Road to the IGF: Brianna Lei's Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup explores love between young women over baseball, having players connect closely with some friends as they play, talk, and text together.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Butterfly Soup explores love between young women over baseball, having players connect closely with some friends as they play, talk, and text together. As players learn more about each of their friends, they may find themselves falling for them and their varied personalities in this yuri visual novel. 

Gamasutra spoke with Brianna Lei, creator of Butterfly Soup, about the challenges in creating characters the player can feel affection for, how they made their friendships and romances feel natural, and what it felt like to create a game that had such a positive effect on those who played it.

What's your background in making games?

I've been making games for about 5 years now. I majored in Interactive Media+Games at USC and dabbled in a bit of everything from design to art to programming. Prior to Butterfly Soup, I was best known for an indie game I made as a freshman, an RPG called Pom Gets Wi-Fi. I now work professionally as a game writer.

How did you come up with the concept?

I've always wanted to experience a story focusing on Asian American girls that I could really relate to. Then, when I was in college, I became obsessed with sports anime like Free! and Haikyuu. So, when deciding on what I wanted to do for my next project, I tried to make an ultimate fusion of those two things and came up with the concept of a "baseball yuri" game set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What development tools were used to build your game?

I used the free visual novel engine Ren'Py to build the game. The art in the game was made with Clip Studio Paint, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator, and I edited the audio with Audacity. 

How much time have you spent working on the game?

About 2 and a half years.  

What thoughts go into creating a game where you want the player to feel love or affection for the other characters? How do you build intimacy through the story/visuals/music in Butterfly Soup?

I always kept in mind that when people play a game, they don't start off with any reason to love its characters, so it's up to me to help them feel that way. For example, people like feeling special and being treated differently than others, so Min is ridiculously mean to everyone except the player character, Diya, who she's sweet to.

To help build intimacy visually, I brought the character sprites pretty close to the camera to make it easier to see their faces. Generally, the more distant character portraits are in visual novels, the more distant they feel emotionally, too. Also, music has a big influence on how you perceive things, so I used a lot of nostalgic sounding songs for interactions between the characters.

What drew you to add texting and other interaction styles between the characters? What do you feel that adds to the game and story?

Instant messaging is a big facet of many relationships for young people -- I spent hours on end bonding with high school friends this way, and many memorable conversations, even love confessions, happened over text. Considering how significant these interactions are to people my age, I wanted to include them to help the story feel real.

Also, chaotic group chats have a lot of comedic potential! I feel like it's a really untapped format that I'd like to continue exploring in the future.

There is a very natural chemistry between the characters in Butterfly Soup. What work goes into creating these bonds and in writing the playful and personal banter between characters that makes them feel so comfortable together?

I loosely designed each main character as the polar opposite of every single other main character in one fundamental aspect. For example, Noelle/Diya is nerd vs. jock, Noelle/Akarsha is order vs. chaos, and Noelle/Min is logic vs. emotion. Diya/Min is timid vs. bold, and so on. This way, the characters are guaranteed to bounce off each other in entertaining ways by virtue of who they are.

Butterfly Soup has had some powerful, positive effects on many of its players. How does it feel to tell this kind of positive story? To reach out through your narrative and offer a helping hand to someone who may feel alone?

I'm happy the game has had such a positive impact on people! It really encourages me to continue telling these kinds of stories.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I've played Night In the Woods, which I'd been looking forward to ever since I saw its Kickstarter trailer years ago. I literally watched that video about 15 times. I loved its music, art style, and animation. I also played Tacoma - the playback mechanic through which you experience the story was really fresh.

Everything Is Going to Be OK left an impression on me, too. Its themes and tones are really clear and unique, and I admire Nathalie for tackling the topics she did.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

It's getting increasingly difficult to be noticed by audiences, and even after you are noticed, people move on to new things insanely quickly now. Back when I was a kid, series’ like Death Note were popular for years and years after they ended. Nowadays, people usually stop talking about even explosively popular new series within a few months. For instance, it's not cool to be drawing Pokemon Go fanart anymore.

On the bright side, many mainstream gaming news outlets are willing to cover small and diverse games these days. Some journalists really try to highlight these works, even if some of their audiences haven't caught up with their more progressive views yet. And over sites like Twitter, it's never been easier for friendly indie game developers to reach out and support one another without having to descend into potentially toxic spaces like Facebook game dev groups and online forums. I feel like I belong in the industry in a way that would never have been possible a decade ago. It makes me optimistic for the future! 

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