Indieview #18 — Sam, Games Developer

Welcome to the eighteenth issue 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 Sam, part of studio Delphinium Interactive, who is an Indie games developer! Players know her work to be touching and relatable, and you might be aware of her visual novels in Starlight Shores and Graveyard Girls. The latter is completely free, so you have no reason not to give it a go, and Starlight Shores has recently released on several consoles!

Mitch: Hi Sam! I’ve been meaning to get to you for a while, haven’t I? My apologies! How’s the intro, is there anything you’d like to add?

Sam: Hello and thank you for having me! The intro was spot on, I’ve been an indie developer since 2014 and started in QA/Game Writing. I joined the Visual Novel Dev community in late 2019 and I’ve been loving it ever since.

Mitch: Graveyard Girls is your latest released project! Can you tell people who haven’t played it yet more about it? It’s that good sort of spooky vibes that I love. It really is a joy to look at.

Sam: Graveyard Girls was our team’s entry to the 2021 Spooktober VN Game Jam. It’s a yuri (girl x girl) story about Elle and Lucia, two young women who meet at the local cemetery on Halloween. Throughout the game, players get to explore grief both fresh and old from the perspective of these two characters.

We developed Graveyard Girls during the month of September, and despite the deadline, we persevered and delivered the exact experience we set out to. It was a thrilling development process! Our primary goal was to discuss death in a way not typically seen in games/visual novels.

Mitch: As I found out very recently, you aren’t even accepting tips for Graveyard Girls via Itch.io. Can I ask why that is? It’s been very well-received and it is, in my opinion, well worth buying.

Sam: I really appreciate you saying that!

In the spirit of the game jam, we never intended to make Graveyard Girls for profit. It has always been about pushing ourselves, participating with the dev community, and creating a game we’re proud of.

I’d love to encourage fans to show their support by donating to a charity of their choice, perhaps one related to mental health or addiction support.

Mitch: I think that’s great of you and the team, as is your efforts to depict mental health in games in a real and sensitive way.

Hey, Sam, I have a feeling, but are you a big Halloween fan? Or could we maybe expect something like a Christmas Girls? …What would be the equivalent of a graveyard for the Christmas season?

Sam: You caught me! Halloween is one of my favourite times of the year. I often catch myself getting excited about the next Spooktober jam, even though it’s a long way off.

It’s funny that you mention Christmas Girls, at one point I had imagined this story taking place on a snowy day.

If there were a Christmas version, I wouldn’t see it straying too far from the original message. I just would’ve focused on how the holiday season tends to bring up memories of those we’ve lost, trading out the Halloween night setting.

Mitch: Graveyard Girls has grief as one of its prominent themes, and deals very carefully with the subject of death. Both of these things are very interesting to me — can I ask why you decided to incorporate both of these themes so strongly?

Sam: Well, it boils down to the origins of Halloween. It’s a celebration dedicated to remembering the dead, which naturally brings up emotions like grief and regret.

That theme was magnified by setting Halloween as the date of Elle’s father’s death. For Elle, it will always be a day she thinks about her father, while others might not take it as seriously.

We wanted to craft a realistic starting point for a deeply personal and reflective experience, so Halloween was the perfect setting.

Mitch: What other media would you recommend that you think speaks about grief and death well?

Sam: “The Haunting of Hill House” series on Netflix tackles those topics in a way that changed how I perceive grief-themed media. I cannot praise it enough, it’s fantastic and terrifying.

Mitch: Ah… I think this may be my final push to finally watch it.

I understand that Graveyard Girls was a team effort! What did you do on the project, and could you maybe share some info on your team?

Sam: It was! I worked as the project manager/director, so I created the original concept, wrote the story, programmed/coded the game, and tried to keep the ship running smoothly. The team made that job incredibly easy, they’re all talented and I’m lucky to have collaborated with them.

