Review: Butterfly Soup

A loving tale of four Asian American girls coming of age and out of the closet in southern California.

From Brianna Lei, Butterfly Soup is a loving tale of four Asian American girls coming of age and out of the closet in southern California. Follow from four perspectives as they deal with the day-to-day trauma of parental expectations, play baseball, and fall in love.

A review for this game was requested via social media.

Most of the original art is in the sprite and character work, and there’s a lot of it when accounting for the fairly large cast outside the four main characters. There’re costume changes and different ages and body movements that create a fluidity of expressiveness. The character designs themselves boast a lovely variety of body types and racial identities. They’re very charming and there’s a lot of excellent visual emotive work and scenic structuring.

The backgrounds and some of the smaller CGs are crafted from photographic manipulations. Where this game does an excellent job with this technique, though, is the integration of this approach with original illustration on top of it. It makes the backgrounds feel more like original work and elevate it from what could be seen as a half-finished state. Everything has this scrim of “slightly unpolished” to it that reads as purposeful.

The writing is nearly flawless. With each segment following from the point of view of a different character, you’re able to spend a lot of time directly in each of their shoes. Each of the main protagonists has a strong voice with a beautifully crafted interior narrative. The balance between dialogue, inner monologue, and third-person narration even changes a little bit from perspective to perspective, creating a very textually intricate level of characterization that you “feel” more than you “read.” It’s breathtaking in its sincerity and painful in its realism. Hard subjects like depression, anxiety, impostor syndrome, racism, and parental emotional abuse are all handled with deft grace or a sledgehammer to the face as most appropriate for the subject matter. At no point does it ever shy away from the pure messiness of girlhood and queerness and the intersection of the two. This small cadre of teens are gross and gritty and imperfect and wonderful.

I was a little concerned, at first, about the level of hyper-relevancy in some of the pop culture references and memetic jokes. Direct references to Prop 8 and the election of President Obama work really well in anchoring the story in its authentic interpretation of late-aughts southern California. I wondered, though, if some of these jokes would be funny even a few years from now. Then I remembered that the game is already a few years old itself, and I still “got” the humor. So they managed to pick internet and weeb-culture references that are ingrained enough at this point that, even though it still dates the game, it has the capacity for a limited timelessness. Anything that doesn’t stick reads so expertly as teenage absurdist humor that, long-term, the humor will probably stay intact.

Playing baseball ends up being a perfect narrative delivery system for these intricate inter-social connections and conflicts. It’s a very elegant weaving of what could have been just slice of life with something a little more active and focused. The way the physical gameplay works does a great job balancing the pace of some of the slower parts, as well. In addition to the standard conversational choices, there are these interesting little point-and-click segments where you move between locations and get to make choices about what you look at or who you talk to or what order things unfold. Some times they feel little like gates for the sake of gating (having to talk to a character three times or about every subject, for example), but generally they do an excellent job of crafting a very unique-feeling interactive experience.

Butterfly Soup is an elegant coming-of-age story with all the hallmarks therein and then some. It’s an unflinching look at the real struggles of teenage girls caught in the cycle of parental abuse and their sometimes violent rebellion against it. Ultimately, though, with a shade of hope in the little ways they can find it through their friendship with each other.

Get it on in nine different languages.

Ashe Thurman

Spooktober 2022 Visual Novel Jam

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