The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games. New entries in the series (usually) come out the second Tuesday of each month. We've previously talked to BareHand about Cede, Decoy Games about Swimsanity!, and Veritable Joy Studios about ValiDate.
Studio Zevere, also known as Davionne Gooden, is working hard and working solo on his first commercial game, She Dreams Elsewhere. The game itself is an adventure RPG twisted up in the surreality of dreams. Thalia, the game's anxiety-racked protagonist, is trapped in a coma, and she's forced to face her fears in order to wake up. The game's trippy visuals and hazy soundtrack make it unique, but Gooden's heart pumps the blood in its veins. We talked about starting his studio in high school, the particularities of mental illness, and the games industry's remarkably short attention span when it comes to supporting its Black developers. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DBLTAP: Where did you come up with the idea for She Dreams Elsewhere?
Davionne Gooden: It started back in late 2015, early 2016ish. I had always just loved the concept of dreams, how they can reflect your own reality and emotions. I don't remember how exactly it kind of came up. I think it was one night I was brainstorming, coming up with a bunch of back-and-forth ideas, and eventually it coalesced into me choosing the title right then and there. From there it's been a long road of just revising that initial concept, making it a lot more personal and intimate as it was coming along.
DBLTAP: You also struggle with mental health stuff, right?
DG: Yes, sir! I had a nice little burnout phase a few weeks ago so that was fun.
DBLTAP: Nice, yeah. Did you incorporate your own experiences with anxiety and depression, like, really particular things, into this game?
DG: Yeah. I try to be as personal and detailed as I can. Everybody experiences mental health very differently. She Dreams Elsewhere isn't supposed to be a reflection of everybody's type of — how they get through it, but it definitely is for me. It digs in pretty deep. A lot of this writing process has been a lot of fun self-reflection, a lot of fun staring at the wall for hours on end, listening to sad-boy hour music. That's always been a fun time.
DBLTAP: Definitely the number one word I would describe that as, is fun.
DBLTAP: Thalia's the main character in this game. I'm curious why you decided to tell your story with a woman as the main character. Any male creator, it seems, most of the time, is more prone to write about men, especially as their main characters. So I'm curious: Why did you choose to center Thalia, and what challenges do you think you face writing for women as opposed to men?
DG: Most of my friends and family are majority family, so I've always had that kind of feminine influence around me, and I noticed while growing up there weren't really a lot of female protagonists in gaming as a whole. So, honestly, I didn't think too hard about it. It was more like, you know, if there's any way I can help out representation-wise, all the better. But there are some blind spots. As much research as I do, and as many female friends and family as I have, I still am a straight Black guy, and I'm naturally just not — I can't be as super, super detailed and specific [writing women] as I can just from the get-go [writing men]. It was kind of making sure those blindspots were covered as much as they can be by reaching out, getting consulting, just doing that check to make sure like, "Hey, is this actually the right direction?"
DBLTAP: So you would seek out feedback from women you know while you were making the game?
DBLTAP: You mentioned doing some amount of research for that part of the game. We talked already, a little bit, about how mental health is very particular for every individual, but did you also do research about the kind of mental health struggles you portray in the game, or did you mostly go based on your own experience?
DG: Mental health-wise, that was more like my own experience. Every character in the game, they have their own way of either experiencing it or dealing with it. That's the same way for me. Depression is not just one thing. It always comes in a variety of forms. So I want to explore that as much as possible, but also make it as specific as I can to me and hope that it resonates universally. So I guess we'll see if it does when it comes out.
DBLTAP: I guess we will!
DBLTAP: She Dreams Elsewhere has this crazy distinct look. I've read some other interviews you've done where you've talked about people bringing up Undertale as a visual reference point. I didn't get that at all at first. Now I guess I see it, but — where did you come up with the look for the game? Because it's just so distinct.
DG: Yeah, first it was all in color. More of an Earthbound-y type of style. Then, I was making enemy graphics in Photoshop one day, earlier on, and pressed the wrong button and it just made everything black and white. I don't know, it's one of those things where, you know, to quote Bob Ross, it's like a happy accident. As soon as it happens, you're like, "That's not what I wanted to do, but that's what it should be." So I just started kind of developing it from there, expanding it from enemy graphics into the overall game style. The rest is history. There's definitely been some challenges art-wise, just trying to make sure it's clear and readable as much as possible. And I'm also not an artist by trade. Everything that I know, for the most part, is self-taught and trial by error. So I still have a lot more work and growth to do, but you know, we're getting there one day at a time.
