The mysterious motel from Reverie

Reverie: Shanahan Sweet Opens the Doors on the Melancholy Motel to Share New Details

How I came across Reverie is similar to how I come across most games, it came up on the internet. The thing that made Reverie stand out to me at first glance, though, was its immediately haunting imagery. The post that had crawled along my feed simply read “Places from my motel” and showcased an assortment of odd, unnatural, and downright spooky people and places, accompanied by haunting tones or the uneasy emptiness of an open air. The teaser showed small snippets of gameplay, featuring some platforming and puzzle solving. 

Immediately I went searching for more information on this mysterious motel. But alas, after a cursory search through the creator, Shan’s Twitter page, I was unable to find much information on the project. Shan did not seem to post often, but when they did, they were showcasing extremely stylish and sinister games of various genres. I continued to dig, though. I found Shan’s page for Isosceles Starch, covered in code befitting an ARG and containing a short but brutal game about hand dismemberment, but there was no information on this mystery motel game. I found the page for Valknut, which housed both Bramble and Milk Blood, the latter being a title I had actually played before, and quite enjoyed. But alas, there was jack when it came to info about the mysterious motel.

Thankfully, this was not an ARG, and the answers were not hidden. When I reached out to Shan directly, and requested an interview to discuss their work, they were happy to oblige. Finding time to meet we spoke over discord, and had a wonderful conversation about not only Reverie, as I came to learn the title was tentatively named, but also Shan’s work model and ethos regarding game jams, silly ideas, and larger projects. 

After exchanging introductions and thanking Shan for meeting with me, I began the interview by asking Shan if they could tell us where they’re from, how long they’ve been making games, and what got them into it in the first place?

Shan: Well, my name is Shanahan sweet. I’m 22, and I live in Portland, Oregon. I think I’ve been making games for like, six-ish years. I started in 2017, I’ve always had kind of a fascination with video games. It’s kind of like a combination of different art forms that I’ve always been intrigued with. You know, you’ve got like, sound design, artwork, story design, and then programming is just the cherry on the cake, I guess. And I’ve made a lot of prototypes over the years, just kind of experimenting, learning how things work. And this one I’ve been working on for about a year and a half now has just kind of been the thing that I’ve settled on. It’s like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do. This is what intrigues me most.”

I was glad that Shan had touched on the combination of artistic pursuits in game design, because it was clear to see that they dabbled in many artforms, with an Instagram featuring art, a Soundcloud for music, and of course various gaming projects. I asked Shan which of these artistic pursuits came first, were they always a writer, or were they a kid who doodled a lot and grew up to make visual art?

Shan: Well I think the earliest thing I can think of, I’ve always, like you said, I’ve always been a doodler. I’ve always had an obsession with drawing. I mean, like, since kindergarten, I’ve always been doodling in my notebook and annoying my teachers. I’ve always been really passionate about drawing, and I’ve experimented with animation in the past. And I think from then I kind of moved on to music a bit. I think I just started with a really rudimentary web synthesizer when I was in middle school, and I’ve been kind of honing that over time, I’m still by no means an amazing musician. But that is something I’m still interested in. I think that was another stepping stone on my way to learning game development.

Before I dove into the meat and bones of game development, I wanted to ask about Shan’s seeming love of codes. As I said before I encountered a few codes when doing my research. I had tried to solve one as best I could, but I am no codebreaker, and I gave up after five minutes. Seeking answers to these coded questions, I asked Shan if they could shed some light on the code found on their or tell us a little bit about their love of codes?

Shan: Well, on the topic of the Itch page, I initially wanted to write an actual code to be solved for the page. But I thought it would be funnier if I just typed a bunch of random gibberish, and put it on the page and waited for people to try to solve it. So yeah, no, it doesn’t translate to anything. It’s just a prank, I guess.

That was hilarious, and I was glad that I had not spent too much time trying to break the code.

Shan: I like to mess with people, there’s no secret there. But yeah, I mean, in actuality, I am totally obsessed with codes and ciphers. And in the future. I promise, I won’t just be leading people on with random text gibberish. I’ve been laying some groundwork for some brain teasers that I’m pretty pleased with so far. But yeah, I’m a total nerd for all things Sci-Fi, I guess you could say.

Moving on to the topic of game development, I commented that it really seemed like Shan kept themselves busy. The quality of the content being made for these game jam projects were fleshed out and visually striking, not like something that would be quickly cobbled together for a jam. And beyond that, there are the various prototypes, and of course, Reverie, that Shan is also working on. I asked if there was anything else that they were working on that they hadn’t even let slip online about? 

