She Dreams Elsewhere is a reflection of its creator, but also many of our own insecurities and social lives. It's also a wildly stylish RPG with a distinct personality.
For developer Davionne Gooden, and his project She Dreams Elsewhere, it's been a long road. He's worked on this retro-style RPG for four-and-a-half years at this point, starting back when he was just 18 years old, and he's admitted it's been stressful and that sleep has been hard to come by. But the work seems to be paying off between landing a deal with Xbox Game Pass and, honestly, creating something that's really promising. I was able to link up with him to talk about life as a developer in unprecedented times, and uncover more of this game that completely won me over at PAX East earlier this year.
"I thought I was going to have a pretty chill summer, just keeping my head down working on the game. And then at the start of June, here were all these opportunities, and they all have deadlines every single week," he told me when I asked about how development is going. While he's had outside support for aspects such music composition, character art, and PR, everything else falls on him as an independent developer. And in that regard, She Dreams Elsewhere is a sort of sharp reflection of Davionne himself.
If you watch the gameplay clip above, you'll probably get a sense of his influences; when I played it at PAX East, it evoked feelings of Persona, Earthbound, and dare I say, Undertale. I told Davionne at PAX, "this is 100% my shit!" and we proceeded to share our love for Persona 3, in particular.
She Dreams Elsewhere has a top-down perspective of old-school RPGs when exploring as the main protagonist Thalia in a surrealist world alongside her friends. In battle, you fight otherworldly enemies in an Earthbound-style front-facing turn-based combat system that's touched up with a bit of slick Persona-like stylings. But I stepped back to ask what those comparisons mean to him, and whether he sees it as a compliment or if it puts him in a difficult position.
"Nowadays, I just accept it all and I love it, except for one, which is the Undertale comparison. There's a little backstory." He recalled the days of showing early concept work for the game, saying, "When I first started making this game, it was fully in color, a lot more cartoony, and a lot closer to Earthbound in terms of visuals. And I posted on Steam Greenlight in January 2016, a few months after Undertale had come out. From the get go, everybody was like, 'this just looks like an Undertale clone, you lazy motherf*****!' That type of shit kind of f****d me up for a good while, but nowadays I'm a lot more accepting of it."
Davionne further explained why he turned around on the comparison, saying, "If someone looks at this game and be like, 'oh hey, I love Undertale, this looks like Undertale, I might love this game too,' there's nothing wrong with that." However, he is cautiously accepting: "There might be someone coming into it thinking it's going to be Undertale, and then it's not that. And they might think, 'oh man, this game is shit.' But I don't really care, it's fine!"
While he does use Persona and Earthbound as inspirations, She Dreams Elsewhere is very much his own thing and it's certainly reflected in the writing.
"Writing is both my favorite and least favorite part of all development. It's great when it's hitting, but often I'm at my computer screen like, 'What do I write? This shit is ass right now! They're about to roast me when it comes out!' It's a constant process of having that authentic voice but also figuring out how to communicate the plot and themes I want with that unique voice."
He admits that the perfectionist mentality has led to rewriting parts and longer time in development, though the free-flowing nature lets him channel inspirations like BoJack Horseman, Atlanta, and the natural dialogue from his friends and what he hears on the street. The game's writing has also evolved with him, too.
"It matured as I matured as a person. When I first started it, it was a lot more generic. Like, here's what everybody dreams, and here are all of our nightmares. As I grew as a person and got into my own feelings--you know, depression, anxiety, all that fun stuff--that kind of reflected itself in the game, both intentionally and unintentionally."
Other inspirations seep into She Dreams Elsewhere, and as Davionne says, he's a big proponent of just looking at everything as reference material, also recalling his other passions as a filmmaker and photographer. He even hints that there's a scene in his game that's a direct reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion's infamous elevator scene which shows the tense, awkward relationship between Rei and Asuka.
From the gameplay we've seen and the demo that's available, Davionne says it's not even scratching the surface of what he has in store for later in the game. For now, we at least know about the main character Thalia. She's an aspiring screenwriter, interning for a talk show, and goes about things with a dry, witty sense of humor. While she has a small group of close friends, there's an underlying social anxiety that comes along with that. We also know where she's coming from: "She's very much like me," he said.
"I love my friends to death, but I also have my own social battery which runs out pretty quickly. Then there's a part of me that always thinks, 'I hope I'm saying the right thing. I hope I'm not f**king it up somehow.' So that comes across with Thalia a lot, especially in later sections of the game."
There's also that fact that Thalia is Black, and that the majority of the characters in She Dreams Elsewhere are Black. "It's one of those things where I want to be very natural about it. Because a lot of times, especially in games, there's either the token Black person or whenever there is more of a Black presence, it's about those hard-hitting issues, so to speak," Davionne told me when I asked about portraying Blackness in his game.
