Written by Samm Jinks.
The first LGBTQIA+ pride parade I took part in was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me, with the sheer cacophonous volume of every participant making it clear just how much life there could be when you were out, proud, and loud as yourself. It’s no coincidence that the very same day I watched in awe as queer people of all stripes streamed out into the summer air, that I resolved to come out to my family, as well. Indeed, that year of pride holds a special place in my heart, and now that summer comes into view once more, I’ve been feeling reflective of that moment in my life and many of the games that led up to that personal, powerful self-love.
One such title that I was able to enjoy in this vein was A Year of Springs, a collection of visual novels released from 2018 to 2020 by prolific VN developer npckc. At their core, each story in this trilogy focuses on one of a trio of friends, with all of them coming to terms with their sense of queer identity. From that perspective, they each re-examine their existing relationships and self-understanding, with major changes waiting in the wings as they come to love themselves and each other for who they really are.
One Night, Hot Springs sees the careful and anxious Haru trying to enjoy a hot spring as an out trans woman for the very first time, and on the evening of her childhood best friend Manami’s birthday as well. While riddled with worry over putting others out over her right to be in a public space and initially put off by Manami’s brash new buddy Erika, kindness and acceptance are able to persevere despite it all.
Last Day of Spring observes the direct and loud Erika jumping into the Reiwa era face first by trying to make a great present for her newly acquired friend Haru with the help of Manami. But when it becomes clear just how many hurdles Haru faces each day as a trans woman, Erika gains a deeper understanding of her own relationships, what it means to accept someone for who they are, and in turn, who you want to be to them.
Spring Leaves No Flowers rounds out the trio by coming back to the shy and proper Manami, who begins to realize that, with Haru’s new romantic relationship, her lived experiences in terms of sexuality and romance may not match what others feel on a daily basis. By talking with Haru, Erika, and eventually her boyfriend, she slowly begins to piece together who she truly is and what that might mean for her future.
As a young bisexual and a not-yet-affirmed non-binary trans woman, many of the unique struggles for these characters spoke to me immensely at the time, but upon re-experiencing them in such quick succession, it struck me just how much careful, mature consideration was put into each narrative journey. While the artwork is beautiful and clean in its simplicity, it also allows small changes in mood and tone to come through without needing to sensationalize any given moment.
Each of these three women is going through shifts in how they view themselves and their relationships with each other, but that doesn’t require huge, dramatic fights or emotional breakdowns. Instead, A Year of Springs centers on quiet, courageous moments where they are able to open up to those that matter most. Laying their whole selves bare, and then, at that moment, seeing their whole selves accepted, is a magic rare indeed that these games carefully build up with aplomb.
And the methods by which they are able to build up to those moments ensure that the player is fully involved from start to conclusion, wherever that may fall.
Each visual novel in this trilogy presents choices to the players throughout the experience, with a plethora of possible endings available for all of them (with either one or a couple of those being considered the “true” endings to the narrative). And in a first for me, when it comes to a series of games in this genre, each potential ending style is indicative of the personality of the player character in question.
Haru’s narrative journey in One Night, Hot Springs culminates with the decisions she made at each point, lending to finding either kindness or indifference depending on how willing she was to get outside her comfort zone.
Erika is in a completely different camp during Last Day of Spring, where her direct nature and blunt approach to social situations can drive away the person she’s trying to reach out to, with each day potentially ending the experience prematurely if she acts too rashly.
Manami is perhaps the most unique of all of these in that her many conclusions in Spring Leaves No Flowers are more like continuations of the status quo, where each choice she makes seems like it’s just barely out of her reach, when it comes to breaking through the boundaries she has around herself and others.
What this shows to me is a focus on tailoring each visual novel’s narrative to the individual character experiencing it, reflecting their internal struggle in the player’s actions as well. This also ensures that no character’s personal battle feels rehashed or underwhelming, with the three of them all coming to terms with who they are with the direct assistance and acceptance of the player themselves.
While all three of these titles are available individually, A Year of Springs includes a special epilogue that brings all of these stories back together once the player has completed the rest of the package. It’s a bite-sized treat that really touched me at my core.
That let me pause and consider what has changed since that fateful pride so many springs before.
The past five years since I came out haven’t always been easy. For the many moments of self-acceptance, there came new anxieties, doubts, and fears. Changes after changes, which with cultivation and introspection, led to moments of emotional maturation. And yet, often, during those moments, it felt like there would never be an end to the crisis after crisis ahead. That, despite finding myself, I had lost a connection to what others wished for me to be, to who I believed others wanted me to be, even when it hurt.
But that wasn’t the connection I was seeking any longer.
Through the help, love, and kindness of those I trust and who, in turn, trust me, I know I have changed for the better. I am more myself, more capable of being myself, and more in love with who I wish for myself to be than ever before. And in playing A Year of Springs all again, I was able to further come to terms with how much has changed in the time since I first experienced this trilogy.
At one time, I envied these characters, for each living as herself in spite of hardships. For finding bravery. For overcoming the walls within. Now, I see myself in Haru, and Erika, and Manami all at once, as individuals who made the hard decisions to be who they are fully, openly, completely.
And I think I was able to make that decision for myself, just a bit more easily, by playing this title all those years ago.