As I wandered around the Indie Game Showcase at W.A.S.D. one stall, adorned with a colourful banner and a cast of magical characters, immediately grabbed my attention. The game in question was Spellbound: The Magic Within, an upcoming visual novel from developer Wyrdren Games. While I waited to play the demo, I was further intrigued by the reaction of those who were experiencing the game in front of me. Several of these went on to approach the Community and Relationships manager for Wyrdren, Annie Durwood (who was on hand at the booth), to express their enthusiasm for not only the game’s narrative but for the character creation features and the fact they could see themselves represented in the game. Inclusivity is an important factor in any medium and video games are no exception – it was honestly, truly heart-warming to see so many people react so positively at being able to feel a part of the world of Spellbound: The Magic Within. I was impressed upon playing the game and discovering the number of possible choices and dialogue options, all of which eventually led to a scene in which you attend a ritual and are assigned a school of magic to pursue. Further still, I was appreciative of the fact that the game offered you the ability to supersede the choice made for you and pick your own path, ensuring that the player had full autonomy over their journey. Little titbits of wider lore and a fascinating cast of characters helped round out the experience into a visual novel truly worth its salt, an experience akin to a good book just begging you to turn the next page. Conversing with Annie after finishing up the demo, she impressed upon me the fact that Wyrdren, through their games, wanted to leave the industry a better place than when they entered it – a goal I could certainly see fulfilled through Spellbound, with its strong thematic elements of personal choice and inclusivity. The following day, I was fortunate enough to conduct a brief interview with the Founder and Creative Director of Wyrdren Games, Sally Sheppard, who provided some insightful commentary on her game and the industry in general.
The first thing I was interested in talking about was your work outside of development within the video games industry and your role in organisations like Women in Games and Safe in Our World – could you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, so I’m a Women in Games Ambassador and I have been since last year. Basically, when I was coming up in the industry, I found that there wasn’t a lot of room/doors open to me, so I knew that as soon as I got a foot in the door, I wanted to make sure that I had the space and the time to pull other people up with me. I’m also a Safe in Our World Champion and Wyrdren, as a company, is a Raise the Game Pledge Partner. Raise the Game is a UK initiative originally created by Dom Shaw of Ukie and, basically, it’s all to do with diversity and inclusion not only in our industry but in our games – seeing yourself on the screen, making sure that we’re being accessible and thinking about all these different options that we can offer players. We want to make sure the barriers are lowered, and everyone can have easy access to games as a medium.
I’d really love to touch upon the ways you have implemented diversity and inclusivity through your game Spellbound, especially in regard to the idea of creating a game in which everyone is represented, but also through the way in which you allow the player to change their name and appearance at any time during gameplay. Was that perhaps a conscious decision to represent gender as fluid and an ever-changing concept on a personal level?
Absolutely. One of the things that I think is really interesting when people talk about gender, or maybe anything that’s slightly out of the box, is, firstly, that they see it as black and white (which, I hope, is changing), but secondly, it doesn’t just apply to people who maybe see themselves as gender-fluid, or non-binary, maybe trans, it applies to everyone. As people, we change all the time – if we can accept that, why can we not accept these other things? The game itself has a lot of features that I’ve tried to add to give that little bit of accessibility and inclusivity, but the game itself is not just about that, it should be normalised. So, even if you are the very stereotypical, maybe straight white male gamer, there is still something for you and you are still able to see yourself in this game. It’s all about inclusion, not exclusion, so we’re not trying to specifically be like ‘look we’re this super diverse game, only diverse people can play it’, we’re normalising it.
I really see that in the section when the game uses your choices to determine what magical discipline you should follow, but then allows the player to choose which school they want to go with regardless. Just to talk about mechanics briefly, was developing these choice systems and branching pathways a challenge?
Somewhat. When constructing the narrative I tried to write from a character point of view, so imagining myself as the characters and making decisions that they would make, and couple that with a player perspective and what decisions they might choose to make. I didn’t want things to be too black and white, I wanted there to be grey areas, so even simple choices like would you like tea, coffee, or water with your breakfast are being tallied up in the background, and they do actually lead you towards a particular character, or a situation, or a magic. So, I wanted the choices to not be so much ‘would you like to help, or hurt’, I didn’t want there to be this big moral judgement, I wanted bigger choices, as they arrived, to still feel as natural as deciding what you’re drinking with breakfast. I didn’t want the player to feel the pressure that one choice might completely alter the trajectory of the game, I wanted to impress upon them that ALL their choices have been subtly influencing things in the background.
And would you say that speaks to the idea of the small things helping to define what kind of person you are in the bigger picture?
Absolutely, and because the characters react to your choices, even if they are ‘minor’ choices, one of them might really love that small decision that you made because it matters to them. They will react differently to you depending on what you have picked.
Just to talk a bit more about the character themselves and, purely out of personal interest, do you have a particular favourite? I know that’s a difficult question to ask!
Oh gosh, that is difficult. I do love Fern, and I say that because she is a lot of things that I am not; she’s very bubbly and very confident, whereas I tend to be quite anxious and a bit of an overthinker. To me, Fern is this ray of light, a little bit of sunshine, and I’ve noticed that a lot of players tell me they like her because she is so positive, and I’m like yes, I’m also drawn to her! So, she’s probably my favourite just because of the way she views things, and the way I tried to write her, wanting to see more of the world and being full of optimism and curiosity.
Was she the first character you worked on for Spellbound?
