Fictional companions and goth concerns.
Life After Magic, the new visual novel from Chirashi Games and Team Starlight, follows a team of retired magical girls – the Sentinels – who saved the world as teenagers in the mid-’90s. Part visual novel, part sapphic dating sim, the game’s action takes place ten years after the group disbanded. In 1999, as Y2K draws near, the characters are twenty-somethings who feel like they peaked in high school. (Full disclosure, this author has known one of the developers as long as the Sentinels have known each other, but I will not disclose whether we saved the world.)
The player character (default name: Akiko) was the leader of the Sentinels, and now works retail at a cosmetics store. Early on, Akiko says, “I’ve found myself stuck in a loop and unsure what to do. How do you top saving the world? Does it all just get worse from here?” Willa Rowe describes Life After Magic as “expertly [using] the magical girl genre to tell a story about gifted kid burnout.” My favorite tropes – magical girls, romance, black cats – get shaken up and surrounded by Y2K references that brought me a very particular joy I didn’t know I was missing.
As Akiko and the other Sentinels reconvene to deal with some mysterious dark shenanigans, it becomes clear that their friendships have become heavily strained over the past decade. “Nobody warned me that maintaining friendships as an adult is more challenging than any supervillain,” Akiko says.
After interacting with all of the romanceable characters, I became fixated on KJ, a geek-turned-rebel who insists on calling you “Princess” (which has big “Hey Adora” energy). As a teenager, KJ was known as Sentinel Perigee, a magical “girl” who wore glasses and demure sweaters, knew a lot about computers, and used defensive bubble magic in battle. Since the Sentinels last saw each other, KJ has come out as nonbinary, gotten a lot of tattoos and joined a band. Kind of like if Willow from Buffy transitioned into Trent from Daria.
As someone who writes constantly about goths in videogames, it’s no surprise that KJ is the first romantic route I chose to pursue (next playthrough? Leez). But what really draws me to KJ is the geeky past they’re trying to slough off. I myself was a kid whose nerdier pursuits (reading books about dragons, writing poems about cheese) slowly morphed into darker nerdy pursuits (reading books about vampires, writing stories about vampires). KJ uses their geekier past for the appropriately rebellious purpose of hacking – to aid the Sentinels, of course. When hacking into a computer, KJ whips out a CD labeled 4C1D 8U2N (I screamed at the Hackers reference).
“There’s a bunch of different subcultures under the punk and goth umbrellas,” KJ tells Akiko. “Doesn’t always have to be about wearing black and being angry.”
KJ does get angry, though. If you choose to follow KJ’s route (which I obviously did), midway through the game, KJ invites Akiko to her concert. But while onstage, KJ starts smashing things and rage crying. They’re overwhelmed; Akiko is watching; everything is too much. After the concert, the player has the choice to express uneasiness with KJ’s outburst, to either leave, or to stay with KJ and talk about what happened.
Maybe the key word in KJ’s comment is that being goth or punk doesn’t always have to be about wearing black and being angry. KJ’s anger isn’t directly related to their new alt persona. When KJ rages out at the concert, it’s more about their frustration with their own inability to express themselves, especially around one of their crushes (if you have progressed far enough in KJ’s questline to get to the concert, consider yourself crushed).
Despite KJ’s aesthetic distance from their geeky teen persona, their youthful insecurities linger. The path from insecurity to anger is familiar enough, even if most of us rage cry without the opportunity to smash even a single instrument onstage. Being goth or punk doesn’t have to be about being angry any more than being geeky has to be about being insecure. But if you have the opportunity to smash a guitar in front of your crush…maybe that’s the time to lean into it.