By Quentin H. / August 18th, 2020
She Dreams Elsewhere is the maiden video game being solo developed by Davionne Gooden under his Studio Zevere banner. She Dreams Elsewhere tells the story of Thalia, a comatose woman who has to confront her nightmares in order to wake up. With strategic turn-based combat, She Dreams Elsewhere was recently announced to be coming to Xbox Game Pass at launch.
I caught up with Davionne Gooden after his GDC Summer session to talk about his presentation and She Dreams Elsewhere in a two-part interview. In Part One, we talk about presenting at GDC and what it is like working with the ID@Xbox program before we pivot to talking about She Dreams Elsewhere itself.
You can also wishlist and download the demo for She Dreams Elsewhere on Steam.
Finally, you can check out our impressions piece on the She Dreams Elsewhere demo here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall, and you are?
Davionne Gooden: I am Davionne Gooden of Studio Zevere- a random video game developer, supposedly.
OR: Before we get into talking about She Dreams Elsewhere, let’s talk about GDC for a moment. So this was your second year attending the conference, and you presented an excellent panel titled “David & Goliath: How a Newbie Solo Developer Landed on Xbox Game Pass”. Can you briefly sum up what your talk was about, and what made you want to give a GDC talk in the first place?
DG: Basically, the whole crux of the talk is ‘How do you manage these relationships with big corporations while being a solo dev or a small team?’ It’s [about] keeping up those relationships and those contacts, staying human, just getting your game out as much as possible. It’s always [about] networking, but also taking care of yourself. So that’s pretty much the gist of it.
I’ll be honest- I thought it was actually completely terrible. So it’s really weird that people kind of like it. So that’s cool.
So I initially got into it because the head of the ID@Xbox program- he reached out and he was like ‘Hey, you know, we’re looking for new talks for GDC.’ He’s one of the mentors over there [at GDC]. And he was like ‘You’ve got a game on Xbox Game Pass, you’re a solo dev- do you want to talk about that?’ And when I first saw the e-mail, I was like ‘You’ve got the wrong guy, bro. I’m not qualified enough for this.’
But he convinced me, and we got into it. And it went from there.
“If you want to get onto Xbox, just absolutely go through the [ID@Xbox] program, go through the steps, and make some magic happen.“
OR: One of the biggest obstacles to creating an indie game can be funding. During your GDC talk, you spoke specifically about how your deal with ID@Xbox gave you up front support, a licensing fee, and you also mentioned a ‘bonus system’ in the chat. You also stated that it let you fund the rest of the development for She Dreams Elsewhere and that it makes the game now profitable to you.
How much freedom do you actually retain to create She Dreams Elsewhere the way you wanted the game to? Do you now have Microsoft peeking over your shoulder to see what you’re creating and if you’re making your development milestones?
DG: Yeah, literally, I’m just doing what I’ve always been doing- they’re kind of like ‘Here’s the deal, you keep doing you. Take as much time as you need.’ They know video games, they know what type of mess development is. So it’s like ‘Keep us posted, but you do you.’
OR: What was your secret for getting into the “secret club” known as ID@Xbox?
DG: It’s not really a secret- I met them at GDC, I connected with a few of the reps there. They have this ID@Xbox mixer there. It was super informal, just talking with other devs or whatever. So a few weeks after that, I formally applied with a formal application form. From that, I got accepted. And that’s pretty much the first step for any indie dev who wants to be on Xbox- no matter how big or small.
OR: You answered a little bit of this already, but what has your experience been like working with Microsoft as part of this program?
DG: They’re dope- super dope. I might sound a little biased, because they did give me money. But it’s been really great, they are super supportive. People there are super nice and are really excited for [She Dreams Elsewhere]. Which is almost really weird to me, because I don’t really expect this at all.
But I have no complaints, honestly. Yet. *laughs*
OR: Do you think that this is a viable path for other indie developers to go through the ID@Xbox program?
