I can count the amount of fictional characters that I know with facial deformities and/or facial prosthetics on one hand. That's obviously not a great sign for the amount of representation that the people with these disabilities have. But, hey, it's not like it's actively something I've seeked out. Given that I don't consume a ton of media, that's not too bad, is it?
Well... What happens if I take away the ones that are the villains of their stories? The ones where their facial deformities or their prosthetic is regarded in horror as a part of what makes them so seemingly evil?
What happens then, dear reader, is that I am left with only one last finger up. And that last finger would be for Sal Fisher, from the 2016-2019 indie adventure game, Sally Face. A game which puts a facially disfigured character with a facial prosthetic at the center of its narrative, with the intent of subverting tropes and being sensitive to those with facial deformities. But, in doing this, it utterly and miserably fails. Instead of putting forth effort to rework the narrative around disabled people within fiction, it instead reinforces them in a furious turn of events; caring more about serving a weirdly forced plot about a cult and the paranormal than about the disabled protagonist at the heart of the game. This is how Sally Face fails its title character, Sal Fisher.
Sal Fisher. The GNC af (with his canon enjoyment of dresses) blue-hair-and-pronouns emo boy of my dreams. I do love him, I must admit. He's one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. But, you know what? The game he originates from fucking sucks, and I'm tired of everyone pretending that it doesn't. I do not like the game. I do not like the game's plot. I like the characters; the same characters that the game does not do justice. I could talk about the differing reasons for this, but, today, I am going to focus on the blatant ableism that this game throws at the main character that it just expects us, as the audience, to be okay with; both in the main plot of the game falling into ableist stereotypes, and how other characters are casually ableist to Sal without being called out for it (neither by other characters, nor by the narrative).
We know that this game is attempting to be an ally to facially disfigured people by one of the game's more iconic lines, repeated a few times by Sal: "It's a prosthetic." Whenever people in-game refer to Sal's prosthetic as a 'mask', he corrects them. The game makes a point of this; tries to make a point of their attempts at humanizing and normalizing the language behind facial prosthetics and facial deformities. The fact that the game's sympathetic and likable main character is facially disfigured at all is a sign of this, as well, of course... So, where does it all go wrong?
Well, it goes wrong in a few ways. But, for now, let's start with how Sal's prosthetic is treated. Because one thing that bugs me a lot is Ash's removal of Sal's prosthetic, and how it's framed. Because Sal verbally told her not to do this. And she took it off anyway, despite his protests. And this is framed by the game as a good and even romantic thing to have happen, writing Sal as just happy that she didn't look away, but the simple truth of the situation is that Sal didn't want her to, made that clear, and she did it anyways. She was just trying to help, of course, but she removed his disability aid when it was made very clear to her that the disabled person in question was verbally telling her 'no'. And, again, this incident is portrayed as romantic, which is infuriating. No. Removing someone's prosthetic despite someone saying not to is not romantic, no matter your intentions.
This could have been so much different if Sal had even one tiny bit of dialogue; even just in his mind; about how he was annoyed that she took away his prosthetic, but there isn't. It's framed as a good thing.
That's the main example from the early game that I can think of. Which is very, very frustrating, given that this game frames itself as an ally to people with facial prosthetics. But whatever. That could be argued to be a nitpick. A few hiccups regarding what is and isn't acceptable to do around a prosthetic-user is alright, given that Sal is still the sympathetic and likable main character. I mean, it's still better than the media where the facially deformed person is a MURDERER, right??
Oh, yeah. If you've played this game, you know EXACTLY where I'm going with this.
Here, we have the main reason why I hate Sally Face as a game. And... Look. I get it. I get it, I do! The game was trying to rework the disabled serial killer trope. Make that kind of character, but make him more sympathetic. But you know what? That sort of thing doesn't fucking work if he still killed people! Even if he "had to"! Even if he's still a good and innocent person, you fail your facially deformed protagonist when you (presumably knowingly) put him in close proximity to a trope known to stigmatized those with facial deformities. That's just the fucking facts.
