Familiar Travels — game creator interview by Enjy
by Dogpatch Press Staff
I took the chance to speak with Balin and Ben about their game and asked for the advice on the creative process, what to expect when creating a game, and the thought process that went into creating Vanaheim.
(Enjy): So my first question I would like to ask of you both, when and why did you decide to sit down and make a game?
Balin: I’m not sure for Ben, I sorta recruited him, I met him when I used to run game servers waay back (Like 7 years ago). As for me, it was 2018 when we started development on the demo for Familiar Travels, like most friends do we always talked about doing projects together, it sorta started off as general conversation about Vanaheim, I thought it would be cool to create a game that not only featured anthro characters but was also directly inspired by the fandom, the original inspiration was a story that was sort of a love letter to all the things that inspired me to create stuff in the fandom (I was a creator before this). I love the worlds/universes people are just able to think up in the fandom and I wanted to throw my hat in the ring creating one.
Ben: Yeah I mean we’ve been friends for a while now, I knew Balin had been sort of mentioning developing a game and thinking about getting some talent together to start a project, so one day a year and a half ago I decided I wanted to learn more about sound design and music production, so I offered myself to work on the music. I was completely new to music production at the time, but I’d been writing for a while, so eventually I also got into the writing portion. Why… well, I guess we were bored and had a lot of ideas we could use to build a world.
Balin: Yeah a way less inspiring answer is that we ran out of games to play so made our own!
Boredom is the seed from which ideas grow I suppose they say. Was this always going to turn out to be a huge thing? Did you expect to be hiring well known artists like Gillpanda? And if someone else wants to follow your route, how much time and money should they expect to spend?
Ben: Honestly it’s a slow build up sometimes. But for me at least, there were a few points where I had a sort of revelation that we were doing something big. Like, suddenly, “Oh hey we have 1500 people in the discord now,” or, “Oh hey, we just passed the Silmarillion for wordcount,” moments like that that made me step back for a minute and realize things were ramping up.
Balin: Honestly, I had no idea that Familiar Travels was going to be the size of game that it was, the original story we had put together was a lot more typical VN stuff (cooking minigames, hidden puzzles etc) but as we started to plan it out we just added and added and added. The game was produced with such energy from everyone involved and so quickly we didn’t really know the size until it was completely written.
As for the artists that we hired, I reached out to people that I thought would be good for the project, I messaged a bunch of people who I thought would be interested in the game and sort of grouped them together into pairs that I felt complimented their art style. I’ve never really been much of a fan of valuing artists based on watch count, but I am totally obsessed with the talent and creativity the artists we went with put into the game. Nexivian (the background artist) in particular blew me away with the amount of lore and details they were able to sink into the project. As for people who want to follow my route I’ll be positive and give words of warning.
The comforting thing is I really had no idea how to code before working on the game, learned the engine and developed it as I went. Ben and I have both had a lot of experience writing but never anything this big. To be honest I’m still amazed that it was able to come together, when you work so hard on something it’s easy for the thousands of hours to just sort of blend together.
This project was absolutely entrancing. Ben and I wrote the entirety of the game over six weeks (over 300,000 words) and it was constant work. This has been an exhausting and harrowing experience and I can honestly say that it was the hardest I’ve worked on something in my life. One of the testers for the game put it well when they said “If Steam ever goes down, I’m afraid you’ll be mortal” it seriously feels like Familiar Travels has a bit of my soul in it. Creative projects like this are alluring like a siren’s call, there’s a good reward in it for you but you have to be a strong swimmer to make it from your ship to the rocks.
As for money, we made $30,000CAD on Kickstarter. I’m sure you could make a game for less but it was really important to us to pay the artists fairly. It’s not fair to me that people in the fandom have to work day jobs when they have the creative talent that people like Gill, nex, and twocups (the sprite artist) have. Gill was able to leave their job and pursue art full time while working on the game, and I’d like to think part of how we allocated our funds was responsible for that. Many a good VN has been sunk by treating your team like shit. It was a collaborative effort and everyone really put their all into it.
