Aviv Salinas and Ross Gardner are the duo behind Blood Nova, a point-and-click adventure game about a young princess about to ascend to the throne.
During our interview, we discuss how to include the themes of queerness in your game, creating a 'reverse Star Wars', and how a decade-old comment impacted the development of Blood Nova.
What are your roles in the team?
AS: I’m the artist, programmer, and one of the two designers behind Blood Nova.
RG: And I’m the writer and the other designer of Blood Nova.
How did you enter the world of game development?
AS: There came a moment, after replaying a bunch of my favourite games from my youth, when I really wanted to create my own adventure game. I had no prior background in coding or drawing, but I was happy to ‘learn as I go’. I entered the indie scene at the end of 2019. My first game was Void Breach and it’s heavily inspired by Sierra’s AGI games from the mid/late 80’s, as well as fan-made games that were built using that engine.
RG: I started out in modding, way back when I was fourteen. Unfortunately, I was the dreaded 'ideas guy', meaning almost nothing got off the ground. My technical skills were, and remain, zero, but I kept at it for years because the process was so much fun. Making the same mistakes over and over again, to the chagrin of every mapper and every coder who had the misfortune of working with me. It’s funny how little changes.
I also write comics and games.
What games have you worked on previously?
AS: Mainly adventure games, and they are Void Breach, The Corruption Within, the Tachyon Dreams trilogy, Elsewhere in the Night, Blood Nova, Warp Cinema (for Adventure Jam 2023), and currently I’m working on Twilight Oracle.
RG: Apart from Blood Nova, I wrote and designed Elsewhere in the Night, a point and click mystery developed alongside Cosmic Void, and provided the writing for two HALF-LIFE: ALYX maps, LOCO-MOTIVE and INCURSION. It’s a fun life.
Love, the main character, and her friend cherishing the moment.
What inspired the creation of Blood Nova?
AS: I started working on Blood Nova after The Corruption Within, which was a psychological thriller.
I wanted to work on something different, so naturally in my mind a space adventure felt like the total opposite of The Corruption Within’s Victoria-era England. I created a few backgrounds and portraits I was happy with, then showed them to Ross and asked if he’d be interested in writing a story based on these drawings, and he agreed.
Within a few weeks he whipped up the design document for the first part of the game and thus our space opera adventure was born.
RG: When Aviv asked me to come up with a story for a new point and click adventure, I had this idea of a kind of reverse Star Wars. There was a princess who was about to take up the throne of a galactic empire, but in the process would start to ask all these questions about the nature of its power and what her role should be.
Love would be someone who had always been told her destiny was to rule, but there’s so much tyranny and brutality in the notion that blood equals destiny. Melding science fiction and fantasy, I built the story around her assuming this poisoned chalice and directly confronting that destiny - and all the evils that have sprung from it.
In the end I think I bit off more than our game could chew. Some of those ideas came out better than others. But we took a swing.
How did you include the themes of being queer into your game?
AS: While the game might not ‘explore’ these themes, we present certain elements in a way that seamlessly blends them into the world of Blood Nova. For example, Blood Nova features a character called Ramzap who is referred to as they, and that’s normal in the game’s universe.
It’s possible that when games include LGBT+ characters or storylines, the developers may face backlash or criticism from certain individuals or groups. These critics argue that the inclusion of LGBT+ may somehow be inappropriate. We didn’t let it faze us.
RG: Queer characters are present, certainly. Love has two mums, one of which is empress of the galaxy. There’s empowerment there, but the idea was to present it as plainly and as naturally as possible without comment.
How can such themes be included in a respectful manner?
RG: A decade ago, I was working on a dystopian comic, and one of the characters displayed outright misogyny. It was part of who he was and a way of signalling this was a villain and this is how he's seeing our female lead.
The letterer on that comic was a woman, and she told me something I really took to heart: it’s exhausting experiencing this abuse in the real world. She didn’t want to continually be reminded of it in her work. I carried that into Blood Nova to create something where these things can just be, hopefully without feeling like I’m shirking my responsibility to those themes.
In real world or historical settings, it seems to me very important that we don’t erase the lived experience of the LGBTIQA+ community, in much the same way as we don’t pretend slavery or racism isn't something that’s happened. They have happened and we have a duty to acknowledge that honestly and transparently. But I feel like in imagining this wholly fictional, magical universe, there’s space for it to be, if not unencumbered by reality, then a little freer.
Is game development a friendly space to the LGBT+ community?
AS: I think so! There are many indie LGBT+ developers out there and the indie adventure community is very friendly.
RG: I can’t speak to experience or to the community at large, but I’ve worked with a lot of folks who can. There’s always more work to be done to make these spaces safer and more inclusive. Always.
Kel, best friend and protector of Love.
RG: I’m a huge fan of Robert Yang. His Radiator games are hilarious, sexy, and inventive. Christine Love’s work is also superb, and everyone should play Get In The Card, Loser!. It would also be grossly remiss of me not to plug the work of my colleague, Steven Don. Steven helped a lot with Blood Nova and he’s illustrating and coding the sequel.
What do you find most challenging about being an indie game developer?
AS: Marketing. It’s incredibly tough to gain visibility for your game. You simply don’t have the funds, contacts or knowledge.
RG: I think getting exposure and getting your game out there so people actually see it let alone play it, is perhaps the most challenging aspect. When you’re struggling to find the pennies to pay your bills and buy your groceries, it’s just not possible to invest in marketing in any meaningful way. You have to rely on social media and word-of-mouth, in a very competitive, endlessly shifting environment. Just putting your game in front of people is so very, very hard.
Why did you choose to work with GameMaker?
AS: So I did not have any coding background at all when I decided to create a game, and GameMaker had this reputation for being incredibly beginner-friendly and easy to learn. In the very beginning, I didn’t know if I wanted to learn how to code and actually considered making the game without coding at all, which I knew you could do with GameMaker.
Is there anything that frustrates you about GameMaker?
AS: The way GameMaker handles encapsulation could be better and the way windows open and are arranged more intuitive. The room editor isn’t as dynamic and versatile as it can be. As a result, when making changes, I often have to run the build to see how they take effect in the room.
Example of Blood Nova's stunning visuals
What do you have in store for the fans of Blood Nova?
AS: I’ve just submitted Warp Cinema to Adventure Jam 2023. It’s a free bite-size text-parser adventure with a bit of a ‘twilight zone’ kind of vibe going on and a time loop (which is only hinted at in the game).
I’m also working on Witchfate which is going to be another free game, perhaps not entirely dissimilar to Elsewhere in the Night, where a detective in a world of tech and magic investigates a murder case. Other than that, I’m developing Twilight Oracle which I’ve recently run a successful Kickstarter for and is going to be released in 2024. It’s a colorful, humorous adventure that’s inspired by games like Simon the Sorcerer, Monkey Island, and others.
RG: I’m deep in the process of building the second Blood Nova game! It’s called THE AGE OF BLISS. It’s bigger and more ambitious than the first game, which I suppose it’s what you’re supposed to say. But it really is! And a whole lot weirder.
I’m also working on a visual novel, MAD BETWEEN THE STARS. It’s a love story whodunit at a bar sat between universes. I’m bursting with fiction at the moment! I’ve got a novel coming in the fall and another one teed-up after that. My hands are full game-wise. Once Blood Nova II and MAD BETWEEN THE STARS are released, I’m sure something else will come up. And there are always more comics to write. And…well, you get the idea.