Sky Bear Games is a New Zealand development studio run by Claire and James Dunning. Together they produce RPG campaigns, board games, and visual novels. The studio focuses on creating heavily narrative experiences for their players, such as the award winning game, Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary!
We sat down with Claire Dunning of Sky Bear Games to talk about the studio’s founding and about their upcoming visual novel release, Her Jentle Hi-ness, which is currently on Kickstarter. You can read our review of the game right here.
Can you tell us a bit about what Sky Bear Games represents to you?
Sky Bear Games is the culmination of ideas and inspiration that my husband James and I have had for many years. We have been coming up with game ideas and even prototypes independently since we were children. We met in 2011 at, of all places, a games store where James was running a public walk-in session of Dungeons and Dragons. I said to myself then, ‘This is the nerdiest guy I am ever going to meet.’ The rest is history.
Our board game Cat Capers was our first game together. We started development when we moved in together in 2014 and adopted our cat/muse, Nimue, and we released it at the end of 2015, a couple of months before we got married. We needed a name for our collective ‘brand’, and we just jokingly picked Sky Bear because we had seen a salmon-coloured car one day and imagined a giant bear diving out of the sky to pick it up. Around this time I completely changed direction in life, from high school drama teacher and award-winning playwright, to programming, and I realised just how much creativity there is in coding a game. Writing a visual novel is not all that different from writing a play. In fact in some ways it can be easier as directing a play takes a lot more people skills. Around the same time as Cat Capers, I started the project that would eventually become my first published game, and after that I just wanted to do more and more!
As we’ve released more games and slowly begun to grow our audience, our core philosophy has really solidified for us. It is our mission to bring our audience stories to inspire, entertain, and challenge them. So James writes his tabletop roleplaying supplements, and I write my video games, and we both blog and podcast with those aims in mind. The dream is for this to be a full-time lifestyle for me, one day! But for now the aim is to continue to produce games and other related media that meet our high standards we have for ourselves, and hopefully earn us a loyal audience who are hungry for what we have to offer. And to do all this sustainably too, because we both work full-time and have a toddler.
You’ve developed a variety of games! What’s it like switching between visual novels, board games, RPG campaigns, and the like?
It’s not the hardest thing, as I lead the visual novel/video game side and James takes the lead on the RPG campaigns, and we become each other’s main editors, playtesters and overall sounding boards. Further than that, I’d say it’s not even that different from each other, as I have plans to turn some of his RPG scenarios into visual novels, and Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary actually first existed as a live action roleplay scenario. The easiest way to understand the link between visual novels and tabletop RPG campaigns is if you think of game books or choose your own adventure books, such as the Lone Wolf series. My visual novels are usually just big branching stories, driven by choice, like game books, but with a lot of variables thrown in. James’s RPG campaigns are like that too, except he has a whole other realm of possibilities to cover in the randomness of player agency – what if they do x, y, or z that I didn’t think of before?
Your most recent visual novel project, Her Jentle Hi-ness, is on kickstarter right now. Can you tell us a bit about the game’s premise and what inspired it?
It came to me, as most things do, in a dream. I was forbidden to say a letter by the Queen. I can’t remember if it was G or not. But I told James about the dream and wrote it down as a seed for the future in my ideas notebook. It did a little bit of quiet germination in the back of my brain over time, until I had enough thoughts to write out a vague plan of the mechanics in my ideas book. Then when it came to the Nanoreno 2020 Jam, it was the game that was leaping off of the page to get made. That early prototype was its own self-contained thing with terrible pencil artwork, and a very short gameplay loop of about twenty minutes. I even had the main musical theme of the game then, but I produced it terribly on ukelele, glockenspiel and kazoo – very annoying to listen to!
But talking to James, talking to Sean (my artist for Her Jentle Hi-ness), talking to other friends who played that first prototype, the game started to balloon a lot bigger in my head. Sean said he wanted to do character art for it, but that he was not a background artist. James, in an inspired move, suggested using public domain art from the Met as backgrounds to contrast the simple cartoony figures. The combination just made me giggle, and for me the visual identity of the game was set from then on. I met Michaela at the NZ Games Fest and we got on great, I really liked her work, so I thought let’s give her a go on this project! And some of my regular helpers are returning: Dave Agnew, my editor, who is going to have a heck of a time editing this one, and Lauren Wilson, sound engineer, voice actor, and all-rounder, who I call my work-wife because she helps me out in so many ways. Not only did the cast list and possible endings have to more than double in size, but the core of the gameplay had to become far more engaging and unique. I’m really looking forward to putting this game in the hands of the players. Beta test level campaign backers get it first though!
After playing Her Jentle Hi-ness’ demo myself, I must know… how hard is it writing every word without the letter G?!
Sometimes it can be really hard, especially when the spell-checker is fighting against me! After a while though I was able to enter a flow state where it became more natural. There are quite a few times where I have to stop myself and think, ‘What would look funnier here, missing the G or replacing it with J?’, or even, ‘How do I make this word recognisable and/or not ugly?’. One example of that was ‘daughter’. I hated the look of ‘dauhter’ so I changed it to ‘dorter’ instead. And that’s in a word where the G is silent anyway! But the Queen would know if you pronounced the silent G.
On a related note, I am talking with translators of other languages at the moment about which letters they would take out instead of G… watch this space!
Wonderland Nights: White Rabbit’s Diary won an award for Excellence in Narrative. How has that experience helped you moving forward with Her Jentle Hi-ness?
On the one hand, it’s been a great boon to me to know that people out there – people chosen specifically for their ability to judge these things – think my work is that good. On the other hand, it has me worried about not living up to people’s expectations of me in the future! Ultimately though I’m just going to keep trying to deliver the best story I can, with game mechanics that match that story. I try not to live for the achievements. Been there, done that, in my school years. It’s a really sad and stressful way to live. As my friend Benjamin Teh said on an episode of the Sky Bear Games Podcast, I would much rather have a few people who really love my work, who consider me one of their favourites, than tons of well-wishers who are just like, ‘oh sure, that’s kinda cool’.
Do you have any advice for people who may want to start developing their own games?
Everyone approaches it differently, but for me the way I started was with a game which will never see the light of day, at least in its current form. It was a high school daily life simulator with a supernatural plot. I just started writing and coding in Ren’Py, looking up how to make days pass, stats rise, and events trigger. In the end I had a terribly slow-paced game with generic and/or free art. But I had actually made something. I had started with a vague plan of what I wanted it to look like, and I had ended up with a finished ‘game’. From there, I was able to learn from my successes and my mistakes, and use those to plan out my next one – which was the game that would eventually be The Nine Lives of Nim. That process of learning from the past never stops! Each game is a learning process for the next one. (Lessons learnt from Her Jentle Hi-ness? Probably to never again tackle the difficult task of marketing a game which is a language-based stress simulator… Talk about a hard sell!)
Do you have any news about current or upcoming projects that you’d like to share with our readers?
Her Jentle Hi-ness will be out before the end of 2021, there is work being done on translations of my previous releases, James will be releasing two more roleplaying zines this year, and then… actually, I need a break! I have been going really hard out for the last year and a half, ever since my maternity leave ended, and the stress is starting to really get to me. I’ll still be helping James edit his work, we’ll still be doing the Sky Bear Games podcast and blog amongst other things, and I’ll be quietly plugging away at my own game ideas. But I need to get back to the heart of fun with which I started this journey, and stop setting myself crazy deadlines. More purity and joy in my creative work, and less of this working three full-time jobs at once! This isn’t goodbye forever, just sort of… see you when I see you!