What is Asobi?
Asobi is a short visual novel that could be defined as a kinetic novel, developed on the occasion of the Spooktober Visual Novel Jam and is our first attempt at horror narrative, although we had previous experience thanks to our first project, Reverie.
The story revolves around the encounter between a taxi-driver and a young and mysterious sex-worker (Remu), who is headed to a place called Homunculus Hotel.
By mixing linear and branching narrative, the entire game is presented as the dialogue between the two characters, with the players in the role of the taxi-driver, asking questions to the girl in order to get to know her better.
The kind of horror atmosphere we tried to achieve is strictly related to J-Horror movies from the ‘90s/’00s, especially titles like Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kairo, Nakata Hideo’s Ringu but also Kon Satoshi’s Perfect Blue (even though it’s not entirely a J-Horror movie). While looking at all these references, we decided to develop a dark and tense atmosphere that could turn a normal and daily situation into a more mysterious and melancholic one, shifting from the tones of an occasional conversation to those of a confession of the sex-worker’s life.
In fact, if initially the two characters are detached by the fact they don’t know each other, players will be able to deepen the relationship by asking her questions about her work or life, while maintaining a strong respect for her: questions never have a harsh tone but are presented in a gentle and genuinely curious way. And the more she talks about herself, the more the entire game acquires a melancholic, maybe even sad tone.
The decision of narrating the story of a young sex-worker, and even the entire premise of a dialogue in which a taxi-driver asks her personal and intimate questions, has lifted some uncertainties among players, especially because the game tells more stories with each aspect and not all of them can be understood right away. Our intent, however, was to tell the story of a girl who had to sustain multiple pressures, struggles and pain, before getting the possibility to know herself better and found more comfort in her own body in order to be able to win against all odds. At the same time, her willpower is questioned as players go on through the game: they may get to know her weaknesses, worries and unresolved issues but, more importantly, the fact she’s still bothered by her past, which follows her constantly in the form of a ghost that appears in almost every scene.
So, if at a first look the taxi-driver seem to be minding her businesses too much, it’s in fact the sex-worker who is willing to talk about it, in a way that could even make the players suspect her since they’re only following the conversation and curiosity she has created.
The subtle art of the pillow shot and other cinematographic dreams
When we started thinking about the project and all the various aspects of it such as narrative, art and UI, we instantly decided to aim for something simple but that could have a strong impact.
We had one month to develop the entire game and the team had only three members, so searched for references that could help us shape a game as simple as possible.
The first reference that turned out to be useful was Tsukamoto Shinya’s A Snake of June: the Japanese director had in mind to shot the movie with a 1:1 aspect ratio in order to portray a single character per-shot so that the isolation of each of them could look more clear to the spectators, but he then couldn’t because of technical restrictions. However, the more we thought about the idea of using a 1:1 aspect ratio for our game, the more we were intrigued by it. Primarily because it could have been useful in limiting the elements in each scene, and secondly because we could focus more on what to put in each of them since we had limited space.
Other elements that we took from it are:
The use of monochrome in each scene: the scenes in the present are totally blue, while the memories evoked by Remu shift from blue to other colors, depending on the memory she’s been asked about by the taxi-driver/player.
Remu’s thought about her own sexuality and her desire to reach freedom through the acceptance of her own body. As she becomes closer and closer to herself because of her work, she starts to understand herself and the people around her, reaching some sort of superiority, as she now knows and understands everything even if she’s considered an insect by others.
As for the second reference, we found guidance in Ozu Yasujiro’s movies. His use of the pillow-shot technique and juxtaposition of narrative scenes and landscapes/common items, gave us the idea to narrate Remu’s memories through interns or landscapes, while she speaks about herself. Players observe her memories through her own eyes, see what she has seen in those exact moments. Thanks to this, we could develop a second narrative layer, using the different scenes to tell specific stories that could not find their space in the dialogues but that also strengthen what Remu talks about.
To pimp butterflies
Something I’ve personally always tried to do while producing/developing all Team SolEtude’s past projects was to develop them as shorter or longer music albums, rather than games.
The division in chapters isn’t only related to literature or certain movie directors, but also to the various songs that form an album itself.
So, for Asobi, the idea was to conceive it in the same way but with some enhancements: the music references and inspirations are way more than in previous projects and the narrative tries to achieve a sense of musicality through sentence structure, repetition, imagery and metaphors in every aspect of the game.
The sources between this intention were, mainly, Kendrick Lamar and Swans music. Even though these artists are totally distant from each other, their use of music led the path to a totally new approach for all of us.
In our previous games, in fact, we were less subtle and more direct with the themes and the dialogues, so we decided to use Asobi and the entire occasion of the Spooktober VN Jam to experiment way more with our approach to game development, narrative and art.
This also helped with the game’s sound: following Beyond Your Window approach to atmospheric sounds, we used mainly ambient sounds to make players feel as if they’re really driving, with a sense of repetition thanks to the windshield wipers before the taxi driver turns the radio on and mysterious, dark music starts.