Shan: Well, I do have an album of weird music that is effectively finished. I’m just not sure what I want to do with it yet. So I’m letting it sit on my hard drive. I’m pretty picky about what I actually do with things I make, I guess. But I appreciate what you said about the Jam games. I think Jam games for me are kind of a necessary distraction from larger projects and have kind of given me an excuse to put old ideas that I still like into use. And I expect I’ll probably make more in the future, but I’m kind of shifting gears a little bit towards larger projects. Which I feel like is something I’m more comfortable doing now that I have more experience making smaller things and actually getting used to finishing projects… small projects are the most important thing ever, I think.

Speaking of some of the smaller games Shan had made, I wanted to ask about Valknut, the page that housed both Bramble and Milk Blood. Specifically, I asked Shan if this was a pseudonym for their work, or was that a team they were a part of?

Shan: So, Valknut, for me, was kind of a means of organizing my thoughts. When I first really got into making indie games, I just had a text document. I have like, a million things I want to make, and whenever I looked at it, I would panic. And so I figured I kind of had to break them up into different tones and genres. And so I think I’ve, let’s see, let me check here. I have, like four different kind of, I’m not sure what you call them, there’s Valknut and there’s Isosceles Starch and there’s a couple more that haven’t seen the light of day yet. And for me, kind of breaking up my projects into these different names, or groups, or what say, was kind of a way to categorize my thoughts. So I could kind of look at one thing, okay, what do I want to tackle here and then when I finish up there, I can move over to a different one that has a different tone. And it’s just me and all of them. They’re not teams or anything, it’s just kind of like, my own strategy of handling my thoughts.

While we were on the topic of these smaller games, I had noticed that Shan had spoken about wanting to expand Bramble into a full game. I asked if there were any other titles that they wanted to expand into a full game, or did Bramble hold a special place in their heart?

Shan: Well, I definitely like Bramble, as it was kind of my first real, “Here I am, this is me.” But I also definitely want to give Milk Blood a full release. And I think Milk Blood will probably get its release first. Just because I have a better idea of what I want to do with it. But yeah, the way I’m handling Valknut right now is like I’ll post a jam game that’s like, a rough idea. And then later I’ll do a full release of that idea.

I commented that it was a little bit like how Oats Studios made short films to test the waters and see if they would work as feature films. Like a testing ground to see if small ideas are worth committing big time to.

Shan: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. Yeah, thankfully, Milk Blood and Bramble were received well, and I got some pretty nice comments from people asking for a bigger version. So that was definitely the affirmation I needed to say “Yes, this idea isn’t terrible. People are actually interested in this. I can comfortably set some time aside to finish this.”… It’s such a good feeling coming out of my shell and you know, having people not turn away from you like, “what is this amateurish garbage?” It’s like, it’s nice, there’s nice people out there who want to play my silly little video games.

On the topic of creating a game, I asked Shan if the seed of an idea typically came from an artistic place, or was it something where they would think of a cool mechanic and build from there?

Shan: Well, you know, it very much depends on what the game idea is. For my artsy things, I guess you could say, it’s more like waiting for my brain to just secrete a drop of a weird artistic idea. And then as long as I’m there to catch it and write it down, then it’s something I can visualize and make later. But if it’s something more likely to wind up on Valknut it usually starts with an idea for a mechanic I think I could use in a handful of ways, and I think it might be fun. And I’ll prototype that idea, and if it still works, then I’ll develop an art style for it. 

So it’s just like right now Valknut and Isosceles Starch are like the two different sides of my brain constantly fighting for control. It’s like Valknut is the more calculated side where it’s like, okay, game design. It has to be programmed, just so that everything works properly. And the visuals need to be just so that everything reads properly. And then the other side is like, I want to make weird artwork, and I’ll care about the details later. And I think the fact that I can bounce between those, depending on how I’m feeling at the time, has been very helpful for me, as somebody who makes stuff in my spare time, I guess you could say.

I really liked this idea of compartmentalizing different projects. Heck, it’s the same process I use when writing music, not all songs fit one band. Moving on from the smaller projects Shan had worked on to the reason I initially reached out for the interview, I asked Shan if they could tell us about this spooky motel and the various eerie places that lie inside?

Shan: Yeah, so, gosh, where do I start? Currently the name of this project in my files is Reverie, and whether or not that name will stick all the way through? We’ll see. But I mean, literally, it’s just my nonsense game. I guess, at its heart, it’s 3D exploration. But at any time while playing, I think it could pull a genre shift on you. It’s like, there’s some RPG elements, there’s characters to talk to, there’s a story, there’s mini games everywhere. There’s like some Metroidvania thrown in there where you’re finding items and upgrades to access different parts of the inn, and there’s puzzles to solve. It’s just a very self indulgent project. For me, it’s just that creative side of my brain given full rein to let loose and make whatever it wants. And I’ve been having a really fun time with it.

