Content warning: this article contains discussion and imagery of extreme bodily harm, transphobia, and suicide.
Hello, my name’s Nadia, beautiful and talented and esteemed Timber Owls writer, and I’m begging you to play The Missing. Please for the love of god you gotta play it. It’s impossible to fully discuss the ways this game excels without spoiling the hell out of it so if you’re interested at all, please go play it before you read this because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
If you had told me a year ago that my favorite game of 2018 would be an Inside-inspired platformer by Hidetaka Suehiro, taking place inside a suicidal trans woman’s dying dream, with the main character having to mutilate herself to progress through a bizarre world filled with preoccupations with body parts, with her identity as trans being a late game revelation, then a portrayal of a second suicide attempt within the dream, then experiencing firsthand bullying from shadowy high schoolers, and then seeing her in the real world, completely untransitioned, with a male actor voicing her, and then unlocking the ability to play as this real world version of her with completely redone voice work, I would have begged you to stop talking a long time ago.
And yet, here I am, thinking about The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, every single day, completely in love with it. It might be the best game I’ve ever played, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s a painfully honest story about being transgender in a transphobic society, and the gameplay and writing are wholly working together in order to convey that story with a degree of nuance and care that I almost never see outside of very small independent works by queer people. Suehiro (usually known by his nickname SWERY) used his particular set of skills to craft a game that not only shows what it’s like to be this trans character, but to make you really feel it.
On its face, The Missing is a story about two girls, J.J. and Emily, who go on an island camping trip together. Right from the start they seem to be working out budding romantic feelings for each other, with an awkward moment that ends in a tender kiss. After a fade to black, J.J. wakes up at the camp alone. You inhabit J.J. as she sets off to find Emily, and it’s not long before things go completely off the rails. J.J. is struck by lightning, and a weird doctor with a deer’s head seemingly bestows supernatural powers of regeneration upon her. From this point on, it becomes a puzzle game, where the mechanics revolve around J.J.’s limbs being torn off, her body being set on fire, her neck snapped. To make any progress from here on out, you’ll have to deliberately walk J.J. into all sorts of dangers and cause her extreme bodily harm. For a while into the game, it was easy to read this as being about how J.J. will do anything it takes for the girl she loves, but also will do anything it takes for a donut.
If you’re familiar with SWERY’s work, you’ll know it for its intense idiosyncrasies. His characters and plots are off-beat, and frequently take detours that can seem nonsensical at first, but often wind up being endearing. This manifests in The Missing through J.J.’s love of sweets, especially donuts. As you work your way through this island, you’ll find collectible donuts throughout the game, adding an additional challenge typical of puzzle platformers. Getting these donuts unlocks text messages with J.J.’s friends from college, concept art for the game, and cheats, which are mostly additional costumes for J.J. to wear. As you initially progress, the biggest motivator to get the donuts are the texts. The main backstory of the game comes through messages from Emily and from J.J.’s mom, which start to lead up to the day of the island trip, and with F.K., her now alive and texting stuffed animal. The conversations unlocked by the donuts fill in more of this time before the trip. They’re fun and convincingly written, and are peppered with cute stickers particular to each character; basically like the stickers you’ll see friends favoring in an app like LINE. J.J.’s friends seem to settle into archetypes, but are given enough depth to be likeable. All together these messages reveal a lot about the kind of person J.J. is.
J.J. Macfield is a lot of things; smart, sardonic, helpful, thoughtful, but shows different sides of herself to different people, saving most of her honesty for Emily, while being the most guarded to her mother. As the game went along and I got to know J.J. more, I started to wonder about some things. Like how did such a loud, showy bro like Philip manage to get close with J.J.? Why is Lily, uh, like that to her? It’s kinda weird for a male professor to be texting her right? And also what in the hell is going on with this video game that I’m playing?
After a handful of hours of mutilating my way through bars and bowling alleys, being ripped apart by the jacked up toy baby monster from Toy Story, seeing bizarre body imagery revolving around da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man but with a deer head, and being chased by a razor wielding hair demon, The Missing finally began to show its hand. After seeing a decent chunk of J.J.’s backstory, combined with the knowledge that the game is pretty explicitly queer, I turned to my wife and asked, “hey do you think J.J. is trans?” And about thirty minutes later, a text appears confirming it: J.J.’s mom went snooping in her room and found her girl clothes. From here on out the game immediately becomes an emotional roller coaster, as Emily runs away from J.J. and openly rejects her, texts appear where her mom starts making plans to “fix” her, rumors begin spreading at school, and J.J. begins lashing out at Emily and withdrawing from the world around her.
