Indieview #12 — Borealis, Game Developer

Welcome to the twelfth week of Indieview! Indieview is an interview series where I speak with a special guest who works on personal or business projects related to games, whether they’re an artist, a composer, a streamer, a writer, or otherwise.

This week I’m joined by Shirli, who goes by Borealis, who is a game developer! Shirli is currently working on Venus: Improbable Dream, a visual novel which is focusing on mental health. Shirli has handled almost every aspect, from the coding and dialogue, to the gameplay and the music — other than the art, this is a game made by one person. In fact, Shirli has been creating music for 14 years now! Very impressive, if you ask me.

Want to get a feel for the game before you read on? Click the link above to try the free demo, or watch an introduction trailer here, narrated by Borealis herself!

Mitch: Hi, Shirli! Can you give us a quick rundown on what Venus: Improbable Dream is about?

Shirli: The game follows the story of Kakeru, a 17 year old boy who has a visible birth defect on his face, which he can’t stand. Thanks to this, he’s developed a severe case of social anxiety and depression, bordering on a phobia of people altogether. Our story begins when he’s coerced by his teacher and parents into joining the after-school music club, where they hope he’ll come out of his shell. He hates the idea, but once there, he meets Haruka, a disabled girl who also struggles with mental health. In the moments where he’s able to let his guard down, Kakeru starts to feel inspired by Haruka’s drive to work towards her musical dreams, and the two of them begin to support each other as they try to overcome their personal issues and find their own little pieces of happiness.

Mitch: What inspired you to create a game that focuses on mental health and disabilities? I’m always very interested in playing games that focus on these topics — they’re important to highlight and talk about

Shirli: I totally agree with you that mental health and disabilities are incredibly important things to not only normalise and not demonise, but also to talk about in a way that leads to better support and encouragement for those that deal with them. I personally have had mental health struggles pretty much my whole life, so it was almost a no-brainer that these themes would work their way into the game. It definitely happens when I write songs, and this visual novel was no exception. It’s one of the areas of life I know best!

Mitch: I understand — I definitely find them being spoken about in games, etc, can be comforting. What inspired you to create Kakeru and Haruka, and to incorporate the difficulties and disabilities that you did?

Shirli: I knew that I wanted both the protagonist and their counterpart to represent various difficult issues that people can find hard to address. I gave Kakeru a visible birth defect as the reason for his anxiety and depression because I know that a lot of people who have physical ‘abnormalities’, as some would say, feel very insecure about them, even though everyone is beautiful and valid in their own way and should be encouraged to feel that. I also made Kakeru a male character to further emphasise the importance of supporting men with mental health issues, because there’s still a very toxic attitude around that suggests that men can’t have feelings/show vulnerability, and I hate that.

Haruka was an enigma, and had always been an inspiring, flute-playing prodigy in my mind! Her disability came about for several reasons, partially due to the way it would alter how she and Kakeru would interact in an interesting way (no spoilers here!), but also to portray another issue that people can struggle to talk about. Being disabled gives Haruka’s own mental health problems an extra dimension that I believe is quite reflective of real life, and what’s admirable is that she does her best not to let that define her.

Mitch: Let’s hope that the stigma around these topics continues to improve. I’d like to talk about the game’s music! It’s gorgeous. Can you tell me more about the composing process, please? Also, there’s a vocal track? Is it safe to assume that you provided the vocals?

Shirli: Thank you! As you mentioned, this will be my 14th year as a working musician. Music is my main passion in life, and part of the appeal of creating a visual novel, aside from the obvious joy of sharing a story, was to compose its soundtrack from scratch. I took a variety of approaches to the tracks you hear in the game; many of them were written specifically for certain scenes, and others were actually repurposed songs I’d already written for something else that never got made.

Years ago, I was composing the soundtrack for a Markiplier fan game project that went under, and all of those tracks now appear in Venus: Improbable Dream as reworked pieces. Some tracks are even instrumental versions of songs I used to sing live in my old solo projects! I’ve really enjoyed using musical devices to enhance the game experience where I can, too. For example, I use specific instruments to reference certain people. We know Haruka plays the flute, so when a scene appears where Kakeru is thinking about her, or when he’s spending time with her, a flute may appear in the background piece to further emphasise that association with her. And the vocal track — yes, it’s sung by yours truly! It’s a special, emotional ballad that appears only twice in the game, when the player reaches certain endings. I can’t wait to hear what people think of it!

Mitch: I’m very excited to hear of more from the OST, especially the vocal track! The game is anime-inspired visually. What made you take this approach? I have to say I’m a big fan as someone who is drawn to this style!

Shirli: I’ve been watching anime since I was a kid — about 22 years now. It’s been a big interest for me. In fact, my last musical project outside of this game was a band that specialised in anime and game related songs. We sang in Japanese and toured the indie anime convention circuit. So anime style visuals are always appealing to me, and most of the visual novels I personally love to play have featured them too, so I knew I wanted to take a similar approach with my game. In fact, I went the whole hog and set the entire story in Japan too!

Mitch: There’s 35 hours of gameplay with 4 different endings to achieve. What mechanics are in place to follow your progress, and to get all CGs, endings, etc?

Shirli: With a lot of visual novels, you’re presented with various characters whom you can choose to team up with/pursue romantically, but I wanted this story to focus entirely on Kakeru and Haruka, and their blossoming relationship. Due to this, I tailored the player choices to produce different results, and be of a slightly different style; during the first half of the game, the choices you’re presented with form the basis of how Haruka and Kakeru get to know each other, so the player finds out little tidbits about the both of them in different scenarios. This section has a lot of replayability, as each scenario provides personal information about Haruka in particular that you don’t find out anywhere else in the game. It’s nice to go back and pick the other option to see what intimate details you missed the first time.

