A Summer's End - Hong Kong 1986 spoilers follow.
If you haven't reached the end of A Summer's End - Hong Kong 1986 and want to remain unspoiled, you might want to turn back (or alternatively read this piece featuring the first part of the interview we did with the creators).
The visual novel was included in Digital Spy's best indie games of 2020, and the way the endings resonated with us was one of the reasons why it left such a strong impression.
Over the course of A Summer's End, the player follows the two women protagonists, Michelle and Sam, as they explore a romance with each other. Most of the game is told from Michelle's perspective. She has feelings for Sam but is uncertain about the relationship – struggling with her own identity as well as having to cope with the expectations of her mother.
Michelle ends up breaking Sam's heart, initially not wanting to take their lesbian relationship any further due to societal pressures, but has the chance to reconcile with her when they awkwardly bump into each other at a beef brisket restaurant.
At this point, provided certain criteria has been met, a key decision determines which of the two ending paths the player will go down.
The first ending
Choose to chase after Sam and kiss her, and they will get back together. It is the more substantial ending of the two, filled with optimism and hope. There is an extended sequence where the couple spend the next day together, being happy and carefree.
"We wanted to depict these moments of joy after the conflict resolution," developer Oracle and Bone's Charissa So and Tida Kietsungden told Digital Spy. "We wanted to show the possibility of a relationship working out despite the initial difficulties and societal conflicts.
"Joy in romance stories, and especially LGBTQ stories, is important. LGBTQ stories do often focus on overcoming internal conflicts and the uphill battle against discrimination. A Summer's End centres on Michelle's journey of overcoming her internal prejudices and discovering her own identity. Coming out to yourself or to someone else is an emotionally cathartic event. Despite the fear and anxiety that might precede it, it can be a joyous occasion too.
"Being true to yourself and being true to others is something to be celebrated, which is why we included the following scene where Michelle and Sam have a day to themselves to enjoy each other's company.
"Of course, coming out is not a singular event and every time – premeditated or accidental – can be as challenging as the first, whether it be to friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers."
In this ending, Michelle ends up coming out to her mother after the day out, and it doesn't go well. Michelle's mother is hostile towards her, leading Michelle to move out. What stands out about this particular arc is how the mother and the storyline are portrayed. Often, these sorts of Asian characters are written in a stereotypical or one-note way, but A Summer's End adds nuance to the mother that feels authentic to the time and place.
Michelle's mother has outdated views, but her reaction also stems from Michelle's sexuality contradicting her own traditional views of what success and happiness look like and the path that she has tried to push her daughter towards as a result.
"Michelle's mother is someone who loves her daughter and wants only what she thinks is best for her, though her worldview may be seen as limiting for Michelle," So and Kietsungden said.
"Her prejudices are not intentionally hostile, and we wanted the story to imply that they can be something unlearned through time and understanding. In the same way, traditional values are mutable and can adapt to changing society."
The final scenes depict just that as Michelle's first conversation with her mother in months sees her mother asking about and taking an interest in Sam.
The second ending
If Michelle doesn't chase after Sam and stays at the restaurant, the game jumps ahead more than a decade to 1997. Michelle is married and has a daughter who she loves. At the airport, she waits to board her flight out of Hong Kong. It's a one-way trip.
The Handover of Hong Kong is a key subject in A Summer's End, which is not surprising given that the game takes place in 1986 – a year after the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed.
Addressing the alternative ending, which sees Michelle starting a new life in a different country, the creators said that it was a "reality for many Hong Kong people".
"It was a decision that wasn't made lightly by Michelle and others like her," they added. "Michelle's story in A Summer's End is very much an allegory for this time period in Hong Kong. The decision of leaving one's homeland and choosing instead a different kind of uncertainty and alienation in a foreign place is a dilemma migrants face not only in Hong Kong, but in any place where there is political and economic instability."
When asked if the first ending – with Michelle and Sam together – was the 'canon' outcome, So and Kietsungden responded that they wanted to let the readers interpret the endings for themselves.
"Although one ending may seem quite bittersweet, either ending is as plausible for Michelle and we wanted each of them to reflect the consequences of equally valid choices," they said. "Happiness and personal fulfilment depends on a person's individual needs and wants, and they are things that can change over time and circumstance.
"We understand that such an ending might be hard to accept for some readers, but it is a reality for the silent many who feel they have no other choice but to live in fulfilment of family expectations and societal, cultural, and religious pressures.
"We did consciously want our story to give hope and encouragement to our readers. In these politically charged times, we couldn’t let the story fall to nihilism, which is why in the alternative ending we left a clear final message: Against uncertainty, and against whatever forces that seek to bring us down, we should take pride in ourselves and know that our humanity is deserving of dignity and respect."
Finally, we asked whether Oracle and Bone had any more plans for Michelle and Sam following the game's release.
So and Kietsungden confirmed that something is in the works.
"We would definitely like to expand on Michelle and Sam’s story," they said. "We do have something we're working on, but it may not necessarily be a direct sequel. It'll be touched upon in the next story."
Their next project – a "new story" – will touch upon "similar and different themes found in A Summer's End", and they will share more details when they are ready.
A Summer's End - Hong Kong 1986 is available now on PC, Mac, and Linux.
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