For the latest Indie-view, I caught up with Matt Sainsbury of DigitallyDownloaded.net to talk about A Week On The Water, the ambitious next entry in the My Time With Dee Dee visual novel series.
If you’re going to go to the effort of commissioning artwork for website mascot, why not go all the way and turn that mascot into the star of a whole series of games? That was what Matt Sainsbury (a friend of Shindig) was thinking when he started the My Time With Dee Dee series of visual novels: after creating the beautiful Dee Dee as a mascot for DigitallyDownloaded.net, developing a visual novel around her seemed like the natural next step.
But, Matt being Matt—if you’ve ever read DDNet, you’ll know he likes to go deep in his analysis and draw on a lot of other schools of criticism than just games—a Dee Dee game was never going to be something shallow or thoughtless. Instead, the goal is to use the character as a sort of “virtual actor” to explore, deconstruct, and teach about different narrative genres and philosophical concepts, from erotic thrillers to existentialism to Sade. That isn’t to say they’re dry or dense—quite the opposite, with charming characters and witty writing—but they’re also games that want to make you think, with the added bonus of essays and suggestions for further reading, for those who want to delve deeper.
The next game in the series, A Week On The Water, looks like a comparatively lighter affair: “a light-hearted, flirty and sexy comedy with a warm beat and rhythm”, though not without its twists and thought-provoking surprises. It’s also the most ambitious-looking Dee Dee game to date, so I had to get in touch with Matt to find out more about it.
Shindig: How did you come up with the idea for A Week On The Water?
Matt: One of my favourite films of all time is a Polish film called Knife on the Water (yes, it’s a Roman Polanski film, but he made the film well before he did… the thing that he did, so I hope it’s okay to admire it?). Anyhow, I loved the way that the film was basically about these people that were stuck with one another on a boat, and the revelations and dynamics that came from them having to interact with one another in such a claustrophobic setting. So I thought “hey, what if I put my characters on a boat for a week? How would they respond?” – and that’s where the concept came from.
I also decided I wanted to do something light and bubbly, as I have more serious and dark games in the future. Thirdly, I wanted to indulge my love of 80’s popular cinema, which lends itself to light and bubbly. Combine those three things and you’ve got a near-perfect excuse for a pretty fanservicey visual novel where the characters talk about their favourite 80’s films, while being stuck on a boat together for a week.
What are your biggest influences, and how do they feed into your work?
Hatsune Miku is by far the biggest influence on pretty much everything I am doing with these visual novels and characters. Before I started making VNs, I created Dee Dee, which was originally going to be a simple mascot for the site. So Dee Dee is a direct result of Miku. I loved the idea of having a character represent a thing (in this case, DigitallyDownloaded.net). Then I realised that since I had a character, I could make a visual novel, and I loved that Miku could be whatever you wanted her to be, and her personality and story could be different from one creator to the next.
All of this freed me creatively so that Dee Dee could be a different “character” in each visual novel, and I would never need to link them together.
Otherwise, I have always been inspired by and fascinated in transgressive art. I like things that push boundaries, encourage people to think outside of their comfort zones a little, and challenge preconceptions about things. I think that I’ve settled into trying to do that with just about everything I do, too. I don’t necessarily want to offend people – that’s a common misconception about transgression. It’s not about causing offence and shocking them (well, not always, anyway), but if I’m able to get them to go goggle-eyed a bit at least a few times over the course of A Week In The Water (and I certainly think that will be the case), then that’s the kind of movement that I want to be involved with.
What has been the most memorable part of working on the game so far?
So, a few months ago my hard drive melted down and destroyed the entire project. Worse, the thing was basically done, but throughout the entire project I had forgotten to create a backup. That was certainly memorable (though not in a good way). That’s the kind of amateur mistake you never make again.
But on a more positive note, this was the first time I have put real effort into the presentation of the games. I’d done other visual novels previously, but they were dinky and, yeah, cheaply produced. For this one, I hired a very high-quality artist for the character designs and key art CGs, actually paid to get a UI done (rather than use a default one that comes with the software package I’ve used), and even got an OST produced. Raising the stakes like that has been a really challenging (and a little frightening given this all costs money), but very rewarding process. Now I just have to hope that the writing backs up all the amazing work that people have produced as part of the project.
What do you hope people get out of their time with A Week on the Water?
I hope people have fun with this one, more than anything else. It’s a bit sexy, a bit rude and raunchy, a bit (lot) silly, and hopefully the characters are interesting! That’s probably the most important thing of all for me. I really like this bunch of characters, and want to continue to use them for many more games to come, so hopefully, given that there’s a lot of words in the game, you get to know them well enough to love them. Or at least have a favourite.
On a more meta level, the game’s filled with me name-dropping favourite art. Not just the 80’s films, but also paintings, books, music. The works. If people get a bit curious about these things and go and check them out, I’ll be thrilled.
If you could make or be involved with anything at all, blue skies, no limitations, what would it be—your dream project?
My take on a Disco Elysium-like isometric RPG-like game, only with Dee Dee and the other girls being the protagonists. I’ve got it all mapped out. I’ve got the system that I want to use (it’s a non-combat system, so it would be one of *those* RPGs), the overarching plot, and obviously the characters. Really I just need someone to through me a couple of tens of thousands of dollars to get it programmed. If A Week on the Water, or anything else that I’m producing, really takes off, then this is what I’d be re-investing the money into.
What’s next for Dee Dee after this?
I’m not giving away too many details (since I haven’t even announced the thing), but the next Dee Dee game’s going to be based on a story I’ve wanted to write for around 20 years now. I tried to write it as both a book and screenplay and was never happy with how it was turning out, but I’ve realised that it absolutely works as a visual novel.
It’s going to be a VN about dance, but it’s also going to be quite an expansive project. I’m going to be implementing video of some top-level professional dancers to help explain the dancing to people who might never have seen it before, and I’m investigating whether I can get rhythm game elements in there too, so it’ll be one of those hybrid VN things that people love.
Week On The Water is due out for PC on 10 December 2022, and there’s a demo for it available now. The earlier My Time With Dee Dee games are available through Matt Sainsbury’s Patreon.