He recalled a moment in Guerilla Collective's Black Voices In Gaming showcase, where a developer mentioned why the characters are Black in their game, and Davionne remembered the answer, "'Some people are just naturally Black,' and that was it."
"It's one of those questions where, to be fully honest, I'll get from a white journalist. And for the longest time, I tried to have a much deeper answer about it, but at the end of the day, that was my intention. Starting this project and having Thalia as the main character, I was like okay, she's Thalia. She's Black. She's cool," he explained. "Plus, all of us are different, too. I'm a weird ass guy! As much as I listen to hip hop, I'll tell you all about how Code Geass is one of the best anime of all time."
It's part of the process of normalizing BIPOC as characters and creators of these games, a sentiment that Davionne shares, saying, "I'm just doing me, and I hope in the years following, just in general as the energy evolves, that you see more Black people and people of color being able to make those games where we can just be ourselves."
There is a narrative theme underlying Thalia and the game, though: dreams. It's in the title, but the situation is that she's in a coma, and in her state, her mind races through complex emotions. "I love dreams as a narrative concept, there's so much you can do with them, and they can reflect what you're actually feeling." He continued, "It's kind of her mind's way of saying, 'hey, this is what's actually going on. You can't run away from it anymore. You got to confront it, face it. You will have a bad time, but you got to confront it.' But also these feelings are also totally fine. They're natural. And it's okay not to be okay. Especially in the year of our lord, 2020, where everything is just beyond f**ked."
In our exclusive gameplay clip above, you get a glimpse of that. You hit the club for your friend Amia's birthday. You go around talking to different people, bug the DJ to play a song, and interject in an uncomfortable situation that your other friend Penelope is dealing with at the club's bar. You get a sense of how these characters talk and respond, especially Amia, who gets a little too wild, shuts the club down, and causes a ruckus that leads into a combat situation. Moments like these serve a specific purpose, though.
"Each main character has a 'connection,' like a mix of Persona-style social links and Mass Effect's loyalty missions," he explained. "I want to explore mental health and all of these personal issues from a different perspective. Sometimes that relates to what Thalia's going through. Other times it relates to how she views that person and their relationship."
"It's really fun to explore all those different situations and what types of f**k-shit that she gets into. I will say, there's a lot of f**k-shit in this game!" And honestly, that is quite reflective of the actual clubbing experience.
We can expect more from the main supporting cast, too. Davionne explains that despite questionable things Amia does, she's had Thalia's back since day one. Then there's Oliver, another close friend, who's a music nerd that acts more chill and reserved. And Penelope, who's in the aforementioned scene, is an aspiring filmmaker who's soft-spoken and interns with Thalia.
If you watch the gameplay above, you may also notice the soundtrack, composed by Mimi Page, has a distinct flavor. "Sound-wise, I really wanted to have this lo-fi, surreal, abstract, atmosphere and type of vibe. Then there are some vocal tracks that bring in that more grounded, natural vibe." he told me. "I'll be just vibing to the track as I'm playing, dude. I'm like damn, this is dope!"
Music is paramount to everything he does, too, as he explained, "Beyond the narratives and themes, music is honestly probably my number one driving factor for everything that I do. When brainstorming, I'll put on music, close my eyes, and just visualize whatever I'm trying to do. It's always been a big part of the creative process."
In terms of how She Dreams Elsewhere is actually structured, Davionne says that he's leaning into the dream-like scenario, and for now, calling these instances "episodes" in reference to Thalia's involvement in TV production. As for how the game balances Thalia's real life in a comatose state and her dreams, well, "You know, I'd love to tell you, but spoilers," he told me.
While this may be the first game he's officially putting out there, Davionne tells me that he's been using RPG Maker since he was 12, which he's still using to this day. Of course, things have changed 10 years later; small personal projects are a lot different from a game that's taking over four years to put out into the world. He's learned how to manage and scope projects, and not just have a good idea, but put it into practice.
"It's just all about learning who you are as a developer, but also growing past that and asking for help when you need it," he said before crediting friends and contributors like composer Mimi Page, character artist Yanina Nesterova, and Whitethorn Games for handling the Xbox One port. "Thank god for them," he concluded.
She Dreams Elsewhere doesn't have a solid release date yet, as Davionne is still grinding away at finishing it up. "You'll find out one of these days, I'll let you know," in his words. When it does launch, you'll be able to find it on PC (Steam, itch.io) and Xbox One, also through Xbox Game Pass. And if you want to see the game for yourself, you can give it a try through the Steam demo available now.