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Writing believable teenage characters is a tricky proposition. If you go too hard in one direction and really lean into teenspeak, it can feel forced and unrealistic. But go too far the other way and they sound generic or too old. Butterfly Soup, a visual novel from developer Brianna Lei, doesn’t have either of these problems. Its cast feels like a real group of teens. They’re people still trying to figure themselves out intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically.
Butterfly Soup is about four queer Asian-American teen girls in their first year of high school during the fall of 2008. Diya is a quiet, kind hearted, and socially anxious jock. Min-seo is a short tempered delinquent of sorts, who is working through a lot. Noelle is a stressed-out star student, and Akarsha is a well meaning agent of chaos. The story cycles through each of their perspectives as things unfold. This gives context for each character’s behavior, and some insight on why they’re friends despite seemingly being incompatible with each other.
The game mostly revolves around the love story between Diya and Min-seo, who became very close in elementary school until Min moved away, but now find themselves reunited after Min’s family moved back. Min tries to confess their feelings to Diya, while Diya starts to figure out that her feelings for Min are different than for her other friends.
Unlike a lot of visual novels, you don’t have any control over the outcome of the story. Typically these choices are meant to give the player control of the character, to customize who they are and in doing so alter where the story goes. This can make those choices feel very powerful. Butterfly Soup has occasional dialogue choices to make, but they don’t influence the narrative much and don’t alter who that character is. But these choices still feel engaging and meaningful.
It’s thanks to the game’s excellent writing that it’s able to make those moments work, as the choices are often innocuous things. You might have the option to either talk to Noelle about her being sick or just check her forehead. Or you might get asked “How many second-graders do you think you could beat up if they came at you in waves of 10, with a fifth-grader boss coming every five waves?” Whatever answer you choose produces a slightly different set of dialogue, but doesn’t alter the character or story. Instead it helps you build an understanding of who that character is rather than who you want them to be.
These instances of choice are also used to pace out scenes, and put the focus on smaller moments. Sometimes there’s only a single option, such as performing an action like checking a computer or opening a bottle for someone else. This keeps you from becoming a passive reader of the story; instead, you’re actively engaged, which emphasizes even the tiniest moments.
For instance, the act of Diya opening a bottle for Noelle is actually very telling. It emphasizes not only that Noelle isn’t particularly strong, but that despite Diya being a good and kind person, this isn’t something she automatically does. You have to make the choice for her. These interactions aren’t innately engaging or meaningful, it’s the writing that makes them that way.
Butterfly Soup is effectively about the camaraderie of teens going through that experience together and the different ways in which they try to cope with it. The result is a joyful and hilarious game that doesn’t gloss over the difficult parts of being a teen.
Butterfly Soup was created by Brianna Lei. You can get it on itch.io for pay what you want (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux). It takes about four or five hours to finish.