I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Victoria Dominowski, the developer of Secret Little Haven (SLH), whose Steam page describes it as:
An adventure game about old computers, community, creativity, fandom, gender, and the internet. Alex Cole is a teenage trans girl in 1999 who has yet to figure herself out. She spends much of her free time on the internet, browsing a fan forum for her favorite magical girl show, and chatting with her friends.
We discuss inspiration, the development of SLH, Victoria’s perfect society, and some other various thoughts. After the interview, I included a small segment discussing the current debates about trans people in politics.
Thanks for the interview, Victoria! 🙂 It was a pleasure talking to you.
Are there any games you have a fond memory of or that have inspired you?
A lot of my formative years were in the late 90s (Real shocker, I know), and as a Nintendo-only kid for much of that time, I ended up playing a lot of 3D platformers and JRPGs.
Those have remained my two favorite genres to this day, as a matter of fact! Though if I had to pick a few of some of my favorites across any era, they would include Banjo-Kazooie, Dragon Quest Monsters 2, Mario Artist: Polygon Studio, NiGHTS into Dreams, Ristar, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Katamari Damacy, and Pokémon Gold/Silver.
What inspired you to make SLH?
One day I was browsing through a thrift store looking for an office chair, and I stumbled across a pink iMac G3 for about 20 bucks. I thought it was absolutely adorable, so I picked it up and started playing with it at home.
I was enamored with the cozy, tactile, and dare I say feminine user experience of the old Mac OS 9, and how it’s so different from the hyper-optimized, minimalist, spartan computer interfaces of today.
I chatted with my friend Jenn about the iMac, and she mentioned how the feminine design of it reminded her of how queer kids had to be cautious of learning more about themselves online in the early days of the internet lest their parents find out.
From there, we eventually brainstormed an idea for a game about a trans kid using her computer and online friends to figure herself out in the early 90s, and SLH was born!
Why make SLH a game instead of a different form of media?
The shorter answer is just that games are what I’ve always known. More than any other media, I feel confident using an interactive space to tell a story, so that’s what I’ve pursued in my life. The longer answer is that such a space can let you more easily understand a person when you’re doing the things they would do, seeing the things they would see, and through the effective use of visual metaphor, hopefully feel the things they feel. Secret Little Haven has basically no narration whatsoever – it’s purely dialogue in terms of text, and all the rest of the narrative is implied by the operating system containing it. This allows for a unique opportunity to recontextualize a tool most of us all use every day (Instant Messenger software) for narrative purposes. The things that we all take for granted in daily life as natural parts of using said systems (i.e The time it takes someone to respond, the fear that our implied meaning wouldn’t be carried through just by text alone, etc.) can all reveal their own meaning when used deliberately in a story. I don’t think something like that could be easily done in a book or film where the pace is always static, especially when adapting an experience with a piece of software that is freeform by nature.
If you could change one thing about SLH, what would you change?
The terminal segments were WAY too user-unfriendly in retrospect. I thought it would be cute to make the terminal commands reminiscent of Unix ones, but it ended up causing so many more problems in the end. Especially since I’m not that great of a programmer, so I didn’t really have the chops to parse input text in a lenient and flexible way. Apologies to everyone who struggled with that!
How much of the story is based on events from your life?
The entire story of the game, down to many of the small details, was taken to some degree from my own life, so if I were to list everything out, it’d fill a book. 😛 Instead, I’ll focus on the main point of comparison, Alex’s relationship with her father John. I won’t go into too much detail, but after my parents divorced, it became clear that my dad was a very angry, lonely man with a very conservative outlook on life. Even as a child, he had expectations that I would follow in his footsteps as a medical engineer and live a life like his. After the divorce, I was his main point of contact with anyone outside of his work life for a very long time, leading to a tenuous situation where I felt responsible for his emotional well-being, while also not ever feeling entirely comfortable around him in that state. I wrote Alex in a similar way, afraid to ever cross her father, while also feeling somewhat responsible for him, causing her to emotionally retreat from him and hide herself as much as she could.
Were any of the characters inspired by real people?