I loved to hear that. Wanting to learn more about the structure of the game, I asked if there would be a narrative shape to the game, or would it be more like LSD Dream Emulator where any semblance of story takes backseat to the experience?

Shan: So there is kind of a narrative shape, but it’s kind of a weird squiggly thing. There is going to be a story I guess you could say, but I think the narrative is going to be about as obtuse as the gameplay. Gameplay, I mean, like playing through the game, I want it to be very nonlinear. I want two friends to be able to spend a night playing it and talk about it the next day and have fairly different stories of how it all went down. And there will be a beginning and middle and end, I guess you could say, but the way of going about that as the player is going to be fairly unique, I think the order in which you do things will impact the outcomes of other things. And it’ll affect what the ending is like. It’s going to be a chaotic fever dream. But totally I think it’s going to maintain a kind of melancholic calm as you play it, it’s not really going to be a horror game, per se. Although there are going to be sections that are going to be spookier than others. Yeah, it’s just a weird thing.

I commented that it sounded like the dread would be coming from the tone and atmosphere, and that players shouldn’t expect to be getting chased by boogeymen and hiding in closets.

Shan: Well, not frequently anyway… I’m focusing more on exploration.

On the topic of exploration, I asked if the title had its roots in traditional point and click adventures?

Shan: Oh, for sure. There’s gonna be some sequences that are just ripped straight out of like, Myst or something like that. It’s very much inspired by  early 2000s kind of vibes.

Back in March of 2021 Shan posted a gif of an eyeball in an elevator that caught my eye and left me wondering if it tied in to Reverie. While Shan had said they had been working on it for about a year, I asked if this post from 2021 was maybe a seedling or foundation for an idea that would become Reverie?

Shan: In a sense, yeah. I think that project when I was working on it was kind of like, that was the first time I had ever dabbled in 3D. The game that screenshot is taken from is a mostly 2D game with 3D sections. And it was kind of my introduction to getting comfortable with 3D and Unity. And immediately as soon as I started walking down that path, I started wanting to do weird, surreal stuff, and that very much led way to Reverie. I still have a desire to finish that game with the eyeball elevator, but yeah, that one was definitely the forefather to the one I’m working on now. Among others, I guess I should say.

So with Reverie being a smattering of ideas all coming together, I was curious as to how that looked behind the scenes. I asked Shan how they felt development was going, and if they felt like they were keeping a good pace?

Shan: Well, you know, it kind of varies. I’ll work on it in bursts, and I’ll make a lot of progress. And then I’ll kind of step away and work on the more background aspects. I have a text document where I keep track of the characters and the items and I have an enormous ideas section that I really need to clean up. And so it kind of goes back and forth between actively developing and then kind of laying down foundations so that when I get to add an engine, I know what I’m doing.

That sounded like a smart way to handle it, have the tools ready so when it came time to implement an idea you didn’t lose all of your steam making the engine do what you need. I have said before that I have tried my hand at game design and it is difficult. I commented that too many people think it’s like cooking a meal, but it’s more like building a machine. 

Shan: It’s like trying to build a machine that’s actively trying to prevent you from building it.

I followed up by asking if there was a hopeful release window for Reverie, or if it was more of a case of “it’s done when it’s done?”

Shan: I think more so the latter. I feel like I’ve got maybe a 70% cobbled together idea of how exactly the game is going to go from start to finish. And I think maybe 20% of it is actually built. And, you know, I’m juggling this with a job. Maybe one of these days, I’ll be able to do this full time, and I think the speculation window will go down a lot. But for now, I think it still has a couple more years left of development.

While that did wrap up all of the questions I had prepared, I asked Shan if there was anything we didn’t get to talk about during the interview that they would want to mention, or anything they wanted to shout out to the readers?

Shan: That’s a good question. Well, I suppose I just, you know, I don’t really share my thoughts on social media very often. But I would like to just say a warm thank you to everyone who’s supported the things I’ve shared and all the kind words I’ve ever received. I’m usually fairly reclusive online, I don’t like to pipe up. But yeah, I’m very grateful to the response that I’ve received from people. And it’s been highly inspirational, and motivational in terms of making this silly stuff.

And with that I again thanked Shan for taking the time to meet with me and answer my questions about the eerie inn they were crafting. Time will tell how big Reverie grows in scope, and it sounds like there will certainly be more game jams before then. But for now, I was glad to have opened the door on the goings-on in Reverie, and I am excited to see what comes of it. 

If you want to keep up with the development of Reverie and other happenings in Shan’s various artistic outings, then be sure to head over to Shan’s Twitter page, and also check out the page for Valknut. And as always, if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in ghoulish gruesome gaming, then be sure to head back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features!