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Pageant

by Autumn Chen profile

Part of Pageantverse
Slice of life
2020

Web Site

(based on 14 ratings)
5 reviews

About the Story

Your name is Karen Zhao, and you’ve just been signed up by your parents for a beauty pageant. You’re not ready, not even close, but you don’t have a choice. But perhaps you can make the best of it. Maybe it’s the one opportunity to make a “hook” for your college application. Maybe you can reinvent yourself, get rid your anxiety and become someone new. Or maybe you can find true love (or some approximation thereof).


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Member Reviews

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Most Helpful Member Reviews


7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
The Suffering Queer Chinese Diaspora Experience, April 14, 2023

It's been a while since I played a title that made me go "Yep, I've been there."

Pageant by Autumn Chen is one of the most authentic descriptions of what it feels to be a closeted queer Chinese person. You roleplay as Karen Zhao whose parents came from China and immigrated to the United States. And they asked you to do a simple thing: attend a pageant.

While it seems ridiculous of a premise, I honestly feel like it isn't too far off from the stories I've heard during Chinese New Year. And the game commits to this "what does it mean to be Chinese" quite well, ranging from sexuality to "the need" to translate Chinese to simply taking a million AP classes and doing homework.

The game is very much a "raising" sim. I've played Chen's recreation of Bee with the support of Emily Short and I was pleased to see the familiar interface here. In the context of Bee, the mechanics are used to restrict the player and make them think on what they should do next. The free time in homeschooling can disappear so quickly. But here, it's freer: Karen is simply preparing for a pageant and she can look up Wikipedia or ask some friends to help her out. You are raising her stats while perhaps having a fling or two with her friends.

But Karen isn't brave. She may be smart, but her self-deprecation can turn into self-loathing quickly. Karen's a closeted queer Chinese woman whose only stressors in life are exams, classes, and Bible study. Her interactions with the girls she can date really bring out her awkwardness: she's genuine, but she doesn't know how to react. When the player gets deeper into Emily's route for example and learns (Spoiler - click to show)that Emily is trans, her choice of responses is -- let's just say -- not the best to choose from. I had to think on what to say without worsening the situation.

And that's precisely what I like about this game: Karen feels like a real person I could have met on one cumbersome Chinese banquet. She reflects a lot of the frustration and self-hatred young Chinese diaspora feel. Her actions, lines, and thoughts are things I think about too. She gets criticized by her parents, even when she follows orders. She does Science Olympiads and labwork because she has the "opportunity" her parents gave her, but she doesn't know what she wants to do. The "family dinner" section , in particular, really resonated with me: (Spoiler - click to show)I have heard all these stories about the atrocities that happened in China and, just like Karen, started to belittle myself for feeling isolated. There's no way my pain would be able to compare to the pain experienced by survivors of mass murders. It's hard to feel like you matter in a family dinner. I get why Karen's closeted and hates herself because I'm kinda the same too.

It's very hard for me to not write about Karen, which is funny since the title is supposed to be a dating sim. I should be writing about how Emily is cute for example, but the real star is the protagonist here. I enjoy the writing a lot and how truthful it is. I look forward to the sequel when I get to it.

P.S. I laughed at the mention of the mahjong anime mention. It's actually a favorite anime of mine, though I definitely agree it could have been more explicit with the lesbian characters.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Live a semester of a young woman's life, November 29, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

Having played many recent Autumn Chen games in the last year or two, I saw a lot of references to Pageant, and thought, 'I don't really remember that game well'.

Turns out, I never played it! I mixed it up with another game and never even tried it.

Having tried it, it's pretty great. It's clearly influenced by Emily Short's Bee; both use the same system (one from when it was a semi-commercial system and another after it became Dendry). Both are based on quality-based narratives that play out over several weeks, both are about a certain type of rigorous, conservative upbringing, one by fundamentalist Christians and oene by Chinese diaspora parents.

However, this is certainly not just a retread of familiar material. Our main heroine, Karen (whom I recognize from several other games) has a unique and complex approach to life that makes choices not straightforward. Karen is thoughtful and compassionate but also is under enormous stress and has social anxiety at times that makes intended choices (like responding and so on) impossible to actually carry out.

