Behind the Games Interview with GSE Studios

Hey Hey Blerdy Tribe, I’m back with another Behind the Games post! For those of you just joining the party, Behind the Games is a segment where I interview the folks ‘behind the games’ I review. Giving you guys a chance to get to know the developers and publishers that spend so much time carefully crafting the games you enjoy.

This time around I’m chatting with GSE Studios, a newer indie team and the creative minds behind the Greek myth inspired, visual novel Heart & Soul. More recently, the team has been hard at work on their next title, Keepers of Astraela, which is based on the fantasy novel ‘Vision’ by Wrenna Stone.

Keepers of Astraela is currently in Kickstarter and I recently played the demo over on Twitch and I was blown away by the story! So, made some time to catch up with team lead, Gwynne and the author of ‘Vision’, Wrenna to chat about Keepers of Astraela and their experiences adapting a novel as a game.

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me! GSE Studios is a new name to many in the indie games community, and I want to give my readers a better feel of who you are as a team. Could you tell me a bit about yourselves?

Gwynne: Hello everyone!! I’m Gwynne, I’m 25 and a stay-at-home mom to two little kids. I love boba tea, pretty dresses, and cooking. Also, my husband. I like him a lot. I was a hardcore romance reader growing up and really loved the idea of a family of my own to dedicate the bulk of my time to. I am incredibly lucky to have them. But, at the end of the day, it’s really nice to switch over to being a game dev because completing my tasks and watching myself visibly progress gives me such a feeling of accomplishment that can be hard to find with the never-ending family responsibilities. I really appreciate having both of these components in my life. 

I handle a lot of the backend processes for Keepers of Astraela: I do minor coding, project management, UI, trailer video-editing, and more. I sometimes feel like I’m just putting together a puzzle of all these beautiful pieces that my team members made. 

Wrenna: I’m Wrenna! I’m an author primarily fueled by caffeine and chaos. But on a serious note, I’ve been writing anything I could jot down since I could pick up a pen, and have been writing in a serious manner for about thirteen years. Vision, the book that the Keepers of Astraela VN is based on, is my debut dark fantasy novel. It’s been my love child ever since I made the first notes for the series.

Aside from writing, I’m a gamer and huge TTRPG fan. I GM my own campaign with friends, and I occasionally pop in as a player in Twitch streams run by some incredible GMs. Visual novels are still fairly new to me, and I’ve loved exploring it as an entirely new medium.

Before I dive into your work with Keepers of Astraela, tell me a bit about when your love of games developed. What were the titles that sparked your love of games? What genres do you tend to gravitate towards?

Gwynne: I grew up with a gamer dad and older brother, so I really can’t remember a time where I didn’t love games. I remember when my family got a GameCube when I was around 7 and just falling in love with Animal Crossing, Mario Party, Super Paper Mario, and Super Smash Bros. I had Rune Factory, Fire Emblem, and Harvest Moon titles on my little pink Nintendo DS, and loved when my older brother played Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts on our PlayStation.

There’s so many games that I’ve loved throughout my life, but at one point I discovered these little dating sims by Pacthesis and just was captivated by the visual novel genre. JRPGs, MMOS, farming sims, and visual novels have been my favorite genres. Right now I’ve been playing a lot of Classic WoW and OldSchool Runescape alongside my husband.

Wrenna: I come from a family of gamers. My love of video games was ingrained in me from the time I was a little girl, and the first one I remember becoming completely enamored with was Kingdom Hearts. Without any exaggeration, I’ve put in over one thousand hours on the first game alone over the years, and have still followed the franchise my entire life. 

I’m a big fan of immersive, open-world (or semi-open-world) RPGs. Final Fantasy, the Witcher, Baldur’s Gate… give me something that sucks me into a world and makes me forget that my own exists and I’ll love you forever. Right now, my addiction lies in Baldur’s Gate 3—it’s truly a game where I have to lock myself out of my gaming room and write with my chromebook so I’m not tempted to just open the game again!

Your first game release was 2022’s Heart & Soul, which draws inspiration from the myth of Psyche and Eros. How was your first experience releasing a game? What were some positives about it? Not so positive?

