Find haven in your life's small comforts."
Alex Cole is a teenage trans girl in 1999 who has yet to figure herself out. She spends much of her free time on the internet, browsing a fan forum for her favorite magical girl show, and chatting with her friends. Join her on her story of self-discovery through friendship and media as she explores her computer for the treasures and curiosities of the early internet.
Secret Little Haven is a unique Visual Novel in that it takes place entirely on Alex's computer. There are no sprites or character portraits, and all character interaction (and most of the story) happens via Alex's instant messaging program. Besides these conversations, Secret Little Haven allows you to explore more of Alex's world and headspace via Sanctuary OS, an entire operating system developed in Unity that includes nearly a dozen applications such as a Web Browser, Doll Maker, and Text Editor, as well as an entire web forum for you to search through.
Secret Little Haven was developed by Victoria Dominowski and can be purchased on Itch.io.
Secret Little Haven provides examples of the following:
- Abusive Parents: Johnathan, whose gaslighting messes up Alex so badly it seems to alter her perception of reality.
- Adult Fear:
- From Alex's perspective: Growing up in the late 90s as a closeted trans girl is hard enough, but even more so with an abusive father who actively discourages your interests. On top of constantly being pressured to be involved in nothing but academics and having her passions discouraged, John constantly gaslights Alex to the point of making her second-guess herself constantly, and regularly invalidates her gender identity. Alex is also faced with the threat of having her internet access taken away and being sent back to boarding school, thus totally isolating her from her social circle - making matters worse is that she barely has any friends at school and is staying at her dad's place, so she isn't able to easily lean on other family for support.
- From Johnathan's perspective: Thanks to John having come out of a messy divorce with Alex's mom, he's doing everything he can to make Alex an "upstanding man" and is afraid of losing his "son". While most of his fears and punishments towards Alex are unfounded at best and emotionally damaging at worst, he does have his fair share of worries that would concern most any parents - Alex potentially failing school (she had a Noodle Incident at an all-boys boarding school that got her expelled, and he signs her up for a chemistry tutor when she doesn't even take chemistry classes), the possibility she's being preyed on by people on the internet (in actuality, she's only interacting with a harmless anime forum, but John doesn't bother trying to differentiate), and after his Heel Realization, knowing that his own child no longer feels safe around him.
- Art Shift: The cheerful colors and soft edges of Alex's operating system turn stark and sterile whenever her father messages her.
- Calling the Old Man Out: The story culminates in Alex confronting John after his constant abuse and gaslighting, calling him out on monitoring her and taking away her privileges to something that's become a safe space for her. Shortly before he completely takes away her internet access, her friends join the chat to call him out for making her feel unsafe.
- Chekhov's Skill: The programming tips that Laguna teaches Alex actually become necessary, after Johnathan locks up her computer access; Alex has to apply her newfound coding skills to log out of Johnathan's session and regain access to her account.
- Cool Big Sis: Laguna plays this role to Alex, being a sort of "mom friend" who's also a Playful Hacker and talented artist, which plays a part in Alex being inspired to sharpen her own art skills and giving her a Chekhov's Skill when Alex is locked out of her computer and hacks her way back in. On top of this, Laguna living happily as a trans woman is what spurs Alex's own LGBT Awakening, and she even gives Alex the courage to accept and see herself as a girl.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Alex and her friends finally speak up to John, making him realize what a horrible father he's been and promising Alex he'll learn to be a better father from here on out. Afterwards, Alex goes to see the Pretty Guardian Love Force movie, and the game ends with the quote, "She'll figure it out...". Alex's friends get their happy endings, too; Sam has come to terms with being trans because of Alex supporting her, and even though she cannot openly transition yet, she's happy with at least giving herself the space to think about it, Andy realizes how entitled he's been acting and begins to start working on himself, and Jenni is figuring out how to balance her life between school, work, and her interests.
- Easter Egg: Several, and according to Word of God there are still secrets left to be discovered. One of the easiest Easter Eggs to find is this code which seems to be some sort of message written to Alex's dad.
- Extremely Short Timespan: The entire game takes place over the course of 3 days, from May 12 to May 15, 1999.
- Fantasy-Forbidding Father: John, as mentioned under Wanted a Gender-Conforming Child, greatly disapproves of Alex's extensive internet use, believing it's dangerous for her to be interacting with strangers on the internet and that she could be using her time studying chemistry instead (even though she has no interest in the subject whatsoever, and doesn't even take classes for it). He even locks her out of her desktop and attempts to take away all internet access before her friends step in.
- Fictional Social Network: As much as an obscure fandom forum could be considered a social network, technically speaking. A large chunk of the game revolves around Alex visiting a forum called "PGLF Fans". It's even possible to browse the forums, though some pages and sections are inaccessible until after the first day (the plot reason being that Jenni has to fix some issues with the server).
