Butterfly Soup: The best, funniest game you haven't played yet

Brianna Lei talks balancing real-life melodrama with a larger-than-life wit.

Butterfly Soup is not a game made with people like me in mind. It’s a visual novel about queer Asian-American girls in San Francisco’s Bay Area who love baseball and, in different ways, each other. There is some direct crossover with my interests (my favorite character, Akarsha, is bisexual like me and I enjoy a good visual novel now and again), but for the most part I don’t fall into what developer Brianna Lei calls “a very specific group of people that are not typically represented in games--at all.”

And yet I love this game to death. It’s wildly funny--maybe the funniest game I’ve ever played--and heartfelt. If I was more confident in my abilities, I’d be drawing up fan art of it, like so many other people have already done. I don’t think I’m alone, either, if a lot of personal 2017 game of the year lists are any indication.

It goes beyond representation thirst among people of color and the queer community (although that’s a vital factor). Butterfly Soup is also about the things and people we’re passionate about, without most of the bullshit that often comes with that.

“I like others’ work so much that I can’t resist putting references to them in my own game,” Lei explained in an interview. “Like Ace Attorney! I can put Zero Escape references, too! I can force everyone else to hear about these things that I like!”

You can see this in Butterfly Soup’s gags about playing poker with Yu-Gi-Oh cards, at least one monologue lifted wholesale from Fullmetal Alchemist, and a pair of characters (which Lei herself describes as “weebs”) who only join the rest of the cast’s baseball team thanks to a love of Diamond no Ace. Everybody in Butterfly Soup loves something--and/or someone. But the game is as much about passion itself as it is about specific fandoms.

Lei herself hasn’t seen more than an hour of Diamond no Ace. Nor does she particularly care about professional baseball, like the majority of her characters. She simply needed a shared interest for the girls that forced them to cooperate. It’s a storytelling tool that captures the spirit of Lei’s interests, but also moves the interpersonal relationships forward. The “meme-y stuff and internet humor” in between is where more of her personal experiences shine through.

“A lot of the lines, even, were just straight-up taken from stuff my friends said in real life,” she added. “I just transcended them into the game. I would say like half of it actually happened. It’s mixed with me making things more entertaining and a fictional story.”

"A lot of the lines were just straight-up taken from stuff my friends said in real life. I transcended them into the game."

That’s the very foundation of Lei’s writing. She’ll often start with a specific joke in mind and write the rest of a scene just to support it. Yet she’s careful to put the onus on her own writing, rather than the player’s understanding. If a joke doesn’t work, whether or not you understand the reference, she’ll scrap it entirely. It’s a simple rule, but a difficult one (speaking as someone who’s cut their share of dead weight writing). And it lets the game’s gags transcend the very pop culture that gives them an extra edge, here and now.

Lei’s stance is that it’s better for 90% of people to not care about her games, so long as the other 10% is affected as sharply as possible. She admits that’s only practical in her case, since her games aren’t “really commercial products that you need people to continue buying in the future.” She still maintains a day job and both of her games are free on Itch (with a “name your own price” option for Butterfly Soup).

She cites last year’s Dream Daddy, another very queer visual novel, as a similar sort of game that reached for a much wider audience. While just about every character in that game is queer (and horny for one another), it exists in a certain sanitized world--where everyone is in the upper middle class and nobody cares about your sexuality. I asked if Lei thought might have helped it “go viral,” as she posited.

“I heard someone call it the Macklemore ‘Same Love’ of visual novels,” she managed to get out through a fit of laughter. “I was like ‘That fits so well!’” Which really does sum it up.

That’s not to say Butterfly Soup is aggressively real. No teenager ever slung one-liners as deftly scripted as Akarsha. But as the title implies, this is a snapshot of the characters in their formative years. Lei doesn’t shy away from that--especially when it lets her “zero in” further on her specific audience.

The quartet of playable characters’ parents, for instance, are so strict--even emotionally and physically abusive at times--that I thought it might be a metaphorical. I asked Lei if their actions only represented how the girls felt about their parents.

“I do get the note a lot that the parents seem… [that] some people can’t relate to having parents like that,” Lei acknowledged. “Or are like ‘Wow, this is really unrealistic. I wish the parents were nicer.’”

Lei’s stance is that it’s better for 90% of people to not care about her games, so long as the other 10% is affected as sharply as possible.

That particular note tends to come from white players from nuclear families (like me). That’s likely the source of the disconnect. She added that she “wanted to show, especially with the Asian-American community in general, they tend to sort of brush over parents just being sort of bad, sometimes.” So it was a natural extension of the very particular tale she wanted to tell.

Those brief moments of darkness only lend weight to the game’s greater levity, however. Finding people and things we love is what makes life good in the foreground of all the bad. Reminding us of that is just one of the many ways Butterfly Soup excels (along with representing marginalized players and being damn funny while doing it). But like the game itself, it shouldn’t be overlooked.