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Nicholai A. Melamed

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A member registered Feb 13, 2018 · View creator page →

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Hey, Nicholai here! If you'd like to reach out to me or one of the other devs on a personal level in a way that's unrelated to The Inverted Spire, email works for me (yozhikisblue@gmail.com). I'm currently taking some time away from Twitter, though I do occasionally check my DMs (I've turned notifications of for now). The game page comments section is probably best used for feedback on the game itself. <3

Thank you <3

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this game. I did enjoy it though! If the developer's objective was to make a surreal, bite-sized experience where the player is encouraged to construct their own meaning, I think that has certainly been accomplished. It left me curious about what other endings are planned, and how they will be affected by the choices already present in the game~

I really like how the investigation in this game was structured. The choices felt significant in revealing information and moving from one logical conclusion to the next. Clash is a loveable character, and I'm now curious to play more games that feature him (them?) 

There were some choices that left me feeling out of sync with the protagonist (the player's options when interacting with Jasper come to mind), but this is probably a matter of personally taste. At the end of the day, they left me feeling the the unseen protagonist also has a personality of their own. Even though it wasn't the focus of the story, I would actually have liked to learn more about them!

Overall I thought this was a great game. It's exciting to see that it seems to be part of a larger series.

I'd like to thank the dev for introducing me to Dr. Joem Antonio's work, which I may not have encountered if not for this game! I ended up reading some of original play scripts as a result. While I enjoyed the scripts themselves, as someone who loves both theatre and games separately, I can't help but feel as though this adaptation could have done more to justify translating a theatre play into a video game format. I would love to see more projects like this that integrate choice into the character conversations on a  deeper level. I also feel that one of theatre's biggest strengths lies in the actor's range of expression. This is pretty hard to accomplish in video game form, but I think custom art could have gone a long way to bridge that gap, and the use of standard assets feels like a missed opportunity.  In summary: I think this is a cool idea, and I hope the dev does more with it as it develops!

My partner and I haven't finished all the puzzles yet, but we've been having a lot of fun with the ones we solved so far! The vibe is very gentle and relaxing too.

Truly a peaceful and enjoyable experience, just as described <3

This was a fun read! I especially like the panel layouts. The worldbuilding left me curious about where future hypothetical volumes would be headed ^^

Thank you for sharing your thoughts behind this story. I have it bookmarked and I'm excited to give it a look the next chance I get! ^^

Oh my, that is high praise! Thank you for sharing your thoughts~<3

While I suspect Three, as a dedicated smoker, probably has multiple pipes in their possession—I'm happy to report that this is a question at least partially answered by the present version of the game!

A close-up from the screenshots:

So I finally got around to play the first arc, and I'm very glad I did!

I really like the way everything comes together (art, music, writing, darkly comedic timing). And I think it's quite something that despite being set in a twisted wonderland, the most frightening part of this story by far (imo) are Iggy's troubled cast of friends. 

I'm eager to see what the next arc will bring~ (and also curious about what longterm consequences the in-game choice might have as the story evolves)

Welcome, dear readers, to a somewhat belated bimonthly dev log ~<3 (and thank you ever so much for your patience) 

Before we get started on our main topic for today, I'd like to share some very exciting news:

1- Our beta readers have officially received their first version of the game, and have  begun testing! It's only been a couple of days, and we've already received valuable feedback and made changes for the better. Personally, I can't wait to hear some final verdicts so we can really make the story as engaging as possible!

2- Those of you who have been following us for a while probably remember that in our last dev log. we referenced a personal matter concerning one of the members of our team. Unfortunately, our original composer has now officially stepped away from the project. 

We are, however, already working with a new composer, who I would like to briefly introduce:

Mickey Hoz is a programmer by day (specializing as a Unity dev) who has also been composing on and off for the past 16 years. He is pictured here with one of many foster cats!  

Welcome to the team, Mickey~<3

As to the rest of our dev log? Today we'd like to address a topic that I've been relatively quiet about so far: 


What is the process behind the artwork for The Inverted Spire? 

Now as some of you may already know, I am both the writer and the artist on this project. I've been talking a lot about the writing side, because it's my personal opinion that despite the significant visual component, a visual novel still lives and dies by the quality of its writing. 

In the case of TIS, the additional challenge of a complex branching narrative makes for some very unique battles that are absent from a more traditional single-story experience. 

Consider that worldbuilding, characterization and narrative must all come to revolve around the possibility that the player's choices may cause them to pivot in a totally different direction at any time! (Pen-and-paper roleplay enthusiasts in the audience, you also know of what I speak)

However, the reality is that this challenge extends to the art as well. 

For example~

Unlike a cast of real-life improv actors, the fictional characters of TIS are limited to a series of preexisting sprites and facial expressions to convey their development.  This is , of course, a pretty consistent challenge among visual novel creators in general. 

How do you, on the one hand, limit your character art to what is realistically doable (without exploding your workload into the outer regions of the galaxy), and on the other, actually convey the emotions of a dynamic, living, breathing person?

And so, because of the many interesting ways this intersects with my writing challenges, I think the best way to transition from discussing writing to art is to begin by talking about those character expressions.

(It's also the fun part, ngl)

Step 1~Reference

Prior to quarantine days, I have long been an avid sketcher-in-public-places. Just me, my brush pen, and a surreptitiously balanced coffee wrestling to keep a line straight on the subway train, or while silently jamming to lofi at the local bookstore-cafe.

Some of my Toronto brushpen sketches from ye olde 2017 (I'd share a more recent page, that would involve busting out my scanner ^^) Especially attentive readers may notice that I use my old signature here, before distancing myself from a certain estranged last name.

In addition to these regular sketch routines, I occasionally earned a bit of extra cash doing fast-paced portrait commissions at fairs and other outdoor events. Roughly 10-20 minutes per portrait, in  an adjacent same semi-realistic linework style (now with crosshatching and white gel pen highlights!)

Here's an example of one of the more involved outdoor booth commissions, depicting four friends from the Barrie Pride Festival.

Now the advantage of being able to go out and draw people in public was that it gave my mind a silent film reel of reference material for drawing character faces that seemed unique. Face that looked as though they were based on real people, but were actually an exaggerated mishmash of features from various real-world sources I'd seen over the past several days. 

Failing that, I would have an unfortunate tendency to backslide into basing character faces on slightly distorted versions of my own reflection in the mirror.

As the pandemic ground my public drawing activities to a halt, I found myself relying more on meticulously assembled Pinterest boards. The new challenge here was trying to achieve a similar mixture of real-world features, without surrounding myself exclusively with the most magazine-cover ready faces adorning the internet. I admit I was not always successful at escaping golden ratio perfection with my selection of models, but to my credit, I did try.

A fraction of a Pinterest board of portait references used in creating the new face of ONE/Vekon Iskra, the protagonist of The Inverted Spire.

And for immediate comparison, the result:

 It is perhaps worth noting here that in this particular case, many of the Pinterest board references may appear femme-aligned, but this is actually only a small selection of the reference materials that were used across the absolute mess of folders devouring my harddrive space. In general, great care was taken to use a roughly equal mixture of 'masculine' and 'feminine' models (as well as many whose appearance was more explicitly ambiguous) in designing the appearance of each individual goblin.

Although this topic probably deserves an entire dev log of its own, I feel it is also worth  mentioning that both mixed gendered cues and ethnic ambiguity were intentional features of the goblin design. Just as the history of the goblin nation-state and old faith religion were written to avoid any direct real-world parallels, this feature was important to me from the outset. 

Of course, there is a greater conversation to be had about what constitutes 'ambiguity' in any of these categories. The short version, in my opinion, is that it's extremely context-dependent and may vary from one individual's perception to another. However, there are also greater societal factors at play that inform our (often invisible) biases. 

What is ambiguous to me may be clear-cut to another. 

I have even experienced this in my own life, with how different people perceive my 'ambiguous' features through the lens of their personal background to make assumptions about my ethnicity, gender and sexuality (frequently in opposite directions). The results can be unintentionally comedic on a good day, and deeply frustrating on a bad one. 

But now you're probably wondering how I proceed from the reference material to the finished product, so let's dive into that next~

Step 2~To the Canvas!

Much like the brushpen sketches you see above, my first steps involve tight (but nonetheless hasty) line art:

If you look closely, you can see the tiny emoji faces next to each of the expressions above. When my mind is in 'drawing mode' I tend to find these more helpful than verbal descriptors like 'encouraging' or 'suspicious' (those come in later). 

However, the emojis really only tell half the story. 

What I am really looking for when I start giving life to a face is the emotional range of this particular character, expressed as succinctly as possible. This is where my theatre background comes in. I will read the lines from the manuscript back to myself, acting out the character's facial expressions into a mirror or webcam as I go.  Occasionally I will take pictures of a facial expression frozen in time. 

