[Brief disclaimer here: I will be discussing at length a lot of childhood traumas and abuse, so content warning for that right there.]

I’ve been talking out loud for the past year or so about wanting to see a return to the “old days” of the internet. Before the days of social media and turning your identity into a “brand” and placing an emphasis on being a “content creator” and not simply “making things.” The days of badly made HTML shrines to your fandoms, not badly optimized Tumblr blogs and 200-part Tweet storms where you can get death threats for shipping the wrong characters together. I miss message boards! Whatever happened to forums!?

Granted, a lot of these feelings are a combination of nostalgia and a growing hatred of seeing how bad the internet has gotten weaponized these past few alone. Not that abuse and harassment didn’t exist back then, but it was a lot more difficult to make five figures a month off of it (Something Awful forum registrations being one of the lone exceptions). And, beyond all that, there was more personality; your webpage, your forum signature, your AIM away message, all had your own personal touch. It’s a time that will, unfortunately, probably never come back. Our friendships will be made over hashtags instead of fan communities.

Which is what brings me to the topic of this whole piece. Secret Little Haven is a game released a couple of days ago that uses this bygone era as its visual and thematic gestalt. It’s set in 1999, right around the time I got my first computer, and is about a teenager slowly coming to terms with her gender identity via her love of anime, something common in trans women of my generation. The entirety of the game is spent in a chat program, a fansite message board, and various cutesy programs on your fictional computer. And everything is great; you’re having a good time, chatting with your online friends, and failing to brush off your weirdo IRL friend who keeps trying to get you into sports. You’re working on a fanfic, stressing over making it the best possible work you can write. And you’re excited to hear about a rumor that a male character in Pretty Guardians Love Force might become a Guardian, and wouldn’t that be so cool? That would be cool. To become a Pretty Guardian, even though you’re a boy. That’s not weird or anything, right? Is that even a thing? That should be a thing!

Then your dad comes in.

Your dad is a paranoid control freak who fucked up his own marriage and is hellbent on doing the same thing with his fatherhood. He thinks you spend too much time on the internet. He wants you to follow in his footsteps of working for a major corporation and making money and fuck everything else. He constantly threatens to punish you, and makes it very clear that he goes through your things and thinks little of your privacy.

Playing this game brought back a lot of old teenage memories of mine. Same with the scenes with Alex’s father. Though, for me, mine were significantly worse. I had an incredibly abusive father. You had the mental and emotional stuff; the old standby of “NO SON OF MINE IS GONNA BE A QUEER!” And the “nothing is ever good enough” routine too. If I went out with my friends, I was obviously out causing trouble and being a no-good criminal and needed to be punished for it. If I stayed home, I was a loser with no friends that no girl would ever want to be with, and I needed to be punished for that, too. If I failed a class or an assignment, I was a mentally challenged buffoon with no skills, no talent, and no future. If I got straight A’s, I clearly thought that I was better than everyone else, and needed to be taken down a peg or two. Every night was another hours-long drunken ramble about how worthless I was, and that I was the loser, not the frequently out-of-work carpenter whose alcoholism kept getting him fired. Of course, that was only if he had Beefeater in his system. Now, if he had Jack Daniels in him, he would eschew all the words and simply let his fists do the talking. I would eventually be forced into living out of my van for most of my senior year of high school, until a friend’s parents took me into their home after hearing my story.

And, like Alex, the internet was my escape from all that. After my father would eventually pass out, and I cleaned up any of the furniture he broke, I would spend the rest of my night online, looking at all the really cool girly shit that I was beaten up for. Reading badly scanned yaoi manga, lurking Sailor Moon message boards, playing any game that would let me be a girl (and getting weird feelings replaying the Wall Market section of Final Fantasy VII), all while listening to a Winamp playlist of whatever girly pop music you could find on early 2000s internet. I loved bright pastel colors and CLAMP manga. The concept of being a girl was awesome, even though I had no idea I could be one back then. It was the opposite of what I was: I wasn’t this shy boy in baggy clothes, covered in bruises, with bad hair and a bad goatee that felt like the entire world hated him. The internet was, well, my Secret Little Haven.

And that’s what Secret Little Haven is: a love letter to every confused kid who used media to cope with their pain, and not really knowing why. That healing salve to the pain of the Real World that doesn’t understand you. A tribute to that fantasy you had of being a Magical Girl, a fantasy that you probably still have even in your adult years.

And when you want to revisit your childhood memories, you’ll have a laser-focus on the good, and a quick, impulsive repression of the bad. You’ll look at your old computer files, with your unfinished fanfics, amateur fanart, badly encoded anime MP3’s, and a little note you typed out, free of any context:

PRETTY GUARDIANS LOVE FORCE 4 LYFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ^_^