Old School Gamer Magazine chats with Shirli Ainsworth who discusses their newest game “Venus: Improbable Dream,” detailing the creative process, inspiration and goals for it.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was this game born?
Shirli Ainsworth: I’ve always been a big gamer, and on top of that, I’ve always loved music and writing stories, so when I discovered visual novels, I really fell in love with them, and instantly became curious about making my own. I never really took the idea seriously at first, as I was focusing on my music career at the time, but in 2016, a little story about an inspirational girl who played the flute popped into my head, and I realised that this could actually become the VN I’d been fantasising about making. Over the years, I managed to make more and more time to work on it, and luckily, it blossomed into reality.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What is your role in the game?
Ainsworth: Pretty much everything! I’m a solo dev and had no team around me. I hired an artist to draw the character sprites, as that’s the only element I’m not capable of, and a friend contributed some GUI customization. Other than that, I did every tiny thing from the ground up – I came up with the original idea, wrote the story, scripted it all out, coded it in RenPy, served as editor, proofreader and beta tester, wrote and recorded the entire soundtrack – the whole shebang!
Old School Gamer Magazine: What has development been like?
Ainsworth: Slow, and with more delays that you could ever imagine when you start, but that’s the nature of all creative endeavours, I think. I’ve been a working musician for 14 years and recording an album is exactly the same – there’s always something else that could be improved! However, it’s been a really valuable and enjoyable process. I learnt new skills through trial and error, and it was really exciting to see the game coming together in the coding and testing period particularly, after the entire thing just being text in Word documents for years.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes this game special?
Ainsworth: I like to think that it’s grounding in reality is what makes it special. I love fantasy, but it’s very easy for games to put you into a new world with alien creatures, crazy and unrealistic plots, and things that just wouldn’t happen IRL. Sometimes you want that escapism, but I actually love games that represent the real world and all its dark sides just the way it is, especially when they incorporate things that people can really relate to, like mine aims to do with mental health. It adds an extra layer of empathy and resonance, because you might play through a series of events and think “damn, I’ve been there – I’ve felt exactly the same way”.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Ainsworth: The first visual novel I ever played was Katawa Shoujo, and that not only ignited my love for VNs in general, but also really hit me hard as an enjoyable experience for me because of that real-world struggle thing – the way it portrays depression and disability is spot on and I really identified with it. I also love deeply emotional VNs like Clannad, that focus on a personal connection with others, and have big feels moments when it comes to two characters wanting to be together. I felt like I wanted to incorporate both of those sides into my game, and make it something very real and sometimes harsh, but that also delivers big, cry-worthy emotional moments between the two main characters.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Ainsworth: I remember trying to come up with custom animations for a character called Kudo, which totally didn’t work out, but during that phase of testing it, his sprites started behaving pretty erratically, which led to some hilarious screenshots! He was glitching all over the place, partially fading into screens that didn’t involve him, and basically just having a mind of his own. My friend and I joked that he was like Monika from Doki Doki Literature Club and had become sentient and was trying to take control of the game!
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Ainsworth: It’s always worth taking extra time to iron out the creases or improve something. Just thinking “eh, it’ll do” will make the creation process end faster, but it won’t satisfy you or the player. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to create the thing you’re creating – people will be happy to wait for something that looks like it’s gonna be awesome and actually delivers on that, rather than have a product shoved in their face super fast that’s nowhere near as good as it could have been.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Ainsworth: I think it’s half and half. I’m a big retro gamer, so I love all of that stuff, but innovation is also impressive. I think each game or project should consider it individually, and only use new/unusual techniques if they really do contribute to the experience. If not, there’s no shame in sticking with what’s tried and tested.
Old School Gamer Magazine: The marketplace is crowded. How do you think you stand out?
Ainsworth: I hope that people latch onto the way this game takes its portrayal of real life struggles seriously. Also, this isn’t just a sad story of people who have depression/anxiety/disability and live painful lives, and that’s it – the game aims to start the player in a dark place, but then take them on a transformative journey into a positive future, and really hit home the message that there’s always hope no matter what. I think the game stands out in that respect – it’s not just a bit of light entertainment for you to waste time playing. It wants you to go through some emotional catharsis and come out the other side feeling touched and happy.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How have your previous experiences in industry helped this game?
Ainsworth: This is my first game, so I’ve never done literally any of this before. Having been a musician for a long time, I’m familiar with creating something and trying to plug it to the public, but other than that, I felt very much thrown in the deep end. I’m not going to lie, I’ve felt quite lost for a lot of the process when it comes to trying to spread the word about the game and building an audience. It’s not like music – if you show up somewhere and start playing, people inevitably listen, at least in that moment. You can’t just throw a game in people’s faces on the street or in a bar – they have to find it, become interested, and buy it/try the demo of their own volition. It’s a very unfamiliar thing to me.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want this game to ultimately be remembered?
Ainsworth: For providing people with a touching and relatable experience that reminds you that hope is never lost, and that anyone can find happiness no matter what they’re dealing with.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Ainsworth: Honestly, I’m just trying to share this game around as much as possible in the hope that a lot of people will enjoy its message! As for future games, I definitely want to take a break for now and focus on other things, but I’m sure I’m going to keep dabbling in the meantime – I’ve been composing soundtrack music for other people’s games, which is a lot of fun, and I’m open to collaboration on smaller projects.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?
Ainsworth: Thanks for taking the time to feature me on here, and to all your readers – if you love emotional experiences, music, and relatable characters, why not give Venus: Improbable Dream a go? I really hope you love it if you do!