Discussing The Big Topics In The Space In Between
The Space in Between is a visual novel and dating sim game written by Emily Pitcher. It follows a couple, June and Miles, and focuses on Asian-American identity, mental health, and her own life experiences.
Pitcher is part of the University of California, Los Angeles’s (UCLA) game development club, and she created several games before The Space in Between. As the creative director or lead narrative writer, she and her team created games like Anything for You and Ramen for Two all within between 48-72 hours during UCLA’s game jam events.
Work on The Space in Between started in June 2020, a few months after her school had shut down due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. The university provided a space for all of the students to meet up and work on games, but now people’s families were losing their jobs and production on UCLA’s game development club was halted.
At that point, she thought about what she wanted to do with her life. “For me, it’s always been about telling stories, and video games just happened to be my favourite medium to tell them through,” said Pitcher. Her Chinese cultural upbringing was a big part of The Space in Between. She grew up with three Asian parents, as well as a white stepdad who didn’t know a single thing about Asian culture. He didn’t even know how to use chopsticks.
“I wanted a game that took place in the modern-day and told specifically the Asian-American experience”
A big portion of her childhood involved watching her mom educate her stepdad about Asian culture, such as learning how to cook food and understanding certain Chinese words. As such, Pitcher wanted to tackle her experiences by making her own game, and looking back at the relationships she’s been in, especially interracial ones where her partner was not Asian, and found herself educating them quite a bit.
She also had experiences where she was young, feeling ugly because she was Asian, or other people making fun of her lunch because the Chinese food she brought “smelled weird”. Pitcher realized that her experiences could translate into making a game, and that people can relate to, but isn’t really portrayed in modern-day traditional media, especially not through video games.
If I’m not connected with my Asian family, I don’t express a lot of those Asian traditions, like making Chinese food, celebrating the lunar festival, or making red envelopes. I don’t do any of that anymore. And it’s me realizing that those parts of my childhood are actually incredibly special to me.
“There are games that have Asian representation, games like Ghost of Tsushima, or fighting games, where there are samurai or martial artists. I wanted a game that took place in the modern-day and told specifically the Asian-American experience,” Pitcher explained.
Pitcher’s stepfather took her to watch the Perseids meteor shower as the event coincided on her birthday, so that influenced the theme of constellations and stars in The Space in Between. However, she noted that she has an estranged relationship with her mother. June is a self-insert of herself, and that the game is a way of looking back at her own childhood. As she doesn’t get along with her mother, she feels disconnected from her own Chinese heritage.
“Those parts of my childhood are actually incredibly special”
As a result, the game is more inspired by her mother than her stepfather: “Now, if I’m not connected with my Asian family, I don’t express a lot of those Asian traditions, like making Chinese food, celebrating the lunar festival, or making red envelopes. I don’t do any of that anymore. And it’s me realizing that those parts of my childhood are actually incredibly special to me.”
In regards to Miles, the game’s main love interest, he is an amalgamation of the various men that Pitcher dated in her life. Miles himself is recovering from a past with mental illness. Pitcher said that she dated a few men who have had struggles with their mental health, and she wanted to portray how they reacted, as well as either their willingness to share or their shame behind it.
She had never considered that men’s mental health issues were so prevalent until an article mentioning her game pointed it out. It was at that point she realized that her game was pushing a deeper narrative. Pitcher explained, “My game was, in essence, like a political statement or a social statement. For me, I was just trying to write from the perspective of these guys I’ve met who have really complicated feelings about their mental health.”
Pitcher also created a prequel comic to the game, called Searching in Between, where it shows off June’s more lighthearted and cheerful side. In the comic, the bad dates and unfortunate circumstances that June ends up on are comedic exaggerated experiences from Pitcher’s own life. In one of the panels, June starts dating a guy, only to find out that he already had a girlfriend and didn’t tell her. Pitcher said that the real-life version of that was a guy she was dating confessed to her that he wanted to get back with his ex, while he drove 40 miles away from her house.