DG: Oh, one-hundred percent. It’s super easy to work with, super easy to get in contact with people over there. If you want to get onto Xbox, just absolutely go through the program, go through the steps, and make some magic happen.
OR: Before we leave your GDC talk, do you have any words of advice for others who want to give a future GDC talk on how to get selected, or once they get selected, how to prepare to speak before an audience?
DG: Don’t do what I did and rehearse and record at the very last second. Mine was pre-recorded like two weeks before the actual show. And I remember, I was recording and looking at the time like ‘I have to tour an apartment in an hour so I have to GET THIS DONE RIGHT NOW.’ So definitely prepare as much as possible- rehearse in front of other people too, that’s really helpful.
And by the time next GDC rolls around, it’s actually in person. Personally, I feel that would help a lot more. It’s a very different vibe- getting that live audience reaction. This is somewhat off tangent, but there’s a GDC talk earlier this year- I forget the actual dev’s name. But it was the postmortem on A Short Hike. [OR Note: Adam Robinson-Yu presented a GDC talk titled ‘Crafting A Tiny Open World: A Short Hike Postmortem’ in March 2020.] A great talk, and it was really dope since he recorded in front of other people and you could actually hear their reactions and feedback in real-time, even though it was still an online talk.
I would definitely do that next time, if it was virtual.
OR: Hopefully we will see a postmortem from you for She Dreams Elsewhere.
DG: A quick spoiler for that postmortem: just don’t, don’t make games. Don’t do that to yourself.
“She Dreams Elsewhere is a game that says that it is okay to not be okay.”
OR: Well, you’re not just a game developer- you’re also a filmmaker. In fact, you list that first on your Twitter bio. What is your film making background, and what draws you to filmmaking?
DG: So I’ve been making films since sophomore year in high school. I’ve always been a huge film buff- films have been my number one passion next to video games. And it’s just- it’s something about that cinematic experience and how films can affect you emotionally. I just always loved that part.
So I made a few short films- two-and-a-half feature films. And the half feature film is a whole other nightmare, a whole different story. But long story short, we don’t talk about those movies anymore, they are garbage. But they taught me how to not make anything and how to actually do it. It’s those experiences that led me to where I am now, to where I feel confident and proud to show this off to the world.
It’s good practice for working with an actual team- which will be most likely the case for my next game, if I make a next game. So it’s two different worlds- they cross a lot in my work, but I love them both equally.
OR: Let’s talk about that crossover a little bit: How does your background in film making influence your game development? For example, do you buy into the ‘three act’ storytelling process in movies for video games or where you have to ‘save the cat!’ in a video game?
DG: You know, I’ll be honest- I’ve never been a huge fan of that book. That’s just me, personally. But it crosses over in very unexpected ways. As just one example, in additional to film making, I did theater too mainly [as] a director. And those- you have to very carefully block out scenes, position them- what’s the best way to lay out this moment for the audience? Or in the gamespace, for the player? So it’s just little stuff like that that crossover.
And story-wise, that’s kind of a mixed bag. I still don’t really have the answer to that fully. But for me, games definitely- they give that opportunity to get deeper into a character’s head and actually feel that emotional experience, because it is interactive. But in film, you have complete control. It’s not like you are watching [a] movie and this bug pops up, and now the entire theater has crashed. Stuff like that.
OR: Do you plan on going back to movie making or theater?
DG: One-hundred percent. I love them so much. I’m hoping- and of course, this is all of me speaking before any of this goes down- but I’m hoping that I can actually get into film or TV right after I finish She Dreams Elsewhere. But definitely.
OR: Now we’ve mentioned the game a few times now, but let’s finally dive into it: What is She Dreams Elsewhere about?
DG: She Dreams Elsewhere is a game that says that it is okay to not be okay. You’re playing as a girl named Thalia, and you’re in a coma. And you’re going to find out how you got into a coma, how to wake up, confront your own inner nightmares, and just have this horrible trip experience the entire way.
