“In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” – Alan Moore
Developer: Studio Zevere
Released: TBA 2020
Note: This review is based on a demo version of She Dreams Elsewhere and may not be representative of the final product. Additionally, the game includes strong language and tackles sensitive subjects with player discretion being advised.
She Dreams Elsewhere is the debut video game project from Studio Zevere, a one-man indie game development and film studio. Founded by Davionne Gooden in 2016, the studio aims to tell stylish, culturally-relevant, and emotionally-rich stories from new perspectives and is set to launch in 2020.
The game is a surreal adventure RPG about dreams and the extent to which they mirror reality. The player takes on the role of Thalia Sullivan, an anxiety-ridden, comatose woman on a journey to defeat the nightmares preventing her from awakening, while also uncovering the past that led her there. Although She Dreams Elsewhere is not set to release until later this year, there is a short demo already available on multiple platforms.
She Dreams Elsewhere has a very distinct and individual aesthetic overall, featuring minimal use of bright colours, creating high-contrast visuals on the largely black backgrounds. The pixel art is effectively implemented to create unique scenes but quite simplistic overall, however, the larger-scale used for characters in menu and combat screens make them feel more detailed and reminiscent of early graphic novels.
Although generally relaxing, the game’s soundtrack features tracks from a range of genres, from relaxing vocals and lo-fi beats to rap and hip-hop. The music and sound effects are well implemented, using the different styles and techniques to create atmosphere and solidify the characters place and mood in each scene, such as Thalia’s racing heartbeat drowning out the background music and becoming the focus.
The phantasmagorical overarching narrative of She Dreams Elsewhere is both surreal and intriguing, delving into the sleeping mind of the protagonist from a first-person perspective. While it isn’t possible to draw too many conclusions about Thalia’s past or her coma from the game’s demo, it manages to illustrate her anxiety in a very tangible and relatable way, although it could be argued that this is made a bit too obvious within the demo’s short playtime.
A particular scene in She Dreams Elsewhere, set at a party that Thalia had mentally pushed herself to attend, sees the nervous protagonist caught up in her negative thoughts and feelings, therefore missing important conversation and eventually culminating in a panic attack.
Other indicators of Thalia’s mental health struggles are illustrated by things such as oversleeping, forgetfulness and struggles with object permeance, avoiding people and social situations, avoiding responsibilities such as buying food or paying bills, indecision, substance abuse and near-constant, self-directed negativity. All of these aspects combine to make a very well rounded, sympathetic character and She Dreams Elsewhere provides one of the most relatable and understanding portrayals of mental-health struggles to be seen in a small indie game.
She Dreams Elsewhere’s gameplay consists of story-progression and adventure style exploring, interspersed with party-style, turn-based combat. Thalia and her companions have a variety of moves and skill points to use during each encounter, including a main (slightly overpowered) move that can be activated by building skill points with basic attacks.
Health is restored after each successful encounter but it is also possible to heal and save the game whenever a doggy is encountered! The game also includes a basic levelling system for all playable characters, unlocking new moves and skills as each one progresses.
The various skills acquired by Thalia and her companions, along with the attacks and names of the enemies encounter also feed into the overarching theme of anxiety and depression. Moves include defensive abilities such as psyching up a comrade as well as a variety of attacks including delivering ‘sick burns’, or shouting to make someone feel bad which are administered to enemies such as the ‘drunk dude’ or various ‘heartless one’ or ‘no hearts’.
Overall, She Dreams Elsewhere mixes a range of game styles and genres to create a truly unique experience, utilising visual and audio elements to emphasise atmosphere and story rather than distract from it. The game also avoids common tropes and distastefulness in its representation of mental health struggles, which it does in a way that is highly relatable, shows empathy, and seems to have a basis in lived experiences. I thoroughly recommend checking out the free demo and am eagerly anticipating the game’s full release.