Revealing a character to be transgender is always a risky move, and almost never a smart one, but here, it works due to the sincerity and empathy of the game’s writing. It’s not a shocking twist, but a revelation that’s slowly built up to through a fragmented, surreal plot. By introducing explicit queer themes at the beginning, and slowly filling out J.J.’s character by showing her relationships and anxieties, finding out she’s a young transgender woman just becomes the piece to tie everything together, to begin making sense of a story and setting that borders on incomprehensible without it. That’s kind of a lie though, because the actual final piece is the real twist of the game: J.J.’s been dreaming this whole thing. The Emily she’s chasing is invented. J.J. is in the middle of dying by her own hand.
J.J. Macfield is at war with herself, with her mom, with the people around her, with society. Pushed to her limits, seeing no way out, and unable to trust the person who means the most to her, she spills her own blood on the floor of her school in a final attempt to relieve everyone of the burden she feels she is.
But that’s not what The Missing is about. This is a story about regeneration. Jackie Jameson’s regeneration!
With all these revelations in place, everything within The Missing began to click in ways that it seemed to tilt at earlier, but now appeared blatant. The more I thought about the various parts of this game, the more things I realized were deliberately placed. But it’s no puzzle box. If you make it to the credits you’ll know exactly what was being conveyed without having to painstakingly analyze every single scene. It expertly uses its disparate imagery to make you internalize the message by the time it’s spelled out for you. Something I’ve found is that trying to “solve” the imagery of the game is a fool’s errand, as almost everything is used to convey multiple meanings. So I’m not here to tell you what everything in The Missing means, rather what it means to me.
Well kind of because there’s a few broad things that I think are pretty clear but you get what I mean probably.
When I said that J.J. will do anything for a donut I wasn’t entirely wrong. The important distinction is that J.J. has no choice but to do anything for a donut. For many trans people, for myself, something as harmless as a run to the donut shop means putting yourself through unavoidable stress and emotional pain. J.J.’s entire existence is one of scrutiny and pressure. She’s surrounded by people who don’t understand her and a society made to be hostile to her very being. Forcing J.J. through deadly traps, miserably crawling along the ground to progress, and having her pull herself back together when she’s able to takes these often intangible problems and displays them in a very tangible way, helping players really understand how hard it can be. The violence is exaggerated and somewhat obscured through visual style, but the sounds of J.J.’s body being torn apart coupled with her anguished screams and bits of gore and flesh hanging from her wounds make every maiming she receives incredibly uncomfortable to witness. Until you get used to it.
Beyond just the base portrayal of J.J. as having to struggle to do anything, The Missing goes a step further and makes sure it’s truly felt through playing it. A common criticism of the game is that it controls awkwardly and can be frustrating to get through many of the puzzles. It’s easy to lose track of what button changes J.J.’s stance or the exact process of throwing an object. When she’s injured, she slows down, becomes unable to walk far without tripping, or generally loses some important mobility. It can often feel like a cop-out to say this is all intentional (and I’m pretty sure struggling to interact with the right object in a group of objects definitely isn’t), but in order for it all to really come through, a lot of this is necessary. The more you play, the more you become familiar with the difficulties and limitations of J.J. during her various states, and start to find ways to make it more manageable. Ah, so when she takes an impact and the world turns upside down, she can only walk this many steps before she trips, so if I jump right before she trips, I can get through this more quickly. The more you deal with these obstacles, the more you know just the right thing to do in order to overcome it. It runs parallel to the way I learn my own limits and figure out the best ways to handle difficult situations through life as a marginalized person. I still have to put myself through the grinder but I get better at mitigating the stress of it. Alongside this is the way the brutal violence of the game starts to become mundane. When you spend enough time with it, seeing J.J.’s leg sliced off for the hundredth time doesn’t bother you as much. The discomfort never completely goes away, but it starts to become more like background noise.
