This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.
Butterfly Soup 2 once more hangs with a group of gay Asian-American teens as they play baseball, send 2009-era memes over text, and deal with the complexities of school and life.
Brianna Lei, creator of the Excellence in Narrative-nominated title, spoke with Game Developer about what was specifically compelling about the time she chose to set the game in (2008-2009), the challenging fan expectations that can come from creating a sequel to a well-loved story, and how she created an experience that would have helped their past self.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Butterfly Soup 2?
My name is Brianna Lei and I created Butterfly Soup 2. I wrote, programmed, and drew all the art for the game.
What’s your background in making games?
I’m a jack-of-all-trades! I’ve worked as a designer, artist, and writer over the past ten years on a variety of stuff like virtual pet-raising games, hack-and-slash games, and dating sims. But I’m best known for my solo work in narrative-focused games.
How did you come up with the concept for Butterfly Soup 2?
When I was in college, I was a huge fan of sports anime like Free!, Oofuri, and Haikyu!!. There weren’t a lot of popular anime about girls playing sports, so I felt inspired to make my own story about that topic. But since I only knew how to make video games, it had to be a video game instead of an anime. As I worked on it, it gradually morphed into something a little different, but that was the original idea that Butterfly Soup 1 and 2 were born from.
What development tools were used to build your game?
The game was made in the visual novel engine Ren’Py. It’s free and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to make a visual novel.
The art was mostly drawn in Clip Studio Paint. My laptop has a touch screen, so instead of using a drawing tablet, I actually just draw directly on my laptop screen. It works pretty well even though the screen bounces back and forth while I draw on it.
What interested you about doing a sequel to Butterfly Soup? About spending some more time with these characters?
I originally wanted the first game to have a long story with multiple arcs like a sports anime. It was super time-consuming for a single person to make, and partway through the game’s development, I realized I’d have to trim the story’s length in half to be able to finish it in time. That’s why the first game rather unceremoniously ends in a parking lot outside a dessert shop.
When the first game was received well, I was excited to have a second chance to bring the ideas and scenes I had to life. I’d always envisioned the story concluding with a big dance. And I got my wish!
How did you choose how far ahead in time to meet up with the characters again? Why the year 2009, specifically?
In the first game, Min’s appearance upsets the equilibrium of everyone’s daily lives and the story ends with Diya and Min getting together as a couple. I decided to begin the sequel’s story a few months later once Min was integrated into the friend group and everyone’s relationships stabilized into the new state. That way, the events of the game would upend the peace again. Also, it made sense in my head for the story to take place over the course of one school year.
I specifically chose the 2008-2009 school year because it was a weird time to be a queer teenager in California. Proposition 8 brought the gay marriage debate into everyone’s lives. You saw the ads for it on TV and teachers would preach their opinions on gay marriage to the class. A lot of the Butterfly Soup games are about not living up to what society wants and expects of you, so I thought it was the perfect backdrop for a gay teen romance.
What ideas go into continuing to explore the thoughts and feelings of your characters a second time? Was it stuff you wished you’d explored in the first game, or that you’d thought up some more facets of the characters you wished to delve into?
Yes, there were a lot of topics and themes that were sort of lightly grazed in the first game that I wanted to explore in more depth. For example, Noelle’s ignorant views on sexuality were something I privately found amusing about her and I wished I’d gone into it in more detail in the first game.
Similarly, Min basically returned from Florida worse than she was before, and it’s not addressed in the first game. She complained about the racist bullying she endured, but we never saw the negative attitudes she internalized from it in action. I wanted to tie up that unresolved thread in the sequel.
What challenges did you face in creating a sequel?
It stressed me out knowing that the sequel wasn’t going to go in the direction some fans expected. For example, some fans were hoping I’d pair certain characters together, or expected the sequel to take place further into the future, such as in college. I totally prefer creating standalones where no one’s expecting anything!
Butterfly Soup 2 explores some difficult topics. How did you want to present these in the game? Why these specific topics?
I wanted to write a story that would’ve helped my teenage self, so a lot of the topics explored were struggles that I would’ve related to. For example, one of my everyday frustrations at that age was that I couldn’t tell my immigrant parents anything without it triggering criticism. It would’ve comforted me to see characters wrestling with the same problem, so in the story it went.
My high school also had a problem with Asian racism toward other minorities, especially Black people. While I never experienced anything like Min’s trainwreck of a fight with Ester, I think if my younger self had seen that story, I would’ve done a better job apologizing when peers confronted me about my mistakes instead of getting defensive and making excuses.
I didn’t want the game to feel like an educational lecture, so I tried to find a good balance between the heavy and more lighthearted bits. I wanted to present these problems as things you can grapple with and still get a happy ending.
Your characters continue to have a wonderful, believable chemistry among them. What thoughts go into making them sound genuine and real?
Thank you! To me, creating characters is almost like a puzzle game. In real life, no two friendships are the same, so I work to ensure every main character has a different dynamic with every other main character. Sometimes I have a particular flavor of conversation in mind that I’d like to write a lot of, and work backwards to create the characters who’d play each role of that conversation.
One of my other writing tricks is giving each character a trait that I can relate to, and turning that one trait up to eleven. That way, my characters behave in extreme, entertaining ways, but there’s still a genuine core to how they’re acting. For example, public speaking makes me nervous, so as an exaggeration of that, Diya hides behind Noelle during her school presentation.
Likewise, you have an excellent flair for capturing the bizarre, silly, and touching tones that come from texting best friends. What ideas go into making that feel just right?
I take a lot of inspiration from real conversations I have. Sometimes people say things that are so funny, I feel like it’s a waste that I’m the only one who got to hear them. So I often write these lines down and find some way to work it into my stories.
Do you feel you still have more stories to tell with this gang? If so, what does it feel like to have this connection with some characters you’ve created? To watch these creations of yours growing up and dealing with challenging issues and heartwarming connections?
I do! After putting so much thought into creating them, I guess it makes sense that I ended up with characters that I enjoy thinking and writing about so much. It’ll probably be a long time before I’ll be ready to make another game with them, but I’m proud that I created them and that other people feel such a connection to them, too.