In broad strokes, Bloom Digital’s LongStory is a lot like other narrative-driven “dating simulator” games. You play as a new student at the fictional school of Weasel Heights and you’re expected to navigate the sunny perils of teenage romance in a series of conversations with other students. As the story unfolds, you’ll have to make many decisions about how to respond to your fellow peers and then deal with the fallout that results from those decisions.
Other aspects of LongStory are less conventional. The episodic game (episode five is due out in March) has received deserved praise for its inclusive representation of its characters, standing out for a progressivism that highlights both the accomplishments and the challenges facing advocates of sex and gender diversity. It demonstrates that inclusive words and inclusive actions do not always necessarily go hand in hand, achieving an emotional awareness that belies the lighthearted tone of its teenaged protagonists.
It works because LongStory offers options seldom seen in other video games. The game features five main characters—two boys, two girls, and one turkey (don’t ask)—all of whom are dateable regardless of the player’s choice of gender. There’s no connection between the player’s chosen name and appearance and the player’s chosen pronoun (players can also choose gender neutral pronouns), while the game—and the other characters—will always respect the player’s choices, which are never a central or lasting component of the drama.
That’s not to say that LongStory is free of drama. Despite the open-minded approach to identity politics, the characters find plenty of politically correct ways to be nasty to each other while jostling for position in the social hierarchy. They lie. They shoplift. They borrow homework and forget to return it. They leave threatening messages in lockers and destroy beloved boy band merchandise because they get jealous when their other friends have boyfriends.
The game’s central mystery revolves around a former student named Em who left under mysterious circumstances that no one wants to talk about, but there’s plenty of interpersonal conflict even without that more salacious bit of gossip.
As a transfer student returning after a year abroad, you’re dropped into the middle of that swirling tempest of melodramatic hormones. You’re expected to pick sides and form allegiances based on incomplete information and it tends to end poorly because one character will usually interpret your decision as a betrayal. Though the hierarchy is not based on superficial factors like appearance or popularity, there is a hierarchy because people find other ways to organize themselves within a group dynamic.
The characters in LongStory have many of the same insecurities that afflict characters in stereotypical teenage dramas. The fear of being ostracized can be just as powerful a motivator as the desire to fit in, and that in turn leads them to do things that make other students feel excluded even while espousing an inclusive code of conduct.
Either way, the lines are drawn based on outcome rather than circumstance. If someone does become the subject of gossip, it’s not because of their sexuality, but rather because X did Z to Y, and Z has consequences if Y gets hurt. Your friends are rarely blameless while your enemies are seldom as wicked as you’d like to imagine, and neither group is particularly mean-spirited. Most of the conflicts are petty squabbles about who said what and how, idle disagreements that happen because people fail to communicate their otherwise good intentions.
That’s not to say that the problems aren’t real—the characters do some genuinely mean things to each other when minor wounds are allowed to fester—but they are the sort of problems that could be resolved with a frank and open conversation. Though the characters frequently hatch convoluted plots that fail to address the underlying problems, disputes in the game can only be resolved when characters try to look past their differences to reach a common understanding.
LongStory presents a world in which gender diversity and equality is accepted as a simple fact, offering a more utopian vision of a tolerant society in which people are judged based on their actions rather than their identities. Those actions can still be cruel because people still have the capacity to misunderstand and mistreat one another within those bounds, but that’s just life.
The game promotes diversity with a depiction of a functional, vibrant world that undercuts the nightmare scenarios and fearmongering of more conservative opponents, demonstrating that society won’t fall apart with greater recognition for non-conforming identities. It will keep going much as it always has, with people being kind and cruel to each other in roughly the same measure.
However, that also suggests that the struggle does not end with acceptance. In order to reduce harm, we still need to learn to listen and to respect each other as individual human beings—to understand each other’s perspectives—even (and perhaps especially) when we don’t get along. That’s a lesson that applies equally well to adults as it does to teenagers. Every story and interaction is unique. LongStory is an excellent reminder that we all feel insecure, one that underscores how difficult it can be to communicate even when everyone is free to be exactly who they are.
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