Death in The Missing represents, well, death. As J.J. drifts away in the real world, a paramedic delivers a shock to her chest to keep her heart working, and in her dream, it manifests as the lightning bolt that gives her the ability to keep going. The vast majority of the game takes place in between the first and second shocks to her heart, but it’s up to J.J. to keep herself alive. Broadly, the obstacles of the game convey the oppressive society that J.J. has to deal with at every turn alongside her own self-hatred. Despite her apparent immortality in this dream world, J.J. can meet her end in two different ways: either she takes damage when she’s only a head and has no parts left to lose (repeated stress and self-harm without ever taking the time to recuperate) or when she is caught and pulled under by the otherworldly hands that appear with the hairshrieker. The hairshrieker is the apparent villain of the game, first functioning as the scary monster that chases J.J. and Emily across the island, but ultimately representing J.J. at her worst, full of self-loathing and a desire to self destruct.
That the hairshrieker is a manifestation of J.J. herself, or at least some larger idea, isn’t exactly a surprise. The best horror media tends to use their monsters to serve a point, after all. But for a while it served as a point of anxiety. As my suspicions that The Missing was a trans narrative grew, I began to worry exactly how it’d be handled. It’s got an ominous doctor, puzzles filled to the brim with severed body parts and mutilation, and a shrieking monster running around with a razor blade, and I started bracing for a tone deaf narrative about gender reassignment surgery. That in particular is a favorite beat of cisgender people overly concerned with the genitals of trans people, and is typically used for cheap shock value. Thankfully it doesn’t do any of this, taking a more holistic view of trans bodies and the pressures and expectations of society with regards to them. This is the body you have, this is the body you should aspire to, take these parts and arrange them correctly to fit the masculine form. The second a person realizes that the gender assigned to them doesn’t feel right, they become forever locked into a struggle for ownership of their body and their very identity. For J.J. this is foregrounded via her mother.
As you progress through The Missing, parallel stories are unfolding through messages with Emily and with J.J.’s mother. Emily is a veritable bundle of love and support, excitedly making plans for J.J.’s birthday and always lending a shoulder to lean on. She represents the future that J.J. wants; one where she can be the person she truly is, with someone she loves, forging her own path forward. Her mother, conversely, is the embodiment of the societal expectations that keep her feeling trapped. She justifies all of her concerns and demands through the lens of “I just want the best for my child”, but in reality are ways to form J.J. into the person she wants her to be: a physically prime, successful man who will pass on the Macfield name to another generation. What J.J. wants for herself has no bearing on the matter, and her mother responds to every “deviation” with everything from scolding to scheduling conversion therapy.
These anxieties centered around the “man” J.J. is expected to be are reflected constantly throughout the game’s world. Beyond the aforementioned Vitruvian Man puzzle, J.J. will bury the heavy corpses of men, arrange a collage of masculine power fantasies, and be shredded and maimed by both male and female coded toys. Toys are often used as a kind of cliche shorthand, where a trans woman recounts how in her younger years she would drift toward baby dolls and away from toy race cars (not to say that kind of narrative doesn’t exist or isn’t valid in reality). In The Missing, baby dolls and toy monkeys are additional elements to an environment heavily informed by expectations. Approach the feminine one and find yourself shredded to pieces. Approach the masculine and you’re allowed to remain in one piece but left limping and with your world upside down. When you’re trans there’s no winning.
What’s important and special about The Missing is the empathy and validation extended to this young woman going through some of the worst times of her life. J.J. Macfield is under attack from seemingly every direction and has an incredibly hard time overcoming these struggles. At no point is she judged or shamed for not handling things particularly well. No one handles anything perfectly, and while we obviously want to try and push through obstacles in the best way that we can, it’s incredibly difficult to keep yourself together through hard times. J.J., quite frankly, can be a bit of an asshole sometimes. You can see bits of it in how she prods the protein chugging doofus Philip, but she really lets her anger out through her texts with her stuffed animal F.K., who’s trying their best to help J.J. through her nightmare (and in real life, keeping pressure on her wounds while she clings tightly to the plush). Where one might expect someone like J.J. to respond to these strange new text messages with bewilderment or fear, she instead just unleashes the full might of her donut man chat stickers, often outright cursing F.K. out for the crime of being a weird sentient stuffed animal that keeps texting her. She doesn’t let her anger show often, or to many people, but it’s there and it’s burning hot.