That’s quite a poetic way to put it. I know you’ll be an inspiration for anyone else who wants to create something like you have.
Now for a few grittier details, the portrayals in your game are sometimes stunning at best and shocking at the worst, particularly with behavior like toxic masculinity and clinical depression. You say that these are inspired by people you’ve seen in the fandom, but it has a distinctly personal air that make me wonder if either of you have experienced these feelings for yourself. And if you have, did working on Familiar Travels help you come to terms with some of these problems?
Balin: When we were designing the archtypes for the characters in the game, it was important for the personalities and struggles of the characters to mimic things we say not only in the real world, but specifically in the furry fandom.
I think everyone in the fandom has someone they can either relate to, or relate somebody to in the game. Often topics like toxic masculinity, or the laissez-faire attitude towards consent are topics I feel have a very specific type of in the fandom, and on the internet. When I was envisioning the designs of the characters, I tried to think of that typical online friend group you’d have. We took a lot of time planning the personalities of the characters, how they’d act if they were people in the fandom played a big role. For example, one of the questions in our personality sheets we were working on was “If they had a Furaffinity, what would their bio be”.
I often joke that if you take the characters that Ben wrote, and the characters that I wrote, and mix em together you’d have a pretty good idea of our collective neurosis and a part of that is true. I’ve dealt with issues like depression, and the consequences things like that can have on a relationship before. I know that for a lot of people (Whether they are victims of toxic masculinity, depression, bullying, etc) it’s really helpful to see that there are not only people in similar positions, but there are people that can match the profile of someone you may have had issues with in the past.
I hope shedding light on these issues can lead to a “oh shit” moment when playing the game, like I’ve had with games in the past, but most importantly I wanted to show people that you can construct an interesting and compelling narrative without pulling punches in what you have to say. It’s really common to have some sort of ‘edge’ to visual novels but instead of a convoluted murder plot or darkness for the sake of darkness, I’d rather use the energy and platform we had to shed light on issues that most stories shy away from in fear of alienating their audience.
We had a rule during development where if something is going to be brought up, it has to be given justice. I’m not going to write a brutish rude character without exploring the reasons and motivations for that. Overall, the portrayals of the characters in the game wound up fitting a common theme which I think is all to applicable to people in the sort of target demographic for the game which is identity. I feel as if every character in the game, the PC included is struggling with their sense of identity in one way or the other. That sort of just.. came up through the writing of the game and was never planned before-hand, we’re both in our twenties and going through that sort of intense emotional growth that tends to spurt at that time so I think that was an aspect of our personalities that came through in the game. While we were developing it there was that overwhelming dread of “what if we work so hard on this and it isn’t rewarding/satisfying/etc” and I think that does come through in the writing a lot.
Ben: I guess I could say we’ve tried to tackle a lot of really prevalent social issues. Toxic masculinity is alive and thriving in western society and the mental health crisis is being handled by a DSM panel in which over half its members have ties to pharmaceutical producers. I’m from the most densely populated state in the US, I see these things happening all around me and it makes me sad and angry and confused. I think that writing these kinds of characters allows anyone to really feel strong emotions, and maybe encourage more dialogue on these really important topics. There’s a lot of things going on with the characters but I think above all else they’re meant to represent real world situations that both Balin and I have witnessed.
Your bravery is appreciated and sorely needed in an oversaturated market of badly written and one dimensional sex options. Tsitsi was my favorite character for sure and who I ended up going with in the end. Unlike most visual novels it was her flaws that drew her to me and not what she could bring to the table, so it was very satisfying. Who are your favorite characters?
Balin: Honestly there are some of the characters that at the end of Chapter One I wouldn’t have much to offer them more than a slap.