Gwynne: Overall, I’d say it was a positive experience. I really wanted to finish a game and figure out if this was something I enjoyed doing. I understood my first game probably wouldn’t be profitable and marketing would be an uphill battle. The whole thing took about 8 months and went smoothly – for the most part. Some people on the team had to be replaced, typical indie issues. But in January of 2022, it was discovered at a routine OBGYN appointment that I was in danger of going into premature labor at just 22 weeks along in my pregnancy.

I had a minor emergency surgery and was put on bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy. I remember trying to start a group chat with my promo art artist and my BG art artist while I was in the hospital, trying to make sure the two pieces they were working on had matching building structures and landscaping. I wasn’t in much shape to do much marketing and streaming those last weeks before the game released in late February. I was just glad I managed to get it released on time, and that my baby was born healthy and full-term!

Your latest project, Keepers of Astraela is a dark fantasy visual novel. Could you tell me a bit about the story and what players can expect from the game?

Gwynne: In Keepers of Astraela, you play Eva, an author who discovers that the fantasy world and characters that she’s been writing about are real. Players can romance Emrys, the brooding male lead from Eva’s books who has a killer sense of humor and fiery magical powers, and Bobbi, Eva’s best friend who runs the local coffee shop and is exactly the person you’d want on your side when things go sideways. There are a lot of twists and turns throughout the story as Eva is unwittingly recruited to help save Astraela from a spreading force of darkness. The player will determine if Eva falls for one of her trusted companions, as well as who makes it to the end of the game in one piece…

Keepers of Astraela is inspired by the novel Vision by Wrenna Stone. In fact you are working with Wrenna on the development of the game adaptation. How did this project come to be and what about the novel inspired you to approach Wrenna about creating a game adaptation?

Gwynne: I stumbled upon Wrenna’s book a few years back due to us being in the same Discord group for writing. I had joined while I was working on writing a personal vn project and thought it would be a good idea to hang with dedicated novelists to hear their takes on plotlines, character development, grammar, etc. Wrenna was really kind when I left comments on her story and was receptive to me giving more detailed opinions in DMs.

She read some of my own writing as well! Ultimately, I loved her book and felt like the two of us had some solid communication. I was there to see her finish her first draft, make revisions, and start the self-pub process. I know she was someone who would be really dedicated to game development if she was open to the visual novel medium. Wrenna has a great energy and I was confident it would be a big motivating force for me to get through the more grueling aspects of development.

Wrenna: We met on a writing website where I was posting the first draft of Vision! Gwynne was one of my first readers, and not only was she super encouraging and sweet, but she even helped give me genuine feedback and advice to make the story better. She was one of my most trusted beta readers on Vision that helped the novel become what it is today. 

A few months after I finished the book, she approached me about its potential to become a visual novel. Despite not knowing much about VNs at the time, I’d watched her progress on her first game, Heart & Soul, and I knew what an incredible job she did putting her games together, as well as the time and love and attention she gives to all of her projects. I said yes immediately, and we agreed to meet later on with a full proposal.

When she sent her ideas to me, I was overwhelmed with excitement—if there’s anyone who can get inside my head and launch themselves into Astraela with me, it’s Gwynne. She knows this story and the characters by heart. I trust her wholeheartedly in every step of the process!

Each creator brings their own unique flair to their works, this is especially true among works in the fantasy genre. Vision/Keepers of Astraela is more of an urban fantasy story. What are some things about the world you created that sets it apart from other fantasy stories?

Wrenna: I’ve always wanted to tell the story of an author who meets her own book characters, ever since I first started writing. It was a self-indulgent idea for me—truly, what writer wouldn’t be in heaven at the thought of meeting their favorite creations? But I wanted to break the mold, and I wanted my main character, Eva, to not actually be in control of her own story. This is, in part, because of a running joke I have with my own books where I am not in control of what my characters do—I just watch them and then write up the incident report.

The idea floated around my head for a very long time, but it wasn’t until I had a dream about the plot that I really felt that spark of inspiration take hold. And while the dream followed a woman, her best friend, and a fire-wielding man on their journey to banish gross monsters and save their town’s Guardian tree, it also sparked the new idea of an author literally ripping their books from their dreams and filling in the gaps. Vision was born.