- Heel Realization: When Alex's friends help her confront John, she works up the nerve to tell him that she doesn't feel safe around him any more, which is when he realizes that he's been far too authoritarian with Alex and restricting her from something that makes her happy.John: I guess I have a way of fucking up everything I touch, don't I? First my marriage, and now my job as a father.
- Knight of Cerebus: What would otherwise be a normal day for Alex on the internet is turned on its head by John, her father, suddenly interrupting a conversation with her friends to get on her case about school, and for a subject that she doesn't even study, no less. Not helping matters is the interface's sudden Art Shift and Epileptic Flashing Lights that accompany the introduction of the character.
- Noodle Incident: There are occasional references to Alex having gone to an all-boy's boarding school, but having to leave because she was causing issues at school. It's never explicitly stated what exactly happened to get Alex kicked out.
- Nostalgia Filter: Alexs childhood friend Andy constantly reminisces on how outgoing and aggressive Alex was when they were kids, and frequently invites her to masculine activities like visiting shooting ranges to prepare her for the real world. However, this is deconstructed in that this isnt what Alex wants at all, and she even points out its unfair how he keeps pushing masculinity on her just because of his own nostalgia. This nearly leads to the end of their friendship.
- Playful Hacker: Laguna is a more realistic example of this trope; she loves to mess around with computer coding and even teaches Alex how to access programs in unorthodox ways, should her access to the computer interface ever be inaccessible. This becomes a Chekhov's Skill when Johnathan completely blocks off Alex's computer access, making it necessary for her to bypass the locks by coding her way through it.
- Retraux: Being set in 1999, Sanctuary OS's entire aesthetic is based on older operating systems. The websites Alex visits are based off the later style of websites common during Web 1.0.
- Shout-Out: The mini-game "Egg Friend" is a shout-out to Tamagotchi, which also features a virtual pet in an egg-shaped interface. The name, in addition to being a pun on trans slang (see Stealth Pun below), is also a reference to the incorrect theory that Tamagotchi is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for egg (tamago) and friend (tomodachi)note .
- Show Within a Show: Pretty Guardians Love Force, a Magical Girl anime that harkens back to shows like Tokyo Mew Mew and Sailor Moon. Alex is a massive fan and a major conflict of the game is her attempting to see a screening of the limited run of the movie.
- Sobriquet Sex Switch: Alex's deadname is "Alexander", and she is later referred to with the more feminine name "Alexandra". However, she's mostly referred to with the gender-neutral nickname "Alex" throughout the game.
- Transgender: One of the biggest plot points is Alex realizing she's a trans girl and her online friends helping her along the way. Additionally, Laguna and Sam are also trans women, the former having already started HRT and being the catalyst for Alexs self-discovery, and the latter having trouble accepting her identity and mostly burying her feelings, until Alex vows to support her and helps her come to terms with it.
- Stealth Pun: Alex downloads a game onto her computer called Egg Friend. "Egg" is slang for a person who is very clearly trans but has yet to realize it themselves.
- Trans Tribulations:
- Alex, over the course of the game, comes to terms with being a trans girl - though this discovery is a lot for her to process because she didn't realize her experience was so common. However, this self-discovery is juxtaposed with her extremely hidebound father who disapproves of her femininity and unorthodox interests, insisting that she's going to be the best man he can make her and accusing her of softening up too much because of the internet.
- Sam is in denial about experiencing gender dysphoria, and whenever Alex even tries to bring it up, she balks at the thought and tells Alex to just not think about it. Another attempt to talk it out with Sam leads to her accusing Alex of rubbing it in her face because Sam doesn't have an option like Alex does (even though Alex doesn't have much of a space in real life to do so, either), and believes she'll be stuck in her rural, dead-end town in Alabama forever.
- Laguna is a trans woman who just recently moved in with her aunt, away from her father. At first, it's not clear why she's distanced from her father - but Laguna eventually confirms she was kicked out of the house because she's transgender. Additionally, Jenni outs Laguna as trans to Alex without Laguna's permission, and there's a bit of discussion about it possibly endangering Laguna because Alex may let it slip on the forums. Laguna even tries to confront Jenni about it, before Alex explains the situation.
- Wanted a Gender-Conforming Child: John completely disapproves of Alex's feminine interests, and insists on her doing more masculine activities to toughen her up and live as an upstanding man. He then degrades her for having an avatar and desktop that appears girly, telling her that she's presenting herself in the wrong way.
- Workaholic: Deconstructed; Jenni believes administrating the forums is interfering with her studies and work, worrying that it's little more than a waste of time on a frivolous hobby. However, Alex points out that although Jenni isn't obligated to keep moderating if it comes at the expense of her own life and health, Jenni is also punishing herself too much for doing something she enjoys and that it's important to set aside time for her passions.
- You Are Not Alone: The story emphasizes community and highlights the internet as being accessible for reaching out to the most unlikely of friends. Its because of connecting with other people over a silly magical girl show that Alex discovers shes trans, and even encourages her friends to work on themselves and become better people. On top of that, having a community to call home gives Alex a safe place away from her abusive home life, and even gives her the courage to confront her father.