[Review] Pageant & New Year's Eve, 2019 by Autumn Chen

I stumbled across Pageant (and wound up recommending it to a PTSD peer support group I’m a part of, where it resonated with several of the other members straddling the Asian-American experience in terms of cultural divide and tightrope walking). I don’t think that liked it is quite the right term- it wasn’t really a pleasant experience, but it was a very good piece of writing in terms of the squirmy-queasy feeling it inspired when walking through the protagonist’s shoes and in terms of being able to squish emotion out of me, even if it was largely frustration and irritation at not being able to get a good ending despite trying to finely balance being decent at everything rather than gambling it all on one venture or the other- though, burnout and mediocre performance is pretty reasonable as far conclusions go there. It made me feel something, and that’s one of the major hallmarks of pieces I’ll write on, or ponder over for awhile longer. It’s also why I decided to check out NYE, 2019.

The greyed out choices were pretty good signal posts at different ways things could have gone- a wistfulness and regret that effectively echoes the character’s fidget-y rising anxiety. I can’t say that Zhao is a character wholly dissimilar from me: she’s also someone I’ve known secondhand- a highstrung, terribly anxiety riddled, high achieving Asian woman who is deeply dissatisfied in terms of her personal life. She’s also not quite like me though, and the dissonance makes it hard to say that I like her, exactly- I found her frustrating at times, (despite being able to empathize in terms of the character’s mental health in some regards), though- at the same time, that frustration and agitation with yourself, and sometimes ineffectual attempts at pushing through before you’re really ready to is very realistic, I find. I think part of that annoyance comes from the expectation of being able to do better, wanting to do better- and well, if that isn’t familiar! I got a good ending with Emily in NYE, 2019- and I’m happy for it.

I do wish that Zhao had made some progress on the social front after going off to college- but God knows so many young adults fall to pieces when they head off to higher education and away from the social bubbles they’ve been wrapped up in all of their lives: I never really experienced the slow dissolution of highschool friendships, (and have retained a childhood friend who I also coincidentally met through both of us liking Homestuck!) but I can see how it happens to people and the awful effect it has on people, especially people I have known who were never really forced into isolation/loneliness and learning to abide their own company. It can be a total shock to the system.

Don’t get me wrong- I love my loved ones, and I care for them deeply, cherish their company: but I think being forced to figure out what it’s like to exist completely alone in a city of millions was a very big eye opening moment on adulthood and figuring out how to try to be comfortable with myself. I’m a bit of a buzzy socialite when I’m in a good place, but I can see a little of my awkward, round shouldered, sweatily nervous pre-teen self in Zhao. I feel bad for her, mostly. She’s familiar, in the way nervously smiling childhood pictures are- and the same intermingling of pity tinged with frustration and disappointment rises when I think back. I suppose, it just goes to show my own foibles- and the value of learning self forgiveness and compassion, both of which are works in progress for me.

Zhao isn’t a protagonist I’d actively root for. She’s the kind of character that’s hard to look dead on at- the kind that I usually turn around from and cover my face, or close my eyes and cringe, sucking in a sharp breath- because the second hand embarrassment can be agonizing. At the same time- I think that she’s capable of provoking such a visceral reaction speaks quite highly to Chen’s writing abilities.

Is she likeable? I wouldn’t say that I like her. I would say that she is a very interesting character, and she has resonated with a lot of other Asian Diaspora I’ve shown her to, and that that’s valuable in of itself. If she as a character was holding up a mirror for some sort of theme or meaning for us to glean: I think it would be to be a little kinder to the awkward young adults we once were, still trying to stumble our way through life gracelessly, fumbling in the dark to grasp at something like salvation. I think that that’s certainly worth consideration.

And at any rate- I was compelled enough to share my thoughts! I’d suggest playing both games to see for yourself.

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Have sleepily digested Chen’s shortened and in depth post mortems and wanted to append a few brief thoughts.

First of all- I had no idea Zhao was a self insert of sorts, and am now mortified for having waffled on about how she wasn’t particularly likeable, if still a compelling protagonist. I hope that this doesn’t come off as an insult to the author! I’m sure that you’re a perfectly lovely person.

It’s interesting to me that Chen notes personally feeling as if NYE, 2019’s writing is a bit of a weak spot that needs to be papered over with interactivity, or that the characters might have come off as sort of vague, empty stereotypes. I think that came as a surprise to me specifically because it was the compelling nature of the characters, especially Emily’s development in Pageant that led me to check out NYE, 2019, and I quite enjoyed all of the characters- maybe specifically because of the universality of the Anxious Type A Asian Girl to my own experiences and people I’ve known.

Also, the greyed out choices were apparently for routes or options that had never been implemented due to being cut for scope purposes. You could have fooled me- I felt sufficiently free to mosey about and eat delicious little snacks while wandering to chat to people.

Speaking of chatting to people, it was mentioned more content might be on the horizon for the Kevin and Mom interactions- I’d happily replay it to see that, since the Kevin moment in the basement was jarringly short to me. I guess that’s the nature of annoying siblings, huh? Hahah.

I also hope that Chen does make that other game in the same feel/with Zhao, and will be keeping an eye out for it- I’ll probably review it when it comes out too.

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Thanks so much for the amazing in-depth review! About Karen Zhao being unlikeable, don’t worry about it haha. I mean, I did put a lot of the traits I dislike most about myself into her. I’m actually a little surprised at how many people said the story was relatable, given how weird the protagonist can be and how specific a lot of the situations were. It turns out the relatable story is one that doesn’t try to be universal in any way…

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