In the second half of the game, the choices switch up, and become entirely centred around Kakeru’s responses to situations, and ultimately shape how the story ends due to the consequences of his actions. This time, everything the player does has a massive impact on the story, and there are both good and bad endings to unlock, each of which alters the type of relationship that Haruka and Kakeru have, and how it plays out. It’s a very classic ‘save at every choice’ deal, which gives you the opportunity to quickly change tactics and follow a new path.

Mitch: Will players be able to pick up the game’s soundtrack in any form at release/at a later date?

Shirli: Yes! From the beginning, I always planned for the game’s soundtrack to be available for download, alongside the game itself. Since the music club that features in the story is classical-based, there are various real life pieces of classical music by famous composers in the game, too. Excluding those, I’m aiming for the downloadable soundtrack to have 31 pieces on it, all original except for three, which are self-made interpretations of a very special classical piece — I can’t tell you for spoiler reasons, but it’s gonna be good!

Mitch: How long have you been working on Venus: Improbable Dream for? Has it changed much from when you began working on it?

Shirli: I first got the idea to create my own visual novel in 2013, when I originally got into playing them myself. However, it was very much a pipe dream at that point, as I was way more focused on my music career, and while I’ve always been an avid gamer, I’d never even so much as seen any piece of coding software in my life, so I just shelved the idea. However, in 2016, I remember being particularly inspired about it again after playing some great visual novels, and the basic character outline for Haruka came into my mind, as well as the loose premise of a story based around a school’s music club. I wrote it down and held onto it, and slowly but surely, I found enough time to sit down and flesh out this idea until it became a fully fledged story, and I knew I had to make the pipe dream a reality!

So I’ve been working on Venus: Improbable Dream for around 5 years now, although I’d say only 3 of those years were what you’d consider ‘proper’ work. As for the story itself, I believe the emotional connotations have deepened a lot, and it’s become a lot more weighty than it was at first. It began as a more light-hearted tale of two musicians inspiring each other to strive for their goals, but once the idea of fully committing to this emphasis on mental health came about, the story gained more dark moments to reflect people’s feelings, as well as becoming so much more than just a couple of teens having fun together.

Mitch: I admire that you’ve made it happen! This is an ambitious project, but you haven’t crowdfunded for it. Can I ask why you decided to not use Kickstarter, etc?

Shirli: I actually did run a Kickstarter for the project in October 2020, but unfortunately, it didn’t meet its goal. I’ve sunk a lot of my own personal money into this project, and speaking honestly, I am a bit disappointed that it didn’t get the help that I hoped it would, but I try not to let it get me down. The most important thing to me is that I had something that I wanted to achieve, and in just over a month, the game should be out and I’ll have achieved that thing. I created something I wanted to share with people in the hopes that it would touch them emotionally and spread a positive message about mental health, and even if the game never receives much attention, I’ll still have given it my all.

Mitch: What advice would you offer to those who are striving to create their own visual novel too? Again, it’s incredible you’ve achieved so much as the sole person working on this project.

Shirli: Sometimes, the most difficult thing is getting started, and then keeping that momentum going. My advice is to draw on your inspirations and just write and write, and question your motives — why do you think you want to make this story? Does it have a message, and if so, what’s the best way to communicate it? What will people enjoy about it? If you were the player, what would you want from the experience, and how can you deliver that? Write it all down and try different variations until you personally feel great about it. If your work sparks up a fire in you, it’ll probably do the same for other people, too. If the spark disappears, it’s best to take a step back and a deep breath, and look at it again from a different perspective. Asking friends/other indie devs for feedback on social media is also incredibly helpful. They can often highlight something that never occurred to you.

Mitch: Where can people easily follow you and your work?

Shirli: The official Venus: Improbable Dream Twitter account is where I’m most active, but you can also find me on my personal Twitter account.

Mitch: Where and when can people pick up Venus: Improbable Dream?

Shirli: The game is set to release late February/early March this year, and it’ll be available on Itch.io and GameJolt. I’m also currently working to get it released on Steam, though it’s not all in the clear yet, so that’s a work in progress. I’ll keep everyone updated on Twitter when I know more, and fingers crossed, it’ll be a success!

Mitch: Very exciting! Is there anyone or anything that you’d like to plug?

Shirli: Other than Venus: Improbable Dream (tee-hee!) I’d like to give a shout-out to my good friend Yui. We met through our shared love of the Katawa Shoujo visual novel, and he’s been incredibly supportive of me as I’ve created my own. He even contributed some invaluable work to the GUI design of Venus: Improbable Dream, so I’m really grateful to know him! Check out his fantastic anime reviews on Twitter!

Mitch: One final question — what games would you recommend (of course, other than Venus: Improbable Dream) to players who are looking for games that tackle similar topics?

Shirli: I just mentioned Katawa Shoujo, and you can believe the hype on that one — it’s amazing, and portrays both mental health issues and disabilities in a very realistic way. Full of emotional moments and relatable content. There’s also a great short game called missed messages., which is visual novel based but with point and click elements to it. Mental health is the entire focus, and it’s also very realistic, and has several endings. The whole thing has a lovely art style too.

Want to support Shirli and Venus: Improbable Dream? You can download the free demo at itch.io here, follow the game on Twitter here, and follow the YouTube channel here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Indieview #12 with Shirli, aka Borealis. I’ll be back with another Indieview in the near future, so thanks for reading, and I hope to see you all again soon!

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