Interview with Shirli Ainsworth, Creator of Venus: Improbable Dream

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As much as they can be a form of escapism from life, video games can also be a good medium to tackle some more serious topics. Spec Ops: The Line showed us that war isn’t all that magnificent as Hollywood tends to portray it Another game with an incredibly long name, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, can teach you a lot about gender identity and being comfortable with who you are. The ending of Mass Effect 3 taught us that we should never have high expectations from life, especially when it comes to decent video game endings. With all that said, the topic of depression and anxiety is something that you’ll rarely see in this medium. And that’s for a good reason. If you do it wrong, you’ll just get some people mad. If you depict it only as a selling point of your game, you might make even more people mad. That is why only a small selection of games that have dealt with such topics have been brutally honest and unforgiving in the depiction of depression and anxiety.

Today we are chatting with Shirli Ainsworth, the person behind Borealis and the sole creator of Venus: Improbable Dream, a visual novel that doesn’t shy away from being honest, as well as engaging.

First of all, am I correct in labeling you as the sole creator of the game? Just a quick glance at the Steam store page tells me that it probably took a lot of effort and work hours to piece all that together. Is Shirli also the mastermind behind the soundtrack, the art, and not just the story?

Yes, I’m the sole creator of the game. I hired an artist to create the character sprites and CGs, because that’s the only area I’m not capable of, and a friend lent a hand with some of the GUI customizations. Other than that, I wrote the story, coded the game, wrote and recorded the soundtrack, and edited/produced everything.

2. What was the main inspiration behind the story of Venus: Improbable Dream? I noticed that the main character has a body disfigurement and another character later in the story is shown as disabled so obviously, that made me remember Katawa Shoujo.

The game’s story was mainly born from wanting to portray two people coming together to achieve something great through the power of music, as music is the biggest thing in my life. However, the more I started to flesh out the story and explore who the characters were and what their feelings and motivations were for things, I realized that I wanted to incorporate mental health struggles. That topic ended up being much more prominent than I’d originally planned, but I’m happy about it. I love content that shows mental health/disability in a realistic way and highlights important issues that often get ignored, like support for boys/men with mental health struggles especially – that’s the whole reason I made Kakeru a male protagonist. As you say, Katawa Shoujo was massive for me. It was the first visual novel I ever played back in 2013, and thanks to how well it dealt with those themes, I really identified with it. I have to say though, I didn’t really have other VNs in mind when I was creating my own. I kinda just went with what I felt was right.

3. Valve has fairly recently eased up the restrictions on accepting games to their store (and sometimes they were pretty strict on vsual novels). How hard it is for an indie dev to stand out on Steam?

It’s incredibly hard to stand out on Steam, and as an indie dev in general! I certainly don’t feel as though I’ve made much progress with it at all. The industry is saturated with so many content creators trying to get you to buy their thing, so it’s like trying to yell over the noise of an entire stadium full of screaming people – it’s very difficult to make yourself heard. It can be pretty disheartening, but I keep hoping that the right people will find Venus: Improbable Dream if I keep plugging away.

4. You’ve been a musician for quite a while so it’s no surprise that music plays a big part in the story of Venus: Improbable Dream. Did your music expertise help you a lot in creating the soundtrack and shaping the story of the game?

I think being a musician was most of the reason I even made a game in the first place. I’ve always loved to write stories from being a child, but despite being a dedicated gamer, making a game was never something I’d ever thought about. When I discovered VNs and realized that there was free software available to create them, I thought it’d be a cool way to tell a story, but it was mainly the idea of working music into the story as a big plot point and device that was appealing. I wanted to make music the main premise. And yes, I certainly used a lot of my music knowledge when creating the soundtrack. I had a lot of fun composing the pieces, and I was mindful of trying to use certain devices effectively. For example, I used instruments to build an association with characters. Haruka plays the flute, and so sometimes, when Kakeru is alone and thinking about her, a flute will appear in the background music to add to that association.

5. How did you approach the topics of depression and anxiety in this game? If someone were to make a different game tomorrow that talks about these issues, what should they definitely try to avoid when it comes to the depiction of mental health?

Honestly, I just went with my gut. I’ve suffered from mental health issues for a long time myself, and have friends and family that suffer too, so I know from myself and them what people tend to respond to or dislike when it comes to discussing these issues. When it comes to things to avoid, I’d mainly just recommend ignoring the tropes that you see in a lot of other games. Often you’ll see a protagonist who hates everything and everyone and uses that front to ‘explain’ their issues without actually providing a genuine backstory or a reason. It kinda gives mental health the idea of just being “I hate the world, man”, when in reality it runs incredibly deep with people’s personal insecurities and has a horribly strong hold on them. A lot of games can accidentally give protagonists a very shallow appearance, and therefore their story doesn’t really represent realistic mental health issues very well.

6. If money is no object, what game would you set out to make tomorrow? What would be Shirli’s dream game?

Oh, if money weren’t a thing! I’m not quite sure – I’d like to make another visual novel, although I don’t have any plans, so I’m not sure what it would be about. But it would have amazing art, including the backgrounds – that’s something I really wished I’d been able to afford to do with Venus: Improbable Dream. I wanted fully illustrated backgrounds, but I funded the entire game from my own personal pocket, and could only afford the sprites and CGs. Fully illustrated everything is a dream! I also love pixel horrors, in complete contrast to what I’ve created so far, so I’d be tempted to give one of those a go too.

7. Aside from the obvious pick of Katawa Shoujo, what were some other games that made an impact on you with their story and surprised you?

It’s a cliche to say, but Clannad is incredible. Key are a fantastic company capable of delivering really emotional stories, and Clannad totally knocked me out – a lot of crying was done! Moving away from visual novels, I absolutely love the To The Moon game series. Kan Gao is brilliant, and the story of To The Moon itself is really bittersweet. That game is a wonderful way of taking what looks like your average RPG/adventure game and making something really touching from it. One last thing I’d really like to mention is something not very well known, but I want to shine a light on it; the credits of Venus: Improbable Dream feature a memorial to someone called Robert Brock, aka Wertpol. He was an indie dev who made a truly brilliant set of games, the best of which is called Presentable Liberty. He had a real gift for making games that looked like nothing much on the surface, and then suddenly carving out this really emotional story out of nowhere with it. Presentable Liberty has you thinking “okay, this is just whatever” at the beginning, but by the end, you’re angry, upset, full of affection and a sense of loyalty, and fully invested in everything before you even realize what’s happening to you. Wertpol passed away under tragic conditions, but his work inspired me for sure, even with the small amount of content he made.

8. Venus: Improbable Dream is your first release for PC and although the game is fairly new (barely a month at the time of writing this), is there some upcoming project that we should look forward to? What game would you like to create next?

I’m so deep into trying to get people to play Venus: Improbable Dream that I really can’t think about anything else right now! Also, being honest, creating games was never an ambition of mine – it was something that came out of a side interest. I’m a musician before and after everything, so what’s going to come next from me is certainly music. However, I’m not ruling out the possibility of making another game in the future – I’m going to start putting myself out for commission, so I’ll be available to write soundtracks for other people’s games. In fact, I’ve already started – my good friend and fellow indie dev Daisy Games is releasing a sinister puzzle game later this year called Dark Sheep, and I’ve written and recorded its soundtrack. I’m certainly not going to disappear, so don’t worry!

To keep up with Shirli and her upcoming projects, be sure to follow her on Twitter and check out Venus: Improbable Dream on Steam.

I play video games from time to time and sometimes they manage to elicit a reaction from me that I can't help but write about them.

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