“I guess maybe one last thing to mention,” Davionne Gooden, solo developer of She Dreams Elsewhere tells me as our interview is wrapping up. “I have this on my shelf. It’s a sealed copy of Persona 5. And the reason why it’s there is because I’ve actually yet to play this game at all. And it’s really weird because I get comparisons to it all the time. But it’s currently wrapped, still fresh in its packaging, because I told myself – I am not allowed to play this game until I shipped this one. And it’s on my desk taunting me every single day.”
This is emblematic of Gooden and his working environment. The background to our interview is scattered with collectables, posters, and shots from Gooden’s own photography, with an Iron Man gauntlet grasping atop a bookshelf and a Kingdom Hearts keyblade propped against a desk. Every answer is peppered with pop culture references and bursting with enthusiasm. But the influences flowing into She Dreams Elsewhere aren’t just limited to video games – although Earthbound, Final Fantasy, and earlier Persona games do get a mention – with Gooden’s experience in photography and filmmaking both helping to refine the game’s look, along with anime movies, classic sitcoms, and experimental television dramas.
“Atlanta and Seinfeld both of them have this very natural dialogue,” Gooden says. “Another fun fact about me is I was a huge theatre kid back in the day, like I worked on every single show, every single year, through all four years, including writing and directing some small shows. So I’ve always been attracted to the natural cadence of dialogue and how people just naturally talk. So that automatically stood out to me from like, both of those shows. And then with Atlanta, specifically, Atlanta has like that weird mix of mostly normal situations, but also like this really weird surreal undertone, and like weird random events that happen. But they’re portrayed for the most part as just totally normal one offs, and nobody really acknowledges that. So I always loved that like that groundedness versus ‘what the fuck just happened?’”
This mesh of groundedness versus surreal storytelling is crucial in the upcoming She Dreams Elsewhere, because, as the title suggests, it’s a game all about dreams. But, Gooden explains, where other dream-based media plays with the idea of ‘what is a dream and what isn’t’, She Dreams Elsewhere wants to leave that to one side to explore the narrative on a deeper level.
“[Paprika] is both one of my favourite movies and a big inspiration for this game,” Gooden says. “But when it comes to dreams in general, I love what we can do with them from a creative standpoint. On the flip side, it’s like, ‘you can do anything!’ and I’m just like, ‘Oh, what do I do then?’ It’s weird to put logic into a setting which inherently has none. So that’s been kind of a challenge. But my process has been very upfront with the fact of this entire thing beginning to end is in a dream. It’s not about ‘Is any of this real?’ or any of that stuff? It’s about what [protagonist] Thalia is going through and what the dream reflects about herself.”
Despite the fantastical nature of a dreamlike setting, She Dreams Elsewhere is still a game that wants to explore real issues in a personal way. The entire game is like just taking from my personal experiences, both in dreams, and real life stuff,” Gooden says. “It was made by me, for me. And that’s pretty much where it’s at. If other people want to buy with it, that’s dope. If not, that’s also cool. But it matters to me at the end of the day is me being personally and creatively satisfied with what I’ve done. I very rarely have those super fantastic rainbows and unicorn type of dreams. My dreams are usually a lot more grounded and lucid. A lot of ideas take place in this weird city type of environment, because I just love cities. I’m a city boy. But it’s always twisted in some weird way. So that part really interests me of how it’s the same from real life, but here’s what it looks like in a dream. And it’s like ‘what does that say about myself?’ Everyone kind of comes back to that.”
Because of this ability to explore literally inside the protagonist’s head, Gooden had the opportunity to examine some important issues, and that meant tackling certain topics head on – literally. “I think it is really important to talk about stuff like this and not just normalise it, but to support people who are going through that,” Gooden says. “Because especially throughout this past year, we’re all just kind of going through it. And no one knows what happens behind closed doors, or at the dinner table. So I’ve always wanted to be as vulnerable as possible, and just normalise that. On the flip side, it’s my experience with depression and identity. It’s relatable, but it’s also very specific to me. And the way that I go about it is also very specific to me. So I guess there’s a fear of getting called out for ‘that’s not how I experienced that’. Or ‘that’s not how I did the thing’. But it’s because it’s not you, it’s from me, it’s from my own stuff. And at no point do I ever want to speak for other people when experiences like this are all just to me. But of course, I don’t think there are people out there who aren’t going to take it that way, which will suck but it’s video games for you.”
That’s why, despite the mass of pop culture flowing in She Dreams Elsewhere, Gooden explains that the best inspiration is life itself. “I’m a big believer of ‘if you want to create great art, you need to actually go out and live your life’, but obviously, that’s been pretty hard this past year,” Gooden laughs. “I am a very visual person. My eyes tell me what is good and what is not. [She Dreams Elsewhere] used to be full colour, like more Earthbound types of tones. And then early on, I can press the wrong button when I was making this anime graphic, and it made it all black and white. And it was totally wrong, but it looked pretty dope. So that’s just an example of my eyes being like, ‘Hey, I know you’re trying to go for that thing, but this thing looks way cooler’, and my heart was set on it. From there, it was just a process of refining that style, experimenting with different colours and fixing things to get the vision that I was going for. But yeah, it just comes down to I am a dumdum who likes pretty things. And so I try to make pretty things.”
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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