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Brianna Lei's Butterfly Soup is a triumph for queer storytelling

Back in September, plucky visual novel Butterfly Soup made its way to itch.io and began to set the indie world on fire, spreading through word of mouth. This unassuming, colorful adventure made by 23-year-old Brianna Lei (who previously made a game about dogs and the internet called Pom Gets Wi-Fi) follows a group of teen girls who share a love for baseball. At least, that’s what it looks like on the surface. 

But there’s so much more to Butterfly Soup than that. It’s a celebration of friendships between women, of queerness, and of the courage to accept yourself for who you are, all washed down with a healthy dollop of humor. Its four female leads, Diya, Min-Seo, Akarsha, and Noelle, spend their high school days chatting with each other at school, hanging out online, being at odds with their parents, and coming to terms with their sexuality. 

Its frank treatment of sexuality is a significant part of why Butterfly Soup is truly special. Various gender identities are represented, with lesbians who have or haven’t come out just yet (but plan to), a bisexual character, and even a nonbinary character. Where other games might introduce characters like these with tropey stereotypes, we get to know these four girls as people first, with their queerness expertly woven into the tapestry of their lives.

Lei is making the kind of game she wants to see more of in the world. 

"I feel like positive representations of LGBT characters are becoming more common these past few years," she says, "especially this year with Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, Dream Daddy, and others. Even Nier: Automata surprised me with a cute little scene where you comfort one of your female coworkers who got rejected by a girl she liked! Seeing all this representation out in the open makes me hopeful for the future."

Western visual novels have had something of a resurgence in the past couple of years, with creators like Christine Love (Analogue: A Hate Story) and Georgina Bensley (Long Live the Queen) leading the charge. Games like Ladykiller in a Bind, Christine Love's saga of cross-dressing and BDSM, have helped to bring the visibility of the LGBTQ community to the forefront. 

While it does tackle serious topics, Butterfly Soup is mostly a light-hearted romp. It lets you play as all four of the girls at different points, and you get a sense of what each character is going through. It's a coming-of-age story that unfolds at a reasonable clip, never feeling bogged down by extraneous details, managing to cover familial expectations, the strength of bonds between best female friends, and the potential pitfalls of both. 

I also wanted it to feel a tiny bit cringey, like my actual teenage years.

Brianna Lei

In any visual novel the quality of writing is important, and this is one of the places where Butterfly Soup excels. The banter between characters is consistently funny, and has a relatable quality that makes it appeal even to players whose circumstances might be very different. When Lei expresses her love for the Ace Attorney series, the homages in Butterfly Soup’s dialogue become obvious.

"The original Ace Attorney trilogy written by Shu Takumi was a huge influence on me," she explains. "His dialogue is so effortlessly funny, and the main cast is super lovable and memorable. He's my writing idol, so it means a lot to me when people say Butterfly Soup's jokes have an Ace Attorney-like feeling to them."

The characters in Butterfly Soup seem like authentic teenagers. "Many of their traits were inspired by my childhood friends," Lei says. When they reference popular memes or video games like Super Smash Bros, it doesn’t feel forced or slapdash. If you grew up around the same time as Lei, you probably remember many of the things referenced in Butterfly Soup, for better or for worse.  

"I always planned on including those things since I wanted it to seem connected to the real world rather than being in its own fictional universe," Lei says of the references. "I also wanted it to feel a tiny bit cringey, like my actual teenage years. For example, I vividly remember that during my high school orientation, one of my classmates responded to things by saying 'F4', which was a keyboard shortcut for a facial expression in the MMORPG MapleStory. High school for me was such an embarrassing meme and reference-fest, even before the word 'meme' came into regular usage."

Though Butterfly Soup ends as quickly as it feels it’s began, clocking in at just a few hours, luckily this isn’t  goodbye for Diya, Min-Seo, or the rest of the cast. "I really want to make a sequel to Butterfly Soup," Lei reassures us, "so this definitely won't be the last you see of them. I plan to make games for the rest of my life!"

If you’re looking for a visual novel that expertly blends a coming-of-age tale with queerness, relatable characters, and anime-styled charm, Butterfly Soup should be on your 'to-play' list. You can download it for free via itch.io, or pay $5 to unlock some extra goodies.