Sunday, June 16, 2024

Growing Up is a must-play for the queer gamer

The first thing I noticed when I first loaded up Growing Up from Vile Monarch is hey, this kinda feels like I Was A Teenage Exocolonist, only without the killer foliage and creatures, nor the complex pivotal choices which can lead your character down into the road of fascism, striking back through rebellion and… Ahem. Anyway.

I realize it’s usually considered bad practice to talk about games while hyping up another one entirely, but it’s for a good reason. As mentioned above, Growing Up may lack much of what makes up the beating heart of the narrative masterpiece I Was A Teenage Exocolonist. However, it still follows the very same premise that pulled me into the sci-fi game in the first place: growing up.

Instead of dealing with colonialism’s psychological, physical, and emotional repercussions, Vile Monarch’s Growing Up puts you in the shoes of, well, you! You start the game with a simple thought: you’re going to exist soon, to two very loving parents, so what makes up the intricacies of being you? At this stage, you’ll be asked whether you want your gender and your parents to be randomized or selected by yourself. I decided I wanted to make this game as queer as possible with what was given, so I decided to pick my parents and gender. As far as I know, you’re unable to pick your pronouns or be non-binary, with Growing Up only giving you the decision of being known as a Boy or a Girl.

That said, you can pick which parents you would like out of a select handful, and considering Growing Up is set in the 1990s, to both my surprise – and delight – you can choose two parents of the same-sex with zero repercussions. Nice, great job Vile Monarch!

Once you’ve selected your parents, gender, and name, there is a small introduction where your parent writes you a letter, and you can pick and choose what they say in it. To be frank, I’m not sure what effect this has (if any) on gameplay, particularly for a game that requires you to have some strategic awareness, but at the very least, it does pull on the heartstrings.

The moment you are born, it’s time to strategize! Literally. As a life sim, players are expected to manage their time carefully from the beginning, with each stage of their life broken up into rounds. For the first few years of your young life, rounds will be made up of learning skills such as learning to crawl, speaking your very first word, and climbing on things you shouldn’t. Once you hit kindergarten though, other skills will have popped up to reflect your change from a toddler into a child. There will be new skills, such as learning your ABC and counting from 1 to 10. These skills can be learned by improving certain stats like your Charm, Empathy, Imagination, Memory, Intelligence, etc. Still, you only have a certain amount of brain power per round, meaning you’ll need to choose what trait you want to improve to earn the skill you want and what you can do without.

Growing Up
Image Source: Steam

Your skills may not seem so important at first, especially when you’re just trying to figure out how to play the game. It’s when you head into your first few years of school that things start to get tough. Not only will you be in school and thus have no choice but to learn new things like maths, but you’ll have to balance your mental health and your parent’s approval. Doing your homework and working on your skills makes your parents happy, whereas slacking off, listening to music, and playing video games improve your mental health at the cost of pissing your parents off. On one hand, I can understand it’s a mechanic to help add consequence to your actions, which helps establish different narrative choices and options, but on the other hand, it feels weird for your parents to hate you for looking after yourself. Pick a struggle, parents!

As you continue to grow older, you’ll go through different stages of your life, from newborn to 18 years old. Your skills and choices will determine what ending and job you get, making each playthrough unique, and you even get the option to establish whether you got married or not. Either way, you end up either giving birth yourself (or your partner does) or adopting, and the cycle of life begins again.

On the surface, this seems pretty cut and dry, but Growing Up excels by adding rewarding narrative scenes and choices for you to choose from that help break up the strategic elements. Not only will your world open up as you grow older, giving you the chance to take on jobs and discover new passions that’ll affect your story in the endgame, but you’ll also get to meet new people and grow a relationship with them. As someone who loves relationship mechanics in video games, the fact Growing Up gives you three separate people to befriend and potentially romance is like giving me extra servings on my plate. Already I’ve got more than enough to keep me satisfied, but I definitely won’t say no to more of a good thing.

Romance and relationships do play a significant role in Growing Up, particularly with how it handles character backstories and the juxtaposition of their lives versus yours. My first playthrough had me meeting Alex, a kid from the literal circus, Alicia, a bully you meet in middle school, and Kato, a workaholic loner. Each has their own story, which you can become a part of. What makes these relationships particularly rewarding is the level of impact you have. Each choice you make when speaking to them can ultimately change their lives, for better or for worse, and, depending on what you choose, you can find yourself with three life-long friends or completely friendless.

Growing Up
Image Source: Steam

As for the romance element, each love interest has a specific set sexuality. For example, in my run, Alex was a straight woman, Alicia was a bisexual woman, and Kato was a heterosexual man. On one hand, set sexualities is a preference of mine. Still, because there are 9+ characters and are shuffled around for each generation of play, there are some instances where, if you’re playing this game as a gay man for example, you won’t have a named love interest. You can certainly make yourself known as gay, as I confessed my love to Alex, who very sweetly rejected me, but it won’t be until the endgame that you can establish yourself as gay and marry another man.

Even with all this baggage though, Growing Up still feels like a mandatory play for the queer gamer. Yes, I wish there was even more interaction with your favorite characters than there is, and yes, there are some things the game gets wrong or doesn’t think of, but overall? Vile Monarch has created a game that rewards strategy lovers while being inclusive of queer players. Same-sex parent options, the fact that each character has their own sexuality and gender identity, which affects how they express themselves (just like in real life, by the way) is fantastic and engaging. I only wish there had been more of these sorts of meaningful interactions.

Overall, Growing Up scratches that itch for a life sim that appeals to gamers who want a slice of realism with their video games, and I can’t believe it took me this long to play it. If you’re looking for something different to play, something that values your time and legacy, then look no further: this game’s the one for you.

Growing Up is available on PC, iOS, Mac, and Android.

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