Amidst the din of the Sunday after show floor, I headed to the Visual Novel Reading Room in the Indie Megabooth at PAX East to meet up with Aevee Bee and Mia Schwartz, creators of the indie visual novel game, We Know the Devil. In typical go-with-the-flow PAX fashion, we hold our interview standing around a nearby pillar, while I quietly hoped my voice recorder would hold up to the noise. Over the next half hour, we chatted about the new We Know the Devil demo for PAX East, their upcoming project, Heaven Will Be Mine, and pushing the boundaries of visual novel games.
We Know the Devil has been out for a while and has received wonderful critique and acclaim. Looking back, what do you think of this wild ride?
Schwartz: Mostly I forget how much we accomplished with it. For me, finishing it had me grow so much as an artist and art director. Looking back now these drawings are kind of wonky, but that’s good. It means you’re getting better.
Bee: It feels really nice. We wrote a demo for the [PAX East] showroom floor, the idea was to have a very short 5-10 minute demo that you can read in one sitting. That allowed me to review the characters and write them again. It was really fun to explore sides of them I hadn’t really had the chance to in the game. And there were things, from the reactions of fans, of people seeing these characters in these particular ways. With the demo, I leaned some of the characters in other directions that I thought were important to their character but were under-emphasized in the original game.
Schwartz: Yes, there were some subtleties in the main game that the demo underlines. I was pretty emotional reading the script because it was so nice to hear their voices again. I didn’t do any new art for the demo; they just used my old sprites from the game. And it had been so long since we had used them. There are all these facial expression choices that were used for the opposite reason they were drawn, but they work really well. I had nothing to do with the decisions. It was kind of amazing to see and it made them feel even more alive than in the original game. I feel really good about coming back here. Feeling really good about having something new with We Know the Devil as we just announced our next game.
Is the demo at PAX East completely new?
Bee: Yes, it’s totally new content. We’ll put a more polished build up online sometime soon. For the show, we needed an original self-contained thing. It’s very short that takes place a couple hours before the original game starts. It’s more reason to get people in as well as for old friends.
Schwartz: There’s a lot of excitement that’s been generated just for people to see more of them. More than I expected.
Are you thinking of doing anything else for We Know the Devil?
Bee: We thought about doing some illustrated prose or something like that. But I think we’re done with games with those specific characters since it’s a very self-contained small story so I don’t see there being too much in those particular characters in that particular story. Our follow-up project discovers that world from very different angles, like a bigger picture that connects all the fabric.
Schwartz: There are literal and figurative connections that happen. Overarching themes, figures or concepts will continue on and intersect with other things we’re doing.
So what is the next project?
Bee: The next project will be called Heaven Will Be Mine. We have some postcards but we don’t have too much for it outside a short key visual, short description of it…
Bee: Well, that’s all we have to announce right now.
Schwartz: We’re taking it really slow for a couple reasons but we’re hoping to have it out this year. [looks to Bee] Do you want to talk about the premise?
Bee: It’s kind of like a thematic sequel. If We Know the Devil is about teens first discovering feelings, then Heaven Will Be Mine is about 20-somethings living with that. The premise is, there are a bunch of giant robot pilots who are fighting each other and falling in love and flirting with their enemies and the people with they’re supposed to be defeating in this space conflict.
I love it. I love it.
Bee: We went through like several different concepts of this game and we’re arriving at something more robust. Since we wanted to hit the ground running, we thought it was time to make an announcement to let people know about it.
When I was playing We Know the Devil it felt very middle school, very teen, very young, did you get feedback from players who wanted something a little bit older? What made you go in the order of the younger protagonists first?
Bee: That’s a very good question. I’ve talked a little bit about the origin for the idea of We Know the Devil. I wanted it to to have a sort of Sailor Moon or Buffy vibe to it. There were these young queer feelings I wanted to talk about from this angle, but it’s also a story that gets told over and over a lot. There are so many coming out stories, but there are very few stories about people living their lives as queer adults. And I find that paints a very fraught and incomplete picture.
Schwartz: I also, I can’t really speak for Aevee, but We Know the Devil is a very small game we decided to make for a game jam initially. It was supposed to be this tiny thing. And then I was like “Fuck it, I guess we’re making a game.” At least from my perspective, Aevee kind of pitched this idea to me of let’s do a cool story about teens getting possessed by the devil, for us. In my tiny bubble, I don’t make work for kids or teenagers, and I don’t have them in my sphere but somehow it did not occur to me, that it would get so big that actually reach teens. [awkward laughter]
There’s not a lot, but there are maybe some things I wouldn’t have done if I had thought at the time that a teen would find it. I stand by the game, but there’s some stuff that is different for a 20 year old to read what these kids are doing than for a 14 year old. And that’s something that I’ve had to internalize in terms of what I draw characters doing or saying. I’ve seen some kids, it’s none of my business what they do, but I have seen them pick up maybe bad habits from my drawing.
That’s really interesting to know because sometimes we forget other audiences might pick this (game, comic, novel, etc) up and their could be unintended consequences. It’s a challenge everywhere.
Bee: It’s a real difficult sort of thing, wanting to balance creating works that are responsible and honest that speak to the experience, and being responsible to the audience that may experience it. I am actually really interested in making work for young adults. When I was a creative writer, that was a big part of my focus and that I loved. There was a lot of stuff as a kid that I was not patronized by, which was really important and a bit of what I was going for with We Know the Devil. With Heaven Will Be Mine, it’s nice to make something about my own life that I’ve been living for a while. I think we’ll probably be doing the same sort of thing, like thinking about our responsibilities with it, especially because they’re messier, more involved.
