Digital Diversity: The Life We’ve Chosen

A conversation with your inner demon, a friend who doesn’t understand what you’re going through, and a choice that will decide your future. This, is The Life We’ve Chosen.

Honestly I kinda stumbled on to this game while writing an article for a different site, and I’m very glad I did. When it comes to stories of self discovery they can be very make or break depending on the content & tone, some work really well, some just kind of fizzle out before any real emotional progress can be made. The Life We’ve Chosen by Cryoslight is definitely one of the former; it tore deep into some emotional part of me I hadn’t realised was hurting, and exposed the raw nerve to the catharsis I needed.

Dark & brooding, but in its way soothing & peaceful, The Life We’ve Chosen is one of those visual novels that’s going to end up in my list of games I insist folks go try if they are finding themselves at an uncertain emotional part of their life, if they are struggling with parts of themselves they can’t find ways to talk about with others. It might not give you the answers you seek, but it will help you realise you aren’t alone.

Anyway, it’s 2023 now, the start of another year that’s going to be full of difficult emotions, and of course I had to get the creator on to talk about the game, so let’s find out about The Life We’ve Chosen

Kaiju: Welcome, Cryoslight (she/her), to the Digital Diversity project. It’s always a true delight getting to interview a fresh face in this queer humble space of ours & doubly so someone for whose work has emotionally resounded with me so strongly. I of course have brought you on to talk about The Life We’ve Chosen (2021), a title I was introduced to in the recent Queer Halloween Stories collection, but we are here to learn more about the mind behind the game itself.

So please, do us the pleasure of introducing yourself, where you started in the wonderful world of game dev, and what you do in it.

Cryo: Hi, I’m Cryo! I’ve technically been making visual novels for around a decade, but it took me until 2020 to actually finish and release one. It was for a jam called O2A2 (Only One of Any Asset) where the goal was to make a very simple game with only one thousand words and one character sprite. It was a small enough goal that even with my habit of endlessly second-guessing myself I was able to reach it, haha. I’m very thankful for that experience, I don’t know if I would have had the tenacity to finish and the courage to release that first game otherwise. The first step always seems to be the scariest, at least for me.

Since then I’ve released a handful of other short visual novels, most recently The Life We’ve Chosen, which is my most introspective game yet. I make visual novels for the same reasons I make art in general – fun and self expression. Despite having all these stories and characters floating around in my head all my life I’ve always struggled with writing those ideas down and putting them out there for others to read and interpret. Some sort of fear of being seen, I think. Early on my main goal was to simply share some of those stories in my head to, you know, get them out of there, but over time this hobby has evolved into an avenue for me to express more personal thoughts and feelings that I find difficult to talk about in real life. Although The Life We’ve Chosen ultimately has a positive message it was honestly quite taxing to write, emotionally. Afterwards I felt I needed a bit of a break.

Kaiju: That’s quite the relatable origin story you got there, and I’m incredibly glad you finally got around to publishing your work because you have a way with words that would be a shame not to share.

Tell us more about The Life We’ve Chosen. To call it a tale of the struggle between your personal demons and the world around you would be underselling it, so I’d love to hear what it is to you, and why it’s a story that needed to be told.

Cryo: I think this story and the two main characters stem from the empathy I’ve learned to feel towards the darker parts of myself. The demon character acts as a sort of metaphor for the main character’s depression, but they are still first and foremost a person of their own, and as such I tried to nudge players towards interacting with them just like they would interact with another human being. I wanted players to organically come to the conclusion that this demon (whether you see them as a literal demon or as a metaphor or both) is not some malevolent, unknowable entity that must be driven away, but simply a person you can sit with and learn to understand. It sounds terribly edgy but the story is a sort of love letter to the darkness that many of us feel inside.

Kaiju: A highly relatable feeling indeed, I think that’s why I took to it so. It’s one of those experiences that writ large upon the screen becomes all the more something you can find in yourself. Such monstrous representations of our own emotions are powerful metaphors indeed.

I’d love to hear about some of your visual novel influences, those stories that touched you or left you feeling like you needed to create your own thing. Do you remember where you got your start in playing them, and if any specific titles helped you feel represented or validated in your experiences?

Cryo: Definitely! The first visual novel I really fell in love with was Katawa Shoujo. I adored how the characters were written as complex and imperfect human beings who were still undeniably worthy of love, and not just the protagonist’s love, but also their own. Every one of the main characters is treated with such empathy and warmth by the narrative, it really made me appreciate character-focused stories in general. I still have a strong tendency to care more about how a character feels and less about what the character does.

