She Dreams Elsewhere has quickly jumped to the top of my most-anticipated game list since playing its demo during the Game Developers of Color Expo a few weekends ago. The game casts you as a comatose woman named Thalia who is dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. Through surreal, dream-like locations you’ll explore Thalia’s mind in hopes of setting her free from her endless slumber. She Dreams Elsewhere mixes hip-hop and R&B music, a classic 16-bit JRPG aesthetic, and a battle system akin to the likes of Persona to tell its story. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the game is that it’s being developed by one person, Davionne Gooden. I talked with him to learn more about the game’s inception, inspiratations, and more.
Phillip Russell: In She Dreams Elsewhere we take on the role of Thalia. What was the inspiration behind her character and her story?
Davionne Gooden: Thalia definitely takes a lot of influence from myself and close friends of mine. In a lot of RPGs — or video games in general, really — you find yourself playing as some “chosen hero” or “warrior with a dark and tragic past” and whatnot. I wanted to do something different, much more smaller-scale. So instead of a strong chosen hero, you’re just playing as an average millennial sadgirl who’s just trying her best… which I think is pretty relevant in these times. I’ve also just vibed well with more intimate, personal stories too — for me, they’re just that much more interesting to write and play around with.
PR: It’s clear that the game draws inspiration from JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Persona. For me though, I think there’s a unique feeling seeing these tropes presented through Black characters’ experiences, communities, and aesthetics. What drew you to the JRPG genre to tell this story?
DG: I’ve always loved RPGs since I was a kid — my first one being the original Kingdom Hearts, which then led me to play Final Fantasy VIII because Squall was in it, and the rest was history. The heavy focus on narrative and character, abstraction of gameplay, banger soundtracks, and being able to freely explore while also taking your time doing so really drew me to RPGs, so I’ve been deeply into them my whole life. I’ve also been using the RPG Maker game engine since I was in fifth grade, so by the time She Dreams Elsewhere rolled around, it was a natural fit and I was able to hit the ground running from the moment I started development.
PR: I’m glad that we both have an appreciation for Squall, he gets a bad rap! Another striking aspect of the She Dreams Elsewhere is its use of music, from licensed vocal tracks to composed background music. Starting the demo when the first vocal track came on I was surprised, it felt so fresh. I felt closer to the world. Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind the soundtrack?
DG: There’s something about music that can really captivate you and take you to a different world, feeling, etc., and it’s always been a huge inspiration on anything and everything I do. I also love listening to all types of genres and moods, and since I pretty much take from anything and everything… things can get a little weird, to say the least.
The game that truly convinced me to go for a more unorthodox soundtrack was a little RPG Maker game called Space Funeral — it’s a game where the art looks like it was made in MS Paint, and the music is ripped from everything from British surf-rock to atmospheric, indescribable moody tones. None of it should work in theory, but all of it just clicks. And that’s when I was like, “Oh yeah, I could totally do this too… just in my own way!”
For She Dreams Elsewhere specifically, the music generally has two distinct vibes; there’s the original soundtrack composed by Mimi Page (who is genuinely a perfect human being) which goes for a more dreamy, surreal tone, then there’s the licensed music from indie artists, a lot of them being friends in real life. That’s meant to bring in the more grounded, character-focused aspect of the game. I dunno, it’s something about hearing legit vocals contrasted against a surreal, pixel art world that just speaks to me on an aesthetic level.
PR: I love that we’re experiencing Thalia’s journey by traveling through her mind. You’ve found really cool ways of using different text, effects, and sounds to give the world that dreamy quality. Your use of color is so striking, with the game primarily being black & white with bright colors to accent the world. Can you talk about that?
DG: It was a total accident at first! The game started out in full color originally, with a more cartoony and Earthbound-esque bent to it. Then I pressed the wrong button in Photoshop one day and it made everything black and white, and while I knew it was wrong I was so much more drawn to it than anything I had made before. I’ve always been big into black and white photography and art; I think it’s the more minimalist aspect to it that really gets me going. So after I made that mistake, I went back to the drawing board, played around with more visual and narrative concepts with it, and the rest is history! I think it really paid off in the end, it definitely gives the game that more surreal and dreamy vibe for sure.
PR: One thing I noticed in the demo is a close attention given to the environments Thalia navigates. There’s loads of personality in Thalia’s responses to her world to be found if the player is willing to interact with it. For instance, Thalia’s room has so many wonderful moments. What’s been your philosophy in creating this game’s world?
DG: Exploration is one of my favorite things to do in any game, and I’ve always thought that environments should be able to tell a story and reveal character just as much as a standard cutscene would. I put a lot of thought into each and every single area, to the point where developing them just takes so much bloody time… but it’s definitely worth it in the end. I think it lets players really get inside Thalia’s head to connect and empathize with her that much more. Which is kinda important, seeing as you play as her in her own mind throughout the entirety of the game.
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PR: I really felt that in the demo, the world was so full of life. Speaking of the environment, I’ve gotta ask about the dogs. There are so many, I love them! Do you have a favorite dog in the game?
DG: Not to sound like a generic Tinder bio, but I love dogs to death. Each one in the game is named after real life pets from friends and family, just as a little way to say thanks to them. As for my favorites, I have two actually! Both of them being my two former dogs; they’re hidden away in special areas later on in the game. It’s a biased answer, sure, but I still love them and miss them everyday.
PR: When do you expect She Dreams Elsewhere will be released and what platforms are you planning to release it on?
DG: It’ll be on Steam, Itch.io, Xbox One (and Game Pass!) and Nintendo Switch. As for when? Uhhhh… ask me that again in a few months! But it’ll be soon! You’ll definitely be able to play the full thing next year for sure. Providing yet another global pandemic doesn’t break out, of course…
PR: What’s something that you’ve learned about yourself through the making of this project so far?
DG: Game dev is pretty fun, but it also kinda sucks a lot. At least when you’ve been working on the same bloody project for four-going-on-five years now. So I definitely plan on making shorter-scoped projects, focusing more on side projects (especially in non-gaming mediums) and actually getting help on those projects as well. Solo development has its benefits, but it’s a lot of work and a lot of stress most of the time. Plus it can get pretty lonely. But when it all clicks, and it resonates with you and at least one other person? Then it’s not so bad.