Cel Davision (they/them) and Hana Lee (they/them) are the non-binary creators of the indie semi-biographical point-and-click adventure No Longer Home, in which we join Bo and Ao as they experience the darkness and charms of growing up in the style of coming of age movies. The short story allows us to relive one of their last nights together before moving out. The two have recently graduated from university, and Ao is forced to return to the hated Japan, which is associated with double pain for them, because not only is their identity not accepted at home but they're also discriminated against due to being half-Korean.
The founders of Humble Grove studio agreed to talk to me about non-binary and how it is perceived by Japanese and English society. They talked about their childhood experiences, gender dysphoria, and their work in the industry.
No Longer Home is a melancholic, intimate, painfully authentic story about youth rejected by the system. It's also your semi-autobiographical story. What made you decide to tell it? And why did you choose to tell about it through the video game?
Humble Grove: We initially started this project off as a means to stay in touch, and we were only planning on making a small vignette of the studio. The semi-autobiographical aspects came later once we decided to include the rest of the flat in the game, and wanted to tell a story about our memories there.
Cel: Coming from illustration backgrounds our work has often been autobiographical in some way. I started working on video games during my final year of university. It felt like a natural progression from the work I had already been doing. Given the game's simple mechanics people may ask why it couldn't have been a film or a book, but I think the medium lends to feeling like you're inhabiting the space as a player. I also greatly enjoy writing dialogue with multiple branches. You're able to show all the different ways a character can be or think.
Hana: Likewise, I've been doing a lot of autobiographical comics since they were the easiest way for me to express myself. Making a semi-autobiographical game helped me think about what parts of myself I actually want to broadcast and make a point out of.
No Longer Home is advertised as "queer, non-binary game about relationships". I must admit that I don't see much of this non-binary part in it. It's more about trauma and stress-related to forced immigration and post-educational life. Could you tell me more about it? What were your goals for this game?
HG: Our goal was to normalise the lives of non-binary people and how our issues are intersectional with other aspects of our lives, rather than to solely focus on being non-binary. We didn't want to tokenize ourselves and wanted to express ourselves as actual people instead of keeping to a rigid box of representation. The characters being non-binary doesn't drive the story - it rather informs it. There are scenes in the game where Bo comes out as something that is not within the gender binary, and where Ao talks about feeling uncomfortable being pushed into gender roles, etc.
Cel: It was also important for us to make it clear in the marketing of the game that Bo and Ao are non-binary, in order to avoid them being misgendered. Since they're based on the two of us, you can see how it might be more important in this case.
Hana: I feel like (for me, at least) my identities affect each other constantly rather than one identity informing everything else. These are inseparable from each other, so naturally, talking about gender will open doors to discussions about other aspects of our lives.
You come from extremely different corners of the world but still criticise the binary structure of society together. How would you describe growing up in London and in Japan? Try to compare childhood, work culture (especially in game development if you have any experience), society's reactions to your identity.
Cel: I think it's quite difficult to compare my experiences to Hana's; all I can really do is speak of my own. I grew up in a working-class family, in Newham, the poorest borough in London. All the areas surrounding me got increasingly gentrified as I got older. Then I went to art school to become a class traitor (joke.) I started making video games in my last year of university, merely because I realised it was a thing that people do. I had always loved video games, so why not make them? I've always felt on the edge of the games industry though, and only now that we've released No Longer Home, do I actually feel like we can say we're part of it. I think the industry has been relatively welcoming to us, but not always willing to carve out space for us. This industry has a lot of problems, but I'd hesitate to boil it all down to gender. Having better worker's rights would go a long way towards improving things.
Hana: Gender is a strange one when growing up in Tokyo. Almost everything is gendered, be it food or clothing or ways of speech, etc. I went to an all-girls school and was treated as a "tomboy" for the most part because I wasn't really interested in things that were considered "feminine," whatever that means. If I did show interest in these things, 90% of the time it was because of forced cisnormativity and heterosexuality, but obviously, as a young kid, I didn't want to be an outcast. Going to university and making games after graduating was really quite liberating because there was no judgment from peers in the same industry. Sure, there are still issues within it (not just with gender, but with worker's rights as Cel mentioned and other aspects such as race) but I do feel like it's a much less hostile environment than what I grew up in.