As the messages with Emily and her mom approach the present, and her mom asserts her will over J.J., she does what can only be the final, ultimate wrong in her mind. She lashes out at Emily. The Emily we see fleeing from J.J. and rejecting her isn’t Emily at all, but all of J.J.’s fears and anxieties being projected onto the person she loves the most. She’s afraid that Emily doesn’t truly love her for who she is, and eventually she’ll also reject J.J. and her identity. So instead, J.J. rejects Emily first. She accuses Emily of looking down on her, only forging a relationship out of pity. Deep down, she knows it’s not true, but it doesn’t stop her. Within her dream, Emily has hanged herself. Both in reality and the dream J.J. is alone, and just gives up. She delivers a final, angry speech to F.K. about the depth of the pain that she’s gone through, places herself in a noose right next to Emily, and hangs for a hundred years.
This being a game set in a dream means it’s not the end for her though. In fact, it gets worse. The noose finally snaps, and J.J. falls for a long time, impacting the floor of the same room where she’s currently fighting for her life, shattering into pieces. The game invites you to press the usual button to regenerate her body, but this time it takes a while, and when she’s standing again she’s not exactly whole. She’s a mass of red flesh, her vibrant blonde hair falling messily over her shoulders. You control her as she shambles through the halls of her school, as memories of J.J. being protected and comforted by Emily in the face of bullies play behind her. Emily was always there for her. She always will be. And J.J. pushed her away. She feels monstrous. I too have felt like a monster, like a hollow shell with no purpose, burdening others with my presence and my pain. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been kind of terrible to others as a result. It’s probably the first time in my life I felt so seen by a story. It doesn’t condemn J.J. for her feelings. It understands those feelings. It validates them even while acknowledging the problems in indulging them.
J.J. overcomes herself. With the help of the real Emily’s desperate pleas (manifesting in the dream alongside A Fucking Shotgun), F.K.’s encouragement, and a makeshift spear imbued with the power of defibrillation, she finds the reason, the will, and the strength to live. She overpowers her self loathing, and is finally revived and reunited with Emily. Roll credits.
It’s not the end though.
Though the story from start to the end credits is wholly contained and satisfying, it’s not the true conclusion of The Missing. Unless you were playing along with a guide, there’s almost no way you got all the donuts in the game. There’s just too many of them and several are hidden in pretty obscure locations. So if you wanna get all those donuts and see all those achievements, it’s time to go back into J.J.’s hell brain.
It actually took me a little while to really sort out my feelings on the ending and the postgame itself. See, when J.J. finally awakens in the real world, she doesn’t look anything like the J.J. we’ve become so familiar with. We see J.J. as she is, still closeted and presenting as a man. Not only that, but her shirt has been removed by the paramedic in order to administer defibrillation, and she’s covered in blood. In the moment, it was kind of jarring seeing her in this state so suddenly, but the tension was deflated pretty quickly. Emily soon bursts into the room and rushes to J.J. She’s incredibly upset and scared and yells at J.J. for nearly leaving her but more than anything she’s overjoyed to hold Jackie in her arms again. J.J. speaks with a different voice than the one we’ve heard, this one deeper and more masculine (she is voiced by two different people). And despite the huge differences I saw in her, she’s still J.J., and the game doesn’t treat her any differently. It shouldn’t feel like such an astounding feat but that’s just how it is.
After the credits finish, you receive a text from your good friend the Deer Man, with a comprehensive breakdown of all of the statistics kept track of during your playthrough. Every injury, meter traveled as a rolling head, and calorie ingested during your time in J.J.’s brain is listed off to you. At the end, you’re informed that new cheats have been unlocked. I immediately jumped back in to see what opened up for me and found a variety of tools available to make the hunt for the final donuts way easier. Increased speed, at-will injuries, and see-through walls were all now accessible, and a clear indication that the game wants you to see the rest of it. Boy did I want to see the rest of it.
Beyond the first actual cheats being made available, there’s also a new outfit called “Post-Clear J.J.” Enabling it changes J.J.’s dream appearance to the one we see at the end of the game, when she wakes up. Huh. HUH.