My goals here are the reverse of an ideal profile selfie. I don't want the face I get to look too pretty or polished. I want it to have volumes of personality, exaggerated to a theatrical extreme that makes it easily recognizable. 

No, you don't get to see the pictures. 

Well...alright, maybe. Why not? But only if I receive enough requests! 

(Let's cap it at an arbitrary 10 comments, all from different people, requesting that I show my cheesy webcam photos to the world, and I promise to update this dev log with several truly entertaining photos, juxtaposed against their in-game portrait equivalents. I'll even leave it to the commenters to choose a particular character if they want.)

Of course, once I start painting these portraits, significant changes will ensue. 

Midway through the partially-painted face of FOUR here, you can see all the underlying texture brushes that give their skin that "porous" look, as well as remaining fragments of linework. 

I use photographic references very heavily to capture minor details, like the folds of their neck or their tiny lip creases. This is all made possible by working on a digital canvas of 30 by 30 inches (yes, it's ridiculously oversized compared to the portraits you see in the final game).

At this point, those webcam photos I mentioned become exceptionally useful in making sure not to polish over the minor details that give these expressions their personality. Little 'imperfections' like wrinkles, or the way facial muscles distort a person's features (sometimes to the point of unrecognizability) must be retained as much as possible. 

A later version of the portrait above demonstrates my use of layering textures of increasing complexity to give the face an even more lifelike appearance. 

You can also see I painted a hand that was removed from the final composition. The truth is many of the goblin portraits had hands painted in to start with! I ultimately left the hands out, feeling that they were too distracting, and in some cases, just didn't vary enough between portraits to justify their presence.

Another difference you may notice is the vivid contrast between shadows and highlights. I will often begin by painting these shadows and highlights on a separate overlay layer. Then I will continually reincorporate them into the base layer. I employ this technique to retain their transparency in relation to the  photorealistic textures, as well as keep the transformation gradual before the contrast becomes too strong. This is actually a reversal from how I would work on a traditional oil painting (the source my digital style evolved from) where the absence of removable layers would mean that the contrasts have to come first.

A series of film stills from this deeply insightful 2006 post by Waitsel Smith.

In general, shading in all the goblin portraits takes cues from the aesthetics of film noir—a style characterized by low-key lighting and strong black shadows. This is used to enhance their emotional affect (you're probably noticing a theme).

My favourite finishing touch on any portrait is to add tiny pinpricks of light around the eyes, nose and lips. Something about this moment feels to me like the threshold between life and unlife. The moment those pinpricks are in, I feel as though the character is watching me as I paint, making silent demands on my brushstrokes as they tell me what they ought to look like. 

Once I've obtained a satisfying base portrait, it's time to go back to that emotion reference sheet I sketched out earlier. 

Due to the complexity of these portraits, simply replacing features (as I might do with a flatter or more cell-shaded drawing) doesn't work. Instead, I have to use a combination of image-distortion techniques and repainting to creates entirely new faces over top of the base 'neutral' expression. 

The upcoming release of The Inverted Spire has 9 unique portraits per character with added 'blinking' variations for each. That's about 64 unique character portraits, each individually painted in the style you see above!

Some characters also have additional painted overlays, such as variations with their hair down. These are tied to specific in-game events.

So let's put it all together so see what happens to FOUR:

FOUR is a pretty stoic goblin. 

Even their most exaggerated expressions are muted compared to some of their companions. They keep their feelings close to their chest, resulting in a few ambiguous faces that can be read many different ways (though some are not ambiguous in the slightest). 

While they're more open about anger and frustration, FOUR is especially cagey when it comes to expressing positivity.  Their kindest smile is still tempered by a hint of irony, which may leave you wondering whether they're expressing genuine support or just teasing for a laugh.

 They're also not especially good at reading a room, which can lead to some awkward encounters. This is only made more difficult by FOUR's tendency to cope with challenges through some heavy compartmentalization, meaning the emotions they do express don't always betray their true feelings (and frankly, I'm not  sure FOUR knows what their true feelings are half the time).

To give you a better idea of how acting my way though a character's lines leads to some radically different outcomes, here's the emotional range of a character who  doesn't know the meaning of subtle, and has probably never withheld a feeling in their life:

It would not be doing THREE justice to say that they're the life of a party. 

THREE is the entire party.  

Oh yes, you may think you know how to party, but inviting THREE will elevate your event to cataclysmic proportions.

THREE has a lot of opinions. And you are going to hear every single one of them. They have a raucous laugh that cuts through conversation like butter, and they will personally take every single one of your exes—in a fight—at the same time (even if you beg them not to). 

They will probably lose this fight. And they will still love every second of it.

Looking at the expression charts of these two characters side by side, you can probably begin to see some of the creative decisions that went into making them so radically different from one another. 

THREE has a very mobile face that stretches to accommodate howls of laughter and blistering rage in equal measure. FOUR keeps their jaw tight, even when they're practically growling. 

THREE's happiness is as intense as their misery. They are a creature of extremes. FOUR is always slightly sarcastic and withdrawn, even at their most earnest. Where THREE's eyes contract and widen to almost cartoonish proportions, FOUR usually carries a slight squint.  Where THREE's mouth stretched into a variety of shapes, FOUR retains the same basic rectangle with mild distention.

Both characters can be quite intimidating, but in very different ways. 

FOUR is a dominating presence. They exude an aura of confidence bordering on arrogance, and make it very clear that they are not be crossed. Exerting control over their own face is just one part of maintaining their atmosphere of command.

THREE's confidence is simply an emergent property of their exuberance. While FOUR masks their insecurities (often badly) THREE wears  them all on their proverbial sleeve. They are intimidating only because they know exactly who they are, and are so completely unapologetic it gives them the aura of an unstoppable force (even if the only goblin they pose any real threat to is themselves).

Adaptable characterization in the manuscript leads to adaptive decisions in the character art, which in turn feeds back into how each spoken line is interpreted by the reader. 

This is how art and writing in The Inverted Spire become closely interweaved, all in service towards the greater story.

So what's next?

Our next dev log is scheduled for October 15th.

In the meantime, are there any particular questions you have related to the artwork in TIS? 

Would you like to hear about backgrounds? Perhaps the intricate user interface? 

Maybe there's more about the artistic decisions behind our characters you'd like to learn, or even a tutorial you'd like to follow along with?

Whether its your thoughts on the artistic process, or suggestions for new logs, we'd love to see them in the comments!

See you soon, dear reader~<3

Tbh I actually thought the unreliable narrator, and tension between information revealed/hidden were actually some of the most intriguing parts of your storytelling! 

Far from turning me off the story, it was a motivation to keep going, and come to my own conclusions about the truth. <3

Hello dear readers, and thank you for checking in for another bimonthly dev log ~<3 

Before we get started on the main topic for today, I'd like to let everyone know that due to an evolving personal matter concerning a member of our team, we've had to re-evaluate our workflow. 

We've been very conscious of the impact committing to a large project like The Inverted Spire can have on health and work-life balance from the very beginning. Whether that's in the form of detailed content warnings for beta readers, or making sure our team members don't over-commit at the cost of their own wellbeing, we want to continue making that promise a reality. In this case, it means changing some dates to make sure nobody's health is compromised by working on the project. 

Upon discussion, we decided the best way to handle this was:

1- Push our beta reader feedback dates to the month of October (official start date now September 30th) 

2- Push the full release for Chapters 1 & 2 to November 30th. 

As a byproduct of this decision, we will also still be accepting new beta readers all the way until September 28th (so if you're still interested, but thought you missed the deadline, you can check out our call here).

While the date change is unfortunate, we feel that ultimately, the health of our team members comes first.  

We also believe that the more sustainable our production schedule remains, the better our final product becomes!

Now on to the dev log itself~

In our last dev log, we talked about the relationship between theatre, the courtroom drama, and visual novels as an evolving medium. 

 While the storytelling language of theatre may be the primary mover behind a lot of our decisions around staging and game mechanics, when it comes to worldbuilding, we're coming from a very different place. 

As we hinted earlier, The Inverted Spire is at home with a pretty broad and eclectic frame of literary reference. It falls into the evolving tradition of fantasy sub-genres responding to (and arguably pushing back against) the 20th century canon that romanticizes pseudo-historical pastoral settings (often based on medieval Western Europe), and retells the legendary hero's journey into oblivion a thousand different ways. There are many parallels to be drawn with the New Weird genre, Soviet (and post-Soviet) fantastika, and other forms of postmodernist speculative fiction. 

