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DLC: At PAX East 2020, Davionne Gooden, Astrid Refstrup, and Brian Wilson discuss their personal approaches to storytelling in games

From time to time, there are interesting bits from GamesIndustry.biz coverage that don't really fit well into the rest of the story, but are still worth reporting. Rather than relegate them to the trash bin of unpublished work, we'd like to repackage them into columns intended to provide additional insight on a variety of topics. While the exact format of these columns is still taking shape, we will publish them under the banner of "DLC."

At this year's PAX East, I had the pleasure of spending a good chunk of the show lurking around the various indie developer and publisher booths. Among the many stand-out games I encountered, the three in today's DLC had two important things in common: they're made by incredibly small teams, and they all have a different, yet pointed focus on storytelling.

Okay not to be okay

The first, She Dreams Elsewhere from Studio Zevere, is solo developer Davionne Gooden's first "Big boy, big she-bang, commercial" game, as he puts it.

It's already doing work to earn that moniker, as it's been picked up and featured by the ID@Xbox program and will be released day one on Xbox Game Pass. That support has been critical to getting Gooden out to multiple shows to market his game (he was set for GDC and E3, too, before both were cancelled due to COVID-19), and has meant the game is effectively already profitable for him even though its Game Pass presence means it won't see traditional sales numbers.

IMG_1061

Davionne Gooden

"It is kind of weird because I'm going to be on Game Pass on both PC and console, but financially, I'm okay, and for me the goal is for as many people to experience the game as possible," Gooden says. "Whatever format that takes place in doesn't matter for me at all.

"My goal is to make a dope artistic product and have my voice be as genuine and as authentic and the best thing it could possibly be, no matter what shape that takes place in."

She Dreams Elsewhere is, Gooden says, very much a game shaped by his own voice and personal experiences. Gooden's been making games since the fifth grade, and working on this particular idea since he was a senior in high school, when he thought he'd be able to turn it around in just a few months. At first, he tells me, it was just a game about what everyday people dream about...and have nightmares about.

But as he worked on it further, She Dreams Elsewhere became more of a personal project. Gooden began to examine his own fears and anxieties, a consideration that led to what came across at PAX East as a fairly dark, surreal game: lots of black and white and static, a protagonist with attacks that highlight her anxieties and frustrations, and a scene at the end of the demo in a dark corridor that begins to touch on themes of despair.

"My generation, we're very much in that, 'Yeah, I'm depressed and depression sucks, haha' mindset. We joke about the awful stuff"

Davionne Gooden

I tell Gooden that his surreal dreamscape feels like a very sad one.

"Well, thank you!" he replies.

"As dark as it gets, I don't take myself seriously, at all," he continues. "So there is a lot of comedy to off-set it all."

That comedy comes through in what Gooden hopes is authentically written dialogue between the game's protagonists, who find themselves caught in a strange dreamscape together that they must escape. He says he writes the dialogue from his own speech and that of his friends, as well as the tendency of his generation to respond to tragedy with a kind of snarky, gallows humor as a coping mechanism.

"My generation, we're very much in that, 'Yeah, I'm depressed and depression sucks, haha' mindset. We have our own way of dealing with it. It's very much the way my generation deals with it. We joke about the awful stuff.

"And it's okay to not be okay. I don't like RPG heroes who are like, 'I'm the big, strong, muscular hero!' I wanted to do something a little more realistic, despite the surreal backdrop."

She Dreams Elsewhere is planned for launch sometime in 2020.

Gaming around a bonfire

I realize it's in poor taste to flaunt swag given out at PAX events, but my visit to Welcome to Elk from Triple Topping Games gave me the most interesting bit of take-home I've ever received: a story written on a tiny, rolled up piece of paper inside a bottle.

I won't share it with you here, as it's one of the many tales included in the game, and these stories are Welcome to Elk's main focus. Though tied together by a fictional protagonist, Welcome to Elk is a game of stories centered around unique minigames, and all the stories are based on real yarns spun mostly by developer Astrid Refstrup's family and friends.

Speaking at East, Refstrup says Welcome to Elk was conceived when her brother returned from a trip to Greenland and went with her to a bar, where he began telling her a series of incredible stories he had heard there from the people he met.

Astrid Refstrup

Astrid Refstrup

Though she had originally wanted to make films, Refstrup pivoted to games due a belief that interactivity would only enhance the stories she already wanted to tell.

"Games are even more amazing [than film]," she says, "because you invite people to be a part of the movie and act it out.

