Meet Sundew Studios — the enterprising Seattle-based indie studio working on their first upcoming title, The Window Box. The small, but mighty, Sundew Studios is led by Allie Ast, the studio’s creator and sole full-time member. We can expect to see The Window Box grace Steam in early 2019; for now, we had the pleasure of speaking with Allie Ast, and getting a sneak peak into her process and the progress of her highly innovative and interesting The Window Box.
|| What’s Sundew Studios’ backstory? We hear you’re located in the less-than-sunny Seattle area. How did you form into a studio? Who are your developers?
I founded Sundew Studios in May of 2017, after moving to Seattle on a whim in the fall of 2016. I spent my first few months here applying for jobs in the industry, while trying to convince myself starting a company was a bad idea. However, with the way my brain works, once it decides it wants to do something, it’s very hard to convince it to do otherwise. More importantly, starting a company was a risk I could financially afford, and I already had a game in mind scoped as a project that could be completed mostly on my own and within 18 months. So with all those pieces combined, I grabbed my copy of The Drunken Botanist, opened it up to a random page, saw a blurb about the sundew plant, thought that sounds nice, then read that it wasn’t so nice, as the sundew is a carnivorous bog plant, and decided that would make a perfect studio name.
I’m the only full-time member of Sundew Studios, but I have five other people working with me. The Window Box is made in Unity using an asset called Fungus (LOL), which is basically a visual programming tool for making visual novels and simple point and click adventures. If anyone wants to start learning Unity and doesn’t know programming, I highly recommend it. My programmer, Amanda End, comes in and saves the day if there’s anything I need that Fungus can’t do, like most of the puzzles in the game. Then Elise Kates is my brilliant sound designer. She stuck her hand into a concoction of cool whip, noodles, and who knows what else more than once to make the sounds of a souffle. Taylor Ambrosio Wood composed the music. She took the classical, jazz, and french cafe music spotify playlist I made, added some synths, and violá, you can listen to a bit of it here. Christina Ellis did the character and background art, and basically developed the whole visual style of the game. I found Christina through a website called hireanillustrator.com and was convinced she wasn’t a real person, and she thought I wasn’t a real person, since apparently I’m the only client she got from that site. We were both wrong. Christina introduced me to my other artist Violet Kirk, who did all the puzzle and UI art. It’s a shame The Window Box doesn’t have dragons, because Violet draws very cute dragons.
As a side note, I want to mention I met Amanda, Elise, and Taylor all through local indie developer meets and game jams. So if you’re trying to get into games, GO TO THOSE. People like me want to hire you!
|| What’s the elevator pitch for the upcoming The Window Box? What does it hope to accomplish? What sort of experience can gamers look forward to?
The Window Box is a 2-4 hour non-linear farcical visual novel combining exploration, witty dialogue, and brain-teaser puzzles, as you help Elsa and her friends escape the expectations of perfection in their lives.
Players can expect a narrative-driven experience where ridiculous events occur, but overall is still very grounded in reality in a serious manner. I want players, especially women who play the game, to walk away feeling as if their issues are addressed in a way that’s funny, but doesn’t make light of what we go through. The subjects range from motherhood to emotional abuse, so the narrative walks sort of a strange line.
|| How does Japanese and western art come together in The Window Box’s art style? We know Japanese manga helped to inspire some of the design. Were there specific influences from the East and West that you drew upon?
The first step in my process before I start any writing or designing, is spending a lot of time collecting source material. For some backstory, I’m a huge fan of Ai Yazawa, whose works (Paradise Kiss and Nana) I credit for my interest in fashion. I learned about Vivienne Westwood from Nana, and my love for Vivienne Westwood lead me to discover other designers such as Betsey Johnson, Anna Sui, and Elsa Schiaparelli. So for the first few month while I was still just conjuring up what would become The Window Box (basically the time I should have spent applying for jobs…) I spent a lot of time reading The World of Anna Sui, which lead me to purchase a book of 60s lifestyle illustrations, which lead to me to Caroline Smith, which then looking her up on pinterest lead me to Yuko Sugimoto… So I kind of followed this strange trail of breadcrumbs by researching the women, who inspired the women I look up to creatively.