Another way that I’ve tried to set it apart from other adult and new adult fantasy stories is the tone, worldbuilding, and writing itself. While I adore fantasy, I struggle to read it because of the way it’s often written. Tolkien-style writing doesn’t do it for my little ADHD brain—it doesn’t tickle the right mechanisms for me to actually focus on it without getting bored quickly—but I love the prose in small doses. So, I combined artful prose with more of a young adult style to keep the writing simple yet meaningful, and I set it apart from the YA audience with older characters and more mature themes. With the story being for new adults, I wanted something that combined the best of young adult and adult styles.

With that, I didn’t want these characters to take themselves too seriously. Most are within the age range of 25-35, which I fall in myself, and lord know I don’t take myself seriously by any stretch of the imagination. The characters are quirky and fun and sometimes make dumb choices to get out of a sticky situation, but they have the maturity to recognize the gravity of situations and live lives as adults. It was a balance I wanted to show, that just because you’re “grown up,” it doesn’t mean you lose that spark of fun and chaos.

As a creator it must stir up quite a few emotions seeing your work adapted to a new medium. What is it like seeing your novel adapted into a visual novel? Were there any concerns that you had about the adaptation process?

Wrenna: There are no words to properly explain my emotions as I’ve watched the story progress from being in my head, to being published, to now launching the words from the pages and coming to life in an entirely new way as a VN. Most authors dream of seeing their work jump off the page—and I truly feel like I’m living that dream wholeheartedly.

Seeing the characters and story play out in real time is an out of body experience. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve opened a new update for the game and have gotten choked up seeing the story in front of me this way. The characters, the settings, the music… it’s come to life in a way I never expected. It’s such a surreal feeling.

Honestly, I never had concerns about the adaptation process. If there is anyone in this world that I trust with it, it’s Gwynne. She has an incredible talent for bringing stories to life while staying true to their original form, and I’ve never felt anything but pure excitement at the thought of Vision being in her very capable hands.

How was the adaptation process for you? Was it difficult maintaining a balance between yours and Wrenna’s visions for the story?

Gwynne: Making this game with Wrenna has been way more pleasant than making a game as a solo dev – and I was happy as a solo dev! It’s been amazing having someone to bounce ideas off of and show progress to that cares about this game just as much, or likely more, than I do. When I approached Wrenna, I very openly shared what my limitations were going to be as a relatively inexperienced and underfinanced dev. I wanted to hear what she imagined for her game, and if I could realistically provide that. If she said her heart was set on minigames and voice acting, I would’ve completely understood, but I wouldn’t have been able to make that happen for her. I’m thankful our values and expectations on this game align.

I decided going into this process that Wrenna would have final say on writing and art direction – this is her story and her characters, I want her to love how it all comes to life in-game. I try to act closer to a guide when discussing things like gameplay – areas that I have more experience in as someone familiar with the genre and the development process. I try to come up with different options to present to Wrenna and while I won’t hide my opinion, I want her to have the primary say in how things turn out wherever possible. Wrenna’s been really amiable and understanding throughout this whole thing, and I truly appreciate that.

What are some key differences between the novelization of the story and the visual novel adaptation? Are there aspects of the story that were difficult to adapt to the new medium? Were there parts of the story that you were better able to explore thanks to the branching narrative structure of a VN?

Wrenna: The novel itself is told in a third person, present tense narrative, with Eva and Emrys holding the majority of the chapters from their points of view, while the other characters also have their own turns to shine in prominent scenes. With the game being in first person and entirely from Eva’s perspective, it’s brought a new light to her character—and the mystery itself! It’s been a fun balance without having Emrys’ scenes to fill the gaps in her narrative and have that opportunity to really build up the mystery further. 

Overall, having a VN’s branching narrative has brought entirely new life to the story. I tend to be an indecisive author, so I always end a finished book with drafts upon drafts of scenes that went unused, or outlines that never panned out because the characters steered me off into a completely different direction. Having the creative freedom of exploring every possibility has been so rewarding and thrilling. It goes back to some of my favorite choice-based games, the most recent being Baldur’s Gate 3, where I will continually replay games to find new endings and consequences for the choices I’ve made. I’ve actually been able to repurpose scenes that have been sitting in folders collecting dust, and come up with even more that I never would have expected. Characters that didn’t survive the book were able to find new life through branches that prevented their demise. I truly think it’s one of the most fun experiences I could have as an author.

Let’s talk about the characters! I know this might be a tough question since I know you love ALL the characters in Keepers of Astraela. But, I have to ask; which characters are your faves? Least faves? Which would you say is most like you?