DBLTAP: You mentioned not being an artist by trade, but I know that you're also a filmmaker and a photographer, right? So, how do you see those skills feeding into your game design?
DG: Good question. On the filmmaking side, I'm more from the writer/director type of angle, so when it comes to actually, just staging scenes and doing that mise en scène type of feel, that comes a lot more naturally. It also helps out, too, whenever I do work with collaborators. As much as I love doing the whole solo dev stuff for the most part — it has its challenges — but when I do collaborate with people that also comes a lot more naturally, too, because filmmaking is just inherently a collaborative medium. So yeah, I just love to take in from all types of different mediums as much as possible. I soak up anything and everything. Movies, music, art, random conversation off the streets. I just take it all in.
DBLTAP: As soon as I learned about this game and was reading about it and stuff, the focus on dreams and everything, and knowing that you're a filmmaker, I was like, "Very David Lynch."
DG: Yes, love David Lynch.
DBLTAP: Ok, yeah, because I was going to say, he's also one of these people who really emphasizes the importance of collaboration in film. It's cool to hear that he's an influence for you.
DG: Big David Lynch fan. Mulhal — I can never pronounce it right! Mullohan Drive? Absolute masterpiece.
DBLTAP: "Mulholland Drive?" Yeah, man. Oh, that movie blew my mind!
DG: It's so trippy! I still don't understand it fully, but that's also David Lynch for you.
DBLTAP: Yeah, for sure. I think anyone who claims that they fully understand a David Lynch movie is talking out of their ass.
DG: Just stop the cap, man, stop the cap.
DBLTAP: One of the things that I've found so, so cool about She Dreams Elsewhere is the level of detail not just in the visuals, but in how Thalia can approach so many different elements of the environment and have something to say about them, to reflect on them. Why was it important to you to have that level of detail, where almost everything in the environment, Thalia's got a take?
DG: The entire game takes place from the perspective of Thalia, entirely within her mind, so it was important to establish that personal connection between the player and Thalia as clearly and as detailed as I possibly could. And one of the big inspirations for me with that was when I first played through Life is Strange. In that game, I just love, just like in She Dreams Elsewhere, you could just go around and explore the environment, and [main character] Max would have thoughts on everything. That really expanded my insight and thought into Max's mindset, but also the world around her. Also, just as a player, I like to explore and interact with literally everything. It's actually kind of annoying. If you were to watch me play some adventure game it would just be me looking at the exact same scene for minutes, hours on end, because I just get so into it, you know?
DBLTAP: Dude, I feel that. Have you heard of this play thing in New York called "Sleep No More"?
DG: I haven't. What's it about?
DBLTAP: It's kind of hard to describe. It's like, you go into this warehouse and there are all these people — everyone's wearing a mask, and no one's allowed to talk. There are actors that are playing out remixed versions of Shakespeare plays, but totally silently. You can follow them through this warehouse. It's really weird, and creepy, and cool. But I had the same impulse, where I was like, "Fuck following the actors around, I'm just going to explore this warehouse and look at every detail I can find." You know? If you ever get a chance to go to it I think you'd probably really like it, because when I did that it was pretty cool.
DG: It's stuff like that where — I really, really, want to get special access to like, Disneyland or some other amusement park, so I can just tour behind the scenes and look at how it all works. I will never get that loud of clout, but I mean, I can dream.
DBLTAP: Maybe one day, man.
DG: We'll see!
DBLTAP: Speaking of, so this is your first major game release. I know you've been working on games for years, though. You started on RPG Maker way back in the day or something?
DG: Yup yup.
DBLTAP: Who have you looked to in games as an example to follow? Maybe artistically but also in terms of just making your vision a reality. You know what I mean?
DG: I think one of the biggest ones, which might kind of be a little bit obvious, is Kojima. Because he's just like, "I'm going to make whatever weird shit I want to, and no one can tell me shit." And then he does it! And they're all successful! They're not necessarily for everybody, but they're very much… They feel like he made a game for himself before anybody else, and he just kind of hoped that people vibed with it. That's kind of the same mantra I like to do. Like, for business reasons I have like, "Oh, this is my target audience, this is what we're targeting," but realistically I don't give a fuck. I'm just doing me and making this game for me.
DBLTAP: Word, yeah, I think that most of the artists at least that I admire really reach that same approach. This is maybe a weird question —
DG: Oh, those are the best ones.
DBLTAP: I was looking at your LinkedIn —
DG: Uh oh.
