Our Life: Beginnings and Always and the power of incidental queerness

Our Life: Begnnings and Always is a visual novel that allows players to self-determine the gender and queerness of characters. What better way to celebrate queer, trans, and nonbinary people?

As a sucker for love with an inability to competently play most video games, I really enjoy the casual entertainment offered by visual novels, which are interactive, narrative-based video games driven by player-selected dialogue, often romantic in nature. A bad visual novel will make you feel more like a hostage than a participant, but a good visual novel can suck you in for hours without you realizing that it’s past midnight and your partner would really like it if you’d come to bed, please. GB Patch GamesOur Life: Beginnings and Always is one of the latter, with its cast of uniquely human characters and honest storytelling often keeping me up well past a reasonable hour.

Our Life has been my go-to game for the past five months—it’s the visual novel equivalent of a blanket fresh from the dryer, and I love cozying up with it after a long work day. Beyond its beautiful artwork and relaxing soundtrack, this game’s idealistic treatment of diverse gender identities and sexualities, which the characters come to better understand as they develop as people, creates an atmosphere that is overwhelmingly comforting.      The incidental queerness that underlies—but doesn’t dominate—the game’s plot creates an effortlessly inclusive environment that makes Our Life one of the most pleasant visual novel experiences I’ve ever had.

Our Life
Image credit: GB Patch Games (screengrab)

Like many visual novels, Our Life centers on the interpersonal relationships between the player’s character (whose default name is Jamie Last) and the characters around them, including the game’s potential love interest, Cove Holden. The game takes place in a small town along the coast of California, where the player lives and where Cove moves to as a child. When he first arrives in Sunset Bird, Cove is dealing with the very recent divorce of his parents and is understandably upset about the huge life changes he’s facing. As some of the only children in their small town, Jamie and Cove become unwilling friends when their parents set up play-dates and trips together—it’s up to the player to decide whether they remain that way, or if their mutual tolerance grows into something more as they grow up together.

One of my favorite things about Our Life is that the platonic aspects of the game are just as—if not more—impactful as the romantic, making the game accessible to people who might not be interested in the romance aspect of visual novels. Even if I chose not to have a romantic relationship between Jamie and Cove, I found that helping him work through the confusingly negative emotions he struggles to understand helped me, too. I realized while playing the game that I was telling Cove things that I would’ve liked to hear as a child, and even as an adult. When Jamie tells Cove that—no matter how uncertain the future is, no matter what they choose to do post-graduation—they’ll be okay, I’m telling myself that it’s okay that I have no idea what I’m doing in my own career path. This year has tested my self-confidence and has made me feel like I’ve stagnated in most aspects of my professional and personal life. But seeing Jamie encourage Cove to face the unknown with a smile, understanding how far the two of them have come and har far they’ve yet to go? It’s something that I really, really needed to see. Not to be dramatic, but Our Life has kept me grounded in my own life and has honestly been my lifeline this year.

Image credit: GB Patch Games (screengrab)

Yet, even more impactful than this is Our Life’s seemingly effortless inclusivity. Throughout the game, the player can change some of Jamie’s traits—including their pronouns. If the player chooses to change Jamie’s pronouns throughout the game, they’re given the chance to shape how those pronouns reflect the character’s gender presentation, including their clothing and hairstyle. The player can decide pretty much every physical trait of their character, from skin color to hairstyle, and they can even choose to have their character undergo gender confirmation surgery through internal dialogue options later in the game. Regardless of what one decides to do with the player character, every other character in the game reacts with acceptance and understanding. It never feels forced, and it always feels reaffirming.

I appreciate that when I’m playing this game, I’m never bracing myself for someone to be awful towards my trans (and sometimes nonbinary) player character. Even if a character is rude to Jamie, it’s never targeted at their appearance or identities. As a nonbinary person who isn’t fully out and who gets misgendered on the regular, I can’t fully articulate how impactful it was to see nobody trip over my character’s pronouns or question any aspect of their gender presentation. You can change plenty of aspects of the game, but other characters’ acceptance of Jamie’s gender and sexual identities isn’t one of them.

While I’m still waiting for this to be my own reality, I appreciate that Our Life allows me to experience what it could be like to have widespread respect towards trans and nonbinary people. This aspect of the game highlights another experience I rarely have when playing visual novels. Typically, when I play romantic visual novels, the player character is a woman, sometimes a man, and always set in stone—I rarely find visual novels that allow me to choose my character’s gender, let alone change it throughout the story.

Image credit: GB Patch Games (screengrab)

This always adds a layer of disconnect for me, because I can’t visualize myself as the player character with the binary language putting up a sort of wall between me and the story. I never use my own name for the player character in other visual novels, because it feels like I’m getting misgendered throughout the game, and I’m always waiting for major aspects of the game to be misogynistic or bigoted in some way. Once in a while I come across transphobic jokes in a visual novel that make it nearly impossible to enjoy the rest of the game, because I know that the writers clearly didn’t write their visual novel for people like me to play. If there isn’t a preset name for the player character, I have a standard name I use instead of my own, because I never feel comfortable with viewing myself as the cis protagonist (for anyone curious, the name I use is Rhys). Although I still don’t use my own name when I play this game—I always go with preset names if they’re provided—the fluidity offered by Our Life regarding gender and sexuality is really something special. I don’t always use they/them pronouns for my Jamie, but I do always make them trans and/or nonbinary. Having the game itself acknowledge my character’s transness is definitely a novel experience for me—usually I just have to headcanon all my player characters as trans.

Our Life’s incidental queerness is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes-claustrophobic media landscape that so often seems to revel in the pain of LGBTQ+ people.

This is just one example of how Our Life let me lower my guard and trust that I wouldn’t be caught by surprise by negative reactions to the game’s queer characters. Jamie’s two mothers openly and easily show affection for each other, without any of the other characters giving them another look as they casually flirt or display physical intimacy. They raise their children in an environment that welcomes differences, explaining that Jamie and their sister, Liz, can always confide in their mothers about gender and sexuality without worrying about judgment.    

Our Life in general seems to invite the player to relax, to trust that they’re safe in Sunset Bird in ways that might not exist in real life. And I believe it, especially with how idyllic the setting is—the game references the legalization of same-sex marriage at some point, but otherwise there isn’t even implied bigotry against LGBT+ people throughout Our Life, let alone acts of violence. Sexuality in Our Life is rightfully treated as something to be celebrated. When Cove is a young adult, he confides in the player character that he’s come to understand his sexuality betterhe excitedly explains that he identifies as demisexual and panromantic, and he listens happily as Jamie explains their own experience with gender and sexuality. To see every character easily accept anything the player reveals about themself is monumental in how understated their reactions are.

Our Life’s incidental queerness is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes-claustrophobic media landscape that so often seems to revel in the pain of LGBTQ+ people. I do believe that all queer experiences are worth exploring in media, and I’m not suggesting that LGBTQ+ writers sanitize their stories to make them more rose-tinted or palatable. Plus, media in general has definitely made steps towards accepting stories that celebrate queerness in addition to those that focus exclusively on coming out or other struggles related to being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. However, sometimes I just want to submerge myself in a more ideal world where I can talk to anyone without worrying about how they’re perceiving me or drawing conclusions based on who they think they see. Our Life: Beginnings and Always has been—and will continue to be—a game that allows me to experience that ideal and hope for the day when that becomes my reality.

Our Life: Beginnings and Always can be played via itch.io

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