Gwynne: JENSEN JENSEN JENSEN! He’s so freaking perfect. I love his humor and I love his face. My least favorite is Faeran; he’s not in the demo. We’re planning on giving Faeran a bit more screen time in the game than he gets in the book – maybe I’ll come around! He has a very colorful personality that isn’t quite my vibe but I think a lot of others will enjoy. Eva is the most relatable for me, I believe. We have similar temperaments and mannerisms, even if I’m a tea drinker myself. I love watching her stumble her way throughout the story, she does it in a way that’s very believable to me.

Wrenna: 10. Oh, man… you really went there with this question! Haha! I would say my favorite characters are Mystia (whom we don’t meet in the demo, but is prominent in the full release) and Emrys. Mystia is this badass, witty half-goblin, half-elven necromancer who will help you hide a body—more than likely after she committed the murder for you. She has a never ending array of tricks up her sleeve and can craft a solution for even the stickiest situations. She’s everything I want to be in life.

Emrys is also the character who is most like myself (though most suspect I would be Eva, since I am also a red-haired author with a caffeine addiction). Eva is my outward self, where Emrys is truly who I am inside. His arc is where the story focuses more on mental health and our own inner darkness that is more ravaging the corruptive than the magical kind killing our characters’ worlds. He’s silly and charming on the outside while fighting his personal demons. Despite the lighthearted tone of his character, his story is probably the heaviest.

Now, my least favorite character… hmm. That one is a bit tricky, because my least favorite character is quite unexpected without giving some major plot spoilers—so I think I’ll keep them a secret for now. 😉

On the topic of characters, Keepers of Astraela does in fact feature a diverse cast, particularly, Eva’s best friend and potential love interest, Bobbi, who is a Black woman. As a Black woman and gamer, I always get excited when I see characters that look like me featured in prominent roles in the media I consume. Why was it important to you to include a character like her in your story? Also, as someone not from within the Black community, what steps did you take to ensure that  Bobbi’s character felt authentic?

Gwynne: When I was looking for a second visual novel project, diversity wasn’t something that initially crossed my mind. In my perfect world, all players would have characters they can relate to, physically and emotionally, but I’m not sure where my place (as one individual with limited life experience) is in bringing that world about. I want to work on stories and characters that I think are brilliant and complex and strike a chord with me – whatever those characters look like. I fell in love with Bobbi as I read about her. I like spending time with her. How can one not? She’s incredibly capable, vibrant, and she rolls with whatever punches her author throws at her. I want more people to get to know Bobbi and believe she’s worth sharing. All that being said, I’d be happy and open to listening to feedback on her character from the Black community. I know accurate representation is really important, and that this is something Wrenna especially takes very seriously.

Wrenna: Proper diverse representation is so important to me in story telling. I want everyone to be able to read these stories and feel represented in a way that’s meaningful and exciting—and never just for “diversity points.” 

In every story I write, I do extensive research, along with finding sensitivity readers who guide me along and aren’t afraid to smack me lovingly over the head if I’ve messed up. It is well worth the time taken to ensure representation is correct. I’m very transparent about wanting to write stories for everyone, and that I’m always open for critique on where I can do better. No matter how many times I have to rewrite something, I will do it with my whole heart to make sure that it’s done right. 

One of my biggest pet peeves is watching stories follow horrific stereotypes or throw in diverse characters just for the hell of it without actually putting the time, research, and development into them to actually be authentic. I’ve experienced this myself in stories where LGBT characters are killed off for nothing other than their sexuality, or characters on the ace/aro spectrum are magically “cured” by meeting the right person. Don’t even get me started on seeing ableism in stories (primarily horror, which is my favorite genre to write) as a woman with chronic illness/pain. I also live in an area where racism and homophobia are horrendously prominent, and seeing it play out day after day makes me want to shout over them and make everyone of any gender, disability, sexuality, race, color, etc feel seen. Loved. Put into badass roles that tell the awful people in this world to eff off. 

Keepers of Astraela  is a romance game, so making a love connection is expected. Players will have a chance to romance both Emrys and Bobbi! Why was it important to you to include both male and female romance options?

