This month I was fortunate to sit down with the extraordinarily talented Bishop Myers. Bishop leads up Project BC: a collective originally focused on Role-Playing Games, but has begun to branch into EVNs. Their next title, Vacant Sky Awakening, is a hybrid of both genres that promises a tale many secretly enjoy, but rarely admit to: the rise of the villain. I hope you enjoy the interview!
Bishop Myers: It’s hard to point to one source of inspiration in particular for Vacant Sky. Admittedly, it’s a series that was largely conceived from frustration. I was frustrated at the stagnation of gameplay in RPGs. I was frustrated at the same tired plots being used over and over. I was frustrated at puddle-deep characterization. I was frustrated at the constant shying away from real consequences and moral dilemmas. Vacant Sky was born from every game that disappointed me.
As bad as most mainstream RPGs were, the indie scene was even bleaker. While in theory, indies should be free from the shackles of expectation and market pandering that AAA developers should be, indie RPG developers seem content to voluntarily assume this bondage and fritter away the amazing opportunity they have and continue remaking the same boring, overplayed games under the banner of nostalgia.
If no one else was going to make something new, then I just had to do it myself.
VNs Now: The first Vacant Sky game was released in 2009: roughly five years ago. What has changed from your perspective on designing games since then?
B. Myers: The original trilogy, called Contention, was sort of an attempt to bring visual novel-style storytelling mechanics to RPGs. At crucial points in the story, you could make decisions that changed the entire direction of the plot, sort of like routes function in many VNs. At the time, I thought that narrative routes were the ideal form of storytelling in games.
In the time since, however, my opinion of routes has soured a little. I feel that structuring a game around routes is a cop-out. Although on the surface, the idea is that the player’s choices affect the story, in reality; this structure robs the player of any actual agency in the story. This is especially true in romance-oriented VNs where the route you wind up on is determined by how many love points you’ve accumulated with a certain character.
A lot of people complained about the ending of Mass Effect 3 because your ending was determined by a single choice you made at the very end and it was very transparent about the fact that you were basically just choosing from a list of endings. Though less overt, I feel that VN routes are the same way: instead of actually affecting the story, you’re just choosing between which linear story you want to watch unfold.
In the wake of this realization, I’ve made it a conscious choice to try to minimize the number of decisions in my games that serve only to switch you between high-level linear story paths. Instead, I design choices to affect the state of the world, often in non-obvious ways, and to have the state of the world impact the story as it unfolds. Not only does this approach make the story more organic, but it’s also more grounded in reality – it’s not a single decision that defines people’s lives, but the complex, chaotic interactions of the consequences of all the decisions they have made.
VNs Now: Outside of the Vacant Sky series you had one other stand-alone VN project two years ago; Encarmine. Have you thought about any new IPs or do you plan to stick to the VS universe for the foreseeable future?
B. Myers: We do a lot of thinking about new IPs, actually! Rarely a week passes without us coming up with at least one new IP idea. They have to number in the dozens by now.
There are tons of games that we want to make, but we’re limited by the resources we have at hand. I honestly put in a full time job’s worth of time every week into directing the Vacant Sky project(s) on top of my 9 – 5 job, so the prospect of leading up another project on top of that is daunting.
That said I’m not the only member of Project BC with creative aspirations. At least two of our other members have projects of their own in various stages of pre-production and I’m hoping to have more people take up directorial duties in the future so that we can start producing more varied content. We’re also always on the lookout for up and coming talent to bring on-board.
We do have a couple of non-VS projects on the distant horizon, though, and it’s too early to talk about them, but I’m very excited seeing how well they’ve been coming along.
VNs Now: I have to apologize to you because I never covered Encarmine. But, since we’re on the subject, what was the genesis of that project and how did it work out for your group?
B. Myers: The Vacant Sky games are enormous, often multi-year productions, so every so often, we like to take a short break to try out something different. Kate and I have a tradition of dropping VS work for a weekend out of every year to participate in Ludum Dare, which gives us a weekend to produce a game from scratch. Both Encarmine and our first visual novel, The Vestibule, are products of that.
Encarmine was an interesting experiment that helped prepare me for the titanic undertaking that would be writing Vacant Sky Awakening. It was sort of a proof of concept of an idea I had been wanting to make into a game for the longest time. It’s about two characters and the way the relationship between them changes over time.
At the start, you choose whose perspective you have, and it’s about how the context of your limited personal experiences frames your perception of other people. Even though the events that transpire are the same regardless of who you play as, the meaning of what happens is completely different based on your POV character’s experiences. The tragedy, of course, is that although you as the player can see the complete picture by playing through both stories, the characters will always be limited by their own understanding of the world.