The anxiety-riddled character of Hanako was so relatable to me in 2012 it was almost eerie. There are plenty of other anxious characters in media, but I’d never seen any that truly, accurately reflected my own struggles, not until Hanako. I didn’t see myself as much of a writer back then, in fact it took years before I began to see writing as a serious option, but the memory of shaking and ugly crying in front of my computer because of one viscerally relatable scene definitely guides me to this day. It was a cathartic feeling I’ve rarely experienced since.

I don’t think it occurred to me back then that I could ever elicit such emotions from others with my own writing. Instead, it sort of happened by accident when the time was right. When I started getting comments from people saying they’d shed tears while playing my game, it felt surreal, and like I’d reached a goal I didn’t even know I had. I’m still not very good at connecting with people in real life, but it’s been so wonderful to learn I am sometimes able to write something that makes people go “damn, this is how I feel, too.”

Kaiju: It definitely seems like you’ve connected with people, in a pretty accessible medium too. Honestly I think it’s one of the greatest strengths of visual novels is that such raw emotion can be scripted into what is usually quite a short experience, but it resonates in ways that I rarely see in other kinds of games media.

Which feels like a great follow-up question, since you’ve had such positive experiences with visual novels both from the point of view of player and creator, do you feel that visual novels can provide that others kinds of games might not be able to, or struggle to? Over the years I’ve heard so many folks speak of the power of VNs, so I’m curious if you have any thoughts as to why they stand out among so many other different varieties of games media

Cryo: Huh, that’s interesting to hear. I’ve honestly never given much thought to what makes visual novels unique as a medium, I just gravitated towards them because they felt more accessible to me as a creator than other storytelling mediums, like you said. I used to dream of launching a web comic someday, but the workload always seemed insurmountable, and it still does. Visual novels enable me to tell stories in a way that (usually) doesn’t destroy my hand, so that’s great! I love that in terms of art assets, a basic visual novel only really needs some static background images and some character sprites, and those can then be combined and moved and even animated to stage all kinds of scenes, whereas with a comic you would have to draw countless unique images instead.

The ability to have music, sound effects and intentional silence also adds to the atmospheric possibilities for sure. Like, for example, if a character is about to cry, instead of describing their facial expression or emotions in great detail, I could maybe do a dramatic pause and then start playing a sad music track and show the character crying. As someone who often struggles with describing things with words, it’s awesome to have access to all these alternative, sometimes more powerful ways of getting information across to the player.

Kaiju: Well said, I’ve definitely experienced a lot of the same accessibility thoughts when it comes to the creations of visual novels vs practically any other games medium, and it always impresses me to see what folks can do with what at its base level are very simple tools.

As you said you’ve worked on a few other visual novels; I’d love to know more about some of them and what emotions drove you to write them? Do they still have the same resonance to you now as they did when you first created them?

Cryo: My first three visual novels form a series that is currently on hiatus. It turned out that episodic releases are more draining than I’d imagined! I think one of the main problems was that when I released the first chapter, I didn’t yet have a clear idea of how the story would end and what the overarching theme of it should be, exactly. Something something found family good? Although I have a fairly detailed plan now, the story as a whole still feels fuzzy and too plot-heavy for my liking, and because of that, I haven’t felt the urge to return to it yet. I think I wrote a wonderful and messed up cast of multilayered characters and then, unfortunately, I wrote a plot that doesn’t leave room for me to give any of those characters the attention they deserve.

I don’t regret writing any of it, though – that series allowed me to learn many valuable things about my own abilities and preferences as a creator. The characters of my earlier VNs are still dear to me, but honestly, my mind has been elsewhere lately. There’s still a chance I’ll go back and finish that story someday, but I hope no one is waiting for that with bated breath!

Oh, and then there was I’ll Come See You, which was my first self-contained VN release – no sequels, no prequels, just a lovely little roadside tragedy in one thousand words. That was a quick and experimental project where my main goal was to try new things with limited art assets and low stakes.

Kaiju: These sound pretty fantastic, and hopefully games I’ll get to cover at some point for Digital Diversity. There’s something really special in short, self contained stories that really have me passionate when covering games, so I’ll Come See You sounds right up my alley.