My kneejerk reaction to this unlock was bafflement. You’re gonna have J.J. looking like a boy be a reward for completing the game? Really? But the more time I spent with it and thinking on it, I found that it was just one part of a continuation of J.J.’s story, and wound up being one of my favorite aspects of the whole game. Partly out of curiosity, and partly because I wanted to be thorough in my final donut hunt, I started the game from the very beginning with Post-Clear J.J. enabled.
None of the story itself changes, but they didn’t halfass this at all. Not only is this post-clear version of J.J. just as lovingly rendered as her default model, but every single line in the game has been completely re-voiced. The new voice actor does a surprisingly good job with it too, adding slight feminine affectations to this more masculine coded voice. That combined with the fact that none of her animations have changed (J.J.’s very feminine movements are intact and still suit her) add up to make this a normalizing and even comforting portrayal. Playing through The Missing like this meant embodying someone like me: a trans woman barely into her transition, just starting to work on feminine presentation, who still has a long way to go. It didn’t really floor me so much as just fill me with a constant warmth. It’s something I’ve never had in a game.
Beyond being a good portrayal though, to me, seeing J.J. like this served as a continuation of her self-acceptance that, in a lot of ways, mirrored my own. Even earlier into my own transition, I had started to build an ideal self in my mind, picturing how I’d look years down the line. In truth it didn’t look much like me at all, but it gave me something to aspire to. Eventually I started finding ways to feel more comfortable about the way I actually look, and over time my self image began to feel closer to that. The Post-Clear appearance shows to me that J.J. is able to start feeling okay in her own skin as well. But this read would fall a little flat if not for everything else left to find in the postgame.
With the donuts comes more concept art and whatever final (often seriously depressing) text messages from friends you didn’t get, but also added are F.K. dolls placed throughout the world (usually in plain sight). Each one of these gets you a new, humorous conversation with J.J.’s weird little dream guide, and most of them unlock new conversations with Emily and J.J’s mom, seemingly taking place after the end of the game. By going back into the game after the ending, J.J. is, in a way, continuing to push forward through her obstacles and revisiting her traumas with the experience of having gone through them already. She knows the solutions to these problems, she knows how to mitigate her limiting factors, she’s even developed new tools to get through them more quickly and easily, and by continuing, the player gets to see J.J. move forward with her life. The texts aren’t earth shattering, but provide a look at a J.J. who is beginning to settle into this new phase of her life. She and Emily grow closer, goof off together, and flirt (in a funny but cute conversation that presents attraction to a trans woman as completely normalized). She still bickers with her mom, but there’s less of a sense that she’ll ever acquiesce to her mom’s demands and expectations, and they even get a nice conversation together for once.
I knew that getting all 271 donuts was going to unlock something in the picture gallery, but I wasn’t remotely prepared for what it would be. I was completely floored to scroll to the end and find pictures of J.J. and Emily clothes shopping together, picking out the very shawl I’d spent hours with, and posing together with J.J. in her first set of girl clothes (and makeup!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). After throwing myself through the gauntlet of J.J.’s mind, experiencing a heart-wrenching but cathartic story, and going through all of it again to find those last two goddamn donuts, I got a picture of pure, absolute joy. My wife and I felt like we were looking at pictures of ourselves from not even that long ago. J.J.’s accepted herself, but she’s also moving forward to be exactly the person she wants to be.
Just the act of writing this piece has made my appreciation for The Missing grow even larger. It’s such a tremendous game, and it does things with heart and a confidence that most video games can barely come close to. Deadly Premonition, SWERY’s most recognized game, was heavily criticized for its use of a “crazed man in a dress” type character. Regardless of the intent, it wound up as an unfortunate stain for many queer people who enjoyed the game. With The Missing, SWERY shows serious growth as a writer, and even if he hadn’t plainly stated that he spoke to many trans and queer people in making this, it really shows just through how well J.J. is portrayed throughout every aspect of the game. Though it’s been stated that it was meant to be enjoyed by anyone regardless of identity, choosing to focus the story on a trans woman is incredibly heartening.
The final conversation you can see in the game is between J.J. and F.K. Her little stitched together chimera of a stuffed toy wants to know what animal they were originally, and J.J. can’t remember. They get upset that she doesn’t know, but J.J. reassures them: “It doesn’t matter! I really like you the way you are now. You’re covered in patchwork, dirty, and you stink a little, but I like you.” Words to live by.