Digital Diversity: When Aster Falls

Here on Digital Diversity queer monster representation is our jam, especially positive, diverse and wonderful monsters like the one featured in today’s game.
One combination of elements that I sure as heck hadn’t seen before was a heartfelt discussion on asexuality, and succubi; a match that wouldn’t normally come to mind but somehow works in a way that’s truly delightful.
So today I’m talking to Madi of Sad Ghost Studios about their delightful visual novel When Aster Falls, a story that made me cry with joy when I finished it…

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Kaiju: Welcome to Digital Diversity, where we bring games by LGBTQIA+ game developers into the spotlight. Today I’m talking to Madi from Sad Ghost Studios about their gorgeous visual novel When Aster Falls.

Welcome Madi, it’s great to have you here. Let’s start things off with you telling us about yourself and what When Aster Falls is all about.

Madi: Hi! My name’s Madi, I’m a cisgender panromantic asexual gal, and I go by on the internet! I’m an allround creative from Western Australia who loves visual novels and interactive storytelling.

When Aster Falls is a short visual novel that I created almost-solo for Maximum Monster Month last year. The story is about an asexual woman and a succubus who are trapped together out of circumstance, and I was really aiming for a balance of humour and sweetness with it, as well as representation not only of asexuality (which is important to me for obvious reasons!), but busting a lot of tropes that tend to follow LGBTQIA+ characters.

Kaiju: It really was that synopsis that drew me towards this game. I’d never expected to see “A feisty asexual is trapped with a jaded succubus.” on a game description before and I knew I had to play it when I did.

Going into Maximum Monster Month did you have any idea what you wanted to do, or was When Aster Falls a spur of the moment idea that developed into the wonderful experience it is? Were the discussions of asexuality and intimacy the things you wanted to build the game around or did you start with the monster – the succubus in this case – and go from there?

Madi: Funnily enough, I actually did start with the succubus this time around! I’ve always been really enamoured with games that had succubi in them but remained sex-positive and treated consent with importance – Cute Demon Crashers is the first game that comes to mind with those themes, and that game in particular played a huge part in the start of my journey as a VN dev.

The major project I’m working on with my team (DemiDato: Monster Dating Show) is also about monsters, and features a succubus character as well. I was very keen to dig a little deeper than we were able to in DD into the ideas around the original succubus myth and what that meant in a more modern context. I sat with the idea of a succubus character for a good four or five days before it occurred to me to frame the story around asexuality – I think I remember that originally the succubus was going to the be main character, which changed as soon as Rohan came into the picture.

The concept started to come together very quickly once I knew I wanted asexuality as a central theme – the characters being trapped together and slowly becoming more intimate was admittedly an easy way to tell this kind of story but I’m at peace with that storytelling decision, haha. What was at the front of my mind during these early stages was, above all, that I wanted to treat these characters with respect.

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Kaiju: And respect them you did. I love how the characters have to learn in their own ways about how to interact with someone who was alien to their way of life.

There’s a lot of great discussion there that both builds worlds and how they feed off each other, figuratively and literally. When you went into full on creation mode were there things you definitely wanted to include in the game? Conversely were there things you had to leave out because of time or resource constraints?

Madi: The overall arc of the story was pretty set in my mind from the get go – beginnings and endings are the easiest for me to write, so I finalised what I wanted those to be first, and the centre pieces fell into place afterwards. Building the world around the two characters was something I knew I wanted to do, but there was only so much real estate for that in such a small story. Overall, there were a lot of time constraints, obviously because of the jam setting, but I would have loved to spend more time in their world! It would have been nice for their story to take place over a week instead of a day, and to give the player more choices and agency with how the story actually went, but that would have just been a bonus – my primary focus was the two characters and what they represented.

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Kaiju: Maybe this will be something you return to at a later point? The characters in the game are gorgeous, their interactions dynamic and adorable, I for one would love to see a return to them, maybe for a bigger story.

Moving onto the wider world of games: asexuality is not something we see represented much in bigger budget games. In fact I can’t think of a single AAA or AA game where you can have an Ace romance option. Do you think there’s a place for the asexuality discussion, and positive representation, in big budget games? Maybe setting aside characters in the big RPGs that are purely Ace, instead of just playersexual that are all too often the usual friend or physical relationship?

Madi: I’m certainly not ruling out a return to that universe! Rohan and Aster’s ending was purposely left a little open-ended, and while I’d love to leave them where they are, I agree that there’s a lot more to explore with them. We’ll see! 😉

As for ace representation, absolutely, yes. More representation is so important. I myself didn’t come to the realisation that I was ace until well after my teens, and I think a big part of that is the gaping lack of asexual characters in any kind of media. The closest thing to an asexual character that I can think of in a big-budget game are Mass Effect’s Salarians (which don’t even really qualify) – it’s frustrating that we are so often misunderstood, or pigeonholed into minor joke characters if we get shown in media at all.

While games as a whole are making strides in inclusivity, people on the asexuality spectrum need to be able to see themselves in something that isn’t alien, or subhuman. Queer folk already feel alien enough! (This, by the way, is why I made the deliberate choice to make When Aster Falls‘ ace character human, not alien. The concept of an asexual succubus did occur to me, and is certainly interesting! But I wanted her to be human not in spite of her asexuality, and Rohan’s character is purposely very focused on how spirited and human she is to invert some of those tropes.)

For the record, I’d love to see more representation of folks that are ace AND aro, or other combinations on the ace spectrum – however, it can be difficult to represent some of those sexualities faithfully in romance genres, which are where I create most of the time, and I don’t want to speak over stories that aren’t mine to tell. But it’s definitely something I’d love to see in the wider gaming sphere!

