The Inverse Interview

Indie Games Are ‘The Best Place to Be Right Now’ Says the Dev of 2024’s Best Visual Novel

The power of love.

screenshot from Sucker for Love Date to Die For
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Few writers have ever been as influential and as morally repugnant at the same time as HP Lovecraft. While his work inspired the entire cosmic horror subgenre, Lovecraft was also a notorious racist, with white supremacist views even seeping into his stories. However you look at it, romance is probably the last thing to come to mind when you think of his work.

But in the recently released Sucker for Love: Date to Die For and its prequel Sucker for Love: First Date, developer Joseph “Akabaka” Hunter blends the unlikely pairing of Lovecraftian horror and dating sims, and finds they meld unexpectedly well. Hunter spoke to Inverse after Date to Die For’s release about its offbeat inspirations, the challenges of being a Black solo dev in today’s gaming landscape, and how developers can do justice to characters very unlike themselves.

“One of the great things about Lovecraftian horror is that it's incredibly collaborative,” Hunter tells Inverse. “It's very easy to read about the mythos or read work inspired by it without ever once having to touch Lovecraft’s works.”

Date to Die For’s take on cosmic horror is a far cry from Lovecraft, and it’s better off for it.

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With Date to Die For, Hunter adapts one of Lovecraft’s best known stories into something that might be unrecognizable to Lovecraft himself, but that’s far more resonant today.

“His stories are trying to preach fear of the unknown,” Hunter says. “And then you look and see inside the box is just a metaphor for the guy across the street. That's not really so unknown, is it?”

Shadow Over Innsmouth, a story about a man finding himself in a town inhabited by members of an eldritch cult, forms the basis of Date to Die For, but takes a very different form in its retelling. For Hunter, that meant getting to the heart of the story’s themes of alienation while jettisoning the racist overtones of the original.

“Shadow over Innsmouth is a metaphor for a white person walking through a ghetto of a different ethnicity and the fear they might feel there, but it also pretty perfectly captures the fear that a Black person might have had traveling through a sundown town,” Hunter says.

“I’m trying to boil down the essence of the story down to the actual fear that’s the point of it and make it more relatable,” he says. “The point is, I’m in a place where everyone gets that I'm not one of them and any possible safety net I could have is not with me, it's with them. I am absolutely helpless, defenseless, and everyone can immediately tell.”

That setup puts Stardust, Date to Die For’s protagonist, in harm’s way, but also opens the door for an unlikely ally. Rhok’zan, the deity worshipped by a cult that’s taken over Stardust’s hometown of Sacramen-cho, doesn’t want to be there any more than the game’s heroine does, and the two work together to stop them. The catch is, Rhok’zan is a goddess of fertility, and her mere presence drives mortals mad with lust. That initially presented some problems in the game’s writing.

Writing Stardust as an ace woman opened the door to a positive portrayal for an underrepresented group.

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“Originally, Stardust set out as a disaster lesbian character that was kind of just a female version of the first game’s protagonist — just lust incarnate,” Hunter says. “But I started noticing some plot holes, like the fact that everyone that steps into Sacramen-cho immediately becomes overtaken with lust and joins the cult. And I was like, why isn't this happening to our main character?”

Hunter found the solution in Stardust herself, by tying her ability to resist Rhok’zan’s advances to an identity that’s not often represented in games — especially in dating sims.

“To make the story as effective as possible, I realized that Stardust actually needs to be asexual, and suddenly, all the pieces fell together,” Hunter says. “All the best parts of the game started rising as I let her be the character she was begging to be from the beginning.”

Making the game’s protagonist ace solved one story problem — why doesn’t Rhok’zan’s presence hypnotize Stardust the way it does the cultists — but raised another. Namely, the problem of how to authentically represent a character whose identity Hunter doesn’t share.

“People who get the representation are more happy than people who are upset about it are angry.”

