Indieview #2: Rachel Gruber, Writer & Director
Welcome to the second week of Indieview! Indieview is an interview series with a special guest who works on personal or business projects related to games, whether they’re an artist, a composer, a writer, or otherwise.
This week I’m thankful to be joined by Rachel Gruber. Rachel is a Director and Writer at Studio Élan, which is an independent studio creating visual novels. Rachel co-authored Heart of the Woods, which is out now on PC and is in the works to be released on Nintendo Switch, and she is currently directing the upcoming Lock and Key. Those not familiar with her work might know her for her love of Dark Souls’ Gwyndolin and her aptly named twitch channel twitch.tv/queengwyndolin.
Mitch: Is the above right? Have I missed anything?
Rachel: Hey Mitch! I think you’ve got everything there quite nicely; I may or may not have a few other things brewing right now, but those are at least the ones I’m ready to show the world.
Mitch: How did you become involved with Studio Élan? I became a fan as soon as I saw that some of the team is made up of team members from Alienworks (Highway Blossoms for life)!
Rachel: I actually got my job thanks to Highway Blossoms, but not in the way you might think! I did a lot of game/movie reviews on my tumblr back in the day, and one of them happened to be for the recently released Highway Blossoms (which I ADORED, btw). After the review got a bit of traction, Josh Kaplan (co-author of Highway Blossoms, later the director of Heart of the Woods) got in touch with me to thank me for the review and ask for further input. I sent him some more of my thoughts and suggestions, and he actually ended up asking me to help advise on what would eventually become Heart of the Woods. Next thing I know, Josh is making a new studio and inviting me to be the first member and co-author for Élan’s first project! I guess you could say I just happened to get really, really lucky thanks to a big boost from a very generous creator!
Mitch: That’s so cool — that’s a really lovely story! Josh has put up with my constant gushing about Highway Blossoms, so generous is definitely a fitting word, haha. What was the process for writing Heart of the Woods? Would you maybe handle specific scenes and characters, or would there be a lot of bouncing ideas off of one another?
Rachel: Heart of the Woods underwent a truckload of changes over time, a number of which you can read about on the Élan Patreon! As such, the process for writing it changed around a lot too. In the end, Josh and I worked together to divvy up scenes from the outline for the sake of narrative consistency. He handled a majority of Maddie and Abigail’s story, and I handled most of Tara and Morgan’s story, but there was overlap here and there rather than having the two of us being completely separated. I think it helped to give both romances a unique feel! If I make another game with multiple romances at some point in the future, I’d definitely want to split it in a similar way with my co-author.
Mitch: Heart of the Woods tackles a lot of complex themes, ranging from LGBT+ topic, death, abuse, and sexual content, but you and the studio have tackled them with respect and care. Is this something that requires education and research, or are these experiences drawn from the team itself?
Rachel: Élan is a team comprised of individuals from all walks of life and all across the spectrum of sexuality and gender, and we’re sure to work together to make the most authentic experience possible when it comes to representing LGBT characters. Telling genuine lesbian stories is something very important to me and I definitely drew on my own experiences as a lesbian when it came to crafting Tara and Morgan’s story. And as an abuse survivor myself, I wanted to make sure our discussions of trauma and recovery connected with other survivors. So as far as my contribution goes, I definitely focused more on personal experience.
Mitch: I, and I’m sure many others, appreciate the love and care that goes into Studio Elan games (and it clearly shows), so thank you to you and the team. I have to ask — do you have a favourite Heart of the Woods character? I know, it’s hard to pick! I’m torn, but I think I’d have to say Morgan, myself…
Rachel: Same hat! Morgan is my favorite too. She’s a really complex character and her arc is hands down the one I most enjoyed writing. It was great seeing her go from a fairly average side character to the character with arguably the most control over the plot as a whole. Good for her!
Mitch: Woo, Team Morgan! Moving away from Heart of the Woods a little… Congrats on being the Director for Lock and Key! What has been revealed so far looks amazing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. What do you hope to achieve with Lock and Key?