But today I'd like to talk about what is perhaps the most obvious and direct literary influence on the world of The Inverted Spire:

Ursula K. Leguin's The Left Hand of Darkness

Both And One, oil on panel, 16×12″ Interior illustration by Vaness Lamen  for an Illustrated Limited Edition ot the book through Easton Press / MBI, Inc.

For those of you who are less familiar with it, The Left Hand of Darkness is an immensely popular science fiction novel. It revolves around the diplomatic efforts of  a Terran native, making first contact with the planet Gethen to convince its residents of joining an interplanetary alliance of humanoid worlds. 

A pretty common premise on the face of it! 

Until you realize the inhabitants of Gethen are androgynous, ambisexual beings embroiled in a multi-tier international political conflict of their own, and our protagonist is about to become one of many moving parts at the center of their evolving intrigue. 

This novel was my first encounter with themes of gender and sexuality taking the wheel in a work of genre fiction. It's an especially daring concept when you consider that it was first published in 1969! 

Unfortunately, the publication date is reflected in some of the author's creative choices. As much as I will always love this novel, it's hard not to question why the genderless Gethens all use male pronouns, and are depicted almost exclusively in traditionally masculine gender roles.  How are  essential topics that form the backbone of any society—topics like child-rearing, caretaking and housekeeping—addressed  by the Gethens at all? Aside from a handful of brief anecdotes, we never really find out   And as for their sexuality—why is it that heterosexuality, along with all the baggage of its traditional gendered norms, suddenly becomes default in the beds of a genderless world? 

Photo from a theatre adaption of The Left Hand of Darkness by Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre,  with Julie Hammond (left) as Estraven and Damian Thompson (right) as Genly Ai.

Perhaps the best illustration of the author's ongoing battle with the core premise of her own worldbuilding lies in the following passage, where Genly Ai, who is implied to be a straight, cisgender man, struggles to wrap his head around his host, the Gethen prime minister Estraven:

"Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either…but what was it saying?"

Now, Genly does eventually manage to overcome some of his Terran assumptions about gender (and women in particular) to see Estraven as a fully-realized person. But his biased perspective lends the entire story an aftertaste as sour as Gethen beer (in the humble opinion of yours truly). 

It's hard not to read this passage as someone who exists on the opposite side of the page—more of an Estraven than a Genly—and not see the protagonist's words mirrored in my own real-world experiences with uncomprehending others. Harder to still to sit with the fact that Genly is the protagonist of this story (rather than the far more interesting Estraven) precisely because his ideas about the world are presumed to be the real-world default of its audience. The funny result is that I have a sort of out-of-body experience whenever I come back to Left Hand, and find myself immersed in a thoroughly straight, cisgender point-of-view—looking back on myself as an alien lifeform from the planet Gethen.

Of course, I am far from the first reader to raise these questions. 

LeGuin would spend many decades responding to criticism of the novel, and at times, amending her views, or else expressing regret for assumptions she no longer agreed with. She even published new stories (such as Coming of Age in Karhide in 1995),  which effectively retconned some of the more outdated ideas in Left Hand, though many of its deeper gendered premises remained untouched.

Estraven (left) and Genly Ai (right) on a dangerous eighty-day trek across the northern Gobrin ice sheet back to Karhide. Illustrated by David Lupton for a Folio Society publication of Ursula K. Le Guin's novel.

One of the questions LeGuin would have the hardest time responding to (judging by how many times she changed her answer) is why? 

Why tell a story about a genderless world? 

The implication of this question is of course that our world is gendered. Irrevocably, essentially gendered. So if you're telling a story set in a place with no men or women, surely you must (ironically) be making some kind of point about men and women?

The idea that a conscious real-world perspective might exist outside, or perhaps between these two dualities is relegated to the world of aliens, gods and monsters. 

Now, I'm not going to flatter myself by claiming The Inverted Spire is some kind of attempt to perfect the world that LeGuin so masterfully constructed (for all its debated failings). 

The truth of the matter is more complicated. Because what I saw in Left Hand was the the reflection of a possibility. An open door, inviting the many underwritten perspectives already brimming in my head into the blank textbox on my laptop screen. 

It was Left Hand that left me with the unshakeable belief that we no longer need a Genly Ai to be our lens into Estraven's world. And further, that the existence of such a world no longer needs to be justified as a commentary on men and women. It simply is, as Estraven simply is,  despite all of Genly attempts to project his notions of gender onto that "dark, ironic, powerful presence" sitting "in the firelit darkness."

Wraparound cover art (back and front) by Tim White from an edition of The Left Hand of Darkness with Futura, 1981

But how is the absence of gender actually relevant to the worldbuilding of The Inverted Spire? What does it change? Is it really important at all? 

Why yes, dear reader, I would argue it is and does!

In the first place, it sets up a world where roles fundamental to a functioning society entirely lack a gendered component. There is no concept of motherhood or fatherhood, with their own distinctive traditional properties. In fact, reproduction itself is entirely genderless process, where either partner can choose to be either the carrier of a child, or the donor of genetic material. Any individual goblin may alternate between these two roles throughout their life, and there are no significant assumptions attached to either.

In Old Order, this generated clans united by a complex series of blood ties that were more akin to a constellation chart than a family tree. Goblins were always raised in a  community setting, rather than a nuclear family. But New Order introduces even more stringent restrictions on family bonds in order to escape the clutches of Old Order nepotism. 

Most New Order goblins have no idea who their biological parents are, having been passed from one community home to another, and one series of assigned mentors to another, all throughout their lives. 

Instead of allegiance to a family, goblins tend to have fealty with their magical discipline, and the corresponding Guild that fosters it. They are encouraged to produce the next generation of goblins by the promise of advancement within the Guild itself. Though some goblins are predisposed to be nurturing, and actively seek out mentorship roles, most goblins will at some point be assigned apprentice graduates out of academies on principle. 

The academies themselves, as a byproduct of the age of casting, are generalist schools where full-time mentors from an assortment of magical disciplines prepare and evaluate young goblins for an eventual Guild assignment.

All goblins (aside from those licensed for travelling professions) live in communal dwellings mixing various disciplines under one roof.  Older residents in these domestic arrangements are occasionally nominated as 'guardians' for new arrivals of academy age. They are loosely held responsible for mentor-like obligations in all realms outside of formal academy training. Typically, a single underage goblin is assigned three or four guardians at once, so they can share these responsibilities amongst themselves. 

Screenshots from the new release (top) and original prototype (bottom) depicting the protagonist of The Inverted Spire writing their last entry into an official Bureau of Service journal.

Goblin romance, while very much real, carries no expectations of lifelong attachment akin to marriage. In fact, there is no equivalent to the concept of marriage in TIS. While individual goblins may choose to have life partners, expectations of monogamous commitment simply do not exist in their world. This certainly doesn't mean an absence of the concept of jealousy, but it lacks a moral weight. Goblins are jealous simply because they are emotional beings that crave respect, companionship and affection, and not in association with any relationship-related duty.

Gendered power dynamics and behaviours don't exist in the goblin world, but assumptions based on Guild and creed are abundant. The rarer the magical discipline, the more likely it is to be mired in stereotypes and hearsay. Power is likewise distributed among different 'circles' within a Guild, with Guildmasters and Council representatives at the very top of the hierarchy. Even between Guilds, those with greater numbers like the Artificers, or the ones with rare powers, like the Mentalists, indisputably hold greater sway within the Council itself. 

And finally, within New Order, there is the matter of Equation scores, and the sprawling bureaucracy of the Bureau of Service. The higher a goblin's Equation score, the more access they have to better living conditions, greater comforts, and higher Guild positions. 

In short, the goblins of New Order don't lack a concept of gender or gender-based sexuality because they're talking puppets for some kind of Gender Studies 101.  They simply begin with a point-of-view different from someone who does filter their behaviour through a naturally assumed familiarity with manhood or womanhood. This makes their reflections on the troubles that do plague their nation, and even the nature of their own alleged crimes, significantly different from someone coming from a world where binary gender is the default. 

But it makes those troubles no less real—and certainly no less darkly familiar.

The need for love. A sense of purpose. A sense of personal identity. Existential dread and despair. These are all things that goblins know well.  And they are all things that the story of TIS explores in exhaustive detail. 

So what's next?

Our next dev log is coming up on September 30th. Is there any topic in particular that you'd like us to cover? 

We'd also love to hear your thoughts~ whether its on the the notion of a genderless world, LeGuin's novels (and other speculative fiction) or other topics related to fantasy worldbuilding. 

And if you're curious to read more about the writing process for TIS, I have another (rather timely) journal entry on "writing nuanced depictions of people who do bad things" which you can have a look at here. 

