14 February 2021
Today is Valentines Day, a national holiday celebrating yours truly. And you know what always makes me happy? Application of critical theory!
Using a queer lens, I can make a compelling case that Smile for Me’s central antagonist, Dr. B Habit, is both queer and gender-nonconforming. The rest of y’all nerds on dates and stuff are really missing out, this is where the fun is at.
Okay, some context: Smile for Me is a first-person puzzle adventure game built in Unity and released in May 2019 by first-time developer duo LimboLane. The primary mechanic which sets it apart from others in the genre is navigation of conversations by physically moving the player camera in order to answer yes/no questions.
Other highlights include a dreamlike, 3D anaglyph art direction, some low-key body horror, and a creepy puppet. So, you know, fun for the whole family!
No ma’am, I’m reasonably certain that I’m the protagonist.
You play as an unnamed “Flower Child”, a delivery person who awakens in The Habitat; a sort of retreat for people suffering from depression or otherwise unable to find joy in their lives. Many of your neighbors have been here for a while, and their conditions aren’t improving.
Dr. Habit always promises that the next smile is just around the corner. However, it’s difficult to ignore that the so-called “happiness facts” in the faux-educational videos and motivational posters scattered throughout the facility are…questionable, at best.
Habit’s philosophy is that you shouldn’t try too hard to be happy. You can’t rush happiness, you see, and you definitely won’t find it by changing things in your life that you’re unsatisfied with. No, happiness just comes to you! You just have to keep waiting.
You might be tempted to help your neighbors fix their problems. DEFINITELY DO NOT DO THIS. Dr. Habit is the smile expert, after all. You might pull something if you try too hard. He says that someday “The Big Event” will be ready, and everyone in the whole world will be ready to smile forever.
Incidentally, you’re also strongly encouraged be in bed before nightfall.
Yeah, this place is totally normal.
As you bring cheer to more and more of your new friends, Habit’s warnings become more aggressive, his threats more explicit. Cut that shit out, kid. It turns out a couple of your fellow habiticians know the good doctor personally, too, and are more than happy to dish that dirt in return for brightening their days.
Elements of Habit’s presentation and history, pieced together through exploration, the assembly of discarded diary pages, and eventually the confrontation with Habit himself, mirror the lived experiences of many trans and non-binary children.
Habit refers to his most formative experience as “what Mom and Dad did when I was ten”. Based on the date of his earliest diary entries mentioning it (April 1974), we can conclude Habit was born and raised in the mid 60’s. I confess this is before my time, but make no mistake, this was not a pleasant time to be a queer person.
For context, Habit would be three years old during the Stonewall Riots. It was still up for debate exactly how illegal being gay was. This is the kind of homophobic, psuedoscientific bile Time Magazine was publishing the year Habit is born, in which human hate basket Judith A. Reisman, whose Ph.D I can only assume was awarded in error, concludes:
“It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”
This is queerness in the 1960’s American cultural consciousness. This is the environment in which Habit would have been reared.
By exploring The Habitat’s rooftop courtyard you can find a slideshow of the event which traumatized Habit when he was ten years old. In it, we see Habit happily raising his favorite flower, the “tooth lily”. It is established in multiple diary entries that the young Habit greatly enjoys botany, and would later experience conflict with his parents centered on his desire to become a florist.
Habit is depicted kissing his flower in order to make it grow. In the world of Smile for Me, this trick not only works, but is necessary to cause the flower to bloom. The young Habit’s expression turns fearful as his father, silhouetted against the light of the exit and sporting an inhumanly wide and cruel smile, appears in the frame. The tooth lily’s pot is shown smashed on the ground next to a stray tooth. A close-up of Habit’s face in the final frame depicts a child’s bloody mouth and nose, and freely streaming tears.
The player has witnessed a victim of domestic violence, a beating motivated by hatred of a child simply expressing gender-nonconforming mannerisms.
It does not escape notice that Habit (who signs his first name “Boris” at the age of ten) has some features which might be considered stereotypically feminine, such as his emphasized eyelashes and long hair. It is likely that this contributes to his father’s treatment of him, especially during this time period when femininity in men would be (unfairly) construed as a sign he is gay.
His teenage diary entry claims that both “Mom and Dad” were responsible for his abuse, though we only see one of them do so. In that same entry, he laments being bullied by someone named Martha (a name he would later bestow to his doomsday weapon) due to his missing teeth. Note that teeth is pluralized here, even though in the slideshow exactly one tooth is shown missing. By combining this timeline with his professed disdain for both his parents, we can safely infer that Habit’s abuse was ongoing throughout his life, and perpetrated by each of his guardians.
Habit’s behavior is shifting slightly as a result of his treatment; he now refers to his diary as a journal, and abbreviates his name as B. Harris. He also confesses to stealing his first alcoholic drink. However, he still shares that drink with his beloved tooth lily.
By the time he leaves college, he has tried and failed to find joy in dentistry as his father wished, and has also stopped signing his name “Boris”. He instead abbreviates his name as B. Habit, and appears to abandon his given name entirely. This parallels the increased androgyny of Habit’s presentation as he begins to choose his own clothes, as well as his desire to distance himself from the elements of his identity which his parents have chosen for him.