Pommu joined the team early as our lead CG artist and eventually stepped in as a Creative Director, consulting on the storyline and game development. Her beautiful CGs and dedication to the project helped to craft the game we have today. We’re currently working together to reshape the game for a Steam launch, adding new artwork and other extra features. She created one of my favourite pieces of artwork, Elle at her father’s grave!

Dalton Attig was responsible for the entire Graveyard Girls soundtrack. He composed the music and went above and beyond, expanding the original scope several times. I created a music box feature in-game because of how astounding and emotional his compositions were!

Waikikired was our Background Artist and another early team member. His style brought the Halloween/Fall aesthetic to life and the project wouldn’t be the same without his work. When he delivered the first background, which was the cemetery where the game begins, I was shaking with excitement. An artist that can take a concept and transform it into a place for characters to live and breathe is such an amazing talent!

MelonPanne joined our team later in the recruitment process as a secondary CG Artist. She worked well under a super tight deadline and delivered emotional artwork that gave the cemetery scene an extra artistic dimension. I particularly love her CG of Lucia giving Elle the blue rose that kickstarts their friendship.

MintsTea was a familiar face on the project, and I loved working with her again! She was a CG and Background artist for Starlight Shores and joined the Graveyard Girls team as our Sprite Artist. Mints was the first to draw Elle and Lucia, creating the reference point to build out all subsequent artwork of their characters. She created a solid artistic foundation and I adore her stylish characters and artwork.

Gwynne Moore of GSE Studios joined the team to create the Graveyard Girls logo. She’s incredibly creative and didn’t need any direction after receiving our introductory package that had a list of the story, thematic, and aesthetic approaches we’d be covering. Gwynne quickly delivered a beautiful logo that perfectly aligned with the symbolism of the blue rose, I’m still in love with how elegant the logo is.

Mitch: That sounds like a great team, though that was already evident in all of your works. I hope they see this too!

Tell me more about why you became a games developer!

Sam: I honestly can’t remember a time that I wasn’t gaming.

My parents were big gamers, and I can vividly recall sitting on my dad’s lap while he played our Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64. My mom made me a Princess Zelda costume for Halloween when I was six. Both of my parents encouraged my love for video games but becoming a developer didn’t even register as a possibility until I was nineteen.

I’d been working as a freelance gaming journalist and found moderate success for such a young person, having started at 17. My mom signed my first freelance contract because I was still a minor!

Sadly, my dad died suddenly when I was eighteen, and I wrote a tribute to him and shared it on my social media.

A few months later, a friend reached out having seen the tribute. He owned a new indie game company and needed an editor for his project. He also needed a stand-in voice actress for the female lead. One opportunity led to another within that studio, and I became a full-blown Narrative Designer within two years.

That’s the how… the why is because I love creating games!

As I further my knowledge of programming and asset development, I hope to explore other types of game development too. Creating games is my passion and I can’t see myself ever shifting into another career.

Mitch: Oooh, freelancing at 17 buddies! I’m really happy to hear that great things have happened for you, although I’m also very sorry to hear about the bad.

Graveyard Girls isn’t the only game your team, Tidal Blossoms, has out… for those who don’t know, what is Starlight Shores?

Sam: Starlight Shores was the first game I released under Delphinium Interactive. I made it during the NaNoRenO 2020 game jam with a team of artists I’m lucky to call my friends. After the jam ended, we only had a demo on our hands and committed to finishing the project. It launched on itch.io in October 2020, and Steam in May 2021.

Mitch: I don’t actually have many “spending time on the beach with friends” memories, but Starlight Shores is still oddly nostalgic. I’ve always been curious about the setting for this one, so can I ask what inspired you?

Sam: The nostalgia was intentional, so I’m glad it landed right! This game is a bit of a love letter to my hometown. Growing up in a beach/vacation town meant that I was blessed to spend lots of time in and out of the water. Sitting and watching a meteor shower with friends is a tradition I’ve repeated every August since I was 18. It’s magical. I wanted to translate that experience into a visual novel, so when NaNoRenO came around I jumped on the opportunity.