We do not get a good resolution for Sal Fisher. He is forced to become a murderer. He is put on trial. And then he fucking dies. Like, wow. You killed off your disabled character. The only facially deformed character that I know of that is a good person; you made him a murderer and then fucking killed him off. Wow. Give this game dev his brownie points now, guys.
By the way? I hate the fucking trial. The systematic ableism against disabled people accused of crimes is clear on display. While it could be argued that this is what the game was going for... For what? To what end? To watch the character put through this horrifically ableist trial fucking die because of this ableism?! To follow Ash (the character who removed his prosthetic without his consent, one of the characters who testified against him, sealing his doom) as the 'protagonist' for the rest of the game?! Are you kidding me?? How in the world can you write this and think this is good disabled representation? How in the world can you write this and think you're being an ally to disabled people?
Speaking of the writer... Ah, Steve Gabry, my fucking beloathed. Steve Gabry, writer of Sal's iconic line, "It's a prosthetic," said over and over in-game, in response to characters who are being written to be ableist. Ah, Steve fucking Gabry, who, despite this, CONTINUES to call Sal's prosthetic "Sal's mask" in interviews. You could not make this up. Like, oh my God. You WROTE that line. You wrote it and framed the people calling it a mask as wrong, just to do it yourself? Over and over? Multiple times?! You're ugly, you're disgusting, I want to kill you, I am going to steal every last cent you made from this game and distribute it to people with facial deformities, you absolute cunt.
And do you know what's sad? What's sad is that, despite all of this, Sal is still one of the best examples of facial deformity representation in media, because he's still a good person. A murderer who is put through a horrifically ableist trial and then killed, before the game's new main character becomes one of the people who helped get him killed, is one of the best examples of facial deformity representation. What a fucking joke. That's partially why this is so infuriating. The bar was so low that it was in Hell, and yet here this game is, limbo-dancing with the devil.
It is also partially so infuriating because... Do you know how easy this would have been to fix? You could keep your shitty trial. I'll be nice, see? You can keep your dumb, boring murder trial and your dumb, boring cult plot! Just make it more clear that it's an example of systematic ableism, we're all good. Now... Just make it so Sal was framed for the murders. And then is not sent to death. Do you see how small of a change that is, in the grand scheme of things?? You could still pass the torch to Ash; Sal could be unable to be in the rest of the game because he's in jail. Feeling extra nice? Add an extra scene at the end of the game where he's let out of jail early because it was ruled a mistrial or something. You can even have Sal have dreams about the murders or something; something to make it so even Sal doubts himself, so long as it's clear to the audience at all times that he's innocent.
"But, Azure, the prophecy-" The people who wrote this game wrote the prophecy too!! They can switch it around for the sake of not having their main character fall into a horrifically ableist trope! Damn!!
That would make for an okay game. But do you know what would make for a great game? You sticking to the thing that made the game popular in the first place. The cast of characters being regular teens in high school, trying to figure themselves out, as teens. Throw in some supernatural elements in there, too, if you like, but keep it light, like it was in the beginning. Do you know how amazing it would be to have a story about a facially disfigured, gender non-conforming (and "possibly-bisexual"; thanks for the funniest wording on that literally ever, Gabry) teenager in a coming-of-age story where... You know... He isn't a killer? Doesn't have to go through a trial for murder? Doesn't fucking die? Where it isn't sidetracked by that stupid, out-of-nowhere fucking... Cult plot, GOD, I HATE THAT FUCKING CULT PLOT!
But... Whatever. Forget about the thing that made your game popular in the first place. Forget the idea that worked incredibly well, forget having satisfying endings to the characters that everyone loves. Forget about major strides in one of the most underrepresented and demonized types of disabled people out there.
But most of all, forget about respecting your sweet, disabled main character at the heart of your story. Even in the most basic of fucking ways.