I'd been trying to dive straight into asset creation with Soulmate, though I realised that I needed to think much more carefully about the groundwork - the conceptual base, story and setting - first. So I've done that! Though normally I'd avoid posting openly about story development like this to avoid 'spoilers' for when the game is done, I think it'll be more interesting to be able to watch as things develop over time. To compare the final story to the notes I had at this stage. I've also drawn a rudimentary design of the eponymous, androgynous Soulmate character!
All of the characters in this game are just figments of Oneira's imagination, or rather facets of her mind. Soulmate (a label more than a name) in particular is deliberately unrealistic; s/he's an androgynous representation of some ideal fantasy partner, a condensation of a perfect romantic connection without any of the messy details like conflicting interests or beliefs that might get in the way in a real one. Someone flawless who'd offer unconditional love. The whole point of the story is to overcome clinging to such a delusion at the expense of enjoying reality.
I personally feel that this looks effectively androgynous, though bland; I wasn't actually sure what to do with the design! I think I'll return to it later, possibly last, after the rest of the game has an established direction and style.
As the game's world is Oneira's mind, it makes sense for its locations and inhabitants to have arisen from her life experiences. As such, I came up with the following sketch of a backstory, some of which draws influences from my own (as it's easier and more personally fulfilling - I find - to write what you know):
She lived with two loving parents, until her mother died while Oneira was still a child. Her father - torn apart by his own loss of love - became an alcoholic, unemployed; a terrible, neglectful parent.
(This explains where Oneira's insecurities arose from: without a 'safe base' to turn to, she lacked the emotional support to face challenges rather than hiding from them, and as her father fell apart when deprived of love, she believes that she requires a partner in order to achieve the happiness that he clearly lost.)
At university, she met a guy who supported her through her anxieties, who she admired for his intelligence. They grew close, became a couple. He was brilliant... but a perfectionist, holding her up to unrealistic standards and expressing disappointment in some form when she failed to live up to his expectations/fantasies. She admired him and desperately wanted to impress him, but felt incapable of doing so.
(I feel there are a lot of things here that would be relatable to many people.)
This tore them apart, and she succumbed to her anxieties, possibly dropped out of university, lost what few connections she had. He went on to immediate and impressive employment - perhaps he was on his way to becoming a respected scientist - whereas she, too scared to face the world, decided to turn to her creative work in order to carve her own individual path through the world without having to go out and face it or its inhabitants directly.
She's a writer (or at least is trying to be), as I feel that's quite relatable, and easily understood as a path to fame and fortune due to prominent examples like J K Rowling. It'd also be interesting to incorporate examples of her amateur-writer personality into her dialogue. Many people who are 'have nots' earlier in life presumably get into creativity so then they can 'make what they don't have' (I know I did).
She both hates and envies her ex; feels he was a bad person for causing her pain, but also wonders whether she just wasn't good enough for him (especially considering his new job). She sees her childhood with her mother as the only time she was ever happy, and hates and blames her father for much of what's wrong in her life.
(Obviously this ties directly to my own experiences, though I imagine things like this are really quite common and relatable to many.)
The game would begin with her dreaming/fantasising about Soulmate; an unrealistic ideal who represents the sort of love she feels she needs to be complete but which she never had in the past and certainly doesn't have now that she's alone. This would be interrupted by Ego, her inner critic, who represents a 'perfect' version of Oneira who talks down to her about not being good enough for Soulmate. This would be interrupted by a text message in the real world... from Oneira's ex. They've not talked in ages, and he wants to check how she's doing. The short exchange would serve to establish their respective places in the world and her own personal hang-ups, which the rest of the game would go on to explore.
I wrote in a ∞ previous rambling conceptual post ∞
about the game's three worlds and six allies ('alters' or 'aspects'). Each world would represent one of the 'three (false) ideals', and each would be home to two alters who you'd do quests for in order to befriend them... But I was unsure of the actual structure of each world.
I'm currently thinking that each world could be overseen by a 'boss' who represents a warped version of one of the key players in Oneira's life. Each world's individual story would of course climax in agitation with this boss, after which you 'tame' them; Oneira comes to terms with that part of her inner world.
The world of Identity - which is all about 'being someone' - would be overseen by a 'dictator celebrity' called X, who's adored by the worlds inhabitants in the same way celebrities are, but who has strict demands of his world in the same way a dictator might. Obviously he'd represent Oneira's ex; someone seen as both a pinnacle of admirable achievement and an unreasonable taskmaster to be despised.
The world of Longing - which is all about believing that happiness is to be found in the past or future, not the present - would be divided into two parts: future and past. The future section would surround a tomb of 'The Mummy': a dead queen who was once beloved by all. This future represents the potential of ever-improving technology to solve all the problems of the world; they've invented a means to revive the dead, and want to use it to resurrect The Mummy, though they need Oneira to travel in a time machine - which they also invented - to the past in order to retrieve something from the living version of The Mummy... Or something. It's all very sketchy right now. Obviously 'The Mummy' is Oneira's dead mother, who she dreams of travelling back to spend time with, or of reviving through technology one day.
The world of Judgement - which represents dividing things into 'good' or 'bad' so as to know what to embrace and reject to be happy - would be overseen by a demon king called 'The Sinner', whose neglect of his realm has turned into barren badlands. There's a luxurious town inhabited by angels, who spend their time in hedonic revelry, but Oneira doesn't belong in there and isn't allowed in. Instead, she must trek through the empty badlands to face The Sinner... or something. The Sinner is her father; a supposed-ruler whose negligence has robbed a whole world of its vitality and potential.