Sammy wasn’t based off of any person in particular, but rather as a emotional foil to Alex, showing the ways that different trans people process their feelings as they’re awakening to them, and how our environments can shape us into processing them in a variety of healthy or unhealthy ways. Andy was based in part off of my old school friend Andrew, who – as is SLH’s Andy – a bit of a poster child for how toxic masculinity fails men in our world by drowning them in unreasonable expectations that were never founded in the first place. Jenni was based on several of the older friends I had online when I was first socially exploring the internet in my youth, but not any one in particular – more so representing the idea a child has of late teenagers/early adults having figured everything out in life already and how that’s never actually the case for anyone of any age. Laguna is partially based on some of my online friends who helped me figure myself out when I was questioning my gender, but she’s also based on what I eventually tried to become as I transitioned and helped other trans people figure it out. I’ve heard many people come to me and say they’ve been both Alex and Laguna at different points in their life, and I think that totally fits!
Were there any moments that were especially difficult to write?
God, that “final boss” scene with John felt like I was talking right to my dad when I wrote it. In the past I’ve likened it to the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Cameron Fry is kicking the living hell out of his dad’s car, shouting “WHO DO YOU LOVE?!” each time. It really felt like I was indirectly processing my feelings of fear and burden to my dad, and thus I had to confront all of those at once on a personal level, too.
How does it feel knowing that SLH helped many people discover their identities?
Honestly, intensely humbled. I was initially worried that spilling all my guts, hopes, dreams, and experiences into this game would make it too specific to be relatable to anyone, but I’m continuously amazed to be proven wrong. In the event I succeeded, I just wanted to make a game that told someone the things I needed to hear when I was young and scared and full of strange feelings. Every time I hear from someone who was helped because of SLH, I’m amazed that a silly little game like mine could do such a thing. <3
Should CisHet people play queer games?
Absolutely! When well-made, interactive spaces can be really great ways to learn more about the experiences of others and live a little bit of their lives. Now more than ever, we queer people need allies who are willing to stand with us, and the more they understand us and our experiences, the easier it is for all of us. Plus, they get to have fun with some pretty neat games in the process!
Is there anything else we should look forward to from you?
I gotta be honest, I’ve settled in at my day job as a UX Designer at Ripple Effect, and I get my fill of game development during the workday. Thus, I haven’t really made much headway on any personal projects since. Not to mention the development of SLH was such a whirlwind grind, and I want any game projects I do in the future to proceed at a more relaxed, sustainable pace. I had dropped out of college right around the time I started developing the game solo, and for all of the game’s development, I felt as if I didn’t make this work, I was really screwed. In a bittersweet way, that fear was actually pretty justified – all of my major game development jobs happened because I had this game on my résumé, so I’m not sure what my life would have been like if it didn’t work out. I like to hope I’ve overcome a bit of that anxiety since, but such things tend to stick around even after the dust has settled.
What is your idea of a perfect society?
I’m pretty vocal about my political views online – if I had to put a label on it, maybe “Left Libertarian” or “Socialist with Anarchist leanings”. Thus, I believe a perfect society is one without hard borders, with strong communities that provide for each other, where public services are always the first line of defense for fixing problems, where everyone’s basic needs are met by their communities, and where it is unthinkable that anyone would own things for a living instead of working for a living.
What would you say to anyone in the same position as Alex?
You can be trans without permission from anyone else. If you feel like you need someone to “believe you” about your feelings for them to be valid, then they already are. You can find friends who will be there to support you, and things can always get better. You’ll figure it out. <3
The Political Discourse About Trans People
I usually like to keep politics separated with 8 Ball, but I’m going to make an exception for the following reasons.
- Recent events have brought it back into the spotlight
- The topic is incredibly important to me
- This interview is relevant
Recently, former US President Donald Trump released a video. In it, he vowed, if re-elected to criminalize gender-affirming care, punish doctors who provide it and push schools to promote the heteronormative nuclear family.
The Republican party as a whole has been trying to criminalize being transgender and target transgender people. Many red states have proposed and/or passed legislation starting this process.
Much of their argument is based on the idea that they are trying to protect children. However, what they’re doing is quite the opposite.
This argument that falls apart when studies appear showing that gender affirming care reduces the rates in which trans kids commit suicide.
If they really cared so much for protecting kids, they would listen to these studies and instead refocus their attention to preventing the school shootings which are happening on a nearly weekly basis instead of hiding behind the second amendment.
Thankfully, President Joe Biden in his latest State of the Union speech vowed to protect the rights of the trans and LGBTQ+ community. However, as his term nears its completion, we can only hope that whoever is elected in the upcoming 2024 election supports trans rights or enough progress is made that those rights are protected.
Trans rights are human rights.
I hope you enjoyed! I’m sorry it ended on a bit of a depressing and anxious note, but it’s important for people to know about this
Victoria, thank you so much for letting me interview you! I really enjoyed speaking with you.