There’s something special about She Dreams Elsewhere, a PC game that takes the humor, aesthetic, and JRPG influences of Undertale and melds it with the teenage, supernatural fantasy of Persona. Although only an hourlong demo is available for now, She Dreams Elsewhere nails that sweet spot without running on the fumes of its influences — a list its one-man creator told us comprises basically every other surreal game, movie and music you love.
Thalia Sullivan isn’t in a great place right now. That’s the first thing that’s clear from the start of the game: Her head is swimming, and it looks like whatever whirlpool is in her head had flooded out into her room. From there, we take a walk around an apartment — her apartment? It’s not clear — and only becomes more confusing when a disembodied voice warns Thalia that she is lost. And since it’s dangerous to travel alone, she takes this: a sword of dreams.
But while we’re immediately launched into a turn-based battle straight out of Earthbound, using Thalia’s sword and sudden magic skills to dispel a monster named No Heart, the tone changes once more: Thalia’s back in bed somehow after a battle she can’t win, somewhat shaken from her “weird dream.” Doesn’t matter, because now it’s time to go party, apparently, even if she feels like she “always looks like ass” and is an “entitled piece of shit.”
Suddenly She Dreams Elsewhere becomes a game of chatty, funny scenes, like the ones that lend age-appropriate character to Persona’s high school leads. And what a shift — because what just happened? Was any of that real? Or was that just one of the self-loathing Thalia’s nightmares?
Studio Zevere’s Davionne Gooden, who’s been working on the game by himself for several years now, won’t tell us much. Instead, he hints at what this first trip into the unconscious mind means for the rest of She Dreams Elsewhere.
“A lot of it was also inspired by my own dreams; I record most of mine down after I wake up, and it’s really intriguing how much you can learn about yourself and your true feelings after a period of time,” Gooden said. “So I felt it was interesting to dive into that more personal, psychological aspect rather than the more common ‘save the world’ plot of many RPGs.”
This isn’t a traditional fantasy RPG in the slightest, even if it’s an amalgamation of them. Gooden cited Life is Strange, vaporwave, and director Satoshi Kon’s filmography as additional inspirations. And they bear out; She Dreams Elsewhere’s ironic sense of humor recalls the pixelated sounds and ’90s references of vaporwave, and Thalia is a bit like Life is Strange’s caustic co-lead, Chloe Price. And Satoshi Kon’s beautiful psycho-psyche-thriller Paprika has the same kind of dream logic that holds She Dreams Elsewhere together.
Gooden and the game’s website also make it clear that there are mental health difficulties, and even a coma at play here. That’s not yet apparent in the first hour of the game, though — which seems to be a good thing. Because from the very start, She Dreams Elsewhere’s hook is how obscure its true story seems to be, and how relatable Thalia remains through that obscurity.
“I will say it was heavily spurred on by my own personal experiences throughout the years, especially through the development of the game itself,” Gooden said. Whatever those were, Gooden isn’t saying, but Thalia deals with anxiety attacks and a terrible self image. No generalizing here, but there’s a good chance those strike a chord with at least some portion of the game’s target audience.
And I fall squarely within that, as someone always looking for another good, surrealist RPG. A demo of She Dreams Elsewhere — developed entirely by Gooden over the past three years — is available for free on Steam, and the game is expected to launch on Mac and Windows PC next year.