Gwynne: Originally I was thinking about it only from a business perspective: more romance options (hopefully) = more players. However, this sort of bit me in the butt when our game couldn’t be posted about on a large otome subreddit because the male LI to female LI ratio was off! Even so, no regrets. It’s always really nice when I get questions on female LI options and I can answer affirmatively. It makes me happy knowing they were interesting in playing our game and found their place in it. I don’t know if every game I make will have a female LI, but it’s been a nice experience so far and I’d like to include it where I can.

Wrenna: In the book itself, Bobbi is not a love interest—but I am so excited to have her as one in the VN. There were times as I outlined Vision that I questioned if Eva and Bobbi should have something deeper than friendship, and I even had friends reading the first draft who heavily shipped the two of them. But for the sake of the plot, I continued with Eva and Emrys’ slow burn. 

As a queer woman myself, I’m beyond thrilled to bring in Bobbi as a love interest for Keepers of Astraela. I mean, come on… she’s the best friend a girl could ask for, will kick ass for you, set you in your place when you need it, and be there to pick you up when you fall. You can’t ask for anyone better. I adore her. So, for me, writing in her and Eva’s romance was a very self-indulgent experience. Fan service for the author! Haha!

In addition to the romance, players of Keepers will also have the opportunity to pursue  platonic/friendship relationships with both Emrys and Bobbi. Why was this something you wanted to include in the story?

Gwynne: The option to turn off the romance became important to me when we added a second LI. I know a lot of people self-insert in visual novels and once you add in a second romance option, particularly one of a different gender, it can leave some players feeling uncomfortable. It’s not often appealing to be pursued by a character you’re unattracted to, or to have the MC’s thoughts be so completely different from your own.

A lot of games get around this by having dedicated routes, but I wasn’t sure that would work as well when we’re adapting an existing novel. Eva and Emrys are friends-to-lovers in Vision, and Eva has this great long-time friendship with Bobbi. I wanted to work with all that material Wrenna had but find a way to make our game feel comfortable to those only looking for GxB or GxG, as well as ace/aro players. Wrenna’s book is, in my opinion, a great fantasy novel before it’s a great romance novel. Someone could play this game completely platonically and still have an amazing experience.

Wrenna: I adore having the option to completely turn off the romance and have a platonic route through the story. Something I strive for when writing in any medium is inclusivity, and I feel like non-romance stories in general are often pushed away from the forefront. It’s important for me to include the opportunity to have no romance—whether you’re a part of the ace/aro community like myself (demisexual biromantic for the win!) or you’d just rather not have romance get in the way of the story, there’s a little something in there for everyone.

There has been a desire for more 18+ romance games, especially otome games. Will Keepers of Astraela have any steamy adult scenes or will you keep things PG-13? Why or why not?

Gwynne: PG-13. There’s an existing fade-to-black scene in Vision, and I’m not sure we’ll expand upon that more in the game. The personal nature of these scenes makes me really want to respect the wishes of what Wrenna wants or doesn’t want to write. 18+ content is another case where I can see how it’s important to many players and want them to find games that fill their needs, but I’m not exactly sure where my role in that will be. I’m not strictly opposed – in fact, I co-wrote Gray Janssen’s route in Tailor Tales and did some of the 18+ scenes myself. I think if I were to develop a game with adult content, it would be free or paid DLC to make the SFW version more accessible to younger players. 

Wrenna: Right now, our scenes are fade-to-black with strong build up. I will admit that, with my sexuality, it is hard for me to write scenes that veer too deep into a steamy direction. Even in my own books, I tend to allow the build up to really elevate steam before a solid fade-to-black transition.

Before we wrap things up, is there anything else you’d like to share about the game or yourselves?

Gwynne: My vision for GSE Studios is to work with really talented people like Wrenna and to showcase their creations with as many people as I can reach. There are some story ideas of my own I might work on at some point, but I’ve really found fulfillment in playing a more supportive role. I want to be someone that lifts others up and brings joy to people’s lives.

There aren’t many publishers in the Western visual novel space yet, and I don’t know of anyone else setting out to be a hybrid between developer/publisher as I am. I would LOVE to keep doing what I’m doing with KoA. Seeing other people enjoying my games and what I bring to the vn space is such a gift. For those reading this, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to learn more about the studio! I appreciate every bit of support and love we receive.

Learn more about GSE Studios

GSE Studios is a developer/publisher hybrid, their debut game was ‘Heart & Soul‘: a Greek mythology otome visual novel that follows the myth of Psyche and Eros. The studio is led by SAHM Gwynne.

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