By Quentin H. / August 21st, 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. If you missed it, you can catch up on Part One here. In Part Two, we talk about how She Dreams Elsewhere grew to have an almost all-black cast, his October 2019 interview with the New York Times, the game’s monochromatic color scheme, green tea, and more.
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 content and clarity.
Operation Rainfall: Why did you choose to tell Thalia’s story through a turn-based RPG-genre game?
Davionne Gooden: Honestly, I just love RPGs. Earthbound, Persona, FINAL FANTASY– those are my juice and jam for years now. And I think the front-view [battle screen] style in particular: that really allows you to get more of that intimate emotional connection. As if you’re seeing these battles through her and other character’s perspectives.
“For the game itself, it relates both to your mental health- because, low key, we’re all a wreck. We’re all trying our best out here. We don’t really know what we’re doing. You just gotta take it one day at a time [and] hang in there. And then, representation wise- we definitely need more of that. Slowly- ever, ever so slowly- we’re getting better at it, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
OR: Something else- you also tell Thalia’s story in She Dreams Elsewhere through an all-black cast, which is something of a rarity in video games. When in the development process did you make this decision, and why was it important for you to do so?
DG: Thalia, from the get go, was always black. I didn’t really think about it that much. I was just ‘Eh, she’s black. Some people are just black. That’s cool.’ But the rest of the cast were significantly more white, I should say. And that really comes from me, personally. The high school I went to- it was a very diverse in a very weird way. It was one of those schools that- there’s the train tracks on one side [and] there’s the rich, very affluent, mostly-white areas on the other side. There’s a lot more black and brown people, essentially. And I was in that weird mix where I was both, and some of my friend groups consisted of both from all perspectives. It was like that for a little bit, mirroring my own real life.
But as time goes on, I was like ‘Hey, I really- I would rather see people who actually look like me in this game.’ So I made a majority black cast. Not everybody’s black. But majority. And I think, actually, it’s one of those characters in particular- Oliver- he was white at first. If you look at screenshots from way back in 2017 or 2018, you can see that. And for the longest time, he was- I really didn’t know what to do with him as a character. He was low key boring, alright? Then I started thinking about my own personal dynamic of ‘too black for the white kids, too white for the blacks.’ And I was like ‘Oh wait, there’s Oliver.’
So it’s stuff like that [in the game] that mirror my own real life experiences.
OR: To follow-up on that. In November 2019, the New York Times published an amazing article titled “Fear, Anxiety and Hope: What It Means to Be a Minority in Gaming”. You gave a very interesting quote in it: “You’ve got to take it one day, one year, one game at a time.” Could you please elaborate on what you mean?
DG: It can be taken a lot of different ways. For the game itself, it relates both to your mental health- because, low key, we’re all a wreck. We’re all trying our best out here. We don’t really know what we’re doing. You just gotta take it one day at a time [and] hang in there. And then, representation wise- we definitely need more of that. Slowly- ever, ever so slowly- we’re getting better at it, but there’s a lot of work to be done.
But it’s not like an overnight fix. It’s something that needs to be worked upon all the time. We still need to be- it’s one of those things- one day, one week, one game at a time. But we’ll get there. Hopefully.
OR: She Dreams Elsewhere’s soundtrack is composed by Mimi Page. How did you select her as a composer, and what has it been like working with her on this project to compose music for emotions, essentially?
DG: It’s funny- she actually met me, or rather her manager reached out, because she found me on IMDB. And she found the game on there too- I should actually probably update the game’s page on IMDB, but that’s whatever. So she found me through there. She reached out and was like ‘Hey, I love this concept, can we compose music for you?’
At first, I was like “Ehhh, I don’t really know.’ I get requests like that- to this day, I still get composer requests even though I clearly state that I have a composer, but whatever. But Mimi was ‘No, we really love this game. We will do a special deal with you’, and all this stuff. So eventually- [her manager] convinced me, and I talked with [Mimi] on the phone. And I was like, ‘Yeah, this woman is amazing. I absolutely love her. I really want to work with her.’
So we’ve just been working from there. She is absolutely dope, and her music is incredible. I cannot wait for people to actually listen to the full soundtrack. Nothing but love for Mimi.
OR: In a podcast episode you did back in April with SDGC, you said that “every character has some aspect of me, positive or negative- if not both.” Did you intend to put this much of yourself in She Dreams Elsewhere when you were first kicking the idea around in high school? Why did you ultimately choose to do that?
DG: Yes and no- at first, the overall constant vibe was a lot more generic. ‘Here’s what everyone dreams about, here’s all of our fears. Society, and all that stuff.’ As the years went on, I got my own feelings- going off to college and then coming back home because, God, I hate college. That- you grow as a person with that. It naturally evolved and whatnot in a more personal direction.
And in other ways too- again, just naturally happened. I love green tea, why not put green tea in the game? Done, there it is. *laughs*
OR: Speaking of that- is green tea really the “Best Thing in the World”?
DG: It’s up there, at least number two.