Mitch: Genuinely, I am envious of this tradition, hahaha!

Starlight Shores was your first game, if I’m not mistaken. What would you say was the most eye-opening thing about developing your first game? (Psst, reader, Starlight Shores is literally less than £3 — go get it!)

Sam: It’s the first game I made under my indie studio, but I had released others as an employee at other game development companies. Having been in the indie-sphere, I thought I knew what I was getting into, but I was wrong…

The biggest shift in the experience was having complete independence in the project. A director did not just hear my voice, I was the voice of Starlight Shores. Getting to choose my own direction at every turn was thrilling and overwhelming.

That’s why I was incredibly lucky to have @Nanae_Lia (Twitter) as my co-director as the project hit the halfway point. She helped to keep me grounded and we guided each other through the anxiety of launching our first game. She’s an incredibly talented artist and I loved working with her.

Mitch: What would you want to say to aspiring Indie devs? Is there anything you wish you were told when you started out?

Sam: Every dev is going to hear how you need to start small, and I do encourage heeding that advice.

However, I think it’s also important to remember that it’s okay to start a project and move on to another when you’re feeling that you’ve learned what you can from it. Some games are better left behind.

Unfinished games shouldn’t be a shameful folder of anxiety on your PC, it should be a folder of lessons. This is a learning process, mistakes and failure need to happen.

Mitch: I think that’s a great message that can be adapted for any creative process, and one that I also agree with, so thank you for sharing.

What can we expect next from Delphinium Interactive? I see Starlight Shores is coming to consoles, very exciting! (I am more than happy to have you come back to Indieview when your next project comes along!)

Sam: I’ve been struggling to start another project that feels shippable for a while, so I’m embracing that feeling and exploring other game design mediums. Some days I play around with Unity or RPG Maker, other days I sketch.

Eventually, I’d love to join a game jam to bring another short and free game to itch.io/Steam before diving into a larger and more expensive project that would end up taking months to create instead of weeks.

Mitch: Is there anyone or anything you’d like to plug?

Sam: First, I’d love to thank Matthew Gambrell of Penguin Pop Games! Without him, I would never have seen Starlight Shores come to consoles.

Collaborating with Penguin Pop was such a smooth and fun process, I highly recommend checking out the Penguin Pop Twitter/Website to any VN developers that are interested in porting to consoles.

Second, I want to thank my husband Paul for supporting me through this game development journey. He has been unwavering in his love and encouragement, and he deserves a shoutout. We’re celebrating 9 years together this summer and I’m lucky to call him the love of my life!

Mitch: Congrats to you both!!

What’s the best way for people to support you, and to follow along with your work?

Sam: For support, reviews and comments! Seeing how a game has impacted a player in the form of a comment/fan mail/review is an amazing motivator. I still vividly remember crying when I got my first real fan letter after Starlight Shores launched. Those messages of support have a real impact on developers.

I’m most active in sharing my work on Twitter (@TidalBlossoms), so if you’re interested in following along it’s the best place to keep up with my work.

Mitch: Hey, Sam, what are you playing at the moment? Watching anything good?

Sam: So much Apex Legends, I’m a day-one player so having King’s Canyon back in the map rotation makes me pretty happy! I love playing it with my husband and friends, we have a fun time. I’m also currently playing Pokémon Arceus, Frostpunk, and The Medium in my spare time.

Mitch: Oooh, I’ve also been playing a lot of Apex Legends and Pokémon! I’m happy to have Olympus back, so I know how you’re feeling when your map finally comes back into rotation, haha.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Indieview #18 with Sam. I’ll be back with another Indieview in the near future, so thanks for reading, thank you to my guest, and I hope to see you all again soon!

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Mitchell Lineham

Writing "The Presence of Eve", repped by Tiger Lily Publishing Co. | Hang around for Indieview, Otome, and maybe a little more!