I’m a big fan of Mocha. It’s not insanely overt in the first chapter and I’ll avoid any potential spoilers but particularly I like how she struggles with her identity in Vanaheim. In Vanaheim, which is very much a model of real society she isn’t just “strong” or “tough” as much as she is observed as a strong or tough woman. I wanted to touch on in her arc the differences between how men in society are seen as themselves, and women are put in the dichotomy of observed/observer. Comparing her strength and attitude to someone like Nil, Mocha is perceived by a lot of the characters in the game as an object of strength, where as a character like Nil, a man, is just seen as “strong”. It touches on the larger issue in our society of the constituent of “surveyor” and “surveyed” as the aspects of being a women. In her home realm she’s simply seen as a warrior, but in Vanaheim she’s a ‘sight’ surveyed as a strong-women. This is explored more in chapter two, but I think that the struggle she suffers with is something a lot of people could relate to, and a subject that is not often covered with the nuance and ground it requires.
Ben: Personally I think Finley (the player character) is my favourite. When you’re designing a protagonist you have to be really careful. At first we wanted to avoid using gender-specific pronouns when Finley was spoken to in order to allow the player to better identify with them.
The other thing that we felt was important was to not let Finley become a flat protagonist dictated exclusively by the player’s choices. We gave Finley a lot of personal moments and they really do have their own distinct character. Depending on the arc you choose to go down, different levels of anxiety definitely come out in some of Finley’s interactions and even during their alone time. There’s a lot of feelings there I think we can all relate with to some degree too, like when they’re worried that perhaps they were the cause of the turmoil within the bickering friend groups.
My final question for you both is, what is your overall plan with Famiilar Travels? Chapter Two is coming obviously, but what about Chapter Three, or Chapter Ten, if things go well? Vanaheim has so much put into it that it seems almost criminal to not explore it further than the magical college.
Ben: I’m not sure about going past chapter two (who knows what Balin’s planning though), but we do definitely plan on developing other projects in the same universe. Vanaheim is just one of the realms, and I’m sure it’s been noticed that there’s actually some exposition in chapter one regarding places like Jotunheim and Midgard, and even Helheim. I love the idea of developing a universe through lots and lots of different media, so chapter two is definitely not the last you’ll hear from Halftone studios.
Balin: Chapter Two is the final chapter in the Familiar Travels game, but we for sure see the value in exploring more of the world.
I feel like the game as we have it is a complete story with a satisfying conclusion. Part of the game being analogous to the fandom is I really hope to see (and actively promote however I can) the works that will come out from fans of the game and world in the future (For example, someone messaged me who works in Unity who wanted to make a 3D map of the world, tossed em all the assets I have) . I have loads developed on the other realms and want to explore those especially in the future, but after Chapter Two we’re probably going to take a break from that multi-verse and explore other projects under our studio.
Halftone Studios, which sort of grew out of the creativity and drive of the people working on the game has quickly become an awesome way for me to aggregate really talented people, when I have the opportunity to meet someone creative in the fandom who has a vision I invite them to the discord. As a publishing studio we want to provide as much people as we can the opportunity to do the same thing I was able to, Gill was able to, leave any sort of corporate chains and explore your creativity freely. I have projects in the works with every member of the team from publishing to games to literature. It was sort of a ‘deal’ with the game. When I got each person on board I pulled them into a call and asked them “With infinite time and resources, what would you make” I wrote every one down and hope to help them wherever I can with that.
I love how creative the furry fandom is, but as it’s trended more into the mainstream there’s been a fracturing in the sense of community in the fandom, we’ve lost our zines, our collaborations, to a certain extent anyways. I want to use the platform I’ve gotten from this game to leapfrog into other projects.
It’s simultaneously upsetting and inspiring to see someone working 40 hours a week and finding the time regardless to create works in the fandom. There are so many artists who don’t have a pathway to making connections, so I want to find those people wherever I can and network them, fund them through the studio, and hopefully create a bunch of awesome stuff in the fandom.
Thanks to Enjy, Balin and Ben for putting so much hard work into this. – Patch