"There are some really amazing examples [of storytelling in games] and I think people are taking the story part of the games more and more seriously."

To that end, Refstrup says she wants to somewhat buck the trend of how games normally tell stories. Specifically, she wants to avoid trying to attach a story onto traditional game mechanics, and instead wants the game mechanics to serve the different vignettes she wants to share.

"We have people dying in the game, and you want to portray that the right way, with a lot of respect for the person"

Astrid Refstrup

"With Welcome to Elk we are really trying to move the player forward without 'Go pick up something' or 'Go find a key'," she says. "We just want them to flow along with the story. That's something I feel is missing in a lot of games I've played recently. Using minigames is interesting and is an area I want to explore even more. I think Night in the Woods did it well, but I want to have even more of it because you can really emphasize a story if you're creative with the mechanics."

Though the stories she's telling almost all come from people she's already close to, Refstrup is aware that it's a bit of a challenge to avoid airing everyone's dirty laundry. She says her team is careful to change names, change details, and will occasionally merge stories together or fictionalize them further to remove them somewhat from the actual humans behind them. And she's telling a wide range of stories too, from goofy vignettes about drinking with buddies to a dark scene where a man is killed in front of his family.

"Using real stories was a huge challenge," she says. "You need to think a lot about how you're presenting the people. We have people dying in the game, and you want to portray that the right way, with a lot of respect for the person. Using real stories gave us a lot of talks about life experiences, and I think that added a seriousness to the game that was interesting to work with."

That said, she adds, it's important to keep them grounded in their reality and "keep reminding people that these things really happened." Some of the stories are accompanied by real video of her brother or others explaining what really happened, and she's put some of the true stories online on the Welcome to Elk website, too.

Ultimately, everything in Welcome to Elk is in service of storytelling.

"It comes down to what humans do," Refstrup says. "We sit around the bonfire and tell each other stories. I love when people are telling me a good story. It sticks with you. That's why we watch movies. We like this kind of entertainment, and putting it in video games and taking it very seriously is just expanding all of that."

Welcome to Elk is planned for launch sometime in 2020.

Environmental storytelling

Finally, I visited The Forest Cathedral, the second game from Where the Bees Make Honey developer Brian Wilson.

Though Where the Bees Make Honey did well for Wilson, he tells me that once it was out, he needed a break. He took a few months off and spent a lot of time in the woods, where he picked up fly fishing.

"I thought I was going to be making something a lot darker and grittier [after Where the Bees Make Honey], and I needed to not be around anyone," he says. "So I went into the woods, and that shifted into the kind of game I was going to make."

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson

At the time, he was reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and began looking into her life -- specifically, her discovery of the harmful effects of DDT on the environment, and attempts at silencing her by the chemical industry. There, he discovered there was "so much more there" than he had previously realized.

"Some kids my age around 25 to 30 learned [about Carson] in school, but I didn't. My parents and their generations know about it. I thought it was an important story, and the things that I wanted to put in my next game kind of came together and it was all right in front of me.

"There's just this whole world right in our backyards that's affected by this"

Brian Wilson

"There's just this whole world right in our backyards that's affected by this. You can't eat the fish in my local lake because of this, even though it was 60 years ago. If I could tell this story in my way and have people experience it and learn a little more, then I've achieved my goal."

The Forest Cathedral, then, is a fictionalized retelling of the attempted silencing of Carson. Players control Carson, who is doing research on a remote island when things begin to go amiss. Something is wrong with the fish and insects, and a mysterious force won't let her leave the island. It's environmental history packaged as a psychological thriller.

That effectively gives Wilson two goals. He wants to retell Carson's story as accurately as possible, but recognizes that he needs to fictionalize it in very particular ways to make sure his game is fun.

"There's a fine line between being brutally honest and tailoring it so it's a fun, interesting experience and also a video game," he says. "I'm okay with that though, because I think about her trying to tell the real story. You can't really mess that up. It's pretty straightforward, but I'm fudging some things to make sure it works, and I have all these other complicated elements that I have to make sure it all works together. But the story is the most important thing.

"You can listen to an audiobook, or read Silent Spring, and there are really great documentaries. But the fact that you can play as her, and you can do it, you feel more connected and have control. If you watch a movie, you wouldn't feel the same way. But here, you have a piece of it, because you did it. It's very specific, but there are a lot more stories to be told and I have a lot more ideas."

The Forest Cathedral is planned for launch sometime in 2021.

Disclosure: GamesIndustry.biz is a subsidiary of ReedPop, which runs PAX East.

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