Rachel: Thanks so much! I wrote a fair amount about my inspiration for the game on our Patreon, so I’ll try to keep it short and sweet here. For starters, I’ve always wanted to tell a story about a more established domestic romance between two women, especially now that I have the personal experience of being in a loving relationship with my partner of 7 years (Love you, baby!). I decided to merge that theme with a genre that means the world to me (magical girls), albeit from the perspective of an older woman rather than a teenager. I guess you could say that what I most want to achieve with the game is creating a new understanding of the genre that still holds true to the core themes of love, hope, and the power of women. As long as it makes people look at the genre in a new way, I’m happy.
Mitch: The magical girl genre has been tackled in many different ways over the years, but I love Lock and Key’s approach to the protagonists being retired magical girls, and something that feels like a natural approach to what might happen to magical girls as they reach adulthood. What inspired this fresh approach to the genre?
Rachel: I guess I played my hand a bit when it comes to this question in my previous answer, huh ^^;;;; Let’s see what else I can add….
For starters, I wanted to make sure Lock and Key’s take on older magical girls didn’t betray the themes of the genre that I picked up from watching WAY too much Sailor Moon as a little girl. Of course, my generation has grown up a lot since then, and I’ve heard a number of girls my age say that they don’t feel like the genre is relevant anymore. I’m not that same little girl I was 15 years ago, and I want to update the story of those magical girls of my youth in a way that felt relevant to the experiences so many of us have had over the last decade. In a sense, it’s cathartic: linking magical girls to the women we’ve all become helped me to feel that spark I felt when I was a little girl all over again.
Mitch: What are your hopes and inspirations for writing and directing going forward? Are there are specific stories you’d like to tell?
Rachel: Josh taught me a lot during HotW’s development that I hope to bring to Lock and Key, so I consider him to be my #1 source of inspiration (thanks Josh!). Directing is a pretty daunting task, but I hope to achieve the same kind of passion and team unity we had with Heart of the Woods! And yes, I do have a few stories I’d really like to tell after Lock and Key, but I’m going to have to keep those under wraps for now while we work on making Lock and Key the best it can be. But hey, if Lock and Key ends up being a success, I promise I’ll come back to talk about all sorts of new ideas.
Mitch: I’m definitely sold on Lock and Key already, so I’m really excited to see what you and the team have in store for it! I have to ask you this, Rachel — why should we stan Gwyndolin?
Rachel: Gwyndolin gets a lot of flak from the Soulsborne community (including a nasty running joke based around calling her a slur), so I consider it a personal duty as her #1 fan to give her the love she deserves. I mean,she’s the goddess of the moon, she’s gay, she’s got great fashion sense, she’s a trans icon, she’s a brilliant tactician, and she’s got snakes for legs. How could you NOT stan her?
Mitch: If people want to follow you on social media or check out your work, where are the best places to do this?
Rachel: You can find me on twitter and tumblr @cybirdpunk, on twitch @queengwyndolin, on ko-fi @cybirdpunk! And if you want to check out my work, you can pick up Heart of the Woods on Steam and itch.io (and on Nintendo Switch very very soon!) or check out my long-running “Rachel Ranks” series on tumblr at cybirdpunk.tumblr.com/tagged/rachel ranks!
Mitch: Anything extra you want to plug or people you want to highlight? Go ahead! This page is your oyster.
Rachel: I want to thank all of my teammates in Élan for helping me live my dream! I can’t think of any other group I’d rather work with. I love you all so much! Most of all, I want to thank my wonderful partner for inspiring me every single day. Also, a bonus shout-out to our wonderful cat even if he does interrupt my work constantly. Love you, you little menace.
I hope all of you out there are looking forward to Lock and Key! It’s going to be something very special, and I can’t wait to see what y’all think of it.
Much love (as always),
I hope you enjoyed Indieview #2, with Rachel Gruber. I’ll be back with Indieview with another guest next week (who is a cosplayer, ooh!), so I hope to see you all then!