Hey Hey Heroes, Travelers, and Wandering NPCs, I’m back with another Behind the Games post!
For those of you just joining the party, Behind the Games is a new segment where I interview the folks ‘behind the games’ I review. The series is meant to act as a complement to the reviews I write, giving you guys a chance to get to know the developers that spend so much time carefully crafting the games you enjoy. For each interview I send the Devs five questions (and one random bonus question), to kind of flesh out who they are, while also getting a bit of insight into their inspirations for their games. It’s completely voluntary and meant to be a fun way to get you guys acquainted with content creators.
Last time around I spoke with Mikomi Kisomi, the creator of the josei romance VN, That Which Binds Us, so if you missed that, I definitely recommend checking that post out too! This time around, I had the chance to chat with Jessinia aka Owl aka Chouette, the dev behind the sci-fi romance game PAIRS and the upcoming fantasy romance Ocean Pearls!
While working on my review of PAIRS I was able to chat with this phenomenal content creator and she is an absolute delight! She has a passion for world building and the fascinating universe she created with PAIRS is something that has the potential for more content in the future. Also, as a Black woman and content creator her dedication to diverse and culturally inclusive characters in her works help give her content wide mass appeal! This especially important in sci-fi media, which she feels tend to have characters that are typically “white or east-Asian coded”, which is why she strives to incorporate characters that are representative of a wide range of cultures. So, without further ado, let’s turn things over to Jessinia…
Could you tell me a bit about your team? Who are you guys? What do you do when you aren’t making games? (Interests, hobbies, etc). What sparked your interest in developing visual novels? Is this something you’d like to do for a living or is it mostly a hobby?
A. So! I’m a twenty-four year old creative with two loves: food and fashion! When I’m not making games, usually I’m dreaming of ways to style myself, and more enjoyably, my hair. I’ve cut it off, grown it out, colored it, weaved it, braided it, crocheted it… done everything you can imagine! I also come from a city that’s known for food, so I love to travel to places where I can eat things I can’t find anywhere else. When I’m not making games, I’m probably working or… well, working. (Gotta fund my projects somehow!) I love to dance, study other languages (currently, learning my third!) and sometimes I make songs. Most of my hobbies are creative.
I first started making VNs for a few reasons but a major one is that as a writer, I have heard the oft spoken “if you want diversity in games, just go make your own games!” Honestly… that seemed impossible until Ren’Py. (Shout out to Tom!) Now I can make the games I wanted to play with characters I imagined! And it was a wrap from there.
I would love to make games for a living! One of these days I would like to start my own studio, called Jellyfish Parade. I don’t have a logo yet and I’m just one person, but I’m gearing up for my first release under that name, a commercial project, Ocean Pearls. It’s an otome about a young woman who falls into the ocean and accidentally ends up engaged to an ocean king. Release date pending, but I’ve got two routes completed already. I hope to make a big reveal sooner rather than later.
How would you describe your style? Do you typically create games with a specific audience in mind or do you try and create works that appeal to a more general audience?
A. When I write, I try to appeal to the senses, especially since I feel that the writing should evoke feeling just as much as the art does. Genre-wise, I tend to go for fantasy, sci-fi, romance with a splash of situational comedy.
As far as audience, I actually… make my games for myself. That might sound terrible, but as I mentioned, I first started making games that I wanted to play. Of course, I love when others play and enjoy them! But my main thought when I have a game idea is, “I wish I could play a game where …. and the characters look like …..” After that, I get to writing!
A good example is Reiseei’s work on my character “Temponian”, from a work-in-progress sci-fi faerietale VN projected for Spring 2019. This design is one of my most favorites because it came out so perfectly! Really, I wanted to make a game with an automaton alien species that was coded as black with afro-puffs styled hair, and the reference I gave the artist for her hair was gold ribbon coil bows! It came out beautifully!
Sci-fi romance games are few and far between with most either building on an existing mythos. What was your inspiration for PAIRS and the upcoming spin-off SINGLES?
A. PAIRS has a lot of things I love sort of meshed together. For example, I love superheroes, and I always have! (Don’t ask me to choose between Marvel and DC for example, because I would say that Marvel has more ethnic diversity but DC has more girls and as a black girl, I can’t choose between them!) I also love fantasy that’s ground a bit in reality, and so sci-fi fantasy is a perfect hybrid of those things. You can get some realism, but you can also make stuff up along the way and it’s all in good fun. As far as the alien invasion… I have always loved aliens but felt a bit annoyed by the idea that an alien species would travel across the world, ONLY to pass by other planets and conveniently come to colonize ours, so I thought it would be fun to have an alien species that’s come to conquer but… for what they think are benevolent reasons.