OR: In a November 2019 DevBlog, you talk about exhibiting at the Game Devs of Color Expo, participating in the 2019 Smithsonian American Art Museum Arcade, being featured in Clemmy Games “25 Upcoming Indie RPGs”, attending PAX West, and much, much more. And then you talk about “that pesky little voice in the back of my head never goes away, y’know?”, “imposter syndrome.” This is an issue that isn’t really publicly talked about much within the game development industry. Can you please talk a little bit more about what your experience is with it, and how you address it?
DG: Yeah- so I feel it, like, pretty much every single day, so that’s fun. Even going back to GDC real quick- like I said earlier, I thought my talk was terrible. I didn’t even think I was going to qualify to give a talk. And somehow, people enjoyed it and actually got stuff out of it. So it’s a pain. It’s a real pain. The ultimate just getting through it, it’s just- A, just take it one day at a time. B, realizing that your head is kind of an asshole sometimes.
So don’t listen to it. Turn it off, sometimes. And lean on your friends too. I know fellow dev friend and fellow GDC speaker, Victoria Tran– we chatted for a little bit before GDC went down. And she was having the exact same feelings I was. And it was cool to just be like ‘Hey, you’re not alone, I see what you’re going through. It’s going to be great, we’re doing great. Just hang in there. You’ll be fine.’
And hearing her say that was just ahhh. I was still chipping about it, but it’s a huge relief hearing your friends be with you a little bit like that.
OR: Swinging back to She Dreams Elsewhere– how long do you expect the final game to be?
DG: It’ll be five to seven hours for the main story, and then ten to twelve for one-hundred percent completion. Hopefully. We’ll see how that goes. I have a very bad habit of being ‘This is going to take- this will take half-an-hour to get through this section.’ And then it takes like an hour since I pack so much in there.
OR: How do you know how to limit your scope in the game?
DG: Usually, it’s when I’m at my computer and looking at it, and I’m like ‘this is too much work. I want to sleep, I don’t want to be doing this. I have a life to live, I want to get this game out the door.’ Let me put it this way- this game has turned eighteen, and it’s out of time to either get out of the house or pay rent. If not both.
So I’m just like ‘hey, this is a cool idea- but save it for the next game or another film or any other thing. Just keep yourself in check and stay focused on the vision and anything that doesn’t serve that vision- throw it out.’
OR: The dogs- where did the idea to use the dogs as save points come from?
DG: I forget when that first popped up, ‘cause they were just generic save crystals for the longest time. I think it was just a random idea that popped in my head and I was like, ‘Yeah, why not?’.
Like, I’m a huge dog person. I love them to death. At one point, when I was a kid, we had twelve dogs in the house for a few months and that was fun. Yeah, love me some dogs.
“It’s really dope, because I say that limitations do enhance creativity.”
OR: So what’s next for you after She Dreams Elsewhere ships?
DG: I’m going to take a really long nap. Have a nice, cold, hard beer. Probably vodka really, because Lord knows I’ll need it at that point. But yeah, take a long break. Do a little bit more filmmaker- some more experimental stuff. Getting back to doing photography a lot more often, because that’s been kind of slowing down both because of me being busy with the game and because of COVID too. It’s ruining everything.
But yeah, taking a break but eventually getting back into the whole creative mindset. I just love making weird stuff.
OR: Your game is in a monochromatic scheme, with only occasional splotches of color every so often. And you talked about how this was almost an accident for you. Could you expand a little upon that?
DG: When I first made that mistake, and the graphics turned black and white, my first reaction was ‘This looks so dope, I’ve gotta do this now.’ And my second reaction was ‘If I do this, everyone’s going to compare this to Undertale even more than they do already.’ But whatever, keep on going.
But it just developed from there. I experimented with a lot of other different ‘poppy’-like colors at first, but I eventually went with blue mainly because I was thought it was cool looking and because blue is my favorite color.
OR: How did the color scheme, once you locked it down, influence the rest of your development?
DG: It definitely contributed to the whole surrealistic atmosphere. It’s really dope, because I say that limitations do enhance creativity. In certain areas of the game, it’s been hard- because I really want to make this thing, and in any other art style, it would be really easy. Woefully, black-and-white style? This is a pain in the ass. It’s little stuff like that that makes me learn how to best express an idea in the simplest way, whether it’s dialogue or the art or whatever.
OR: Final question- to someone who hasn’t heard of She Dreams Elsewhere until GDC or this interview, and is interested in picking up the game, what do you have to say to them?
DG: It’ll be coming out one of these days, hopefully. I really, really hope so. Coming out on Steam, PC and Mac, Xbox One- through Game Pass as well. And potentially some other platforms as well, I don’t know, I’m still working it out. Video games are weird.
But I’ve got the demo on Steam [and] it’s free. It’s a little outdated, but it gets the point across. And yeah, just stay tuned. Again, hopefully, one of these days, I’m waiting.
[OR NOTE: Since this interview was completed, She Dreams Elsewhere has been announced for the Nintendo Switch and has been announced for a 2021 release.]
OR: Thank you.
What do you think of She Dreams Elsewhere‘s graphic color scheme? What do you think of green tea?
Let us know in the comments below!
Davionne GoodenGame PassGDCGDC SummerIndieShe Dreams ElsewhereSteamStudio ZevereThaliaXboxXbox Game Pass