end, but the game gives players the opportunity to rewind back through the chapters of the relationship. Every scene is kept in the table of contents of a journal, making it easy to jump back to where you left off or replay a scene you wish you’d played differently. Cleverly avoiding the inevitable repetitiveness of rewinding to scenes already played, the game remembers where you’d been and what you did and supplies revisited scenes with more streamlined dialogue or a branch of dialogue previously inaccessible. If the last attempt ended poorly, subtle hints are dropped, nudging you in the right direction. The game lets you fail, but wants you to reach a satisfying ending. It’s on your side the entire way. 

By working as a solo developer He has been able to tell stories about lesbians of color that aren’t watered down or white washed.

Looking at the rest of He’s projects, she pretty solely interested in creating lesbian narratives, and by working as a solo developer she’s been able to tell stories about lesbians of color that aren’t watered down or white washed. a new life. feels very specifically like the creation of an Asian-American internet denizen, with its emphasis on the cute/goth dichotomy, anime-influenced art style, and its repackaging of coronavirus as a virus that is decidedly not of Chinese origin. It’s understandable why this change was made: COVID was heavily racialized early on, and powerful figures continue to weaponize the pandemic. But reimagining the disease as one that originated from Africa feels like regifting an awful Christmas sweater–everyone knows it’s a bad gift, and the recipient especially knows the regifter thought it’d be fine to give it to them, and no one’s happy.

Credit: itch.io

True DIY storytelling is done outside of institutional support networks, without huge teams of people, without layers and layers of red tape designed to make the finished product as widely palatable as possible. Independent video games have become a home for digital DIY queer art, and artists often ignored by the establishment have tools that allow them to create and publish stories on their own terms. a new life. is one of those stories. If you’re starved for gay content, I’d recommend playing through the game– it’s short and sweet and can be completed in one sitting.

Writer’s note:a new life. is available on Steam and itch.io for $2.99. For what it’s worth, I would recommend purchasing through itch.io as creators are allowed to control what percentage of the purchase goes back to the platform.

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