Schwartz: There’s more um, gray areas, and more um–
Schwartz: Exactly, there’s kind of imagery, analogies and metaphors that are not translated super easily and are existing as multiple things at once. It’s been an interesting thing to balance working on this, for us to figure out like where does our responsibility lie and how does that intersect with what we want to say and the kind of people we would want to reach and the kind of message that some people need that would be communicated by not pulling punches and not not getting messy.
That sounds like a really large challenge.
Bee: It’s very difficult to do that, so all we can do is to try our best, but I feel like with We Know the Devil our honesty and the nuance of that really came forth in a really big way. Sometimes you find yourself with fans who are just learning stuff of themselves and they’re getting challenged and they’re finding themselves getting pulled all over the place by different messages. We can only hope that this will be a positive chunk in a complete world picture that maybe not be complete yet. And maybe not complete for a while. Or maybe never complete b/c we’re like older but not like that much more put together.
Will the latest project have a similar art style to We Know the Devil? Or are we changing things up?
Schwartz: I’m not very good at masking the kind of things I draw inherently. I will say the art direction is maybe the complete opposite. I’m feeling really good about it because hopefully there’s going to be a lot of experimentation and kind of mixed medium. I really feel good how it will look next to We Know the Devil, I think the contrast will work really well. But I’m really excited to do the complete opposite. A lot of the choices I’ve made for the look of We Know the Devil were intentional, not just for communicating the world and tone we wanted, and to call on the influences we had, but also because we didn’t have a lot of time. I was not super confident in my ability to make something slightly consistent because I’m very messy. And that’s not what a visual novel looks like. And I feel good that there’s not been a visual novel that looks like We Know the Devil.
Bee: It’s been one of the things I initially came to this with is that I didn’t want it to look like other visual novels. Mia comes from a comics background and has a visual storytelling. She does so much visualized storytelling and characterization through her images, which is I think unique, especially because a lot of visual novels have a very pretty detailed still image, but it’s stilted and static, whereas Mia’s illustrations have a lot more life and an energy to them. The thing that we’re doing with Heaven Will Be Mine is that it’s played through a cockpit screen, so you’re actually looking through a computer interface. The way that the action-y scenes, the way the romantic encounters happen you’ll see a ton of pop-up windows that will depict what’s happening between the robot’s fighting, what the characters themselves are experiencing and then this mixed media abstract. Which I think is just an amazing concept for the visual style. I’m stoked about that because very few visual novels deviate from that particular format.
It’s great that you’re pushing barriers, not only with the storytelling aspect but the actual art that visual novels have become. That’s one of the things I personally like about We Know the Devil. It does stand out and it’s not like we had a graphic novel that we turned into point-and-click. There’s more game and not just novel.
Bee: I think about the whole narrative design how do we just like use the choices and techniques available to us within a game to better tell a story. We Know the Devil has a very simple scary mechanic but it’s immediately interesting and understandable to the player. You can just tell someone the premise and they’re like “I understand what it’s about” and it communicates the central theme of the game so well. We’re working on, and feel we’re pretty close, to to finding something we’re satisfied with for Heaven Will Be Mine. Something that will do similar in a different kind of storytelling.
Schwartz: A huge part of the design in our games comes from the fact that we personally don’t like the lack of agency that some choices in visual novels have. Where it’s like one choice after so much text and you don’t actually know the kind of impact it will have on the story. The whole point of a video game versus something is the act of choosing something makes the player feel something in itself. That’s something that Aevee does an incredible amount of design to make sure it doesn’t feel like that. To make sure there’s intention and agency.
And that something down the road will change because of these decisions that the player has made.
Schwartz: I also appreciate Ladykiller in a Bind for just how beautiful and functional and unique the actual mechanic is. For your choices, it says what’s going to happen, but not in a way that doesn’t remove you from; it says what kind of moving parts, like it unlocks this room or like you’ll get this vote, but not in a way that detracts from the experience from making that choice.
Bee: Ladykiller in a Bind uses this cost system, like you might get in trouble for some choices or you might gain for other choices and that can get used to let players make the decisions. I can make this decision but I might get in trouble making this decision. It’s kind of like, we had explored similar things in this game as well, to help guide the player to where they make certain kinds of choices. Or even just having to think about their choices even if the effect is really no different with or without the tag, or warning, from the game. But that will make them think about their choices differently which is also part of the storytelling.
Kind of like the real world, I could decide not to go to work today but …
Bee: Right. You know exactly what’s going to happen. Whereas a lot of visual novels and dialogue-based games are like, you’re going to say this. You have no idea.You have one line of dialogue. How do you even what effect that’s going to have, you really only have the vaguest idea. Not very interesting for the player.
Schwartz: Another thing, personally one of the things for me, I really like the sub-visual novel format that’s present in more recent persona games. Just in the fact that you pick. There’s this element of “I’m interested in what’s going on here” and I have the freedom to kind of check all these little worlds out and it doesn’t affect the greater thing. I can just have this small moment. Or I want to see what happens when I mash these two dolls together and that’s sort of like, a similar feeling to the mechanic of We Know the Devil. Like what are these characters going to do in this situation, I really want to see these ones versus these other ones. And that’s something I feel proud of making.
We Know the Devil is an indie game about teens fighting the devil at summer camp. In this group horror, one person is always left out. The game was released in 2016 and reviewed here by Games Editor Al Rosenberg. It is currently available on Steam. Heaven Will Be Mine is expected to be out later this year. Follow updates at the game’s website.