It’s unusual to see butterflies used as a metaphor for tragedy. Within the framework of the English language at least, they’ve enjoyed being symbols for beauty, freedom, and transformation—the English poet John Clare’s “lovely insect.” Perhaps the closest to an inversion we have to that established appropriation is Chinese philosopher Zhang Zhou’s famous butterfly dream: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”
This is why Diane Mueller’s Fragile Soft Machines, which uses the butterfly in similarly melancholic terms, so easily expresses the loss of beauty. To call forth the butterfly is to speak of grace, magnificence, and the warm hues of a flowery field in spring. To give it a torn wing is to then cruelly take it all away. This is what Mueller has done: “You were born to fly, but you never will,” reads the game’s despondent description.
Playing as this damaged butterfly, you must crawl up thin green creepers towards the sky, plotting your own path from island to island. As you go, you use a droplet gifted to you that grows plants with an immediate pace so that you may climb up them further. The challenge isn’t in the physical difficulty of the ascent, but in choosing which directions to take. Going one way means that you cannot go another, and so you learn to accept this loss in favor of moving forward. What emerges within this is an exploration of what it means to be chasing a lost purpose; to feel rejected from the life given to you, and having to somehow press on.
Its analogy is not a subtle one. Nor is it trying to be, as the game connects you with the butterfly right at the start by asking for your name. You can type your actual name, or take it as a creative writing prompt and start building a fantasy life that the game will happily cater to. Later on in the journey, you’ll be prompted again and again to use your own words to shape a personality for the butterfly as it faces hardship. When confronted with a predator does it tremble in fear or face death knowing that its life is already coming to an end? When faced with a comforting and safe place does it accept that this is the best it will ever have or keep trying to reach for a higher status of being?
You can probably see where this is going: at its end, Fragile Soft Machines weaves the responses you gave into a recount of the butterfly’s short voyage. It’s as if the game is asking you to analyze yourself through the answers you gave, acting as your own therapist. Specifically, the topic is how you would handle an unfair life. Some would retreat as the butterfly does at one point to its chrysalis, left with the thoughts of its fears and nightmares. But then there are those that will never stop trying to work out a life that works for them despite the obvious disadvantage.
How you interpret Fragile Soft Machines is up to you. But Mueller’s message applies to us all: “Your choices will affect your journey as well as the world around you.” Which, really, is another way of saying that you make your own luck.