She wasn’t, Melody was actually the first character I worked on. I guess when you’re writing you always put a little bit of yourself into it, and sometimes you try and make your characters better than you could ever be, and Melody is super, super confident. Transfiguration is her magic school, so she’s made herself in her ideal image of what she wants to be – sometimes I wish I could change my hair that quickly without having to bleach it and do all the maintenance. When I was writing her first, I knew I wanted a character who was going to lead you through the world with absolute confidence and certainty, whereas some of the other characters doubt themselves a little bit. Said characters may not agree with what you are doing because they wouldn’t do it themselves, and it’s up to you to either bolster them and get them to make that decision or listen to them and consider their point of view, maybe they’re just trying to bring you back to reality. But yeah, Melody was definitely the first, followed by Theo, Ari, and then Fern.
You’ve got all these really interesting characters inhabiting this very rich, magical world – could you possibly talk more about the story in general and all of the narrative threads that the game sets up?
I definitely had a linear narrative that I wanted to tell, because in the background there’s this kind of Scooby-Doo mystery thing going on, so I knew that in the first chapter I wanted to introduce all of the characters and give the player a feel for all their distinct personalities and the different kinds of magic they use. I wanted to also give the player a demo of how their choices are going to affect things without derailing the overall story. I wanted the first chapter to be a good experience but also act as a demo for the game, a taster in which the player could get comfortable in the world and start to understand how things work. The full story will involve the player talking to all of the characters and attempting to pick up clues regarding something that’s going awry in the village – I didn’t put too much of that in this first demo, only because we didn’t want to ruin the storyline, and actually we’ve had comments a few times where players have stopped after fifteen minutes and been like ‘I don’t want to know the end! I’m going to buy it, so I don’t want to keep reading’. I’m like ‘cool’, I’m glad I didn’t give away the whole story instantly and I’m glad I managed to provide a flavour of the game.
Was it hard to keep track of everything?
Keeping track of the narrative was definitely an interesting one. I had the linear story written down, I had a whiteboard, I drew a lot of arrows in order to link everything up, and then I put it on paper and eventually into the game. Things kind of progressed as we playtested, as I played it myself and got other people to, there were little instances when players didn’t know how they got from one part to another, so it was really a matter of tightening elements up and making sure everything was fully explained in-game. We are huge on player feedback and try and do a lot of things with our community, so we show sneak peeks on our Discord, and we talk to people on TikTok and Instagram. It’s trying to make sure the player sees a little bit about the dev side of things so that they can see how the game works and get to form their own opinion and have an input.
And I understand social media has been a very important aspect of your development process?
It’s been huge. We recently did a competition where we got people to help design an NPC for the game. They got to pick everything from their fashion, through hair colour, length, eye colour, shape of body, everything. They have fully designed this character and she’s pretty cool, I really, really like her.
Was there any other media that helped to influence Spellbound, both inside and outside of the medium of video games?
I knew I wanted to tell a magical story because I’m a massive fantasy nerd. I love reading fantasy novels, I love playing Dungeons & Dragons, that’s very much my comfort zone. We get this quite a lot, but we are compared to Harry Potter, because I feel like a lot of people my age (and slightly older or younger) have read those books and because it’s set in Britain – we know those things, they’re familiar to us. I knew I wanted to stay within that realm, but I wanted to make sure that, instead of being exclusionist, we were being inclusive. We’ve had comments a few times about ‘the author’, and we’re trying to steer away from that and the comparison in general, because there are a ton of other magic worlds and schools, but I guess because we’re in the UK that’s the one people are drawn to and they recognise. We are trying to avoid the connotations of ‘the author’.
Do you see Spellbound as maybe helping to reclaim a part of the British magic-fantasy space?
I really hope so. The best part of my week has been people coming up to me and saying, ‘oh my God, I’m so glad WE have something that’s in this realm of magic and set in the UK’. There are those parallels, like at the beginning of the game when you’re on the London Overground, I wanted to focus on what was familiar to me and set in place that I loved. I grew up in Yorkshire, before moving to New Zealand, but that’s really my background – all I wanted growing up was a dragon that I could ride to my village. That was the aim really, creating something that was familiar and important to me and to other people but making sure it was much more inclusive.
Just to wrap up, I wanted to touch upon the idea of ‘leaving the industry a better place than when you found it’, which is something I understand is one of Wyrdren Games’ goals. Has that been a challenge?
It hasn’t been a challenge so much, only because there is so much of a movement in the sector now. We have these amazing programmes like Women in Games, we are very visible, and we just need to keep pushing that forward. I find that a lot of people tend to be quite bitter about the industry because there are a lot of terrible things that have happened, like crunch, horrible sexual assault stories and poor working practices. The industry is such a baby, and so young, we’ve adopted those practices from other places like the film industry and Hollywood, but what I love is how quickly we’re actually turning those around. We’re saying no, we shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of these institutions, and we need to build our own paths and make our own way forward. We still had arcade machines forty to fifty years ago, the fact that we now have this amazing technology with which to tell incredible, diverse stories is proof that we are moving so fast – I just hope that it keeps moving. I always try and stay positive about the industry because it’s such a cool mix of people with different backgrounds being able to tell different stories, and that’s what I want to see. When I set up Wyrdren I stuck with this idea of leaving the industry a better place than when we found it – I just kept repeating it, it was our mission. I founded Wyrdren with the intention of doing things differently from day one, and I wanted an industry that treated people the way I was treated when I first started. Those positive experiences that I had should be universal.
Spellbound: The Magic Within is set to release on Steam on the 29th of July 2022.
Wyrdren Games Twitter Page – @Wyrdren