I want to develop this new project, Soulmate, transparently; that is, I'll post about every step of the process in order to seek opinions and ensure that I'm making something that people will actually enjoy. In this first post, I want to (once again) sketch out the gist of the game as a whole. In the past, I didn't do this because I didn't want to reveal spoilers... but I am going to be quite spoilery here because it seems wiser than working on something that'll only disappoint.
The purpose of the game is - like with Taming Dreams - to show that it's possible to make an RPG with 'battles' that represent something more constructive and positive than destructive violence. That you can have the same general mechanics but have them represent a different kind of abstraction. We become desensitised to and blithely accepting of the things we're familiar with, and fail to see any issues with them... but presenting those familiar things in novel ways can lead to a shift in perception.
When I played Pokemon after developing Taming Dreams for a while, for example, it was quite shocking that my Pokemon had to 'scratch' and 'bite' one another in order to cause 'fainting'. I'd always just taken for granted that that's what games played like, but it seemed barbaric once I had something to compare it to. The violence in our culture has bothered me for a long time... but rather than rebelling against that by making some heavy-handed "VIOLENCE IS WRONG!!" sort of thing (which would sway nobody at all), I'd much rather just present an alternative. This is in effect a demonstration of what I mean; to 'fight' the idea of violence in games would be to try to burn away fire, a destructive approach doomed to failure, while simply showing what could be instead is more constructive and less likely to be rejected in a knee-jerk fashion... Or at least that's the hope.
None of that really matters from the player's perspective, though, and it's not going to be ramming ideology down anyone's throat. It's just how I - as someone who wants to 'make a difference' - describe the project to myself in order to feel that it's worthwhile to work on!
I'd also like to explore the idea that our mind is ultimately what prevents us from being free and happy, and that by taming that mind, by dispelling our delusions, we can live a happier life. Psychology, basically, especially that related to things like loneliness and common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
I don't want it to be a dismal, 'educational' experience or anything, but I would like it if it was more than a mere distraction. If it could teach things that might allow some people to overcome some of their own issues. Teaching is a good way to learn, and I certainly need to better learn how to handle my own hindering mind...
Here's the beginning of the story as I imagine it.
It - like Taming Dreams - would begin with a conversation atop a black background, with the participants initially hidden. "I love you", would be the first line, followed by two partners expressing genuine appreciation and affection for one another. "You complete me", "you're my whole world", things like that. It's Oneira - the protagonist - talking to her partner, who's called (oh so subtly) Soulmate.
However, the flow of conversation is disrupted by a 'villain' coming along; let's call her Ego. She's dark-clad and masked - as villains often are - but she's essentially Oneira's inner critic; the version of herself that berates and belittles her and tells her all the things she can't do. She'd say that Oneira is undeserving of love, providing details why. This might lead to a 'battle' - or rather, agitation - though it's ultimately futile (perhaps this - and only this - encounter actually does involve violence, of a sort, which has no effect? Fighting such thoughts only fuels them and exhausts you, would be the point). People tend to want to dive into the 'battle system' of an RPG as soon as possible (or at least I always used to), so having a chance to do so very early on always seemed like a wise design choice to me.
This agitation would be interrupted by the sound of a notification on her phone; she's got a message. She'd wake up - alone in her small, untidy bedroom - to check it; the whole previous bit with Soulmate and Ego was a dream.
I mentioned a phone. The setting would be the modern world, rather than Alora Fane. I've made up all the lore for that world, though, and this site is named after it... so I'm wondering whether to include it in some form or another.
The message would lead to a text conversation (which you can see) that doesn't go well - perhaps it's a friend encouraging her to get up and do things, but she just replies with the sorts of negative rejections and "I can't do it" that those of us who suffer with depression tend to give - and it makes her all the more frustrated with how the world isn't magically delivering everything that she needs or wants without her having to actually do anything. She'd then retreat into dreams, or fantasies, hoping for relief from the world there... and the rest of the game would take place in her mind.
Once again in her dream, her own self-defeating objections might be repeated by Ego - it was her, after all, who was responsible for them anyway - and this might lead to Ego stealing away Soulmate and imprisoning him somewhere, out of reach until Oneira can prove herself worthy... or something. I've yet to sort out the details here. Ego would tell Oneira that unless she could prove that someone would actually like her, then Soulmate would be forever out of her reach. Perhaps this would mirror the words of the friend who'd texted her (if the person even was a friend)... Maybe Oneira had expressed distress about not having a partner, and this other person had said 'you need to find friends first'. Or something. As I said, I'm not sure.
Soulmate's prison (perhaps a tower or something) - with its gate guarded by Ego - would serve as a hub of sorts, and beyond this intro, the rest of the world would involve nonlinear exploration.