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Kaiju: The wider gaming world seems to be waking up to the realisation that queer folk exist and we aren’t here to be demonised, so paws crossed they get around to ace & aro folk some time soon.

When Aster Falls was a jam creation, so you of course had limited resources to work with, but what would you do if you had all the time and resources in the world to work with? What is “Madi’s Dream Project”?

Madi: Well! It’s a little niche, haha, but I’ve been sitting on some plans for a project since I started making visual novels, and hopefully after DemiDato is finished I’ll be able to make it a reality! I was a horsey kid, and I came up through the equine art community on the internet when I was growing up. There’s not a lot of media out there (games or otherwise) that does horses as a subject justice, without being dorky or just plain inaccurate, so I’d love to make a VN treating horses & equine sport seriously, with some LGBTQIA+ representation and a good story as well. Hopefully I can please a lot of different people with it, but most of all, it will be a project made with a younger myself in mind – she would have loved to read it! (Some of the equine artists out there are just crazy talented, and I’d love to be able to give them some work, as well as show them off outside the rather small & niche communities c: )

Kaiju: That’s a heck of a project idea, definitely unique as I’ve never heard of such a game coming out. I’d love to see what it would become, it sounds different and fun. Also horses are always lovely so here’s hoping you get to make they horsey game your younger self always wanted.

I’d love to know about your feelings about how the Visual Novel genre is travelling these days? We see a LOT of new VNs coming out every week, especially around game jam times, do you think that as a whole developers are finding new ways to use the genre? Pushing the limits of what systems like Ren’Py can do, telling stories no-one has told before in games? Or have we hit a bit of a glut where there’s just too much coming out to keep up?

Madi: These sorts of questions are really interesting for me; I didn’t spend a lot of time as a consumer of VNs (I fell in love with the medium very fast and started making my own pretty much as soon as I knew Ren’py existed), which is interesting but I’ll admit it gives me less of a grasp on the genre’s ‘climate’ as I’d like. However, I do think it’s a little of both at the moment.

Like you said, there’s a huge wealth of content coming out and many people making games, but (at least from my experience) the player base is still very small, except for big successes (DDLC, Dream Daddy, etc – there seems to be a few of these every year). Unfortunately I think we’ll be suffering from this ‘choke point’ effect for a while yet, but the only way out is growth – more people playing VNs will always create more developers, which will allow more creators to do more things with the genre. There’s so much you can do with interactive storytelling, and the more VNs spread the higher the potential. I really hope to see wider distribution in the future (and less of the “are they really games?” debate would be wonderful, but I’m not holding my breath).

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Kaiju: With more people moving over to platforms like Itch I’m really hoping that the genre picks up more momentum. Visual Novels have a level of accessibility other forms of reading don’t, and seem a great way to bring in a younger audience. Hopefully that helps the development over time.

Your studio, Sad Ghost Studios, is up to its third game with the recent release of the DemiDato demo. Do you see your studio focusing primarily on visual novels? Are you intending to keep the direction firmly fixed on diverse, monster based VNs or are there other directions you want to investigate with your team?

Madi: Well, I admit that I see Sad Ghost Studios as less of a studio proper, and more of a label that follows whatever work I do – I’d love to continue working with the same group of people that are in my team right now, but that doesn’t seem to happen very often on the internet, and I’m resigned to it at this point, hehe.

Visual novels, though, are definitely the genre for me – I love the concept of interactive fiction, and they’re the perfect blend of written story, my first love, and a whole host of other creative outlets. Mostly I just love how visual novels tend to suit being a jack of all trades – there’s enough variety to keep it interesting! Diversity (LGBTQIA+ and, hopefully, otherwise) is definitely going to play a part in everything I make. Perhaps it won’t always be as large a plot point as it was in When Aster Falls, but I firmly believe that media needs to reflect the world that actually exists, and validate voices that are othered in mainstream media, and everyone who is a maker of things (no matter the variety or genre) needs to shoulder a bit of that responsibility. As for monster-related… Well, we’ll have to see! I didn’t forsee myself falling into that niche but ideas and projects with those subjects seem to keep attracting themselves to me! ^^

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Kaiju: Visual novels do indeed seem to be your jam, I’m glad you’re going to keep working on them long term as I can’t wait to see what the future holds where your games are concerned.

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into working on visual novels? Anything you wish you’d known from the start but learned the hard way, or wonderful things you discovered through creation?

Madi: Honestly the biggest thing for someone just starting out is that it’s okay to ask questions! I really struggled with that in the beginning, but visual novel game dev has a wonderful community over on the Lemmasoft forum, and it really IS okay to ask dumb questions. Plus there’s a lot of resources over there that will help you find your feet in the early days.

Also, definitely work on something very short as your first project, and don’t feel like you absolutely have to do everything yourself. Writing an epic and doing it all solo sounds doable, but it becomes a lot very quickly. Just take it slow and putt along with a simpler narrative that doesn’t need a lot of assets, and you’ll build a better foundation for yourself to come back with something bigger.

Kaiju: Some sound advice indeed, hopefully it will help folks just starting out making their own projects.

Thank you so much for being on Digital Diversity, Madi, and thank you for making When Aster Falls. I’ve totally fallen in love with your work and hope to see more around for me to stream and talk to you about 🙂 Are there any last words of wisdom you’d like to share before we sign off?

Madi: Thanks so much for having me! It was an honour being here, you and your blog do great work for the LGBTQIA+ comminuty, and the games community as a whole, and I’m thankful to be a tiny part of that!

Last words of wisdom: Everyone reading this, go do that thing you’ve been meaning to do – big or small. You got this! (I tend to need these sort of reminders, so I’m passing it on ^^)


When Aster Falls is available on itch.io as is the full list of games by Sad Ghost Studios

You can follow Madi on Twitter

 

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