Also each character wears clothes inspired by specific/my favorite designers. Elsa wears Elsa Schiaparelli, Paige wears Anna Sui, Margot wear Vivienne Westwood, Sophie wears Lilly Pulitzer, and Finley wears Yves Saint Laurent. Then the background are influenced by the French interior decorator Madeleine Castaing.
|| When and on what will The Window Box launch? Is it still the plan to release on PC and during winter 2018? Are there hopes for an earlier and/or console-friendly release?
Right now it looks like The Window Box will launch early 2019 on Steam. I’m hoping to port it to Android/iOS. It’d be great to get it on the Switch too, but that’ll definitely be later down the line.
|| What kinds of puzzles can we expect from The Window Box? The Window Box is a self- described visual novel with “brain-teasers.” How much brain-teasing can we reasonably look forward to?
So the game is mostly narrative, but there are some puzzles thrown in there. If you’ve played Professor Layton, or anything from the Rusty Lake series, some of the puzzles should feel familiar. There’s the classic watering pouring puzzle, and river crossing puzzle among others. Rather than be a puzzle game though, I really wanted to work the puzzles into the themes of the game. Basically everything has a feminist twist through the puzzle directions and the background art. The puzzles aren’t meant to be difficult either. As I said earlier, they’re more to highlight the themes of the game rather than give your brain a workout (though I suppose they still might!).
|| As an innovative indie studio, what do you want interested gamers to know about you? Do you have a specific goal or motto in mind as you’re developing The Window Box?
The Window Box is meant to be a game inspired by, made by, and made for women. It’s a game that’s supposed to talk about serious issues, but with a sense of humor (and a weird sense of humor at that). In order to do that, there are three things I repeat to myself while working on the game. The first is to have fun. The second is be respectful. Then the last thing is inspire hope. The first two are meant to make sure that the game is actually a good experience for other, and doesn’t put people down. However, the last one is probably the most important, at least for me. Whenever I write about women’s issues, it’s so easy to get sucked into a depressed black hole, because women really do have it hard, and I barely scratch the surface with this game (which is why we need more women-lead game studios!). But we have to keep moving forward, and we can keep moving forward.
Another note I’d like to make about Sundew Studios are the literary influences on our work. The structure of the game is based on Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes. Then the tone and weirdness comes from writers such as Sarah Ruhl, Stevie Smith, Tove Jansson, and Clarice Lispector. At Sundew, we really strive to make games that bring together women across disciplines, both through those that actively work the projects and those who are influences.
|| What’s been the most satisfying part of The Window Box’s development thus far? And the most dissatisfying, or the most frustrating?
Honestly, the most satisfying part is almost being done with it… And the most frustrating part is also almost being done with it! It takes a lot to bring a game from scribbles in a notebook, to a fully functioning thing with save/load and an option menu implemented. And it feels great playing through the whole thing, seeing everyone’s hard work pay off… The first time. After the thousandth time playing through the same scene, it becomes a little tedious!
|| If you could’ve been a fly on the wall of another game’s development process, which game would it be? Is there a particular title that motivates and inspires your team? Perhaps for gameplay, perhaps for the atmosphere and art?
Oh boy… Night in the Woods. I want to see how they got their text bubbles so perfect. Literally I’m obsessed with those text bubbles. Other games that inspired us were Kentucky Route Zero and Oxenfree. Both have excellent writing, and atmosphere. Lion’s Song is another one, since it also touches on subjects that games usually don’t focus on in a visual novel/adventure game form.
But if I could be a fly on the wall at any studio, I’d totally creep on Klei. I want learn how the heck they design the systems for Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included. One day it’d be great to design a system-driven narrative game with Sundew Studios about gardening. It’d have the complex systems of Don’t Starve with the text bubbles of Night in the Woods. Actually, that might be a little weird!