Did you know during metamorphosis, inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar turns into soup? […] If you want to be a butterfly, you have to be butterfly soup first.
The more I think about it, the more “butterfly soup” is the perfect analogy for the type of coming-of-age story I’m interested in: that messy in-between stage of life when the characters are figuring themselves out and becoming something new, though they’re not entirely sure what yet. It will be strange and at times awful, but they will come out the other side transformed by what they’ve been through, whether that’s an epic adventure or just the plain ol’ forging fires of high school.
Butterfly Soup is a game about growing up, a little snippet of four girls’ lives during this pivotal, clumsy chrysalis phase. It’s about falling in love, about figuring yourself out, about dealing with crappy parents, and also about baseball and anime and not being straight. It’s a sweet and moving little visual novel that speaks from the heart and tells a very real-feeling tale of teenaged existence, and provides a hearty mix of both comedy and drama all the while feeling like a smooth ride rather than an emotional rollercoaster.
The story begins in third grade, told from the point of view of athletic but shy Diya as she admires her much-more-outgoing friend Min-seo. Min is the wild-child antithesis to the gentle and bashful Diya, but somehow they get along famously. Min is also, quite blatantly, head over heels in puppy love for Diya. Heartache sets in when Min and her family must move interstate, something that’s still happening no matter how violently Min opposes it or how loudly she threatens to run away. So the two friends tearfully part ways and promise to find each other again one day. Lo and behold, one five-year timeskip later and Diya is hearing rumours of a mysterious transfer student who apparently got expelled from her previous school for decidedly Min-like behaviour. Sure enough, the two collide (literally) after years apart, and Diya realises that hey, maybe she’s a little bit head over heels for Min too, even though she never thought about it at the time.
From here, the narrative wanders happily through the day-to-day goings on and internal struggles of the main characters (including two of Diya’s other school friends), with the relationship between Diya and Min acting as a sort of plot backbone, but otherwise with no real dedication to structure. It’s not a bad thing, since the day-to-day goings on and internal struggles of the main characters are fun and interesting to engage with, though it does seem to raise some conflicts that are ultimately left hanging.
The biggest of these is the relationship the characters have with their parents, which all sit on a scale of controlling and overbearing at best, downright physically abusive at worst. A lot of this is expressedly tied into Asian immigrant culture and the driving desire of these adults to see their children be the very best academically and secure themselves respectable careers. Obviously, me being neither Asian, American, nor Asian-American, I can’t comment on the authenticity of this portrayal, but it definitely feels like it comes from a place of experience rather than stereotyping.
In any case, something this dire in the lives of the protagonists feels like it should perhaps be the main source of conflict, but instead it’s matter-of-factly placed as an accepted backdrop to the other, more positive events taking place in the game. Min and Noelle, another childhood friend of Diya’s, have their first awkward bonding conversation over their crappy parents, both lightheartedly joking that they couldn’t even define a healthy parent-child relationship if they were asked to. There is a lot of using humour to cope in this game.
There’s quite a bit going on that isn’t necessarily resolved by the end of the game, is what I’m saying. But if you accept the game as a snippet of these girls’ growing up experience, with the “will they or won’t they?” between Min and Diya at its centre, it makes a lot more sense. Not every problem can be tackled in a small, fun story like this, especially when it’s not the core focus, which adds an element of heartache as well as an element of realism, and in a way makes the delightfully goofy and heartfelt friendship between the four leads even more rewarding to watch. Everything might be a mess, but they have each other.
And oh, the friendship is a rollicking good time. Between shy Diya, rowdy Min, uptight Noelle, and goofy Akarsha, there are enough contrasting personalities that a variety of different delightful dynamics pop up through the group. Akarsha and Noelle’s rivalry is particularly fun, at first set up as poor nerdy Noelle being picked on by Akarsha who refuses to take anything seriously… only for it to soon be revealed that Noelle will retaliate to each and every one of her pranks with a more ridiculous one, locking the two in a genuine battle of bad practical jokes that Diya observes is their way of saying they love each other.
Akarsha and Min get into a fight when Min first moves back to their school, only for the slapstick standoff to end with them as close friends who mutually respect each other’s ferocious weirdness; Noelle and Diya each overcome their respective anxieties in order to support the other; Akarsha’s humour helps Diya build confidence. The gang becomes increasingly tight-knit over the short space of the story, and all find different ways to support one another, including Akarsha and Noelle supporting Diya and Min in the most zany and adorable way possible (the details of which I will not spoil, because it’s one of the highlights of the game’s finale).
There’s a feel of authenticity to the whole game, especially in the way the teenaged characters interact, that makes it feel like it comes from true experience that is clearly fresh in the developer’s mind. It’s also set in 2008, making it a beautiful and cringe-inducing time capsule of geek culture of the time, mostly in the form of Akarsha and her jokes about yaoi paddles (she’s even got Konata as her group chat icon. Good taste there, at least). Akarsha was possibly my favourite character of the bunch, purely because she appeals so much to the part of me that loves outgoing, jokey characters who turn out to be using humour as a shield (another example would be Minorin, whose show Akarsha was probably watching as it aired) and who can just as equally sober down and provide truly meaningful heartfelt advice to their friends when in need.
All the main four are wonderful in their own ways, though, and there is enough variety there that I feel like everyone who plays this will find someone they can relate to. The story begins narrated by Diya, but rotates through the perspectives of the four mains so that by the end the player has gotten a look inside each of their heads. Min is left for last, which turns out to be an emotional power-move on the storyteller’s part, as her reflections on her childhood put a lot of things in perspective and make the happy (and very gay) ending even more impactful. There’s not much in the way of branching storylines, but that works just fine here and the emotional beats all flow nicely together towards the singular, heartwarming conclusion.
I know I use this word a lot when reviewing, but listen, Butterfly Soup is a genuinely delightful short game, sweet queer romance woven in with comedy and drama, all coming together to paint an authentic little picture of the teenaged experience. It’s free, it only runs about four hours long, and it made me laugh out loud as much as it made my chest ache.