DBLTAP: And it says that you went from high school straight to founding your studio. Is that right?
DG: Yeah, I technically founded it while still in high school!
DBLTAP: Dude, how did you make that work?
DG: So here in Cleveland there's this business — it was formerly, like, an accelerator but now it's more of a coworking space. It's called LaunchHouse. I started there when I was in… eighth? Yeah, around eighth grade. They had a bunch of different business accelerated programs for high schoolers. So I did that, but I also just worked out of the space, just on a day-to-day basis a lot of the time, because it was like, literally a five minute walk from my high school. So I would just go there after classes, or after like, rehearsal or whatever. Just being there, naturally you pick up on so many like — entrepreneurship, how to run a business, all those fun little details. Plus, getting connected to different mentors, different events. You're exposed to so many — like, the whole entrepreneurship role as a whole. I think a lot of that, to this day, it still transfers over into filmmaking and game dev and all that.
DBLTAP: How did you pay for stuff while you were in the early days?
DG: It was pretty much entirely bootstrapped. As far as LaunchHouse itself, I was able to work out of their for free because the CEO, who's also a good friend of mine, he was like "You're in high school, we don't really care, just come in here and work whenever you want to." Which is actually, like, really kind of stupid. Like, the amount of stuff I got away with in that building, that I still get away with to this day? But whatever. But yeah, otherwise, I would save up money, at least for the first few days of high school and my one and only semester of college. But after that, once I started more full time on it, i would do these videographer gigs, just shooting commercials for small, super small businesses and startups, that I usually met through LaunchHouse, too. So it was just doing that every few weeks. Pay for bills, go to events. Which, thankfully, after I got the [Xbox] Game Pass deal, I didn't have to do that anymore. Which is really good, because I really hate doing commercial videography work. It's so… Like, I'm thankful that I could still do it on my own, but it's honestly kind of soul-sucking. So, thankful to be out of that.
DBLTAP: I feel that. What made you decide that college was not for you?
DG: I've always been more of a do-it-yourself type of person, and when I went to college I was studying filmmaking. At least for that beginner period in college, they just teach you the essentials, one thing at a very slow time. For me, entering college, at that point I had done two of my own feature films and a few short films, I'd directed short plays and stuff like that, plus still working on the game, so I had all of that under my belt. And meanwhile, my very first filmmaking class, they were like, "This is what a script looks like." I'm like, boy, I am not paying God knows how much money just to get information I already know. I don't want to say that and discourage anybody from going to college, because, you know, that's up to you. That's a personal decision. But for me, I would rather kind of make my own path, if that makes sense. And if I fail, or if I mess up, that's totally fine, but I want to have that mess up be on me and not because, oh, I can't pay for my tuition, or I couldn't do this because I had a test to take, or something like that. So, I loved the social college environment, but everything else? Not for me.
DBLTAP: Ok, interesting. Speaking of that social aspect, you've been working on this game that's, to some extent, about your anxieties and the things that make you depressed and everything, mostly on your own, for years now. What's it like to do that? To work on this game that digs so deep into your own hang ups or whatever, mostly on your own?
DG: It's a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is that I can just essentially do what I want to, just in my own little space. That's changed a little bit nowadays now that we've gotten into the actual console porting process, and I'm working with an external team on that, but even still I'm kind of just doing my own thing. It kind of sucks, though, because working alone, digging into these heavy topics, while dealing with said heavy topics, it gets very, very lonely. As much as my friends are great and all, and they're happy to talk and listen, it's just like, I feel like in a way they just won't fully understand it, you know? Especially nowadays where, I'm working on the game along, and it's not finished yet, but it's had some small amount of press — attention regardless — and for me, attention? That's kind of scary. That's kind of weird. I don't really like it all that much. So, yeah. It's just a weird time to be making video games. But I'm thankful that I can do it, at the end of the day.
DBLTAP: For sure. Speaking of that weird time, you know, just last night there was another police killing of a Black man, and riots in Philly.
DG: Ah, jeez. There's something new every day, man, I swear.
DBLTAP: Dude, I know, I know. It's totally insane. It's like, man, we are just hearing nonstop about the election but then all this other stuff is still happening. Like, nothing has changed? But anyway. Your game is obviously not directly engaged with those things, not explicitly at least. Do you feel a kind of pressure to tell a "timely" story about the Black experience or whatever?