The fear of getting a marginalized identity wrong may be a factor in why characters in gaming display such a stunning lack of diversity. The 2024 International Game Developers Association survey found that developers overwhelmingly say increasing diversity among the workforce and in games’ characters is important, yet nearly two-thirds of developers surveyed are men, 79 percent are white, and only 28 percent are LGBTQ. Despite the stated interest in making games more diverse, the majority of developers who are straight white men may feel an element of “fear of the unknown” when approaching the experiences of people unlike them in their work.

For Hunter, though, the solution was simple.

“When I was worried something was problematic or wrong, I consulted with my ace friends, since I didn't really have any good references for ace characters and I wanted to make sure I was doing the identity justice,” Hunter says. “The rest of my research just came from Googling any questions I had.”

Date to Die For turns Lovecraft’s racial biases into a more relatable kind of fear.

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As for how asexual players have reacted to Stardust, Hunter says the response has been “extremely positive.”

“It's always really surprising when you make a change for a marginalized group and then they all come out of the woodwork all at once,” Hunter says. “Like when I added the caption system, the Deaf community was really grateful. Having so many positive comments from players was really humbling.”

Even with the best intentions, and the approval of people who see themselves in characters like Stardust, including marginalized characters can invite a whole different kind of trouble. Gaming has always had a problem with reactionary groups lashing out at marginalized developers or anyone whose work includes even a shred of diversity, but in the wake of the harassment campaign against Sweet Baby Inc that began earlier this year, bigoted gamers have become more vocal with abusive comments and even violent threats.

Despite launching Date to Die For in that context, Hunter says he feels “emboldened to seek more positive, strong representation in the future.”

“I had no illusions about what the knee jerk reception to a Black lesbian female ace protagonist was going to be,” Hunter says. “But people who get the representation are more happy than people who are upset about it are angry.”

As a Black developer, Hunter also knows that he could face hate from the reactionary elements of the gaming community regardless of what kind of games he makes.

“People will accuse Black devs of making Black characters as ‘diversity quota’ characters, when you’re just writing about yourself,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to avoid any witch hunting, but I do feel its effects and the threat of the fact that at any time, somebody could invoke the wrath of the internet at large for no reason. It does, unfortunately, kind of force me to keep my head down a little bit.”

As for what he’d do differently if he didn’t have to fear becoming the subject of a hate campaign for existing as a Black developer, Hunter says “it’s a tightrope.”

After Date to Die For received praise from ace players, Hunter says he’s “emboldened” to take more risks with future games.

“I would like for other aspiring Black devs to be able to say, ‘There's a solo Black dev doing well, and he's got a Black main character that was received well — I can do that too,” Hunter says. “Or ‘maybe I'm about to give up and I'm scared of the witch hunts going on right now, but maybe if I talk to him, we can stick it out together.’ Having the spotlight on me so that I can use my platform as a force for good for other Black dev would be my ideal. But I would be hesitant for my games to receive either love or hate just because I’m Black.”

If the constant threat of harassment wasn’t making game development difficult enough already, developers are also facing an incredibly unstable industry at the moment, with studios closing or laying off staff and games getting canceled just about every day it seems. While Hunter is an independent developer, he does work with publisher DreadXP, meaning he has one foot in two different sides of the games industry, and sees how the pressures on developers and publishers are often at odds.

“When things are really pessimistic in the industry and people are trying to scrounge up as much money as possible, you start seeing more greedy business decisions being made from high up, Hunter says. “Witnessing this made me come to this stark realization that the two goals of making a good game and making a successful game — they sound like two really compatible objectives, but they're actually in direct competition a lot of the time. I'm in a space where I can call a lot of my own shots, and I feel like that might be the best place to be right now.”

For his next game, an RPG called Chromatose that doesn’t yet have a release date, Hunter is taking what he’s learned from the two Sucker for Love games and going fully solo, without the support of a publisher.

“I started to realize as I worked with a publisher that I just want to make a good game,” Hunter says. “I’m like a dungeon master — at the end of the day, if all of my players loved my game and I didn't make much money, I'm happy.”

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