I’ll level with you, dear reader: as a heterosexual man, I’ve never really made checking out boys’ love (BL) media a particular priority — though I must also admit that I’ve been curious for quite a while to see what it’s like.
My past experiences with otome games aimed at heterosexual women have been universally positive, after all (play Sweet Fuse, it’s amazing!) so there’s absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t be able to enjoy a BL title, too. As I’ve discovered since leaving the mainstream side of gaming behind, keeping an open mind and stepping outside of what you might typically think of as your “comfort zone” pretty much always pays off with some memorable experiences.
And thus, when independent developer Studio Senpai reached out and asked me to take a look at their work-in-progress visual novel The Secrets We Keep, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take my first steps into a brave new world. Also, the concept of the novel sounded highly intriguing, too, so that definitely helped! So let’s explore together.
The Secrets We Keep is a visual novel that focuses on the life of Finn, a gay man in his early twenties who, through circumstances that aren’t made entirely apparent in the currently available demo version of the game, has a daughter not quite two years of age.
As a single father in the modern world, Finn is presented with constant struggles: how to make enough money to keep him and his daughter fed, clothed and safe, and how to ensure that the process of making that money doesn’t completely estrange him from his daughter.
That’s not all that Finn has on his plate, either. He and his parents are on bad terms for two reasons: firstly, Finn had no desire to follow his father’s intentions for him, which was to attend Yale and become a high-flying politician, instead desiring to become a concert pianist; and secondly, Finn’s father was emphatically not cool with the whole gay thing.
While understandably holding a grudge for the way his parents all but disowned him, Finn has been trying to make the best of a difficult life. He works two jobs and spends what little free time he has left with with his daughter, who means everything to him. He struggles, but he survives.
Finn is also autistic, with everything that entails. This means that there are a lot of things he is uncomfortable with, including people invading his personal space, people touching him unexpectedly, people not following the “routines” he expects them to follow and unstructured interpersonal interactions in general. It also means that he’s keenly observant, passionate and absolutely dedicated to the things that are important to him.
One of the great things about The Secrets We Keep is that while it is an excellent example of a truly inclusive game, bringing some laudable representation to marginalised groups such as those “on the spectrum”, it doesn’t make a big deal about any of the characters’ traits; it never feels like a “diversity checklist”.
The fact that Finn is autistic isn’t actually mentioned directly in the game’s narration, but it’s something you can deduce quite easily, particularly if you have any experience interacting with autistic people — or indeed if you are one. (Hello. I have Asperger’s, if you didn’t know.)
His measured, polite, precise way of talking that rarely uses contractions; the fact he perceives fine details in his environment and in the people around him; his swinging moods and constant sense of unease; his desire for life to follow neat, predictable routines and patterns — all of these things combine to create a sensitive, understanding depiction of someone for whom autism is a daily part of existence without making a big deal about it. And in doing this, The Secrets We Keep also challenges some common misconceptions and prejudices about autistic people, such as the condition being related to learning difficulties; while there are things Finn clearly struggles with, it’s obvious that, for the most part, he’s a fully functional adult.
The core of the narrative concerns Finn, amid the exhausting chaos of his daily life, meeting and getting to know a man named Koloa. Depending on the choices you make in the game, the circumstances under which Finn meets Koloa change, but in each case, it’s clear that there’s some sort of mutual attraction there — attraction which Finn is understandably hesitant to act upon, particularly as it’s clear that even leaving the stuff with his father aside, he’s not had good previous luck with relationships.
The early encounters between Finn and Koloa are an excellent representation of what it can be like getting to know someone new as an autistic person; it can be initially exciting and thrilling to have someone show an interest in you, but as soon as you find yourself reaching “saturation point” in terms of social interactions, you just want to get away and take some time for your mind to recover in peace and quiet. And if you can’t do that for one reason or another, it can really sour the atmosphere as the “fight or flight” response kicks in and you start looking for increasingly desperate means to escape what, to neurotypical people, would probably be a fairly unremarkable situation.
This actually also brings up another particularly laudable aspect of how The Secrets We Keep depicts its characters: neither Finn nor Koloa mention that they are gay at any point — and in fact in one of the narrative paths Finn initially assumes that Koloa’s pretty sister Nina is his girlfriend — but the pair just naturally recognise that there’s a “spark” between them, regardless of their respective genders. (Of course, the fact that at least one of Finn’s interactions with Koloa is at the gay bar where he works helps, too.) This helps the way the relationship develops feel natural and believable — even when the way Finn’s mind works throws a few bumps in the road along the way.
Technically, The Secrets We Keep is very interesting. While narrated from a third-person perspective, one can present a convincing theory that said narration is nonetheless coming from Finn himself rather than an actual non-participant, omniscient narrator. The narration frequently makes quips about Finn’s behaviour which one can easily imagine being self-deprecating (or self-hating in a few instances) comments he would make about himself, and there is more than one example of the narrator pointing out how Finn is “definitely not” doing something when he absolutely is.
On top of that, a second playthrough reveals an interesting additional wrinkle: at certain key moments, the dialogue box changes colour from its usual pink to blue, and additional narration from Koloa’s perspective appears. These sequences are infrequent in the current demo and it’d be great to see some more in the final game, but the few times this technique is used, it’s immediately intriguing and surprising — plus it’s a great way of providing replay value for a type of game that isn’t particularly well-known for it!
At present, there are a few textual errors in the game, with the most obvious being that both Finn and Koloa’s ages change slightly several times throughout the text (Koloa in particular describes himself as thirty-one in the early scenes and thirty-six in the final scene of the demo) — but these are nothing a good proofread can’t fix, and the text is otherwise extremely well written and highly evocative, particularly when it comes to Finn’s passive observations of what is going on around him.
As for the game’s release status, Studio Senpai indicates that the game is presently in its “bare minimum” state to be ready for release, consisting of around 180,000 words and several alternative (quite different!) narrative paths to follow. Development has been challenging, however; a recent blog post indicated that trouble with the project’s original artist necessitated all the art assets for the game being completely replaced.
Thankfully, this appears to have all been taken care of now, and the project has taken to Kickstarter to expand the team’s vision with additional graphics, music and perhaps even voice acting and mobile ports depending on how much money is raised. The game is presently slated for its final release in the summer of 2020, and in the meantime you can check out the demo on itch.io or support the team’s work on an ongoing basis via Patreon.
This is a highly intriguing, deeply relatable visual novel about living life and finding love in the modern Western world. While I’m aware some readers baulk at the idea of English-first visual novels due to the number of self-referential “ironic” VNs out there that don’t take themselves at all seriously, what we have here is something that is well-written, clearly well-researched, and which very obviously comes from the heart.
In other words, if you’re tired of the stereotype of English-first visual novels being wacky, silly, meme-tastic high jinks, then this is the sort of thing you should be supporting. I wish Studio Senpai the very best of luck with their Kickstarter, and I very much look forward to seeing the finished product next year.
More about The Secrets We Keep
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