Demon Chic's storytelling impressed us so much that we came up with a whole new scoring category just for it: Story Quality. So, in order to learn more about just how the wholly unique title came to be, I chatted with one half of Beret Applications, Michael Frauenhofer, about the inspiration and creative process behind it.
148apps: Demon Chic is hugely different from anything else on the App Store, what inspired you guys to make it?
Michael Frauenhofer (MF): I was planning on making something more traditionally “video game”-y, with stuff like fights to the death against robot soldiers and mind control chips in it. But, I’d just finished a novel for my undergraduate fiction thesis about a bunch of broke college kids doing drugs and getting in trouble, and then shortly before we kicked into full gear working on the project...I had a dream about a man in a dress with a big furry boa and a tasseled hat burning spiders with a magic cigarette. That dream’s atmosphere sounded way cooler than the, admittedly, generic sci-fi we’d been planning on pursuing, so we switched…and ended up combining the novel with the vibe of the funky spider dream.
We don’t have the budget or skills to compete graphically with something like Infinity Blade so we figured we might as well make the kind of game that probably only we would ever come up with.
148apps: What research was conducted in terms of the mental illness issues dealt with in the game?
MF: The characters’ experiences with mental illness reflect a varied portion – but still, by necessity of scale, only a small portion – of the broad range of experiences someone diagnosed with schizophrenia might have. It’s a tricky diagnosis because there is so much variation within it that there really is no one experience a person with schizophrenia will face. It’s more of a symptom class – diagnosed based on what the person experiences rather than any one cause.
So a lot of the “meat” of the way that the game deals with the subject of living with schizophrenia comes from my own experience – the way that it talks about adjusting to life with hallucinations, trying to make decisions about medication, things like that [which] are...more universal experiences of trying to deal with the situations it creates.
As for the characters’ various coping strategies, they...reflect the variety of experience rather than propagate any specific viewpoint. Just as one protagonist identifies as straight, one identifies as gay, and one identifies as bi [and] they are, respectively, an atheist, an agnostic, and a devoutly religious person, the characters make different decisions about whether or not to seek treatment within the medical establishment or even how openly to define themselves.
I was very frustrated with how most of the media I saw dealing with schizophrenia seemed to either take a very strong hardline tack where the only acceptable way to handle it was through a doctor, and anything else was reckless or dangerous. I think [this] can be a damagingly closed-minded viewpoint, or alternatively romanticize being “free” and living off medication on principle, which I can see being just as or even more damagingly closed-minded. Some people are really helped, some people are really hurt.
I think it is important for art to take a stance when an issue requires it, but in this case I felt the most accurate and best stance to take was “different things work for different people and it’s critical to let people have the ability to make their own choices.” Once you’re open about having an experience of your own with mental illness, a lot more people open up to you about their own, and you end up realizing a way huger percentage of the people you know than you would ever have imagined have some form of “mental illness.” All of the people I’ve known have had wildly different experiences dealing with it, and used very different strategies, so it only really felt honest for the game to reflect that multiplicity.
148apps: Did any specific games or artwork influence the look and feel of Demon Chic?
MF: The main story art’s style was largely defined by the artists we worked with for that – Marika Cowan, Julie Chien, and Elizabeth Gearreald – while the art style for the interludes, that I made, was mostly defined by my exploration of the limits of my own artistic ability. I...grew to appreciate the more hand-made-looking aspects of that...but to be totally honest, everything would look photo-realistically detailed in those sections if I’d had the capability to make it look that way.
In the end I was glad I wasn’t the best at drawing. The feel of the game was very heavily inspired by No More Heroes, Suda 51’s game for the Wii, which I’d been playing a lot of and really loving for its pacing. It experimented a lot with its structure and form, and wove rapidly between high- to low- concept and humor, but still retained a really jittery and frenetic energy with its quick cuts and rock guitars that I wanted to take inspiration from.
148apps: How long did Demon Chic take to make? How complicated was the process of arranging such a surreal story in a clearly laid out way?
MF: From when the core team (my mother and I) started working, full-time, to when we finished and released the game, was two years. The story arrangement was pretty easy because of the surreality. In a sense; in a very concrete and physical sense, outside of the realm of the characters’ hallucinations, not too much happens. Demon Chic takes place over a span of a few relatively normal days.
Most of the action is in their discussions, both of their overarching feelings or of things they remember, and their actual recollections of key events, in the interlude levels. Since most of the plot was outside of the game’s timeline...it could sort of happen in any order. I arranged the key moments of the game in an outline...where we could easily reveal information to the player in short bursts, without ever having to stop and do a huge information dump.
Also, so that any time the game got really surreal and suddenly everyone’s insects or astronauts, an attentive player should hopefully have enough information to be able to decode who everyone is and what’s going on. Most of the key plot points ended up being sort of sad plot points though, so then we filled in the rest of the more low-key scenes of them talking and hanging out in between the big plot points so that the game was never too depressing for too long.
148apps: Are there plans for a follow-up title of some sort?
MF: We are already working on our next game, which will be similar to Demon Chic in its surreality and its focus on the inner lives and relationships of a group of characters, but it’ll be pretty much unrelated from a story standpoint, it’s set in like a Minority Report future where there’s animal ninjas and flying motorcycles and people made out of fabric and stuff.
I really want to do a sequel to Demon Chic one day but I want it to be like a decade from now. It should have a totally different gameplay style and catch up on these same characters ten years later in their lives, but I don’t know what it would be about beyond that, because I don’t know what me or my friends’ lives will be like in ten years.
Thanks to Michael for taking the time to answer our questions. Demon Chic is out now for the iPad, priced at $4.99. It gained a highly respectable 4 stars when we reviewed it.