So yeah, it’s just going to turn-based combat. It’s very Earthbound [and] Persona-inspired. It’s a mix of lofi hip-hop, movies, anime, TV shows- all types of stuff.
I take from everything.
“My process is that I try to flesh out each individual character as much as possible from a neutral standpoint. And from there, I can take that and be like ‘Okay, I’m in Thalia’s mindset now- how does their relationship work, how did they meet, what’s their dynamic like?’“
OR: You have a demo online for people to play. Early on in the demo, Thalia is told to “face the darkness that lies within you.” Could you expand upon that please? Does Thalia even like herself?
DG: Not really- she’s kind of going through it right now, [she’s] very much deep in her feelings. She’s just not having a good time. Throughout this entire thing, as you’re figuring out how you got into this coma, you’re figuring out why she feels that way, what do her friends think about that, what does she think about that, what her next steps [are]. Just stuff like that.
It’s about confronting your own emotional fears and insecurities and all that fun stuff.
OR: To follow up on that- while playing the demo, I kept thinking of a quote from Chapter 35, “King’s Cross” in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows:
|“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
All of Thalia’s interactions with her friends, the party, and even with the various dogs- it all take place in her head. For Thalia, does it matter that everyone and everything she encounters takes place inside of her head? Does it make it all, including her fears and emotions, any less ‘real’ to her in the end?
DG: I’d love to answer that, but that may or may not be a spoiler. But short answer- what she goes through in the coma is very much- it might not be real, but it is very much real emotionally. So yeah, stay tuned to how that actually plays out in the full game. It’s been really fun to mix around and experiment with that.
OR: The skills attacks in this game don’t all neatly fall into the traditional categories of mana or physical-origin abilities. Instead, you made a point to make quite a few of them word-based. For example:
Roast: “Delivers a sick, confidence-destroying burn.”
STFU: “Yell at the enemy and make them feel bad.”
Insult: “Don’t hold anything back. Verbally, that is.”
Where did the concept to give words such power come from? How does it tie into the themes of the game?
DG: [It was] something that originated from a earlier concept for a game that I had years ago. And that was very much set in a heightened reality that carried over into our real world. So I wanted those characters- all of their attacks and skills were one-hundred-percent speech-based. And so that full concept doesn’t transfer over to She Dreams Elsewhere, but I kept little bits and pieces of that.
I wanted to express the character’s personality not just through dialogue, but through each of their individual skills too.
OR: Speaking of that, you wrote about in one of your dev blogs about how you “want players to feel a genuine connection (heh) for these characters, and that starts by giving them deep, rich personalities, backstories, and dynamics.” With a game that is based on Thalia’s point of view and taking place inside of her own head, how do you write these other character’s stories and yet fit it into the POV you’ve already selected?
DG: It’s really hard, man. It’s really hard. It’s why this game has taken so long, [just] trying to figure it out. My process is that I try to flesh out each individual character as much as possible from a neutral standpoint. And from there, I can take that and be like ‘Okay, I’m in Thalia’s mindset now- how does their relationship work, how did they meet, what’s their dynamic like?’ And it’s playing off that a little bit.
And then there’s the whole aspect of being in a dream and the people- your friends in dreams versus real life- are not the same at all. It’s stuff like that. It’s hard to write with, but it’s a fun challenge. I’m still working through it, but it’s hard.
Please return later this week for Part Two of our interview with Davionne Gooden about She Dreams Elsewhere, it’s cast, the music, and more!
You can wishlist and download the demo for She Dreams Elsewhere NOW on Steam.
Are you excited for She Dreams Elsewhere? Let us know in the comments below!
comaDavionne GoodenGame PassGDCGDC SummerID@XboxIndieShe Dreams ElsewhereSteamStudio ZevereThaliaXboxXbox Game PassXbox One