Solo: Islands of the Heart

Solo: Islands of the Heart is, in the words of the developers, “A contemplative puzzler set on a gorgeous and surreal archipelago” wherein the player “Reflect[s] on love’s place in [their] life with a personal and introspective branching narrative.” This sounds like peak me: I love puzzles, surreal landscapes, love, and introspection! To top it off, the game offers some flexibility regarding gender representation; you’re not automatically forced into a binary heteronormative default. I snatched it up pretty quickly after learning about it (and confirming that it at least attempted to be queer-friendly) and completed a run after a few days of casual pick-up-and-put-down play. While I’m not sure that it was quite what I’d hoped it would be, it made enough of an impression on me that I feel the need to write about it. Be warned, there may be some things that resemble spoilers ahead, but the game is very much dependent upon what you put into it, so I’m not even sure spoiling is… a thing.

The basics…

The basic gist of the game is that you hop around from island to island trying to activate totems. There are two pieces to each; you activate a small one, which shines a light at a large one which you can then talk to. Talking to the large totems asks you a question related to love, after which a new island opens up. There are some other minor puzzles along the way, like helping smitten dogs reach one another or watering gardens; these are all optional and don’t move anything forward in the game. Puzzles involve moving five different types of boxes around, generally so you can move upward to a place you can’t reach, or float via parachute to a far away bit of land. They are, for the most part, pretty simple and somewhat flexible in terms of solving. They can be frustrating in terms of guiding just how high up or far out you need to be to land on that island – suddenly you’re in the water again swimming back to your pile of boxes.

In my experience, there was a considerable disconnect between the ‘do a box puzzle’ and the ‘talk about your love life’ elements. I suspect that part of the idea here is to allow the introspective side of your brain some time to relax by running the lateral thinking bits instead. And, as a whole, I didn’t really mind that disconnect – but it stacked up with other things. I mentioned that it was fairly easy to misjudge just how high or far out you’d need to coax the boxes, lest you plunge into the sea. This happened to me quite a lot, often multiple times on the same puzzle in later stages. Swimming is slow, and faster swimming is achieved by hitting a certain rhythm with the swim button. This decision, too, I can easily justify as an exercise in mindfulness instead of impatiently button-mashing. But these things compound – things start feeling like busy work keeping you at bay while the totems think of something to ask.

Regarding the questions…

The questions the totems ask are not trivial, they run a fairly wide gamut and certainly lend themselves to introspection. Early on, one basically asked if I was polyamorous which… is honestly a very important sort of acknowledgement in a game like this. You’re asked how important things like sex and shared values are; you’re asked if you would abandon your family for a lover. You’re also asked questions that relate more directly to the path you choose at the beginning – that is, are you in love, have you loved and lost, or have you never loved at all. It’s easy, when answering this at the beginning of the game, to fall into the trap of your character being you. And, to be fair, I think that it would be a waste of energy to not align your choices in the game with your personal life and feelings. But, it’s important to keep a bit of distance, as the game will occasionally contradict your answers or dive into things that quite possibly aren’t at all applicable to your situation.

For example, having chosen in earnest the ‘in love once, but not now’ option, I was asked a lot of questions as to why I thought the relationship failed. One was about time, did I think time played a role. After answering ‘no’, the next question basically opened with ‘okay, but time basically had to play into it’, directly contradicting my honest response. This was the first moment where I got annoyed and began to realize I needed to distance myself from the little tiny on-screen version of me that I was shaping. Some of the responses were, to me, absurd to the point of throwing me right out of the game’s depth, such as “You can’t fully hate what you don’t fully love”. But again, the key was to answer honestly while consciously separating myself from my avatar.

About those gender options…

I’d be remiss to not touch on the matter of gender. You can independently choose one of three body styles for your character, and one of three ‘genders’. While the game refers to it as gender and gives you the option of male, female, and non-binary, what it actually means is pronouns. To be clear, I’m glad that they put an effort into making this game inclusive, I’m glad that you can use they/them pronouns. But that’s not gender, and there’s no reason not to call it what it is. Both you and your partner1 get the three options; you can change yours at any time. It’s a root-level option in the pause menu, right with ‘Back to the main menu’ and ‘Settings’. This is absolutely the right way to handle a thing, and should be seen as an example for all developers to follow. Your partner is static upon initial choosing, which… is honestly a little weird, given the player’s flexibility. I would like to see this reconsidered.

