At first glance, Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro’s “The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories” is a gruesome exploration of the lengths someone might go to in order to rescue a friend.
In a spoiler-filled GDC talk, Swery peeled back the layers of White Owls’ first release, diving deep into themes of diversity, mental health, and self-discovery. In “The Missing,” narrative and gameplay are both deeply intertwined and entirely separate. The game’s story details were the last piece of the design, with basic gameplay, a general synopsis, puzzle design, locations, and level design all coming before crafting the narrative and even the main character, J.J. Macfield.
“I adopted the method of making the story beats rely on gameplay,” Swery says. “I decided to keep the strange and bizarre hooks separate from all story beats. They only exist as parts of the performance within cutscenes. I decided on locations beforehand that would ensure that the story flowed together even though I hadn’t started writing it yet.”
When it came time to craft J.J.’s character, White Owls started with the core gameplay premise: self-mutilation to solve puzzles. From there flowed themes of pain and salvation, which led to the idea of getting lost in the darkness. The themes of pain and searching for something (in the case of “The Missing,” J.J.’s best friend), led Swery to decide that a teenage girl was the right fit: not helpless, but also not invincible.
For “The Missing,” character is at the center of the experience. Diversity is a key component of Swery’s approach.
“I questioned myself,” he says. “I really wanted to find a main character who I’d never seen before. To get people to love this character, I hypothesized that there are two essential elements: admiration and sympathy. And I started from there. To try to bring these to life, I decided that the best choice was to depict the two sides that any person possesses: the ‘you that other people see’ and the ‘you that exists within yourself.'”
Swery was sure he could instill a sense of admiration in players. To reach a sense of sympathy, he would need to tap into something he believes all people share.
“I realized that in order to inspire a sense of sympathy that transcends boundaries such as gender, race, language, and ideology, I concluded it was necessary to come face-to-face with the reality that is prejudice,” he explains. “I am of the opinion that all people in some way are simultaneously both in the majority and in the minority. So, here today, as I stand in front of you, I’m a Japanese, so I’m in the minority. But when I fly back to Japan… I’ll be in the majority.”
In order to evoke this contradiction, White Owls keeps storytelling simple. The introduction leads players to believe that “The Missing” is simply about searching for a friend. As the game progresses, J.J. is othered, at first believing she’s safely in the human world and then realizing that she is the sole human in a foreign land.
Swery says that this exploration helped him understand where many stories fall down in terms of diversity. Characters are too often defined by singular traits rather than their motives and desires.
“Having experiences of both the majority and the minority and also having been through [J.J’s] suffering, I thought people might become more aware of more diverse points of view,” he says. “Digging into the character of J.J., I found a way to articulate something I had discovered. This is something I was already cognizant of, but was never able to see clearly. LGBTQ status should not be misunderstood as a character trait. This is the same as a character being a man or a woman or American or non-American, which is not a character trait. From my own personal experience—and I hope you are the same way, too—if you spend time with these people, they are clearly far more defined by their individual personalities, ideals, and the lives that they’ve led.”
Swery crafted the entire experience to appeal to younger players. He conducted interviews with his target age group and made the story one of personal exploration and self-discovery.
“What I learned from them is that there’s a desire for recognition and self-actualization,” he explains. “I wanted to home in on those topics.”
“The Missing” ultimately reveals a story of mental health and loss. This is evoked in the gameplay, as J.J. must harm herself to continue on her adventure. It’s not surprising then that Swery makes the connection between J.J.’s journey and that of a game developer, working to finish a game on time.
“Don’t become a prisoner of your development schedule,” he advises. “Do what you need to do. If you make the wrong call on this front, your game may release on schedule, which seems like a good thing. But it might not become something that reflects all the time and effort you put into making it.”