SINGLES was a bit different. I actually did not think Pairs would do too well, but as the download count was rising, I became curious as to what people would like to see more of. Based off of the feedback survey of PAIRS, people wanted more Naians, and quite a few said they wanted to see characters outside of the contexts of their relationship, so I went with that, trying to create something more plot-oriented that introduces the perspective characters before they meet each other. That said, not too many were really interested in Artificials, descendants of genetically modified humans that I mentioned in PAIRS. I decided to veto that and add in an Artificial character anyway, because I’m always looking for ways to explore the characters of the PAIRS universe!
I am a hug fan of games with diverse characters, especially characters of color. As a person of color and a content creator, how do you feel characters of color are being portrayed in the media specifically in visual novel (indie or otherwise)? What steps do you take to ensure that your characters positively represent the culture they portray?
A. In general, I find that indie games tend to be somewhat more diverse than their Japanese mainstream counterparts but boy, are there some caveats. For example, most tan or dark skinned characters tend to be ambiguously brown, lacking racially distinct features to go with their palette swap. A trend I truly dislike in both indie games and their Japanese counterparts is when largely pale skin palettes have only the non-human or wild character as brown, where their brown-ness is a mark of their wildness as well.
Unapologetically, unmistakably black characters are still on the rare side, and not only that, but their plot settings and personalities are sometimes depressingly non-diverse. (The only thing I think that is more depressingly non-diverse is their appearances. Personally, I would love to see hair styles that aren’t straight or plain combed out circle afros, and more distinct features, especially in noses and lips.)
Most of my games feature people who are not in the real world, but I tend to try to fill my worlds with people of color who fill my own personal world I was privileged enough to be raised around many people of various races and cultural backgrounds (by marriage), and I’ve worked in all kinds of places, so I tend to pull my appearances from the real world! Not only that, but my characters are always people, and I try my best to stay away from stereotypes. If I feel a character is getting too close in that direction, I may flesh out the character more so it’s not all that they are. For example, if I have a bold and lively black character, I try to ensure she has other traits so she won’t be boiled down to “sassy”. She might be bold and lively… except when she’s avoiding her older sister. She might be bold and lively, but indecisive. She might be bold and lively… but only when she’s trying to show that she’s not afraid. There’s no stronger stereotype destroyer than a character being well-rounded!
Visual novels are becoming increasingly more popular within the larger gaming community with a lot of popular and well known gaming sites and content creators producing more content related to independent games and developers. How do you feel this shift has effected independent developers such as yourself? Does this increase in popularity make it easier for developers to find foothold for their works?
A. Personally, I’m not sure it’s quite trickled down yet. While I think people who are in indie circles have known for a while what indie visual novels can be, there is still elitism and resistance against games that are outside of Japanese contexts, especially as far as romance oriented otome-style games.I try not to worry about audience as long as it doesn’t affect the story I’m trying to tell, so for now, I admit, I’m not really sure who my audience is, but I hope they appeal to people who are looking for relatable characters and well-written romance in less-than-relatable settings. That’s near universal, regardless of background, I think!
BONUS: Picard or Kirk? Explain your reasoning.
A. I’m sorry… I’m going to be an outlier but… my favorite Star Trek captain is actually Sisko. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is currently the Star Trek series I’ve watched the most episodes for, so I think it’s easy to claim it as my favorite. With DS9’s seasons being generally darker, I loved how Captain Sisko made so many difficult decisions–and he made them with such authority, too! I love quiet but powerful characters so I’d love this. Benjamin Sisko’s yelling is 10/10 and “For the Uniform” is one of my favorite episodes because of this. He was cool, and in someways, he reminds me of my dad since they’re both bald.
I can’t thank Jessinia enough for agreeing to do this short Q&A with me, I had a blast talking with her about PAIRS and diversity in gaming. As a Black woman it’s not often that I run across content creators that are dedicated to creating characters that look and act like me, so when I do, I make it my mission to celebrate them by spotlighting their works. She is an inspiring up and coming indie developer with a lot of great projects in the works, so keep an eye out for more content from her in the near future.
If you have not met this phenomenal creator or checked out her games, I strongly urge you to now! Below are some links to Jessinia/Chouette’s social media and game related pages/sites. I strongly suggest subscribing to their pages and checking out their content, she is AWESOME!!