Finally, there are a few resources outside of the game itself that suggest Habit identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. The Steam trading card for Kamal, his former dental assistant, includes a message which implies Habit is attracted to him:
“hI, Kamal, it is mee, Dr Habit!!!! I maded you LOTS of valvbentines day e cards,, u even hav a framed pikture of me to kiss when u r lonely. :-) hab a nice day!”
A year after the game’s release, LimboLane also created an overwhelmingly heartwarming epilogue for Smile for Me, which celebrated the fan art, music, and support they’d received from all of their fans. Written in-character, emails between Kamal and Habit more or less confirm a mutual attraction.
Since we can reasonably conclude that Habit is attracted to Kamal, and that they have a good relationship in the year after the game’s conclusion, we can also safely assume that Kamal is using the correct pronouns for Habit when referring to him as he. Though there are an infinite number of identities with which Habit could identify based on everything we know about him, we can be sure he’s definitely queer and also potentially gender expansive.
So what does Smile for Me have to say about people who struggle with their sexuality or gender identity? That they’re tragic, destined to be villains?
Actually, no! This is one of my favorite things about it.
In the game’s final act, the residents of The Habitat that you’ve cured of the sad evacuate in the night. The Flower Child remains behind to confront their nemesis, who is at this point absolutely furious that they prefer your methodology to his.
Kamal advises you not to “breathe too heavily” in the morning, and you soon learn why. The Habitat is flooded with gas for “The Big Event”, and you are left to stumble through the facility to find Habit and stop him…somehow.
Things don’t go exactly as planned.
Oh no. I’ve made a mistake.
The player falls unconscious, and awakes to finds themselves strapped to a dentist’s chair. A manic Habit monologues about his evil plan, while casually ripping out all of your teeth. He tells you he wants to harvest as many teeth from sad people who aren’t using them to smile anyway. He’ll combine them all in his giant steampunk denture-tank, Martha, to create a smile so large that it will infect the whole world.
It’s twisted, sure, but there’s still an element of kindness to it. Habit may be flagrantly disregarding your safety and have terrible bedside manner, but he wants to help the maximum number of people find joy.
When Habit steps out to retrieve his equipment, the player has a chance to free themselves by, I shit you not, throwing their own harvested teeth at the control panel on the wall.
The lack of gore somehow makes this scene even more disturbing.
You find Habit silhouetted similarly to his father years ago, against a conveniently placed sheet of glass and a handful of very on the nose “no punching” signs. You can sock him right then and there if you want, just like his father did, this time sending him hurtling to his death. He even asks you to do it, saying “a younger him would have done the same”. And if that’s the story you want to tell, that’s fine. You’ll find Kamal in the waiting room, wondering if there was another way the story could have ended. Roll credits.
But if instead of punching Habit, you give him a kiss, he’ll express confusion, and assume you’re asking for a truce. You can continue to gift him a tooth lily of your own, which can be cultivated during the game by reading between the lines of his diary and repeating the steps of his childhood self. By continuing to support and empathize with Habit through dialogue, he will eventually begin to reflect on his behavior and apologize.
His colleagues have described Habit throughout the game as someone who “hasn’t been happy in a long time”. Up until this point, Habit has lived by the worldview that trying to make individuals happy is a waste of time. When he attempted to do so with his parents, or patients in dentristry, he was only ever hurt by it. Habit tries to skip the human element by creating a giant smiling doomsday weapon instead. But by remaining steadfastly dedicated to helping him find joy, even in the face of hardship, he finally gets to experience love for himself, and concedes your method is truly superior.
Habit asks you to become his friend, and if you accept, you can complete the game completely nonviolently.
Smile for Me is the story of a unique person whose authentic self is systematically rejected by others from a young age. Where most media would be content to give them a tragic end, LimboLane instead pushes the player to carefully learn about what its antagonist is struggling with, and what he needs most in life. Queerness, they argue, is not synonymous with pain, not inherently, and it is never too late to find the acceptance and joy.
The world of Smile for Me is incredibly diverse, containing characters of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and every single one of them, even the grammatically challenged bone gremlin, is depicted as not only capable of happiness, but deserving of it. The player’s instinct to listen, help everyone, and to express bespoke, selfless acts of appreciation for authenticity is rewarded.
Abigail Thorn, artist behind Philosophy Tube, once expressed that she believes the kind of work you produce will naturally cultivate a certain kind of audience, and that her goal in making the channel was to assemble kind, thoughtful people. I think this is precisely what LimboLane sought to accomplish; judging by the outpouring of wholesome fan work celebrating this game and the wide range of characters in it, they nailed it.
There’s a real beauty to this. Games that teach kindness over conquest are so rare, and I really vibe with the commitment to New Sincerity. It fills me with hope that there are others like me out there. You could even say it makes me smile. :-)
So if this weird, quarantined Valentines Day has you feeling down or isolated, why not take a trip to The Habitat?
Because nothing says “I love you” quite like the gift of human teeth.