In closing…

I’m glad that I played this game. I’d have to be very cautious in recommending it, however: it’s very short, it’s not great as a puzzle game, and the disconnects mentioned (between puzzle and introspection, between player and avatar) are a little tricky to reckon with. I doubt there’s much in the way of replay value – even writing this, I’d like to go through the beginning again to pull some direct quotations but at the same time… I really don’t want to. I might play through a different path if I find myself in love again, but even that feels like a toss-up. Still, there aren’t a lot of games doing this sort of emotional introspective adventure, and I think there’s a lot of value in it. And even though the matter of gender may be a bit flawed, enough of an attempt was made such that the game feels fairly inclusive (or, at least, not intentionally exclusive).

Fight our administration's hate, now. (external)

Link goes to Lambda Legal’s donate page. So many people need you to do it, if you’re here and you have a spare buck or two. I’m really tired of making these posts, but our administration wants to eliminate trans people, one way or another. Frankly, I believe they want to eliminate all queer people, but trans folks are the low-hanging fruit right now. I’m not here to contribute to the infighting, but trans men, trans women, trans enbies… isolated in the fight. And the administration knows that. They know that it’s a weakness. Fuck Jeff Sessions and his fucking memo. Fight.


A call to donate to Lambda Legal (external)

Well, bad horrifying news out of the White House today, no surprise there. Lambda Legal is a 501(c)3 legal organization fighting for the civil rights of queer and HIV positive folks. They do good work, and have already committed to fight this act of bigotry. Link in the header is to their donate page, they’re top on my to-donate list at the moment. Additionally:

Try to take care of yourselves, all. ⚧

How not to write about trans folks

While looking for something entirely unrelated, I came across this article from the San Diego Union-Tribune about a new book on Wendy Carlos. I wouldn’t actually recommend reading the article, as it comes off rather vapid and hollow, and the Union-Tribune’s website is extremely user-hostile. A couple of things stood out to me, however. First of all, I do think journalists and their publications are generally getting a bit better about talking about trans folks. This article could have been much worse. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

For one thing, the article casually deadnames Carlos for no reason. Throughout the article, they do refer to her as Wendy (and they never misgender her), but just once there’s a pointless little parenthetical with her deadname. I get that she released albums under that name, and I suppose this could be a point of confusion for some casual listener, but any further research by an interested reader would clear this up. In my opinion, there needs to be a very good reason to deadname a trans person, and this article sorely lacked one.

As I mentioned, the article is actually about a new book about Carlos (or, I suppose, about Switched on Bach). The author, Roshanak Kheshti, is a UC San Diego professor, and talks a bit in the article about diversity and intersectionality in the music scene, apparently a running theme in her coursework as well. What fascinates me is that, in an article that is simultaneously about a prominent transgender musician and a professor who teaches about the impact of marginalized groups on culture, gender identity is not mentioned once. I don’t know if this was a matter of Kheshti not bringing up (say) the struggle of transgender musicians, or if the paper simply plucked their quotations around it, but it’s a really strange omission.

I look forward to checking out Kheshti’s book once it comes out, and I have this article to thank for that. But as I mentioned above, it was a rather hollow read and could have done so much more to acknowledge the realities that trans musicians are dealing with. Now more than ever, the media should feel an obligation to lift up marginalized groups, and subtle deadnaming and inattention to their subjects’ realities does not an obligation fulfill.

Breaking Binaries (external)

Wonderfully written article about intersectionality catching up with feminism, particularly in the world of classical composition. What’s interesting to me is that that’s sort of the surface narrative here, but it’s really about marginalized groups trying so hard to get their voices heard, their tiny slices of power, that they forget other marginalized groups that are fighting alongside them. It’s kind of a refreshing article, as it’s not about TERFs or any sort of intentional exclusion necessarily… More the collateral damage of little wins, the ease in which we get caught up in them.

Site is behind some kind of paywall or something, so hopefully the reader hasn’t read two articles on ‘Van’ before. Not sure if that is in a month, or a year, or ever… pretty unclear. Just block cookies, I guess.

Many organizations need support now; Trans Lifeline is one (external)

I haven’t really known what to write or think or do since last Wednesday, but I’m hoping to populate these pages with some more puzzles and game development in the coming days. Attempt to re-channel some of my energy into creating things that might bring a touch of joy. In the meantime, there was one thing I immediately realized – many trans men, women, and youth across the nation were going to be hurting, they were going to be terrified. Trans Lifeline is a crisis hotline for transgender people, and they experienced a record number of calls following the election results. A lot of organizations need help right now, and this is one of them. ⚧