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Mixing life management sim with beat 'em up in Honey Rose

November 24, 2016 | By Joel Couture

November 24, 2016 | By Joel Couture
More: Console/PC, Indie, Video

The recently released indie title Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire describes itself as "a life management simulation, presented as a visual novel with beat’em up segments."

It follows the character Red on her journey to rise to the top of a masked fighting tournament. But at the same time, she's still got to keep up her grades in university and manage her day-to-day relationships. The gameplay, which mixes elements from beat 'em ups, life simulations, and visual novels, plunges Red into a world where she is being pulled in many different directions and must juggle her tasks to achieve her dreams.

Still, no matter what the player decides, will it be enough? Honey Rose's developer, Pehesse, sought to create a feeling of uncertainty as players follow Red on her journey to achieve her dreams. Pehesse wanted players to wonder if they were making the right decisions, or if they were doing the best for her, and all without knowing if what they were doing was paying off.

Like real life, chasing your dreams and managing your daily affairs in the game would be a constant struggle of determination and wondering what you could have done better in Honey Rose. Pehesse knew this first-hand, as his own struggles with being a game developer mirrored Red's own difficulties in making her dreams come true.


Finding how to chase a dream

The gameplay of Honey Rose may involve showdowns against powerful fighters in beat 'em up fashion, but before the player can reach those fights, they have to make decisions about what Red will do during her spare time. Will she study? Log hours at the gym to grow stronger? And how will she interact with the friends and foes she meets along the way?

Each of these decisions has an effect on the game, either through adjusting her stats so she is more effective in a fight, or by changing the direction the story will take. However, Pehesse has worked to ensure that the player cannot tell how these decisions are affecting their character and their life. This leaves the player unsure if their decision was enough, or whether it was even the right one for them.

"The game is driven by the choices the players make, which in turn directly affect the numbers hidden behind the screen," says Pehesse. "Stats will govern which events happen, how Red will perform during those events and during battles."


"However, contrary to most life-management sims which display said numbers and prompt you to base your decisions on your knowledge of both your current status and the exact thresholds you aim to achieve, here I purposefully let the player wonder about the specific numbers and ask them to navigate through 'gut feeling,' an unquantifiable uncertainty of 'Did I do enough?'," he adds. "That's the uncertainty Red gets to live with every day."

Pehesse wasn't interested in creating a game with an optimum play path, or one where players could work out the best route to maximize a given stat. Pehesse sought instead to create that sense of the unknown that many people face while chasing their dreams.

"One of the aims was to design a game with no critical path: there is no single winning strategy, no optimal guide to follow that will guarantee victory if you follow a specific set of actions," he says. "It's a game about reacting to unforeseen snags in the road: you set out to achieve a goal, and you must come up with solutions to overcome whatever happens on the way there."


Each of Red's available actions have an effect on her stats and the story, but by hiding statistics and effects on the game's story, Pehesse could remove clarity from play. The player could try to develop an idea on how to move forward, but it would all be based on instinct, guessing, or luck as much as planning. This would be much closer to the real-life experience of trying to reach a goal, which was a big part of what Pehesse wanted players to feel with the game. Uncertainty and nervousness at whether you'd done enough, and that twinge of excitement at your hard work paying off would all mingle in Honey Rose.

"Do you think your choices are adequate? Do you feel you've worked hard enough to achieve your goal? If so, maybe that's enough... or maybe you could go to the gym one more time, just to be sure?"


Personal struggles

That nervous fear of the unknown that many dreamers face was important for Pehesse, stemming from the developer's own position in life when Honey Rose first started coming together.

"I started working on Honey at a low point in my life, a place of uncertainty and self-doubt where I was considering quitting drawing and making games altogether," says Pehesse. "It was meant to be (yet another) training exercise, a context to learn tools I'd need to develop another game I had planned at the time, those tools being mainly 2D animation and written narration."

Pehesse's own dreams of creating games had become uncertain. Would work done in creating a new game be wasted? Was drawing just a pointless act that would never go anywhere? Pehesse was struggling with those same thoughts, wondering if his work would ever be enough, or if he should just toss his dreams and move onto something else.

Like Red and the player, he didn't know how to move forward, but he had a good feeling in his gut and a sense that things were starting to go right. It wasn't the perfect certainty of an optimum path in a simulation, knowing the route for the true ending path of a visual novel, or having a walkthrough for a beat 'em up. It was just a good feeling that he was moving in the right direction, and the hope that it would take him where he wanted to go.


"As I built the different prototypes of the different segments, I came to realize the actual game was possible to make in its entirety, and I reworked my plans to make it something real, rather than just a training round. In a sense, a part of Honey's struggle with uncertainty in the game mirrors my own."

That uncertainty is not a pleasant feeling. Making anything is an exercise in self-doubt, and comes with a constant fear that you're doing things wrong. That you're not accomplishing anything. That your goals are out of reach of your skills. Why try to capture that with gameplay mechanics? Why make Red and the player experience that doubt?

For Pehesse, creating this story of facing the unknown helped purge some of those feelings in himself. "The game tries its hardest to be a joyful and communicative experience, because it comes from a very dark place of frustration, inwards and outwards anger, and inhibition - in a sense, I used it as an exorcism, and bringing Red to life allowed me to work on my own issues alongside hers."

In creating a story where Red could rush out into the unknown and find success, even with the odds stacked against her, helped him express his own fears through the fiction. In creating a story of facing uncertainty, it helped him face his own. The very creation that had filled him with fear and self-doubt had become the thing that carried him out of it and beyond.


Putting on our better selves

"Balance is one of the core themes of the game, and directly ties in to the stat management: the point isn't just to figure out your way to the end of a single set of stats, but to manage two opposing ones at the same time without ever knowing where you stand exactly at any given moment," says Pehesse

He puts the player on shaky ground with nothing more than the will to achieve something. A dream to chase. The player must balance multiple aspects of Red's life without ever knowing if it is paying off, but through their shared determination, they have to muscle on.

To Pehesse, this journey was not just about making the right choices, but of having a goal in mind - of putting on the traits of the person you wish to become. "When Red slips into the Honey Rose bodysuit, she tries her hardest to literally become someone else - the one she aspires to be. This kind of superheroic escapism drew me in - after all, isn't that what games aim to offer us, most of the time?"


As in most superhero tales, the costume plays an outsized role. "The suit itself became kind of the symbol of the story I wanted to tell: its appearance is very daring, when the person inside is anything but," says Pehesse. "It's a story about people wishing they could be other people, and doing their damndest to make it possible. The suit embodies the contrast of their worlds: it appears very revealing, but it's actually a layered subterfuge aiming to hide what's underneath. In the end, it only looks simple - kind of like the game itself, hopefully!"

Through Red's struggles, and Pehesse grappling with his desire to chase his dreams, the two have shared a journey to become the people they aspired to be. Pehesse has achieved his dream of developing a full game, one about a character finally achieving her own dream as well. Through his work in development and the story he told, he has beat back the niggling doubts about his own skills, creating a game about solving the very problems he was experiencing, and one he hopes will help others.

"At a literal level, the game is about Red's journey to become a masked fighter," he says. "But to me, there is also lots of subtext I don't know if anyone will ever see, understand, or care about... and that's fine! I'm hoping for the game to tell a story everyone can, at least to some level, relate to!"

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