Your thoughts and comments are as welcome as ever. ~<3

Hey, that would be awesome <3 

We're gathering emails from our beta readers to invite everyone to a shared Google drive in the second week of September and hopefully kick off the testing, so if you're able to share your email, we can add you to the list! (you can just email me directly at yozhikisblue@gmail.com or DM through the social media link s above it if you prefer not to post it here)

(1 edit)

Welcome, dear readers, to another bimonthly dev log! Before we get into that, I’d like to let you know that we currently have ~a call for beta readers here. ~

Details are in the posting, but in general we are looking to share a playable version of the game with basic staging and few graphics (primarily placeholders from storyboards and the prototype) with our volunteer beta readers come the second week of September, and incorporate the feedback we receive by September 30th into making the end-of-October release the best it can be.

If the full details sound like they might be of interest to you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch through the contact info in the posting!

Now, returning to our dev log~

We’ve got quite a lot simultaneously burbling and stirring behind the scenes right now, and only so much we can share with you before release. This means that unfortunately, we won’t be able to get into the new aesthetics as much as we’d hoped. So instead, I’ll be venturing a little outside details of the game itself to talk about another unusual, but highly significant influence on the worldbuilding and story development of TIS.

Speaking as Nicholai the writer, while I’m an avid fan of visual novels and IF, the earliest concepts for TIS actually developed organically from my theatre background. 

I worked backstage doing set design and prop master work for a number of years, while moonlighting as an occasional animation model. During that time, one my most enduring favourites of the stage was Twelve Angry Jurors (also known as Twelve Angry Men). For those who are unfamiliar with the play: the entire story unfolds in a jury room, where the eponymous twelve angry jurors must decide on the verdict of a homicide trial. When a single dissenter emerges to challenge the nearly-unanimous verdict of guilty, a battle of the wits commences. As tempers fly high and prejudices are unveiled, the nameless dissenter (in a cast where each character is known simply by number) begins to slowly convince the room of the defendant’s innocence.

Poster illustration for the 1957 Hollywood adaptation of Twelve Angry Men.

I know, I know—I just spoiled the ending! But this play has been out in the world since 1954, and I promise it’s all about the journey. 

Scene from Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (aka. A Pending Decision) directed by Basu Chatterjee.

One of the most interesting qualities of theatre manuscripts like this one is how adaptable they are to different settings, characters and time periods. It’s been a little over six decades since Twelve Angry Men made its debut as an American teleplay, and since that time, its central concepts have been repurposed in countless languages and cultures across the world. From Xu Ang’s 12 Citizens to Basu Chatterjee’s A Pending Decision, and multiple initiatives to create all-female or gender-neutral version of the story, the manuscript was prime real estate for any director with a mind to tackle pressing social issues of the day. 

Scene from 十二公民 (aka.Twelve Citizens) directed by Xu Ang.

A subjective observation of the thing yours truly loves best about theatre and visual novels alike is that I feel both mediums have a uniquely intimate quality in their relationship with the viewer.

Sitting in a crowded theatre at the moment when the lights dim, everyone quiets, and the curtain opens feels like a personal invitation into a parallel universe, where everything is both new and strangely familiar. When an actor speaks on stage, they aren’t peering into a camera through the glass of your digital monitor, but speaking directly to you, the audience. 

In a visual novel, you are likewise transported into another world (even if that world is a slice of life). You are spoken to directly, either as you take the form of an acting character in the story, or observe life through the protagonist’s eyes. 

The standard format of most visual novels is tailormade to facilitate this immersion. When character sprites or portraits appear on your screen, they’re illustrated in a way that suggests they are looking through it, directly at you, the player. Your primary method of interaction with the world of a VN is usually not through jumping, crawling or fighting your way through, but in person-to-person interactions. It’s the feelings you develop about these fictional relationships that become your primary motivation to keep going until the end. 

Maybe you are beginning to see how my brain drew parallels between the character interactions in Twelve Angry Jurors and visual novels as the vehicle for telling a compelling story.

What if you were placed in the shoes of someone forced to convince a group of very different people about the outcome of major decisions that could deeply impact your life, or the lives of others?

Screenshot from Gyakuten Saiban (aka. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney)

Of course there are already several quite famous (and divisive) visual novels that toy with this concept in different forms. The long-running Phoenix Wright series is the most literal take on this theme, dropping you in the midst of a series of eccentric fictional courtroom dramas to play the role of a bumbling, but well-meaning defense attorney. Other examples include stories revolving around a Battle Royale-like death game, such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (aka. 999) and the over-the-top Danganronpa franchise. These VNs tend to downplay some of the qualities other games in the medium are best known for. Lengthy, Intimate relationship-building scenes between the protagonist and their favourite character, options to influence the personal development of characters as they overcome their respective crises, and a web of character-specific endings reached through your in-game choices—all of them take a backseat to engaging dialogue puzzles and a mystery-driven plotline.


Screenshot from a class trial sequence of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.

But what if you were re-focus the lens of these stories on the protagonist’s relationships, and intimate character studies of each member of the cast? What if you were to turn the dial on general zaniness, to place some of a death game story’s darker, more existential implications (and related social issues) in the spotlight? You’d get something a little less Danganronpa and a little more Twelve Angry Jurors.


Screen capture from a new opening scene of the upcoming Inverted Spire release, where a travelling goblin performer tells their audience a story.

Of course, the thing about taking the zaniness out of a title like Danganronpa is that the outrageous antics and caricature-like personalities of its characters are half the point! And if Phoenix Wright were to attempt a highly realistic depiction of courtroom proceedings, the lion’s share of its charm would immediately be stripped away.  

Part of what makes these games as captivating as they are is that they are entirely self-conscious of their outlandish conceits. Their otherworld settings, which continually toy with player expectations of the familiar, make for a wild and exciting ride where the improbable becomes routine (and in this, they are also very much like the experience of theatre).

This brings me to another significant inspiration for The Inverted Spire that bridges the gap between different forms of storytelling: the speculative fantasy genre (particularly Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness/other stories set in the Hainish universe) and New Weird (with much inspiration drawn from China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and other novels set in the world of Bas-Lag). But that’s a subject for another time ; )

So what's next?

You'll be hearing from us again on September 15th!

By then our beta readers will have received access to an early version of the new release, and we can get more into both aesthetic inspiration and narrative influences that made the game what it is.

Do have your own ideas about the relationship between theatre and visual novels (or other forms of interactive storytelling)? How about the courtroom drama motifs that drive dialogue puzzles and other mystery game mechanics in some of the most popular visual novels out there? 

P.S. If you want to hear more behind-the scenes ramblings about my personal creative process, I also post threads on Twitter (as @yozhikisblue) about the writing and art of TIS every now and then, like this reflection on how old school animation like The Secrets of NIMH is an ongoing inspiration for TIS BGs.

Hey there, I believe I saw your post up before! This may not be exactly what you're looking for, but if you're still searching for narrative design related work for various projects, we do have a call up for beta readers to test and provide creative feedback on a very choice-heavy visual novel/interactive fiction game that may be of interest to you here.

This is super exciting, thank you for the update! (and sorry to hear motivation has been a struggle at times, I hope you manage to catch a break and recover some ~<3)

Hey, sounds good! We require emails from our beta readers so we can invite you all to the same shared drive. If you're more comfortable sharing your email privately, you can also DM me on Instagram or Twitter @yozhikisblue or just email me directly at yozhikisblue@gmail.com!

(7 edits)

Note: Post has been updated with the more detailed, up-to-date information about the call.

Hey everyone!

I'm the writer and artist behind The Inverted Spire (https://yozhikisblue.itch.io/the-inverted-spire), a dark fantasy/psychological horror VN  where you are one of seven goblin mages sent on a dungeon crawl to redeem yourself before the dystopian state of New Order.

We're currently aiming for a release of Chapters 1 & 2 on November 30th. The game has made considerable progress, and things are coming together on schedule for the moment. However, we could really use more beta readers!


Here's what we need your help with:

Making sure the game's relationship building mechanics are balanced (TIS employs some unusual mechanics that you can read about here and here). 

Avoiding incongruencies in character development, where later scenes seem out of character with player choices made throughout the game.

Minimizing grammar and spelling mistakes.

Ensuring the dialogue puzzles (particularly those in Chapter 2) are of reasonable difficulty.

Getting a better idea of how the characters come across to players overall, and incorporating feedback to make sure we communicate their development effectively across branching story paths.

*Please note that if any of this sounds intimidating, at the end of the day we're really just looking for people to try a playthrough and tell us about their experience. Prior knowledge of VNs, game development, the genre, or editing in general is not required. But hearing different player perspectives on character development, the gameplay etc. is still very valuable to us! 

The amount of time you would like to invest in trying different routes is entirely up to you (however we do request that you commit to at least one full playthrough!) Similarly, there's no pressure to comb the script for grammar or spelling errors. We simply appreciate them pointed out if you happen to notice one.

