Representation and inclusion in video games still has a way to go – you just have to look at the manner in which CD Projekt RED promoted Cyberpunk 2077 – but there are games that represent a huge leap in its evolution. A YEAR OF SPRINGS isn’t just an engaging, softly spoken visual novel: it’s an interactive lesson in how cis groups can naturally talk to, welcome and involve transgender people.
If that sounds stuffy and clinical, then we can reassure you that it’s not. A YEAR OF SPRINGS is primarily an otome visual novel about relationships. It handles this side well, and you will be merrily joking and nattering with a group of close friends over its three stories. But it’s what it does under this cloak that makes it remarkable.
The three stories are inexorably linked. The first ‘One Night, Hot Springs’ has you playing as Haru, a transitional transgender woman who has been invited to some hot springs by her best friend, Manami. It’s Manami’s birthday, and she wants to share it with Haru and a friend that Haru has not met before, Eliza. This introduces a triple whammy of anxieties for Haru, as she has to navigate the hang-ups of a very buttoned-up Japanese culture; deal with her own insecurities of undressing and wearing a swimming costume in front of others; and do all of this in front of an outspoken and seemingly judgmental new person, Eliza.
If you’ve ever downplayed the issues that a transgender person might have to face, then play One Night, Hot Springs. It should be on the curriculum. It works so well because it puts you in the role of a transgender person, Haru, who naturally assumes everything is her fault. So, when you are put in an awkward situation, there is always the dialogue option to minimise the issue or make yourself the problem. But the good endings, and the best results, come from when Haru challenges the assumptions and obstructions put in front of her. It feels like an exercise in transgender empowerment and self-championing.
While in the role of Haru, you can see the multitude of issues she has to face. She is not accepted in male, female or family baths. Haru is constantly harangued with questions about her deadname and transition, and can’t seem to have a natural conversation. People stare. But rather than make this a dour examination of how crappy the world can be, it’s optimistic. Her friends rally behind her, and the staff of the baths intervene in a surprising and positive way.
Rather than tell a completely different story, the second and third stories centre on the same friend group, but with a different focus and main character. Last Day of Spring is told by Eliza, as she learns how to be a friend to Haru, who is extremely anxious, teasing her out of her house. As she does so, she is exposed to the barriers that are put in front of transgender people, as booking events becomes incredibly problematic. It’s also about transgender romantic relationships, as Eliza finds that she has feelings for Haru, which is the natural next step after One Night, Hot Springs.
And perhaps uniquely for video games, Spring Leaves No Flowers handles topics of asexuality and aromanticness, as one of the three characters comes to understand why she has differing thoughts on sex and relationships. The moment she realises that her feelings aren’t the norm, but that norms are there to be deviated from – as well as there being labels, groups and websites to support her – was genuinely affecting and well done.
As you can probably tell, we were smitten by A YEAR OF SPRINGS for its determination to put gender-non conformance and transgenderism at the centre of not one, but three stories. And far from being a stuffy tale that feels like it has crept out of a medical flier, it is light, endearing and enjoyable. If these topics interest you in the slightest, or you want a concise and engaging way of learning more on the subject, then we wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it.
The caveats are mostly what you’d expect. Visual novels aren’t for everyone. While there’s a large degree of choice here, those choices often lead to premature endings, so they often feel less like endings and more like punishments. And there’s no denying that the simplistic art style, the progressive subject matter, and the emphasis on relationships rather than dramatic plot shifts won’t tickle everyone’s tastebuds. It’s mawkish and also occasionally repetitive, as you constantly push Haru to join the group. It might feel correct, but it can make for dull gameplay and storytelling.
But if you’ve ever enjoyed an otome visual novel, we couldn’t recommend A YEAR OF SPRINGS more. On the surface, this is a gentle, heartwarming tale of three friends moving in different directions. Below that surface, it has a mission: to expose what it is to be a transgender person in the conform-culture of modern day Japan. It has a simmering anger and a desire for change, and it’s this underlying message that makes this simple visual novel glow.
You can buy A YEAR OF SPRINGS from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S