Friday, July 12, 2024

Spirit Swap is ‘for our queer extended family’

It’s no secret that many modern, mainstream games want to add as much extra content and sheer width to their experiences. But as we learned through our interview with Soft Not Weak at PAX West, Spirit Swap has taken a different approach.

Spirit Swap is the perfect game for someone like the co-op’s creative director Alex — a queer person who’s in their late twenties to early thirties, who doesn’t have the time, or energy, for multiple playthroughs to see everything a game has to offer.

The inspiration for Spirit Swap came from games like Panel de Pon (which would become Tetris Attack in the US), which Alex describes as “profoundly girly.” The characters were mostly cute little girls and the game heavily used pop music and bright colors. But Alex noticed that as time went on, games like these started moving away from the “girly” aesthetics in favor of more traditional, Western hyper-masculinity. With Spirit Swap, they wanted to bring those vibes back.

Panel de Pon title screen featuring a little red headed fairy surrounded by pink and orange flowers
Image Source: Nintendo

“I wanted to bring my favorite puzzle game and the girly aesthetic back, and also make it clearer that those were the pillars of Spirit Swap,” Alex told Gayming Magazine.

It didn’t hurt that their favorite match-three puzzle game at the time had also recently gone offline. Since their roommate Morgan (Soft Not Weak’s lead programmer) knew how to code a game, it didn’t take much convincing to get Alex to try to build a prototype of the type of game they wanted to see in the world. This first draft was originally just supposed to be a month or two proof-of-concept to see if Morgan and Alex could even work well together. Clearly, it became much more than that, with a successful Kickstarter campaign that overfunded a grand total of $150,747 from the goal of $75,000, a small team of developers, and a PAX Rising Showcase booth in 2023.

Fans at PAX were really resonating with the game from what we saw while hanging out at the Spirit Swap booth. There were two demos available: One that showed off the game’s story mode, and one that featured its local co-op versus mode. While the story portion of this game is extremely important to its developers, they wanted to include multiplayer or non-story options to ensure that it would fit whatever mood they might be in when playing.

Spirit Swap screenshot of protagonist Shamar swapping spirits with their friend Mo
Image Source: Soft Not Weak

“A lot of the games today are really just focused on, like, come home, then you do your dailies, and it’s like you get off work to go work again,” said lead UX/UI designer Rejon. “Like that’s not really something we want to encourage, at least with the modes that we provided for Spirit Swap.”

Unlike many dating sim visual novels, in Spirit Swap, you can romance every available character in a single playthrough. This ties back into the design ethos of making a game for folks who may not have the time to play through something multiple times. It also allows you to be poly if you want to be, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

Beyond the mechanical side though, these romances are special because they approach underrepresented queer identities in a unique way. Asexuality is becoming more common in romance games, but they unfortunately often fall into the route of making ace characters aromantic as well. While there are, of course, people who identify as both asexual and aromantic, that’s not how everyone under those umbrellas identify, and games with romances and/or dating elements should be taking that into account. Spirit Swap aims to do just that with its asexual romance route.

Screenshot of the Spirit Swap map with Leon's tattoo shop highlighted
Image Source: Soft Not Weak

“That is the only character where you don’t really get a branch,” Alex explained, referring to the romantic asexual route in Spirit Swap. “If you deepen your friendship and intimacy with them, they will open up to you, and they explain that they don’t really have an interest in sexual interaction. But they do have an interest in intimacy. And it’s not spelled out so much because the writer, Josh, put in his own experience with that. We want to really just show that asexual doesn’t necessarily mean aromantic.”

While they are a big facet of the game, its romances aren’t the only queer part of Spirit Swap. All of the characters in the game are based on one of the developers (or contractors, like the game’s composer meltycannon), either in what they actually look and act like, or what their ideal video game character would be. The development team is extremely diverse, with folks of different gender identities, sexual orientations, races, and backgrounds working together, and their in-game representations match that. There are also textually no cisgender people in this game, but that doesn’t mean the cast is a bunch of same-y, slim, white, androgynous folks.

Screenshot of Shamar talking with Iskandar, who is saying "the world is ready for a piping hot dose of vitamin Ishk.
Image Source: Soft Not Weak

“All of the characters are non-binary canonically,” Alex told Gayming. “And that doesn’t mean they’re like androgynous. No, their presentations vary across the gender spectrum.”

These designs vary from big, beefy, dayglow thems, to very feminine, goths, and everyone in between. From a representational perspective, Spirit Swap was able to cover a ton of bases just by basing their characters on their own team and their wishes for video game characters. But the team also understands what it has the potential to mean for LGBTQ+ players, and Spirt Swap was ultimately designed with them in mind.

“This is really a game for our queer extended family, and that’s who we’re aiming towards,” Alex said. “So like for me, even if it’s an absolute flop mass market, if it finds its niche, I’m happy.”

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