Extended Synopsis:

The Inverted Spire is a dark fantasy tale with themes of redemption and self-discovery in a brutal dystopian world.

You play as a mentalist, a mind-reading mage whose citizen score has fallen below the threshold of social acceptability.

Normally, you would spend the rest of your life in the Corrective Camps of the State of New Order, but you have volunteered yourself for an expedition into the Inverted Spire.

The Spire is an unearthly architectural marvel stretching many leagues below ground. It has no known origin, and has been altering the surrounding landscape into an unlivable wasteland.

Your Council has been sending groups of prisoners into the structure for decades with the stated intent of investigating and destroying it. This is the sole opportunity for wards of state to have their crimes forgiven, reputation scores reset, and citizenship fully reinstated. The opening ceremonies of such expeditions have even become a crowd-pleasing public event.

None have ever returned.

But you, and the six others who have been "volunteered" alongside you, are determined to be the first survivors.

Read minds. Form alliances. Break them. Find true companionship. Make true enemies.

Become the person you always wished you could be, or succumb to your darkest urges.

Anything is possible in the uncharted depths of the Spire.

Timeline:

We're looking to beta-test a primarily text-based (with limited GUI/visual assets) version of the game beginning September 30th, and would be looking to receive feedback no later than mid-to-late October so we can make sure to incorporate it in time for the projected release date!

Content Warnings:

The game is intended for a mature audience (18+), and does deal with some heavy subject matter. As a consequence of that, we'll be providing beta readers with detailed content warnings that describe this to the best of our ability prior to diving in (I would be happy to discuss specific concerns with individual readers as well).

To give you a basic overview, themes of resilience and trauma recovery are significant to the narrative overall.

These include: Themes of mental illness. Themes of substance abuse. References to past relational violence and abusive relationship dynamics. Violence experienced directly by the protagonist and other characters in the story. Body Dysmorphia and body horror. Existential horror, particularly as it relates to existing as a political prisoner in an authoritarian state.

What we can offer in return:

Unfortunately, we cannot pay for your efforts at this time (TIS is a passion project currently being developed entirely out-of-pocket on a shoestring budget), but I am an experienced illustrator, editor (including sensitivity reading), and comic creator, and would be happy to provide assistance to other projects as time allows (feel free to ask about specific things you have in mind!)

Any beta readers will of course also be fully credited on the landing page and in-game credits once the Chapter 1 & 2 release is out.

If you're interested in helping out, please don't hesitate to reach out and let us know!

We'll be checking the comments on this post, but you can also message me privately on Twitter or Instagram, where I go by yozhikisblue.

Alternatively, you can send me an email expressing you interest at yozhikisblue@gmail.com

P.S. To anyone who has read this far, I've just updated this thread with our most recent news, since the previous thread relating to the game prototype was archived (you can still find it here: https://itch.io/t/1011865/the-inverted-spire-dark-fantasypsychological-horror-vn...). We'll be posting new dev logs on the game page as well (which you can find here: https://yozhikisblue.itch.io/the-inverted-spire). 

On the mechanics and ethics of mind-reading~

A new bimonthly dev log arrives on the scene! This time, I’ll be talking more about Mentalism (or more colloquially, mind-reading), and how that functions as a game mechanic in TIS.

As those of you who have played the demo or read our game page already know, all goblins in TIS possess magical abilities. In our protagonist, this predisposition manifests as Mentalism. They can, within limits, read and influence minds (too bad that hasn’t worked out too well for them so far).

Now that they are in the company of goblins who can bend light and rearrange flesh at will, it’s also their one advantage in the Spire. 

You may not be the team’s designated fighter. You're not the healer. You’re not even the first line of defense. But you are best positioned to become a mediator (or puppetmaster, if you prefer) in a high-stress situation where a group of very unstable people are forced to make decisions that could mean the difference between life and death.

In addition to typical interaction options relating to conversation or navigating the world, you (the player) will also frequently be faced with the opportunity to skim the surface of somebody else’s thoughts. Sometimes, you will even have a chance to affect their decisions! 

In the upcoming TIS release, we’re introducing animated visual mindscapes that are personal to each character (with obligatory apology for the lossy .gif format I have for our previews):

Entering another person’s mind isn’t always easy, or even a good idea! But if you're ready to dive in~

Here’s a few tips to get you started:

1- Don’t get caught (or at least, not without good reason)

Nobody likes to have their mind intruded upon. And while you can dip in and out pretty quickly, there are situations where you need more time to follow another goblin’s train of thought. While reading minds, our protagonist appears visibly entranced. If any other character is paying attention, they can catch you in the act. Seize your opportunities with caution, or be ready to get on their bad side.  

2- Be aware of how your relationships affect your abilities. 

A stronger connection with another character also strengthens the protagonist’s ability to read and influence them. Minds that aren’t in sync with your opinions and behaviour will resist you, just as the body’s immune system resists infection. Some may push you out altogether. In order for your abilities to be at their most effective, it’s important to find common ground with other goblins, even if you don’t particularly like them or agree with them (see previous dev log on how relationships in TIS are a balancing act here).

3- Know what you’re getting into. 

It’s risky to get into the head of a goblin who is especially angry, frightened or distressed. This risk is heightened all the more if you don’t understand them very well. However, there will also be times when you are the only one who can calm a goblin in a panic, ease their pain or stop them from lashing out in fury. Use your abilities wisely by taking the time to understand when they’re really needed (and if you’re the right person for the job).  

4- Use what you find carefully. 

Peering into the thoughts of others may grant you access to information (accidentally or otherwise) that they don’t want to share. You can choose to prioritize their privacy, but there may be times when that information will influence your understanding of events and provide new interaction options. Using it can profoundly influence the course of events that follow. It can also result in some very divisive reactions among your group, even (and perhaps especially) if the secrets you divulge are "for the collective good."

Now setting aside the practice of Mentalism, there is the real-world conundrum of mind-reading ethics, which I would like to dwell on a little here:

 A number of players have already told us that they find the protagonist's abilities conceptually frightening. 

As the writer, I whole-heartedly agree!

I think this is a very timely concern, given the emergence of crude neurotechnology in the late 20th century. Of course, a scientific definition of mind or thought is still not something any contemporary neuroscientist can give you. We may have neuroimaging techniques like fMRI, assistive technology that helps people with severe spinal cord injuries interact with their environment, and real-world supervillains like Elon Musk implanting pigs with coin-size "neuralinks," but this is still galaxies away from the sophistication of  fictional cyberpunk dystopias. 

What we do unquestionable live with on a daily basis are predictive algorithms designed to manipulate the pleasure systems in our brains, and predatory corporate data-mining practices. That much isn't science fiction or conspiracy. It's just a sacrifice most of us have accepted as the natural price for existing on the internet. 

Faceless corporate entities are at once more scary and harder to hate than an individual wielding analogous abilities for their personal benefit. Bringing this back to TIS—a similar disconnect exist in the goblin world. 

Even being raised in a state of magical mass-surveillance still leaves goblins wary of individuals like our protagonist, who are born with the natural ability to intrude upon their neuroprivacy.  In the days of Old Order, the Mentalist guild once ruled in the form of self-named prophets, and a religion abandoned to the annals of time. After being overthrown, Mentalists were perceived both as a threat to the sanctity of New  Order, and a tool too useful to destroy. The activities of individual Mentalists are meticulously catalogued and controlled. All of them are funneled into a limited range of positions where they, theoretically, are only permitted to use their powers in a professional context for the common good. It is in this context that the protagonist's personal breakdown  is perceived as an especially egregious crime.

All this to say that the ethical quandaries of Mentalism as a discipline are built into the very framework of TIS. I would encourage players to think about what a consent-based model of Mentalist practice would look like, and how that falls within the broader context of survival and "greater good"  morality (or any one of the many alternatives to utilitarianism you may align with). Perhaps some of you may even arrive at the idea that no use of it can ever be justified under any circumstances! The game is still playable with this philosophy in mind.

So what's next?

You'll be hearing from us again on August 31st!

In our next update, we'll be back to talking about some of our aesthetic updates in the contexts of backgrounds and CGs, and how the artwork is tailormade to convey the oppressive New Order atmosphere. 

Do you have your own perspective to share about the ethics of Mentalism? Have more questions about how Mentalism will work in-game that we haven't answered? Feel free to comment below!

P.S. If you want to hear more behind-the scenes ramblings about my personal creative process, I also post threads on Twitter (as @yozhikisblue) about the writing and art of TIS every now and then, like this one. You're welcome to follow and/or express your thoughts. ~<3

On character dynamics in TIS, and designing relationship-building mechanics a little outside the box~

Hey all,  our bimonthly dev log is coming at you a little early today, as yours truly plans to be out in the wilderness this weekend, without much in the way of a wifi connection. As promised, you'll be getting some insight into how character interaction in The Inverted Spire (TIS) diverges from a traditional visual novel (VN) structure, and why it functions the way it does! 