I mentioned that each world would have two 'alters' - alternate versions of Oneira - who can join your party by doing quests for them. Here are the ideas I have for them so far.
Two Identity alters:
is a 'conventionally beautiful' version of Oneira who wants to be famous, because if she's famous, she'll be successful and everyone will love her. She represents the 'normal' path through life: typical employment, rising through the ranks, conforming to society's expectations in order to be accepted and admired by it. The idea of 'making it' or 'being someone'. Eventually she'd realise that being important isn't that, well, important!
She's a sort of representation of enneatype 3. She'd be quite vain; narcissistic but insecurely so.
is an 'alternative' version of Oneira who represents her belief that she's 'special', different, doesn't need to follow the mainstream path because that's what 'sheep' do, etc. She'd probably have blue hair and heterochromatic eyes. Originally I imagined her as a spunky rebel, but it seems more fitting to portray her as an enneatype 4 sort; sensitive, tormented by her apparent inability to fit in, poetic about her sorrows. She'd speak in a very idiosyncratic way, which is obviously put on to make her seem 'unique'. She likes the idea of carving her own path through the world from her bedroom; "after all, that's where dreams are made".
She'd eventually learn that being special isn't worth cutting yourself off from the world; that this path only leads to loneliness.
Two Longing alters:
(a bit of an unsubtle name) would be a child version of Oneira who represents the good times in her past. She'd be innocent, naive, childish; talks about how things were easier and nicer when they were simpler, discourages facing challenges in favour of reminiscing. She hates how the harshness of reality crushes dreams.
Eventually she'd learn to grow up, that though new experiences may be different from the old ones, that doesn't make them worse.
is a cyborg, augmented by technology which grants her superhuman physical and mental abilities. She's bombastic, speaks like an advertiser promoting the wonders the "world of tomorrow!" will bring. She represents the hope that high technology will solve all problems, that the future is where happiness is to be found.
Eventually her story would conclude that even if such things do come to pass, it's pointless to waste the present waiting for them to happen (much as it's bad to waste your life waiting for Heaven).
Two Judgement alters:
is a spoiled angel used to the lust and luxuries of the angelic city, though she finds herself trapped in the badlands. She complains when her needs for extravagance aren't met; "I can't sleep on rocks!!"
She represents enneatype 7's denial of pain by pursuing pleasure, and the concept of the 'id', in a sense; the part that craves instant gratification, hedonistic pleasures; the feeling that such luxuries are 'necessary' to be happy and that when deprived of them, happiness cannot be attained. Her story's conclusion would challenge this.
is a strict, cold, disciplined hermit who's very much into self-denial. She's an extreme version of the 'superego', or enneatype 1; "rigorously self-disciplined and severely moral; ascetic; abstinent". She represents Oneira's avoidance of things she sees as undesirable or harmful. Eventually she'd learn to accept and appreciate what the world has to offer instead of sheltering herself from it out of fear.
Putting the Pieces Together
These are the building blocks from which the story can be made, but the challenge now is in how to actually assemble them into a working, fulfilling game.
My original plan was to make a sort of open world, where you'd find the alters through free roaming, with the point being to gradually befriend three of them, with no expectations about which three. Each would have six quests to complete, with the first two being fetch quests and the others involving them joining you. For the sixth, you'd face Ego and resolve that alter's personal story, after which they'd become a 'close friend' or fully integrated into Oneira. Once you'd got to this point with three, you could prove to Ego that you were capable of being loved and could 'rescue' Soulmate.
However, while that has the satisfying benefit of choice, it's more difficult to tell stories that way. It's much more of a challenge to do interactions between characters if you aren't sure who'll be on the party at any given time (and writing alternatives for every possibility - while satisfying to experience as a consumer - quickly spirals out of control for the creator), and it's harder to show the development of the protagonist if the order of events can be shuffled.
Alternatives ideas would be more linear. Perhaps each world would have its own story, where you team up with both the alters and travel through events in order to face the 'boss', though you could face them in whichever order you wanted. Or perhaps they'd be unlocked in sequence, so even the order of worlds was predetermined.
It's also difficult to balance gameplay challenges in a more open world. What if you started the Identity world with just Oneira alone, but the Longing one with two allies? Would the agitations be equally as challenging? And where would tutorial tips be located? Would I have to do a separate tutorial section that precedes the worlds?
One option is to have an additional 'guide' character who delivers tips and exposition. Perhaps it could be Oneira's Conscience... though it seems like such a character should play a greater role. Perhaps it could be her pet dog, possibly in anthro form, who exists as her friend in her dreams because it's her friend in real life? This character could either appear at set places to explain things, or it could accompany you as an ally. Perhaps each world's alters would be restricted to that world, so they'd leave your party when you left the world; this would mean that your party would consist of Oneira, the guide, and the two alters for that world.
I'm not sure about many of these things. There are lots of possibilities, as you can see!
There's also the matter of locations in each world. They'd probably represent memories in some form. The Identity world might be a university, with separate locations where she spent time with her ex (a fast food restaurant, a park, a cinema). Idol's story might culminate in her appearing on the big screen in that cinema area. The Longing world's future might have areas that represent fears of mortality and ageing, or memories of a pleasant holiday Oneira spent with her mother. I'm still very much brainstorming ideas here at the moment.
Most creative works spend months in the writing stage, so I shouldn't try to rush to completion in less than a week. I feel I'm getting a better idea of where I want to go with this, though, and I like what I have so far. I just need to develop and refine these ideas some more!