On top of the historical context, PGFans as a forum also involves a look into an all-female fandom space. Without coming off as too harsh, many of the ways the teens-to-early-college students talk in Secret Little Haven reminds me how nerdy girls in middle school and early HS talk online. For instance, a group of girls I was casually associated with in HS acted very similar. A big example is with Prplsqrl, a kind older sister figure (and Secret Little Haven’s big furry representation) who calls Alex “daughter” at one point. This choice of words, referring to other people as daughter, mom, and aunt, is embarrassing. It’s also an embarrassment the college age characters should have experienced by now and stopped using. especially as they discuss having fights with their roommates. Expect a lot of Alex’s replies to be multiple sentences long and involve a lot of emoticons. On the other hand, a more positive observation is how artistically and morally supportive the PGFans forum members are with each other. Secret Little Haven dedicates a lot of space to being able to explore the forums, with members posting their art and other members cheering them on for their improved line work.
Secret Little Haven conveys a specific 90’s mood not only with its subject matter and how people communicate, but the game’s UI itself. The entire game takes place on Alex’s desktop, where Alex can add cursor cats, change her background, or look over her uncompleted fan fiction. The game even has a setting for screen flicker and has a cozy boot up sound each new day Alex goes online. When the game gets more ambitious, for better or worse, is when it starts to have puzzles. Alex’s friend Laguna is a hacker with multiple Xs thrown in. As the game goes on, Laguna teaches Alex different terminal commands. Most of them are for opening programs, but later, it’s how Alex regains access to her side of the family computer. Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story comes to mind, with the way that game also involved imputing code lines to progress.
Unfortunately, this is a stumble for certain players, me included. The way Laguna explains the terminal is rather confusing, as progress is restricted behind typing in commands perfectly and without typos. It got to a point where I stopped and looked up a Let’s Play to progress , because it was killing my personal pace and enjoyment. While not a terminal puzzle, there is also a tricky doll dress up puzzle that seems to work with one character but not the other. Looking up other people’s experiences online, this is a common puzzle to get stuck on, as its exact requirements aren’t clearly given to the player. Analogue: A Hate Story had a similar problem with these types of puzzles, which is why, unfortunately, overly literal explanations are almost mandatory somewhere. Unlike a game like One Shot, which exceled as a game that got meta and used the PC itself to hide cool files to solve puzzles, Secret Little Haven’s just feels too obtuse. I’m not asking for the Silent Hill puzzle difficulty slider, but I’m asking for the Silent Hill puzzle difficulty slider.
Pros: A moving, but still super serious story about a trans kid’s journey to understand and accept herself. Mellow vibes and music create a chill atmosphere that’s great to casually enjoy. An interesting time capsule of a bygone era that also works as a case study on older fan communities.
Cons: Puzzles were personally unwelcome tangents that were mostly frustrating, to the point that some puzzles almost felt bugged. Dad segments would modify the text in a way that worked thematically but also made it a struggle to read, which is the main way to engage with the game. Saving must be done between days, so if you must restart in the middle of a day because you feel like you hit a bug, you start all over again. Felt like I had to click certain boxes and programs multiple times for them to open.
Secret Little Haven is available on Steam and Itch.io. I sound harsh to Secret Little Haven, but what I liked about its story and feel probably makes up for the puzzles. It reminds me of Heaven Will Be Mine, another game that I love because of how it looks and feels, but playing it sort of drags. It’s a couched recommendation of a messy game, which honestly for someone’s first game, is still engaging and impactful.