What do you understand by non-binary? It's not simple and people have few different ways of understanding it, what is yours?
Cel: I think non-binary is best kept loosely defined as anyone outside of the gender binary of men and women. For me personally, it's not something easily pinned down and I see no need for it to be. I'm neither a man nor a woman, I'm just chilling...
Hana: I'm really just me, simple as that. Just like Ao says in No Longer Home, I'm just a normal person that enjoys what normal people do, and I don't want to push that into a box. I feel like non-binary is still a label at the end of the day, so if I could get away with not using the term that would be pretty amazing but it's safer to use the term to avoid being pushed into gender binaries.
Do you agree with the statement that the rigid binary division of society is harmful and stigmatising? In the game, Ao gets frustrated that we assign gender to everything, to every activity, interest, clothes, hairstyle. How does this binarity translate into video games? Do games need gender neutralisation?
HG: It would be good to have these options in games where you play as yourself to avoid being misgendered, but we don't think it's needed for other games where you play as a set protagonist. That being said, we'd like to see more representation in NPCs, even if it's just them having gender-neutral pronouns. We prefer seeing the normalisation of non-binary characters rather than it being handled clumsily.
Cel: I do think the gender binary can be incredibly harmful, but I'm certainly not a gender abolitionist. I think expanding our definitions of what a man or a woman is would be more helpful.
Hana: Having gender binaries in games (or in any medium) is an interesting way to explore cultures behind it, highlighting both the goods and bads. The issue is that pretty often these topics aren't handled with care and get boiled down to tropes.
Do you ever experience gender dysphoria while playing games?
HG: We feel slight gender dysphoria when we have to pick either a man or a woman in character creation, but we very quickly shift into role-playing a character that isn't us.
Cel: Expanding or changing the language around character creation tools in games, as we've seen with games like Animal Crossing, where you're usually playing as an avatar of yourself, is great. Outside of that, I don't personally feel a strong need to identify with the character I'm playing as for the same reason I don't when reading a book or watching a film.
Hana: I do love what Pokémon's been doing with picking a gender for your protagonist. While in-game pronouns are still set to the binary, they ask what your "style" is, rather than asking whether you're a boy or a girl. I don't expect them to add neutral pronouns, but it's a good step they're taking.
What games / characters do you find most inspiring? Both in life and when it comes to creating No Longer Home.
HG: Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer) and Curtain (Dreamfeel) were definitely the biggest video game inspirations.
Cel: No Longer Home wears Kentucky Route Zero's influence on its sleeve. This is evident in its visuals and also its writing. We keep the dialogue choices motivated by a desire to steer the dialogue rather than a desire to make the optimum choice, to "win-the-game". I generally don't find characters to be a large inspiration. It's more about the situation they're in, or what their stories say about the society we live in.
Hana: We were very keen on taking inspiration from films and books as well, not just games. We often talked about what we like in films we've watched and how we can incorporate them into No Longer Home.
What would you like to see more of in the industry in terms of representation and normativity?
HG: We'd like to see more marginalised people in the games industry. If games were to include underrepresented themes and characters, they are much better off being drawn from actual first-hand experiences.
Cel: Representation alone won't make the industry better. I'd like to see workers with more power. With that diverse stories are sure to follow.
Hana: To follow up Cel's answer I think it's quite similar to what the Oscars is doing with trying to make their films more diverse. While I do think diversity is important, that alone won't change the underlying bigotry of the industry and games is just the same. You have to tackle the foundations first before trying to clean up the surface.
What are you planning for the future?
Hana: We're not sure just yet, but we're very vaguely talking about making a horror game that also draws from our own experiences. Nothing action-heavy, and still drawing from narrative like in No Longer Home.
No Longer Home is out now on PC via the Epic Games Store, GOG, Humble Store, and Steam.