DG: Not really? It's one of those things where I think, being me and making [a game] during this time, it's naturally going to reflect it, regardless of whether I intend it or not, but I'm always reminded of Issa Rae of "Insecure" fame said recently about her show. The last season that just came out was coming out as the initial George Floyd protests were going on, and she was just thinking like "Yo, should we even be releasing this right now? Is this even appropriate?" But it was like, no, it really helps to just see the actual, everyday Black experience instead of seeing our pain. It was just nice, and almost therapeutic to see that — just some Black joy, and the everyday of it all. It's definitely a nice change of pace from real life, let me put it that way.
DBLTAP: Yeah, I get that. I mean, it's a double standard thing, right? Where, it's not like, you know, that pressure would ever be on a white developer. It's like, the industry is only ever asking it of Black developers, and putting even more onus on them.
DG: Yeah, and it's like, as much as those stories about Black pain, and those hard-hitting topics are important, it's like, I'm a weird dude. I want to make weird, funny shit that doesn't appeal to anybody but me. I'm not going to make a "12 Years a Slave." That's not me. I'm going to make, like, I don't know, "Rick and Morty" or some random ass show.
DG: I don't know, man, I can't think right now.
DBLTAP: No it's all good. I feel you! It's like, why shouldn't you have the freedom to tell a small story, right? Fuckin, white people get to do it all the time!
DG: We're getting there, though. One day at a time.
DBLTAP: Yeah, for sure, for sure. Obviously, when the Black Lives Matter protests especially around George Floyd started happening this summer, there was this huge surge, and suddenly the games industry was like, "Oh my God, we've got to talk to some Black people," you know?
DBLTAP: But it already feels like even though, as we just said, these police murders are not stopping, it feels like some of that interest has already started to slow down. People are not as super vocally engaging with these topics. How does it feel to be a Black creator in the industry seeing that happen? And what do you think it will take for these conversations about race to really become permanent fixtures in gaming?
DG: That's a heavy question.
DBLTAP: Sorry man.
DG: No, no, you're good. I'm going to try to answer that the best I can. Yeah, around that time, it was weird because, I had gotten from PAX East earlier this year. The last gaming convention! RIP.
DBLTAP: Dude I was there, too!
DG: Yeah, it's so funny how different it was back then.
DBLTAP: I know man.
DG: Yeah, it was crazy because, doing both — you know, going to PAX East and having the protests — the gaming industry remembering that Black people exists — I got even more attention from the protest talks than the convention I paid thousands of dollars to attend. And I didn't have to do anything. Like, I'm grateful for the attention, and I'm grateful that other creators get that attention too, but it's also like — we've been here this entire time. It shouldn't take one of us dying to get that attention. I would hope that that would stay the case in the future, but change is often — well, it always is slow. So it's just one of those things that needs to be worked on and examined constantly. It's not just going to be a one-time thing. We're not just going to do some diversity hires for a few weeks, or put a few Black developer showcase streams for a day. No. It's a systemic thing that starts from the bottom and the top. It just takes constant work of just keeping at it and just making sure, like, "Hey, are we still going in the right direction? Are we making sure all the voices in the room are being heard? And if not, what can we do about it? What are we going to do about it?" You know? I hope that made sense.
DBLTAP: It did, it did. And I think, you know… I've read you talking about this whole thing where, oftentimes in media, Black characters, characters of color in general, can be defined by their skin color? Like that's their only personality trait or whatever? Whereas in a game like She Dreams Elsewhere, OK, skin color's a big part of who these people are, you know, race is important, but it's not the single defining element. They're people first, right?
DBLTAP: Can you tell me why you think it's important to have characters like that, and for Blackness to be incidental, rather than central?
DG: Yeah. Black people, we're not all one person. Like you said, we're all just different. A lot of us are just weird motherfuckers out here, and, like, I don't be seeing weird motherfuckers in anything. So, you know, if we can get that representation out, that would be dope. For me personally, I'm the type of dude where I can tell you why Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, the Creator are some of my favorite rappers of all time, but then I can also tell you why "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" is a steaming pile of garbage.
DBLTAP: So true.
DG: Which, I'm not going to do that now, because then we would be here for literal hours.
DBLTAP: [Laughs] Same dude.
DG: God, I just. Ugh! Anyway.
DG: Yeah, anyway, long story short, we're all people out here, and we're all human, and we're all very different. And to try to box any one identity into just one identity is just ridiculous.
DBLTAP: You gave a talk at GDC about how you got She Dreams Elsewhere on Game Pass as an example for other developers to learn from you. Why do you think it's important, particularly to you, to support other developers in that way?