So let's get started—

In a more traditional VN, it's common that if you have branching paths at all, they're tied to romancing particular characters. Your outcomes change depending on which characters you are most consistently friendly (or flirtatious) with. The player often goes into a game like this with character profiles highlighting potential romance options ahead of time. They may be targeted at different sexualities, and have varying degrees of sexual or romantic content, but typically set the same expectations: make the right choices, and you get the object of your desire.

Regardless of what other plotlines may be weaved through the overall narrative of the game, this is the player's primary focus. There may even be a collect-them-all incentive, where the player receives rewards in the form of true endings, or other unlockable content, if they attempt multiple romance paths successfully.

Of course, not all branching VNs play out like this. Some aren't tied to particular characters at all. Many place romance as secondary to a robust mystery, or other kind of storyline, where only correct choices bring success. And success, in this case, is measured by more content and increasingly more satisfying endings.

TIS is a little more like the latter, in that your choices determine the direction of the overall story—but they do so in a very character-driven way. The player's outcomes are ultimately decided by a combination of factors, including evolving beliefs and character relationships over time. Without giving too much away, let's have a closer look at how that works:

(Obligatory disclaimer: this deconstruction is not at all intended as a criticism of more traditional VN branching structures, which are frequently used to great effect!)

1—The player's beliefs.

TIS is set in a totalitarian, guild-based society of mages with a deeply entrenched social credit system.  Every character is raised from an early age with the idea that New Order is the only rational alternative to the violent and bloody past of their Old Order ancestors. After all, how else does one establish relative equity and prosperity in a society of magical goblins?

Unfortunately, you ended up in the Spire precisely because New Order isn't quite working for you.

Do you believe yourself to be a glitch in an otherwise functional system? Is it that the system itself, while good in concept, has been corrupted by internal and external influences that need to be wiped clean? Perhaps it was never a just or good system after all, and your inability to live as a productive New Order citizen is part of an intentional design that discards unfitting candidates?

TIS offers many choices to forge your own attitude towards the philosophies that New Order is based on, and evaluates each one (just like the mysterious New Order Equation) on competing scales of "Compliance" and "Dissidence."

Your fellow wards of the Spire expedition also have their own perspectives on the rules and social mores you were raised in. Their perception of you and your choices will vary based on your Compliance and Dissidence scores over time. 

These decisions will also shape your character's evolving personality. In key moments where there is no time to think, or a chance to act on sheer impulse, the result of your decisions over time will influence the protagonist's behaviour, and this, in turn, will also affect the way other characters perceive you .

2—The player's interaction choices.

As the narrative of TIS unfolds, you will find yourself in near-constant contact with your fellow Expedition wards. At such close quarters, and in such dire circumstances, your every word and action is being closely watched by six very different people. 

After all, their survival may depend on it!

Other characters will both judge your actions in the moment, and begin to form a more long-lasting impression of you over time.  

The player can see how the attitudes of the other six change based on each decision they make in real time, in the form of on-screen "trust bars." Certain actions will affect the perspectives of some characters more significantly than others. Similarly, characters will respond to similar actions differently. Some like to have their motives and beliefs questioned, while others don't. Some will take a compliment with enthusiasm, while others will find it suspicious. And let's be honest—very few like to have somebody else actively reading their thoughts, or plumbing the depths of their darkest memories, but you may need to do that too.

 This is perhaps the place where TIS diverges  most significantly from the traditional VN branching structure.

If you wish to reach the bottom of the Spire, you cannot please one character at the expense of all the rest. And since every action you take is being evaluated by others, character interaction becomes a delicate balancing act.  Even if you do have a favourite character, you will inevitably sometimes have to make choices they dislike.  

Some choices are so significant to your relationship with a particular character, that they will act as a status effect, altering how they might otherwise perceive your decisions. A character who has grown to respect you will be less judgmental of decisions they might otherwise disagree with, and more appreciative of those they like, while a character who is particularly angry with you will see all your decisions in a more negative light. Undoing these status effects takes time and consistent effort.

At key junctures in the story, characters will also make a mental note of how much they like you so far. Trust bar fluctuations are inevitable, but these deeper judgements will only make themselves known at a later point, perhaps when you finally catch them alone.

So can I still romance my favourite characters?

Short answer: Yes!

Long answer: Romance in TIS is optional, but entirely viable. In fact, even romance in TIS looks a little different from a more traditional VN!

Independent of the emergence of New Order, goblins have no concept of gender or gender-based sexuality.  In their case, this means they also lack a concept of monogamy. 

There are no dyadic goblin marriages.  New Order is not built around the existence of traditional family structures.  Goblin infants only remain with their biological parents for a year or so before being assigned guardians within a tiered academy system, which in turn prepares them for mentors and apprenticeships within the tiered system of their guild.

TIS Goblins do still form close, meaningful bonds, but a moral obligation to save the romantic and sexual dimensions of a relationship for a single special someone simply aren't an idea they're familiar with.

This means you may very well pursue all manner of relationships with different goblins at once. They may be friends, lovers or enemies. The rest of the cast will also pursue relationships with one another, in ways that may or may not depend on your choices as the player. 

So yes, you can romance individual characters, but keep in mind those character may also develop similar relationships with others. You may need to not only negotiate your relationship with your personal favourite character, but their favourite characters as well!

Of course, context is important here. You are surrounded by fellow Correction Camp survivors on a deadly Expedition that killed everyone who came before you. Tensions are high, and the goblins who accompany you ended up here precisely because they (like the protagonist) had trouble getting along with others in the world above. 

Under such desperate circumstances, is romance the right choice for you at all? 

Is it nothing more than a momentary respite from the horrors of the Spire? Will it compromise you in ways that will ultimately lead to your demise, or strengthen your resolve in the face of  hardship?

Fair enough, but who are my options anyway?

Now that you have some idea of how relationship-building works in TIS, you may be wondering who it is you're dealing with. Let's have some introductions, while keeping spoilers to a minimum.

V_____ I____/ONE

What are they like?

The protagonist of our story.  ONE is a Mentalist who spiraled into an increasingly more lonely, hermetic existence as they felt their connection to the world around them waning. They turned themselves in to the Bureau of Service and volunteered for the Spire in the hopes of finding a sense of purpose, preferably before death. As for what they're really like, who they become and whether they ever achieve their initial goal—that's all up to you!

B_____ E___/TWO

What are they like?

Thoughtful and even-tempered, TWO has clearly devoted a lot of time to formulating theories about the conspiracy at the heart of New Order. But they don’t seem to have a lot to say about their own past, or why the Security Bureau thought a simple bureaucrat was dangerous enough to be locked away for life.

How do I get on their good side?

Don't take the status quo for granted. Ask hard questions about the world around you, even if it means uncovering an unsightly truth. But don't get personal, and don't go so far as to antagonize others or start unnecessary conflict. 

M____ R____/THREE

What are they like?

Bold, theatrical and unapologetically opposed to everything New Order stands for—it’s not hard to see how THREE ended up on a one-way trip to the Spire.  They have a vivid sense of humour. No topic is safe from becoming a joke, even when it comes to their own life. They may act like they’ve got nothing to hide, but is that really true?

How do I get on their good side?

Take risks. Commit to daring choices (The more outlandish, the better!) Stand up to attempts at reconstructing New Order tyranny and power dynamics from the surface world here among your fellow wards in the Spire. 

R____ N____/FOUR

What are they like?

Stern and pragmatic, if a little absent-minded, FOUR appears to be the embodiment of a conscientious New Order citizen. But everybody slips up a little sometimes, right? And FOUR can tell you all about the loopholes that let them get around those inconvenient little restrictions, until they slipped a little too far, too fast.  They're only quiet until you get them talking about their favourite topics. But even sitting with their mouth shut, their imposing size makes them very hard to ignore.

How do I get on their good side?

Put survival first. Do what needs to be done, even if it's a hard choice to make. Understand that the status quo may not be perfect, but it is the way it is for a reason. 

Y____ M___/FIVE 

What are they like?

FIVE comes across as self-assured, and almost painfully high-strung. They want everyone to get through this alive—assuming the everyone in question is as committed to the idea of redemption as they are. It’s hard to imagine how  such an unabashedly patriotic goblin could run afoul of the algorithm that governs New Order. What awful mistake could they have made, and are they really as much of a true believer as they claim?

How do I get on their good side?

Demonstrate a commitment to redeeming yourself before New Order. Put the needs of the group before your own.  Be firm, but understanding.

C_____ P______/SIX

What are they like?