Something I always want to chat with folks about is, while their own work is often a way to have stories out in the world they might not see enough of, what kind of experiences & representation they want to see more of. So of course I’d love to extend that question to you and your own perspective. Are there stories that you want to see more of, experiences or identities you’d like to see represented? Are there things out there that, if you’d seen more of when you were younger (or even now) would have made you feel better in yourself or helped you in your own journey?

Cryo: Most of all I just want to see well-written characters with believable motives and a personality that can’t be easily reduced to three words. I feel like there was an abundance of very shallow and stereotyped characters in media when I was young, and there probably still is, but at least there are enough options nowadays that I can easily ignore the shows that treat their characters like static pieces of cardboard. I love to see sympathetic villains! And weird girl characters who are more complex than just “regular girl + reads books = weird, somehow!” I’m sure there must be at least someone out there who can relate to those characters, but I always wanted more. As an awkward little gremlin who once broke a printer trying to print the entire Pok√©dex, I always felt like the “weird” girl characters on tv just weren’t anywhere near weird enough. How am I supposed to believe that reading books makes someone an outcast when half my class reads books for fun? One reason I love indie projects so much is that indie devs often have a better grasp on what it’s like to be a weirdo, and how to write about that experience in an authentic and unapologetic way. Everyone’s a bit weird, and that’s a good thing.

Kaiju: That’s an entirely valid desire for characters, and honestly an example of why good games writing is so important despite often being considered one of the least necessary in the industry. Well-written characters can save a not so optimal game, where as a well-made game will often flop if the characters are poorly designed.

Where do you hope to see your games going in the future? Are there elements, topics & representations you want to see more of in your work, or do you prefer to just let the stories come organically & just see what comes to you next, without a lot of planning?

Cryo: While working on my more recent projects my goal was to express some specific emotion or thought that had been occupying my mind, and I found I quite enjoyed that approach. I don’t write about my own life experiences directly, but I do often put my characters in situations and mindsets that are familiar to me somehow. A little depression there, a whole bunch of anxiety there, perhaps a tendency to isolate oneself from the big scary world, yes, perfect, now that’s a character I’ll find easy to write. These themes keep appearing in my work over and over again, but I find myself intuitively exploring them from a different angle each time, and it’s been very enjoyable. Sometimes rough, but overall enjoyable. I feel I often learn something new about myself at the end of a project and that’s something I want to keep experiencing. I have considered branching out and writing a less gloomy point of view character sometime, though!

About future projects – there are always ideas in my head that I wish to express, and the inspiration to do so tends to strike suddenly, often at inconvenient times. A familiar feeling to many creative people, I’m sure. In the past I made it a point to only release my games as part of a game jam or another. Jams have been an excellent tool for making myself actually release things but they’ve also stressed me out with their deadlines, so a while back I decided to participate in less jams, and just work on my projects at my own pace. I’ve been really craving some peace and comfort lately, so that’s a priority for me now. If that means that I only release a game every five years, so be it – keeping this hobby fun for myself is my number one goal.

Kaiju: It sounds like you’ve found a creative way forward that really works for you, and the results speak for themselves. I honestly can’t recommend The Life We’ve Chosen enough right now, it’s quickly climbed up my list as one of those stories that is truly emotionally compelling, especially for folks who might be going through a lot of self discovery anxiety or internal strife.

Well I think that’s about all the time we have, it’s been absolutely wonderful to have you on Digital Diversity, Cryo, and I know we’ll definitely be featuring more of your games in the years to come. Before we finish up though, are there any last minute shout-out’s you’d like to make, or hard-won words of wisdom to share with folks who might want to try their hand at making their own games?

Cryo: Thank you so much! It’s always heartwarming to hear people say they felt things while playing my games. It’s been a pleasure talking with you!

The best advice I can give to newer developers is to start with a really small project, and make sure its topic is something you’re really excited about! Your first project will not be the best thing in the world, and that’s fine, so just try to have fun with it. People are more likely to connect with your work if you’ve put your heart into it. Even if your project doesn’t work out in the end, you’ve still learned new things, and that experience will make your next attempt smoother. Oh, and communities such as DevTalk can help you out if you get stuck! I remember working on my old VN ideas all by myself for a long time, but none of them saw the light of day until after I joined DevTalk. Just being in the company of other creative and enthusiastic developers made me feel more motivated and capable of accomplishing my goals.

The Life we’ve chosen IS AVAILABLE ITCH.IO
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