DG: Well, honestly, we're all trying our best out here. Especially the little indies out here. I feel like a lot of that information is often gate-kept. Just gated. It's not out there. I feel like having that information out there is, like — I can't even put a price point on that. It's just beyond helpful to developers of all shapes and sizes. So I try to share as much as I can. I haven't been able to for most of this year because of obvious reasons, but when the game comes out I'm going to do a whole postmortem about the development process, how I did the porting process, all that stuff. Because there's been a lot of pain throughout this development, so to speak, and to quote one of my buddies at LaunchHouse, it's easy enough for you to fail, but it's a lot better to watch someone else fail and learn from that. So that's what I try to go by.
DBLTAP: Do you feel like you're a part of a community? Like, developers or Black developers, specifically?
DG: Actually, yeah. Like, the indie community in general has just been so dope. ALl the subgroups within that have been super dope too. Even in those times where I'm just feeling super shitty about the game, like, "Oh man, this game is just pure trash." At least I have that support system of my fellow developers, and industry folk. And they're all like, "Hey, we think all of our shit is shit, too! But your shit is dope." And then I'm like, "No, your shit is dope, too!" And it's a whole back and forth of us just gassing each other up as best as we can. Because God knows we need it. We'll take anything we can get these days, let me put it that way.
DBLTAP: So things are pretty far along with She Dreams Elsewhere now, like I imagine the writing is pretty much done —
DBLTAP: Am I wrong?
DG: Oh, I wish, I wish. It's getting there, though. It's small in scope for an RPG, but it's still also an RPG, so there's just a lot of dialogue and text. My writing process is very detailed, and everything from the game is built from that foundation. So it takes a while and it takes a lot of revisions, but at this point in development it's pretty crystal clear as far as where it's going, and what all is there, and what needs to be done. So you know, it's one of those things where it gets more clear with each passing day.
DBLTAP: Would you mind telling me a little bit about your writing process? Like how you go about writing?
DG: Yeah. I do a lot of brainstorming from the very get go, just play around with a bunch of different ideas, and then I'm also a big fan of Dan Harmon's Story Circle. I use that for pretty much everything in the game. From bigger story, to the overall story, to even a minor cutscene. Once that outlining and brainstorming process is done, then I'll start writing the actual dialogue. That comes in the form of either an actual script editor that I use called Celtx, or my notes app on my Macbook. Or, what I like to do a lot of the time is do a handwritten draft first. Specifically, I do it with pen, because, the pen, you can't actually erase it. I said earlier that I like to revise a lot, but I also kind of hate doing that because I get stuck in my head a lot. So handwriting it, you know, you can just get that shitty first pass just out there and done, and then from there I'll put it into the actual editor and I'll revise it as I'm implementing it into the game. And then I'll do additional passes as development goes on, too.
DBLTAP: I know about Dan Harmon's Story Circle because I've been a Dan Harmon fan since, like, Community season one was airing or whatever, but I don't think that most people do, so could you maybe explain it a little bit?
DG: Yeah. Long story short — and I'm probably going to get some stuff wrong — but, you basically have like eight points on a circle. It starts from you — and you being the protagonist — and they want something. But then they encounter an obstacle. So they go out and try to get it, and they finally get it, but at a cost. They finally learn something, and they come back a changed person, or they learn something. They're a different person in some sense. That's the super skinny and not detailed version of it. Honestly, I have the template up whenever I pull it out because I always forget certain points. But yeah, it's been super helpful because in the past my outlines have either been too detailed or kind of scattered. At least the way that I was doing it back then. The Story Circle, it makes it a lot more condensed. It lays out what narrative beats and plot points need to be hit, and then from there you can flesh it out as much as you want to. It's been super helpful.
DBLTAP: Do you have idea for what you're going to make when you are finally done with She Dreams Elsewhere?
DG: I do! I have, in my notes app, I record every idea that I ever have, ever. One of those files is an entire list of game ideas I have. So, we'll see what happens. A lot of it depends on what happens when the game actually comes out and how it's received. But honestly I feel like — not even I feel like — I know for sure I'm going to take a break from games for a little bit, at least from bigger, ambitious projects like this, and go back more to film and TV. Switch it up a little bit. I'm the type of person who gets very bored easily, and I like to just switch it up, either medium- or genre-wise, or just in some form. We'll see what happens. At the end of the day, I like making weird shit, so that's the next game: weird shit.
She Dreams Elsewhere is slated to hit PC, Mac, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2021. It will also be available through Xbox Game Pass. The demo is currently playable on Steam.