“Maybe you’ve been on your own bad dates”
Eventually, the comic goes into more gloomy territory, as June realizes that her dating life is connected to her own Asian identity. When she was in high school, Pitcher jokingly mentioned that she wasn’t “dateable”, and her friend, who was white, said that maybe it was because she was Asian. Her friend was completely earnest too, with no hint of any sarcasm.
Pitcher definitely intended for the comic to come across as funny and lighthearted at the beginning. “You see June’s perspective, gaining all the wrong guys and you relate to her because maybe you’ve been on your own bad dates,” she continued. “But then, in the end, making that message connected to her Asian-American identity and realizing that dating and being wanted and being desirable as an Asian-American is different because of my ethnicity or your ethnicity.”
If I put myself in these spaces, and I ask to be listened to, I will be listened to.
As for what makes for a good visual novel, Pitcher thinks it’s one where the experience doesn’t end when the game ends. Whenever she finishes a good book or movie, she imagines what could have happened after its events. She explained, “I wanted it to be that once the game is over, you imagine the rest of June and Miles’s relationship. You imagine Miles overcoming his mental health; you imagine June and what her relationship with her mother could be like.”
In addition to games like Firewatch and Night in the Woods being her favourites, she notes that Florence had a huge influence on The Space in Between. Florence has no text and tells the rise and fall of a relationship entirely through puzzles. When approaching her own game, she wanted to make sure that the game’s story and mechanics were separate, but also able to work together in cohesion.
“My game is more than simply just a visual novel”
The primary gameplay mechanic in The Space in Between involves looking at a cluster of stars and creating a constellation, literally connecting the stars in the sky. Creating certain shapes can become different constellations and lead to different responses.
“I think Florence, as a puzzle game, taught me how to use mechanics in a narrative sense. My game is more than simply just a visual novel,” Pitcher said.
Pitcher actually had plans to potentially join Telltale Games as an intern in 2018 before the studio abruptly closed down.
She spoke with the CEO and was put in touch with a recruiter, who mentioned that the studio would be launching an internship program, which, of course, never materialized. She recalled, “It gave me a high. I thought it was going to be my entrance into the gaming industry. I was going to, you know, live large and work on some of my favourite games.”
“If I put myself in these spaces, and I ask to be listened to, I will be listened to”
When she internally processed that the internship wasn’t going to happen, she realized that she didn’t need anyone’s permission to carve out her own place in the gaming industry. She joined the UCLA game development club, learned how to use unity, and improved her art skills. Pitcher then applied to be a team lead, and she was actually the first woman to apply for the role in years.
While she still can’t write a single line of code, through her experiences, she learned that she could be self-sufficient and be the leader of her own team. “Being in that club made me realize that if I put myself in these spaces, and I ask to be listened to, I will be listened to,” she said.
The reason that we decided to do the game was to tell a meaningful story about being Asian-American, not really to make money. We’ve never even considered the idea of making money.
At first, Pitcher mentioned that she was just going to throw the game up on itch.io and not think about it, as it was initially just a “fun summer project”.
However, when she saw how gorgeous the art was, she realized that the game could be so much more and decided to ramp up the scope to include a Steam page, developer diaries, and an official Twitter account.
“This can be a big learning experience”
She stated, “This can be a big learning experience for me and everyone else in the [UCLA] game club as we never made an “official game”, and we all gained experience in game development, which is like what we all love to do.”
As for what’s next, Pitcher said that she and one of the game’s artists are thinking about trying to establish an actual studio together after the game releases, as they’re starting on a new project next week. Pitcher hopes that The Space in Between sets an example for young creators out there that they can trust in their Asian identity, be creative, and feel like their stories are being heard.
“The reason that we decided to do the game was to tell a meaningful story about being Asian-American, not really to make money. We’ve never even considered the idea of making money. Because for us, it was all about the message rather than making it a profit.”
The Space in Between launches on Steam for free on January 18.