One fundamental aspect is that Karen is extremely competent but does not see herself that way. She does 95% of what a human is capable of doing, but only sees that 5% gap. She works with adult research scientists but only sees her ineptness; she is told frequently she is beautiful but only sees awkwardness; she is loved by others but only fears rejection.

But the key is that she acts in spite of these fears; she just keeps on trucking.

Having played other 'pageantverse' games I immediately narrowed in on interacting with (Spoiler - click to show)Emily as much as possible. This game explores young trans interactions quite a bit: what does a trans relationship look like? Actually, that's not true; this game isn't about 'trans relationships' first; it's just about relationships, and what happens when someone being trans is thrown in the mix. Some of the tensest moments in the game for me were switching between private moments with my friend being able to express herself however she wanted and public moments with her family where the expectation was 'be normal or get punished'.

Overall, I'm glad that this wasn't a 'downer ending' game. I was able to succeed in my goals (being close to someone and doing good in pageant + research while being mediocre in science olympiad and basically ignoring family).

A strong game, and it's clear why it spawned several good followups.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Winning the pageant is not everything, but the journey is worth the anxiety., May 27, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: independent release

Pageant follows Qiuyi (Karen) Zhao (mentioned as Karen below), a Chinese teenager living in the US, as she navigates through school and extra-curriculars, relationships and identity, family expectations and community, and the pageant her parents signed up for. Through limited storylets choice, you can carve Karen's priorities and relationships.

Pageant was created with Dendry, a storylet narrative program, where the player get to experience linear side-stories in fragmented way. Every week, the player can pick up to three options from the storylet lists to start or continue a path. As the list is often longer than three options, the player is forced to make choices and prioritise a certain path (a recurring gameplay type in Autumn's games). This makes for great and interesting replayability!

The story start with Karen being summoned by her parents, revealing that they signed her up for a pageant, happening in three months. There is no bargaining no quitting (it's good for college apps!). In three months, Karen will be on that podium*. During that prep period, she still needs to balance school (a full AP curriculum), the Science Olympiad, doing an understudy with a college professor (also set up by your parents), having dinner with your family, going to bible study on the weekend, and etc... Doesn't this sound like too much for a high school student? And was it yet mentioned that Karen is a socially awkward mess, who has trouble making relationships, is full of anxiety and self-loathing, struggling with her identity as a Chinese teenager in the US (her used name not being her birthname, and having the option to butcher your name's pronunciation) and a closeted lesbian (or something like that says the game).
*well, there is a way.

Along the way you are introduced to a handful of characters: Emily, a trans woman still in the closet, Aubrey, a girl Karen had a crush on also part of the Science Olympiad team, and Miri, Karen's only friend. There is also Karen's parents and her little brother, Kevin; Professor Chen and his grad student; the rest of the Science Olympiad Team; and the other families attending the Church. Through out the game (and your choices) you get to learn more about these characters, like how Emily deals with her family's trans/homophobia, or Miri's feelings towards you, your family's history...* The storylets really shine here, giving you crumbles here and there, forcing you to piece those back together (and forces you down a certain path to learn everything).
*Even after playing multiple times, I have yet to found all variations.

And at the centre of it all, Karen, the very flawed teenager. Yet, even with her self-deprecation and anxious spirals, with the awkward way she interacts with other people, with dealing with different cultural values and expectations about her life, or with her inability to stand up to herself (partly because of her guilt of "having it easy" compared to older generations), Karen stays a character you want to root for. You want to help her win that pageant and be more sure of herself. You want her to be more confident in her identity (and get a girlfriend). You want her to find her passions (in science?) and win accolades. You want to pluck her from her stressful world, wrap her in a blanket, kiss her on her forehead, and tell her that everything will be ok.

The whole game is filled with such genuine interactions, with teenagers blurting out their deepest secrets to strangers, declaring their love to one another even after but a few meetings, being self-loathing with a self they don't recognise or don't want to be anymore but unable to leave that shell, trying to handle the stress and anxiety of the expectations of others and not being able to reach those. And those are made all the more vibrant through Karen's inability to react "properly". Faced with bad and worse choices, you get to experience that anxiety of what would happen if I say or do the wrong thing. It feels genuine, because it feels real and lived through.

As the ending came around, and you get the rundown of Karen's actions, it felt like, while winning the pageant is definitely one/the goal, the journey was much sweeter than the destination. And that's what keeps making me want to come back to it...

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Pageant on IFDB

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