You'd be able to explore Oneira's mind, interacting with its inhabitants. Agitation might not occur randomly; rather, it happens when you interact with NPCs, similar to trainer battles in Pokemon games. Each NPC would represent a thought, perhaps... I'm unsure whether miasmon would be involved as they were in Taming Dreams.
Some NPCs would be able to join your party. This would involve doing quests for and then with them, with each successful quest revealing more of that character's story and them giving you more of their trust. There'd probably be six 'relationship stages' for each one, with them offering to join you starting at the third. Their quests would be increasingly personal, starting with basic local fetch quests and culminating in you helping them travel to a distant area to achieve their life's dream. You might face Ego towards the end of each quest chain; she'd question your connection with that particular NPC.
These quest chains could be completed in any order, and there might be six NPCs who you could befriend in this way. To finish the game, you'd need to fully befriend at least three NPCs - forming a party of four - at which point you could prove to Ego at the hub that people actually could like you and that you deserved Soulmate. It'd lead to a final taming of Ego and such; apparently the final battle.
However, when 'rescuing' Soulmate afterwards, Oneira would realise that from coming to love the NPCs - who represent fragments of herself - and taming Ego, she no longer has the need for some perfect partner who'll complete her; she's fine by herself. Soulmate would object though; she needs him, he says. This would lead to the true final agitation, and in taming Soulmate, she'd tame the biggest thought that held her back from engaging the world. Not self-loathing or a lack of confidence, but the need to be loved by another in some special, perfect way.
I like this story because it resonates with me deeply. I long for some perfect partner, and feel that I can't face the world without one. By writing a story like this - where the protagonist ultimately overcomes that delusion that holds her back - I'd be challenging my own thoughts, revealing a path beyond them. It'd benefit myself.
However, I don't know how many other people struggle with this kind of desire for some 'soulmate'. I know it's typical of people with my personality type, but in the mostly-male world of gaming, I can imagine it being met with macho mockery and bafflement or something. People have certainly expressed such sentiments in response to my own blog posts in the past. I also imagine that many people are already settled into relationships, that they've found a point of comfortable acceptance, and that this might not speak to them either.
And yet it might appeal to a niche because
so few other games aim for such a target. Maybe there are a lot of people out there who - like me - like games as a medium, but who are increasingly frustrated with the overwhelming masculinity of most of them and would appreciate something that attempts to be more tender. I just don't know.
I'm concerned about gender politics, however. The world of gaming is infamous for its rather disgusting sexism; it's one of the biggest reasons I want to get out of it. The idea that women are princesses who need rescuing has been a big part of it since the very beginning.
Attempts to remedy this tend to involve making 'strong' female characters who can 'kick ass' as well as the men... which bothers me, since it's like saying that only by shedding their femininity and becoming 'men with boobs' can women be worthwhile. Why not have males more readily embrace their femininity instead? Why must female characters harden their hearts to be worthy of admiration?
The main character of this game would be the same archetype I've been experimenting with in various stories. A shy, sensitive sort who I personally can relate to. While such a character is basically my own personality in female form, I'm concerned that others will see her as simply "weak"; me as a sexist developer portraying a woman as some submissive, insecure, neurotic lesser human who needs a man in order to have worth.
The love she'd long for wouldn't be the "save me, O hero!" sort, where she clings to the side of some statuesque soldier and looks longingly into his chiseled face while he stares stoically at the sky. It'd be more like a longing for a, well, a soulmate; someone who understands completely, who supports and listens and offers true romantic devoted love. I'd hope to portray that kind of bond from the very first conversation; a bond of equals, two 'other halves' who complete one another, rather than any kind of dominant-submissive thing.
And I'd hope that having the male love interest captured by the villain, to be rescued, might turn the tropes on their head...
The eventual conclusion would involve her shedding this need for a partner completely, of course, but who would get that far before forming judgements?
Either way, it feels like walking through a minefield, and while I'd make the game in the hope of engaging people's hearts in relatable ways, I'd be worried about just being hit by a barrage of flak from "social justice warriors" eager to see and slay demons where there are none. Hmm.
Maybe I could just make Soulmate female too. I don't see why not. Maybe I'd win points with such people instead of offending them, and be less off-putting to guys who don't really want to see a woman falling in love with a guy who's unlike them... but I'd lose the whole "girl saves a guy" bit if I did that. So I don't know.
Anyway, I feel I don't fit in with the world of games development... but I also want to make something that resonates with me. Perhaps whatever I make won't fit in either, though. But it would mean something to me, so I feel I must try.
(I was going to talk about mechanics, but I'll do that in another post.)