Thursday, December 7, 2023
FeaturesIndie Gayming

From narrative to development, Ink Inside is a story of self-discovery

Ink Inside — an upcoming dodgeball kung-fu game about sentient doodles that are travelling through their creator’s notebooks from Blackfield Entertainment — is described as “an ARPG with Saturday morning cartoon vibes.”

That’s largely because the project started as a cartoon script that creator Richard Mansfield pitched to Nickelodeon. But the studio passed on it at the time, and Mansfield decided to pivot to working in video games after a rather illustrious career writing action films of varying qualities.

He moved to Grumpyface Studios, putting Ink Inside aside for the time being to instead work on Cartoon Network mobile titles like Steven Universe: Unleash the Light and Teen Titans Go Figure! During that time working to make cartoons into video games, Mansfield realized that his script would fit this format much better and alongside some other Grumpyface alumni, decided to make it happen.

Ink Inside screenshot of Stick throwing a dodgeball at an enemy and perfect hitting them
Image Source: Blackfield Entertainment

To build that team, Mansfield relied on his experience as a producer, both in Hollywood and at Grumpyface.

“My ‘expertise’ is finding undiscovered talent,” Mansfield told us during our interview at PAX West. “It’s not hard. You literally just play something and see if it’s good.”

This process was how he found the game’s programmer, Autumn “Autumnlines” Harman, who Mansfield describes as the “heart and soul” of this game. Harman sent her portfolio to Mansfield, who already recognized some of the games they had worked on. They arranged an interview, and Mansfield offered them the job the next day. The team at Blackfield Entertainment used this practice to find the rest of its members as well, pulling from the ranks of Grumpyface and also finding modelers and technical artists through recommendations.

Though some of these recommended hires were more experienced in creating assets for horror projects, Mansfield felt they were a good fit for the game. Just because Ink Inside is targeted at kids, it doesn’t shy away from scary things.

“If you know Steven Universe, there’s all this body horror stuff,” Mansfield told Gayming. “Rebecca Sugar has a full spectrum. And so I always pictured Ink Inside as having this kind of like cartoonish, kid approach to horror.”

That said, horror isn’t the primary genre Ink Inside is pulling from. First and foremost, it’s a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. That means it has a dynamic cast of characters, with unique looks and abilities to capture the attention of kids and grown-ups alike.

Ink Inside follows Stick, a doodle who has come to life within the world of their creator, Hannah’s, notebooks. Unlike the other drawings we meet along the way (the demo we saw features the Princess of Swearing, who is a lovely fairy princess that curses like a sailor), Stick is unfinished, missing an arm, and pretty much all of their memories about who they were. The game tasks Stick with navigating through the different notebooks nearby to try to find the truth about who Stick is meant to be, while also getting rid of the nasty, soggy monsters that are creeping in.

Ink Inside screenshot of Stick and the Princess of Swearing walking across a lined notebook page with marble pillars and a gift box
Image Source: Blackfield Entertainment

Because they’re unfinished and don’t know who they are, Stick initially doesn’t identify as a boy or a girl because they simply don’t know which one fits them yet. But Stick being nonbinary isn’t just set dressing or an angle for them to eventually decide one way or the other. Their journey through the notebooks reveals that they can see core memories of Hannah’s drawing, which leads them to discover some spoilery truths about their origins that tie directly into their nonbinary identity.

Players across the board will likely be able to find parts of Stick’s story to relate to, but LGBTQ+ folks, particularly those exploring their gender identities, may resonate with Ink Inside more because of Stick’s journey to understand themselves. This game seems very interested in the road to discovering your identity, and the way that identity can change as you do. With its Saturday morning cartoon energy, it also looks poised to help younger queer folks see themselves and their own questions on screen in a way that’s tailored for them.

Writing this character also helped Mansfield better cement his understanding of using “they/them” pronouns in everyday life.

“I’m old,” he told Gayming. “And it took me forever to understand that concept, I’m not gonna lie. But once it clicked, and especially with writing this, it really helped me kind of broaden my perspective.”

Beyond that, writing this game and thinking about these themes helped Mansfield gain a better understanding of his own identities. He identifies as demisexual after having had the opportunity to explore himself more through his writing and experiences with other queer folks he works with.

“Once you start thinking outside the box, you start understanding who you are better,” he said.

That’s literally the process Stick has to go through as well, traveling through different environments and notebooks to gather core memories and find themselves. A story aimed at kids but plenty engaging for adults, Ink Inside is about becoming the best version of yourself with friends at your side.