SIX is remarkably collected, given your shared circumstances. Their calm tone exudes an aura of competence and absolute authority. It seems as though they've always got something important to say, and they show no hesitation when it comes to calling others on their bullshit. Nothing about their appearance or demeanor seems especially threatening, so why is it that catching their eye sends an odd chill up your spine? 

How do I get on their good side?

Don't commit to any cause but your own. Be observant. Make useful observations. Understand that you're not here to make friends, even if you act like it. Use your power to take control of the situation. Stay adaptable.

M____ S___/SEVEN

What are they like?

I’s hard to picture frail, sentimental SEVEN as any kind of hardened dissident.  When they're not struggling to hold themselves together, they seem to do everything they can to blend in and avoid attention. Occasionally, you may catch a glimpse of someone tougher and more tired, lurking just underneath the surface. Does that make their supposed frailty an act? And if so, why pretend at all?

How do I get on their good side?

Make decisions that keep the peace between your fellow wards at all costs. Don't pry into personal matters or interrogate others about their  beliefs unless it's absolutely necessary. Remain optimistic, even in the face of unimaginable horrors.

So what's next?

You'll be hearing from us again on August 15th!

Next time, we'll be giving a little more insight into the protagonist's Mentalist powers, and how you can them for good or ill. You'll also get a preview of what the new mind-reading sequences look like, and how they are unique to each character. 

If you've read this far, we'd love to hear your thoughts on how we approach relationships in TIS (or maybe how you feel about relationship-building in VNs in general?) We'd also love to hear what you think of our characters so far. Opinions and predictions are, as always, welcome <3

It's been a while since our last update, but rest assured, dear reader~ our progress is far from stagnant.

Today I bring you news of a new team member, a major aesthetic overhaul, and the date of our next release!

First off, I'd like to welcome  Feardeer, who will be taking over most of our programming:

Icon designed by the artist themselves.

Feardeer is  an accomplished illustrator and comic artist in his own right (check out those links!)  with a penchant for all things spooky and surreal.  From Twine to Unity, and everything in between,  he's worked the gamut of game engines and programming languages, and is excited to finally be digging into ren'py. He's also open for commissions (check out the full details here), for those who dare to take the plunge.  You can follow them on Twitter or even here on Itch.io for news about their most recent projects.

The arrival of our new team member also frees up yours truly to focus more on the writing and art side of things, which means some major changes for the look and feel of Inverted Spire

Here's a sneak preview of what our updated character portraits and GUI will look like in action:

An opening scene of Chapter Two.
Taken from an opening scene of the mysterious Chapter Two.

And a spoiler-free glimpse of the new Journal menu, which holds many delicious secrets:

From a glossary of highly classified New Order documents to vital updates on character info and even an evolving map of the Spire itself, she's got it all!
From a glossary of highly classified New Order documents, to vital updates on character info, and even an evolving map of the Spire itself, she's got it all!

Much of the existing backgrounds, CGs and character art that you can see in  our downloadable prototype  will be getting a makeover to match.  You'll also be hearing new music written by our now-familiar composer, Charlie Sackett.

With progress well on its way, we're looking to release the complete first chapter (and maybe chapter two, if you're lucky ~<3) by October 30th, just in time for every horror lover's favorite holiday. That's over ten times the length of content in the available prototype, just in the first chapter alone (not counting codex entries and additional lore) split among a multitude of significant choices and branching paths. 

From now until our next release date, we'll be updating you with our progress roughly every two weeks. 

You can look forward to our next dev log on July 31st. We'll be showing off some new character expressions, and talking about trust meters (aka. how character relationships in The Inverted Spire are structured differently than you might expect, and why that's a cool thing).

See you then!

P.S. We continue to welcome your comments and feedback as the game progresses. That includes anything you might have to say about our dev logs, or the upcoming changes. Looking forward to hearing from you all <3

I'm glad you found it interesting! <3 I also continue to be fascinated by how different players and beta readers interpret the story. It's probably one of the coolest things about sharing your work with others?

I suspect that with the release of the first two chapters (most likely out of six) we'll get an even broader range of perspectives, and there may be a lot more players who feel the same way about New Order as you do. 

This has also been an ongoing consideration while writing the romance/friendship routes of individual characters in TIS, since the player's interactions with them depend a lot on how their personal values differ or intersect. Personally I keep having idle thoughts like "which character will be most popular with players?" and "I wonder how most players will end up aligning on the compliance/dissidence scales?" 

I guess we'll find out! ^^

Hey! No worries, personally I don't think your comment comes across as rude at all <3 

I do think it raises some interesting questions about the nature of gender perception and how painting a linework drawing can alter appearances. This also happens to be a topic I think about a lot in my day-to-day life, so please bear with me as I write you a spontaneous essay haha:

On the linework to painting question- I too have had times when I prefer the original linework or sketch to a more finished or polished look. It's the artist curse unfortunately! x' ) One thing I can say about this is that the character art in CGs has been altered to be a little more painterly and have heavier shadows, but it's not as huge of a difference as the portraits. As for character sprites- the new design actually minimizes the use of them, but when they do appear, they also have the same high-contrast solution applied. Basically in order to read the finer details of character emotions, the game now relies primarily on the portraits. This was an intentional choice, made in part as a response to player complaints that it can be hard to figure out who is who/tell the characters apart with seven characters speaking on the screen at once. I do however hope that you'll find the portraits are actually *more* expressive than the original sprites, and the way in which the characters express themselves also has a pretty gender ambiguous quality (e.g. if they're looking a little too pretty now, you may change your mind when they're getting angry or sarcastic!)

Ultimately though, I think the question of gendered perception is a bit more complicated to answer. I'll use a personal example to illustrate my thoughts: I happen to be a very androgynous person irl. I know this because I will walk down the street or into a store and have different people in the same space on the same day gender me differently on a regular basis ("Excuse me, miss!" "Hello, sir!") Because I rarely bother to correct them any more, this has resulted in some bizarre real-life situations. The most interesting is when two people who perceive me as being of a different genders interact with one another. Both have committed to their perception, and are equally certain of their correctness. I have even heard people say "I can't imagine how anyone would see you any other way." or when corrected by another "I have no idea why I thought you were (x gender)!" They will often attempt to rationalize it: "My friend has hair like yours..." "If you just changed your glasses..." "It was something about your eyes."  

The key point is that regardless of their position on my gender, it seems the person in question is always utterly convinced of it. And to bring this back around to the game: I've witnessed a similar thing with player/viewer interpretations of the characters. One player will tell me all the characters look like women. Another will give me a funny look when I tell them this about the other player and say something like "I know you said they're neither, but in my mind, I've been reading them all as men."  I've also witnessed players spontaneously assigning different genders to different characters, despite there being no gender pronouns anywhere in the narration. And more interesting still, those who do have a tendency to gender the characters this way don't even share the same opinions on which character has which gender!

Incidentally, I've noticed this tendency both with the original art and the new art (I feel I could write an entire dev log on this aspect of the game alone). I have come to believe that at the end of the day, just as it is with people witnessing my existence on the street, their perception of the characters has less to do with the characters themselves, and more to do with the way their own individual experiences have shaped their subconscious perception of men and women. 


Have you ever seen this drawing? Some people see both the duck and the rabbit. But for others, once they see one, they find it "impossible to unsee." They will even get frustrated when others see it another way (because who among us likes to have our reality questioned?) "How does that look ANYTHING like a rabbit?" "Are you crazy? Where do you see a duck?" 

Of course duck/rabbit drawing aside, I'm sure we've both seen how gender in the human world is a much more sensitive topic. It involves systemic impacts, affects how an individual is treated, and can have significant consequences over the course of their entire life. As for the goblins themselves- they have never met men or women. They have no experience of interpreting gender at all. Imagine what they must think of a group of humans trying to categorize them by a set of seemingly arbitrary rules! It would be like having a group of aliens argue over whether you are a "Zoop" or a "More of a Beezle, actually." "I'm sure if your arms were a little longer, you would look just like a Zoop..." "Your chin is just like a Beezle chin." etc.  

tldr; I think your concerns are very reasonable! While I draw, it continues to be my goal to portray the characters in a way that is unfettered by conventional gender norms. But (for better or worse) my perception of gendered appearance and behaviour is also shaped by my own life experiences, often in ways that are invisible to me. It's quite possible that as individuals, or subconscious biases diverge. What I think looks like a masculine feature your brain may pass over while focusing on what looks to you like a more feminine feature etc. But I hope that regardless of how our perceptions may differ, both of us will continue to find ambiguity in the new art, even if we see it in different ways! <3

I really love how you managed to do so much with such a short piece. Now I just have to make time to check out more of your other work! Everything I've tried has been great so far <3 (strong recommend to anyone seeing this comment haha)

On a personal note: (speaking as Nicholai the VN player) I also love when VNs give me the opportunity to befriend the characters throughout the story, and it's not necessarily a romance-only pipeline. <3 It's why I was pretty invested in the idea of close friendships/comraderies being an option in TIS if you choose not to pursue romance. 