It was a fun little experiment. I have fond memories of agonizingly poring over the shared scenes to ensure everything was consistent. Those were the days, when I only had to worry about synchronizing two POVs…
B. Myers: Ha! Well, Vacant Sky Awakening is an in interesting game when it comes to spoiling the story, because it’s a prequel to the original trilogy. Players of the original Vacant Sky games already know exactly what happens, so in talking about it, I have to constantly decide what constitutes a spoiler or not.
Vacant Sky Awakening is about the lives of the series’ primary antagonists. It chronicles the story of their growth from childhood to adulthood and what drives them to commit atrocities which permanently shape the course of history. The biggest surprise when playing the game, then, is that they seem to be ordinary people. In fact, if you didn’t go into it knowing that they grow up to be the perpetrators of some of their world’s most horrific misdeeds, you might assume that it’s a typical fantasy adventure story.
The mystery that drives the player through the story is trying to reconcile how they appear to be in the present with how you know they will be in the future. How can such nice people be responsible for something so terrible?
Villain origin stories are becoming increasingly popular in popular media and for the most part, they’re total garbage. They always expect the audience to be sympathetic to the villain and always rely on cheap cop-outs to achieve it: “Oh, it was a terrible accident!” or my personal favorite, “Something horrible happened to her and then she went insane!”
This is not one of those stories. There is no accident. There is no misunderstanding. There is no light switch that someone flips turning you from good to evil. This is an account of earnest people making bad choices over and over again, and you’re going to be responsible.
VNs Now: Many who are unfamiliar with Role-Playing Games will be surprised by the system you’ve chosen to upgrade characters and do battle. Can you give us an overview of how it’ll play out?
B. Myers: If anyone, it’s going to be seasoned veterans of RPGs that will be most surprised by the upgrade system in Vacant Sky Awakening. That is to say, there is none.
In most RPGs, you spend points to improve and purchase new abilities for your characters. You can spend points to raise their attack power, or to get more health, or to purchase a new spell, for example. This still happens in VSA, but not in a way that you have direct control over.
One of the central goals of Project BC is to integrate story and gameplay in interesting and novel ways. Vacant Sky Awakening is a role-playing game in the truest sense of the term: the result of your actions is based upon how you play each character.
Certain decisions, on top of affecting the story and character relationships, also affect the current POV character’s abilities. Fleeing from a dangerous situation might grant you a defensive ability, for example. Pressing forward into danger when you’re ill or wounded might improve your resilience. But there’s no divorcing this from the ramifications of your actions in the context of the world itself: if you flee, then your friends might think that you’re cowardly or dishonorable (and someone else might approve of your insightful analysis of the situation). You can’t just pick and choose what stats or abilities your characters gain. If you want to be good at being violent in battle, you need to be aggressive and violent out of battle, too, and you must accept the consequences of that and how it affects the relationships you have with your friends.
This philosophy extends into battle as well. Each pair of characters has some kind of relationship. Some characters are friends; some are rivals, lovers and so on. The strength and nature of this relationship governs how those characters work together in battle. As an example, rivals don’t play well as a team, but they’re driven to outdo each other. You have to be cognizant of who your characters are and what they mean to each other and this will inform your decisions of who to put into battle and what actions they should take.
B. Myers: One of the unique aspects of Vacant Sky Awakening’s story is that you continually cycle between the main characters’ points of view and you make choices as each of them. Each character’s perspective of the story, like in Encarmine, is unique, and everyone has information and opinions that the others aren’t privy to.
The original draft of the script was written with the RPG format in mind and it just didn’t afford the amount of insight into each character’s psyche that the VN format allows. Understanding each character and knowing why they do the things they do are crucial to the story.
VNs Now: What does the future look like for Project BC? Is there anything in particular you want to accomplish outside of Awakening in the coming months and years?
B. Myers: There’s always something new brewing for us. We’re actually hard at work on a big announcement that we have coming up next month on the anniversary of the original Vacant Sky’s release.
Vacant Sky is an enormous story that we’ve only just scratched the surface of. Honestly, it’ll be a miracle if I can finish telling it before I die at this rate! So for me personally, one of my main objectives is to train up other members of the team to create awesome works that don’t require my personal involvement. We have an amazingly talented family here at Project BC and we’re always growing.
VNs Now: Thanks for your time Bishop and good luck!
B. Myers: No, thank you!