For the latter question (speaking as Nicholai the writer/artist haha) I think the most that can be said about this for now is that there is only one path to the bottom of the Spire, but multiple ways of traversing it. In others words, the locations will remain the same, but character interactions and development will change significantly. The consequences of allying with one character over another start to pile up fast the deeper you go. What you learn about other characters and how they develop will different. Your methods and options at your disposal will be different. Even the areas of a location the mc sees/focuses on, and the world lore that's revealed will be different. And of course, there is the eventual possibility of character death. There is even a "hidden" character you may encounter in different ways depending on what you do, but that's all I'm going to reveal about that ; )

Thank you <3

Looking forward to showing off some character expressions in the updated style in our next dev log!

Totally <3 If you have more observations to share, feel free to DM me @yozhikisblue on either Insta or Twitter! (also linked in my itch.io profile)

Thank you for your thoughtful review! <3

There's quite a lot of New Order lore to be uncovered throughout the full story, so without giving too much away: the goblins see people with mind-altering powers as a natural part of their world, but their powers are frightening to others, and they are normally kept under very strict control. Our protag begins by violating quite a few New Order principles, but their relationship to morality past this point is up to the player (and there are certainly many morally-gray decisions to be made). 

It's great to hear you enjoyed the music! (I'll pass that on to our composer) The extras menu (including audio player) wasn't fully implemented in the prototype, so that's definitely something you'll see changing haha

We're overhauling a lot of the art and UI for our next release (looking to preview in next dev log), but everything will remain mostly grayscale with deep shadows, so it's always interesting to hear what impression that makes. Unfortunately I can't answer the question of why goblins seem to see in grayscale without spoilers, so I'll have to leave that to the imagination for now. ; )

You're likewise going to see some alterations to the character designs, though I think you'll find the new look will make them even more distinct.

Thanks again for sharing thoughts. We'll be keeping that good feedback in mind as we proceed!

This is a really charming game. Just the right length to get the story across and consistently funny all the way through. It feels as though it's a set up for a series, and the characters are interesting enough that I'd love to see more of them <3

Why Goblins? (and not Orcs)

In the first two weeks following our demo release, we’ve been getting a lot of comments from various sources about how it’s tempting to call the cast of The Inverted Spire “orcs" rather than "goblins."  Given their humanoid shape and miniature tusks, this is entirely understandable!

There is, however, a story behind why yours truly (the writer) ultimately made the conscious decision to call them goblins. 

Are you curious? Then by all means, read on!

"In Mordor" by illustrator John Howe.

As a long-time fantasy enthusiast, I was first introduced to orcs through J.R.R. Tolkien, who came to the word by way of a conflation in Old English etymology with a Latin-based word for a god of the underworld (Orcus).

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology, they were a species  “bred in mockery of the elves.” 

This, dear reader, is where it started to get a little weird for younger me.

Tolkien’s orcs, by some bizarre twist of fantasy Social Darwinism, are inherently evil. Themes of "corruption" vs. "blood purity" run rampant in his work. Descriptions of their features also bear an uncomfortable similarity to orientalist caricatures of the early 20th century, and Tolkien himself gives lip service to the connection.

Movie still from the Lord of the Rings series (which I adore to this day, despite its potentially troubled thematic implications).

I do acknowledge that Tolkien also went out of his way to condemn race science in his personal writings. This interpretation has no bearing on my opinion of the man himself. However, it is not uncommon for unconscious bias to slip into fiction. Even as a child, reading his books and watching the movies for the first time, such troubling parallels with the racist war propaganda of his era were hard for me to unsee.   

Four different kinds of orcs for 4e Dungeons & Dragons by illustrator Ralph Horsley.

I was later reintroduced to orcs through Dungeons and Dragons.

This time, upon being given the opportunity, I was very excited to play a half-orc character. 

It is here that I learned “racial intelligence penalties” were a part of character creation. Setting aside the dark real-world history invoked by this statement alone, I also learned the option of a fully orcish character was not accommodated by our setting. This was because orcs as a group were described as inherently "brutish" and "uncivilized." Characteristics that were supposedly kept in check by the presence of human genes in a half-orc. 

Once again I felt myself staring down the barrel of some very uncomfortable parallels that made the experience feel bittersweet.

I will not beleaguer the point too much by dwelling on this topic, but suffice to say, I am  a person who was, unfortunately,  forced to confront legacies of racism at an early age. I still adore high fantasy, even if the racialized history of 20th century fantasy settings is a difficult one to shake. 

If you are interested in learning more about it (and the recent social media hubbub somehow passed you by), James Mendez Hodes has some excellent articles on this theme (a link to his blog: https://bit.ly/3m1cp59). He is also far from the first to write at length on this topic, and indeed, it is a very common critique of "inherent racial traits" and other disconcerting staples of fantasy species in worldbuilding.

"Kobol and Orc" by illustrator Lake Hurwitz.

I would like to add that I have since observed many writers and artists reclaiming orcs through the lens of decolonization and anti-imperialism. This gives me joy to read, but it was not a trend I wanted to engage with through The Inverted Spire.

Illustration for Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando) by 19th century artist Gustave Doré

Goblins, by comparison, are fae creatures that I first encountered through folklore. 

Their representation as a codified “monstrous race” in high fantasy settings, with all the biological essentialism that implies, was not known to me until much later.

Legends of goblin-like creatures as mischievous troublemakers around the world have also turned the word into a colloquialism. It’s pretty common in my circle to hear people refer to themselves, in a fondly self-deprecating way, as “goblins.”

One might even be tempted to say that goblins, like many other fantastical, but oddly sympathetic outsider monsters, have become a part of certain branches of queer culture.

Goblins also have an awkward history, in the pages of the occasional contemporary fantasy world, of being laden with anti-semitic stereotypes: they are depicted (whether out of subconscious internalization of such ideas or genuine intent)  as greedy, power-hungry bureaucrats with a caricatured appearance straight out of a Nazi political cartoon. 

This, I must confess, is a trend yours truly takes unique pleasure in subverting. 

Movie still from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

But even the word “goblin,” as it is employed in The Inverted Spire, is ultimately a linguistic convenience. 

You see, (plot twist) the creatures of New Order are not derived from a specific goblin legend. This comparison came to me later, after perusing the first sketchbook drafts of the cast, which were human/spotted hyena hybrids.

Photo of a spotted hyena cub by Frans Van Heerden.

The finalized designs of our characters have departed a great deal from their origin. However, aside from their spots and fangs, there is one other essential feature that remained intact: 

Spotted hyenas have long presented a challenge to traditional narratives about mammalian sex differentiation in biology. Their unique external genitalia and matriarchal social hierarchies aren’t an easy fit for century-old Western taxonomies of sex and gender.

With The Inverted Spire, creating a society without a concept of gender was my ambition from the start. 

All goblin designs are intentionally androgynous. Whether a particular goblin reads as “masculine” or “feminine” is up to the player’s discretion, but the goblins themselves recognize no such duality. Even in the context of reproduction, a gestating partner is simply “very patient.”

Androgynous, deeply imperfect, but nonetheless loveable oddballs— as I stared at the sketches in my notebook, I felt “goblins” was just the word for it.

Aha sorry for the cliffhanger x') But it's wonderful to hear you enjoyed it so far. There's still a lot of world and story to see! You're welcome to follow along with out dev logs as we continue to update the artwork and music and ensure the rest of Chapter One is just as, if not more polished than the game jam demo! Any feedback along the way is very much appreciated <3

That's so awesome to hear! 

 I hope the full chapter one release will live up to your expectations. Feel free to follow along with our dev log updates if you're interested in watching it come together ~<3

Thank you! Hopefully more to come ~<3

It's a very intriguing start to be sure! Even with the protagonist's adventure just beginning, the game already feels quite multi-faceted. 

I'll be on the lookout for future updates. 

I love all the musical choices and subtle animations that bring this story to life!

The choices you're given feel very open-ended and there's a consistent feeling of wonder and mystery established from the very start. It makes you want to keep delving deeper into the intriguing world of the game. 

I'll definitely be following this project as it develops <3

I just had a chance to see your video this evening. Thank you so much for taking the time! 

The feedback was great. Especially when it comes to balancing contrast in the portrait art and text placement more generally. We'll be updating a lot of visual elements from their early game jam form as we go along, and that's definitely something to keep in mind.

It's also great to hear that you enjoyed the game so far <3 We would love to hear your thoughts on the upcoming full chapter one release.