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“I died once.”

Vacant Sky is an RPG released in three episodes following the death and rebirth of Auria Edith, a small-town girl whose violent and unexpected death turns her world upside down. After her equally unexpected resurrection, Auria finds herself drawn into the heart of a mystery involving a cult of masked cultists who will stop at nothing to make her their goddess.

Features:
-Branching story and characterization
-Significantly alter the course of the story with your choices - including six endings
-Original soundtrack composed by Tarranon, featuring vocal tracks by Melody Yoo and Melanie Ehrlich
-8 playable characters (along with up to 6 guests)
-Customize Auria's stats and growth
-Select your own progression of skills to learn
-Interact with your party members to strengthen your relationship with them
-Unlock guest art title screens through sidequests

The game is split up into three releases.

Original version
Act I - Shadow and Ashes: Released March 16, 2009
Act II - Halo Locks: Released January 5, 2010
Act III - Angel of Justice: Released October 18, 2010

Complete Edition
Act I+ - Death & Rebirth: Released August 31, 2012
Act II+ - Night Zero: Released December 18, 2012
Act III - Angel of Justice: Coming soon!
Act III' - Our Eternity: Coming soon!

Latest Blog

Character Design Case Study: Mia

In this article, I’m going to discuss my process for developing and fleshing out characters. The example I’ll be using is Mia from Act II. There will be some mild spoilers for Acts I and II, so if you haven’t had the chance to play the game yet and intend to, be warned.



Mia is a character who first appears after the player completes their first major quest in Act II of Vacant Sky. She’s an interesting example because she wasn’t originally part of the story as I first envisioned it. Instead, she was introduced to fulfill a specific need I had in telling the story of Act II.

No Longer Human

Act II of Vacant Sky introduces the concept of an Archon, which is a person who has had another person’s soul grafted to theirs with magic. The exact mechanics of how they function are rather complicated, and I wanted to avoid inundating the player with exposition which they would probably forget. However, understanding what it means to be an Archon is crucial to following the story, so I needed some way to convey it to the player in a way they would engage with and care about.

I puzzled over this for a while when starting to write Act II, and eventually decided to illustrate rather than explain what an Archon is and what it means to live as one. To do that, I began to flesh out a character who would serve as a living embodiment of the concept of Archons.

I started by writing out the key ideas I needed to convey:


-Archons are (sometimes) immortal
-Archons can (sometimes) tap into supernatural powers
-Archons are unnatural
-Archons are prone to fits of ultra-violent rage
-The more an Archon taps into the power of their alternate persona, the more their state of mind deteriorates
-Archons and humans can’t coexist

The angle I decided to take was to have Mia serve as a snapshot of what Auria might look like in the near future. She’s a little older, more experienced, and most importantly, confident. At a time when Auria feels isolated and is struggling to find her place in the world, she encounters Mia, who has undergone many of the same hardships and seems to have everything figured out.

When the player first meets Mia, she is alone on the city streets at night, unkempt-looking, and astonishingly strong (having just single-handedly dispatched a group of thugs who had been harassing her). One of the first things she says to Auria after making sure that she’s unhurt is that she intends to follow the fleeing thugs to finish them off. When Auria demands to know how she can suggest such a thing, Mia is perplexed; to her, it’s the obvious thing to do: if someone’s causing you trouble, you should kill them to ensure they never bother you again.

Mia’s callous but rational thinking demonstrates her lack of respect for human life, a stark contrast from Auria’s idealism. Auria is appalled and afraid, unaware that later in the story, she’ll be required to make a very similar judgment call.

It’s clear from the first interaction with Mia that she lives outside of human society: she makes a distinction between herself and “them” when speaking and shows flagrant disregard for human laws and morality (she steals to eat and doesn’t bat an eye at killing someone when it’s convenient). She suggests that since they’re immortal, they have nothing to fear from humans, and that laws don’t apply to them; on the contrary, laws exist to protect humans from them.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The introduction of Mia answers a key question on the player’s mind (what exactly is Auria?) but also suggests several more without directly asking them:

-How did Auria become an Archon? When did it happen?
-Why is Mia so convinced that Archons and humans are enemies?
-Does Auria’s mother know that she’s an Archon? Does she know something about what’s going on?

One of the best ways to manipulate the reader is to get them thinking about questions, because they’ll laser-focus in on those questions as they read/play in the hopes of finding answers. This is useful for two reasons: 1) it builds anticipation and 2) it allows you to manipulate expectations.

In this case, building anticipation was one of my key objectives, since the questions were all answered at the turning point of Act II, a major scene which I wanted to be one of the most shocking and memorable moments in the whole Contention saga. By teasing the player with a mixture of anticipation and dread, the mood was set for a grim revelation that would (hopefully) cause the player to feel the same shock and hopelessness as Auria.

The connection between Auria and Mia is key to Act II. Act II serves as a transition for Auria, putting her on track to become like Mia. So, one of the goals of Mia’s introduction was to suggest to the player what Auria would be like at the end of it, and to set the player up with the expectation that they would find out. This serves to indicate to the player what the conceit of the story is and helps to contextualize the events to follow.

Characterization Through Gameplay

One of the unique benefits of the game medium is the ability to convey subtext through a space that the player navigates. Act II of Vacant Sky introduces a day/night system where certain people and places are only available at certain times of day.

For most of the game, the nighttime segments are fairly useless: only one location can be accessed at night, no quests can be done at night, and all of the player’s party members are either at home or just outside. The streets are empty, too. There’s no one to talk to.

This changes in the intermission between major quests. Mia exclusively appears at night, establishing a dichotomy between herself and the rest of the cast. You can only find her when everyone else is gone, when you’re warned that it’s dangerous to go out alone. This serves to enhance Mia’s feeling of otherness, as she alone breaks the pattern that you’ve become accustomed to in playing the game.

As Mia is the only one who provides the player with direct answers about the mysteries of the story, the player is encouraged to be curious about her and anticipate each interaction with her. As it’s never explicitly stated when she’s around, this leads the player to go out into the night (in doing so, disobeying the advice of Auria’s friends - her anchors to human society) and seek her out. The player subconsciously directs Auria into becoming an entity who exists in the lonesome world of the night, just like the mysterious girl they’re pursuing.

The second time Auria meets Mia, she witnesses her Archon powers go out of control, nearly causing the death of one of her friends. This serves as a warning of what will happen if Auria begins relying on her Archon powers too much herself (foreshadowing the ill-fated finale of Act II). However, Auria’s Archon powers are extremely useful in combat and become even stronger as the game progresses. This encourages the player to act out Auria’s part: you’re warned that her powers are evil and dangerous, but they’re just so convenient and satisfying to use that you can’t help relying on them more and more.

In the last stretch of Act II, you finally get Mia in your party. Although it’s normally a rule of the game that everyone in your party is always the same level, an exception is made for Mia, who is always 3 levels higher than Auria. On top of that, her stat build will always be the perfect complement to Auria’s, making it so that the two of them form a brutally efficient team. Her role in battle reaffirms her role in the story as Auria’s closest ally and the one who’s most like her. With Mia at your side, you can take down anyone. You’re not afraid, even when you fight a group of five soldiers equipped with Counter. The easy triumph over enemies that had once been extremely difficult helps put the player in Auria’s head; for the first time, she feels safe and in control, able to do anything with Mia at her side.

One Last Subversion

The final segment with Mia comes with one more departure from the patterns that the game has established. It takes place at twilight, the first time it’s been anything other than day or night. The track that plays in this section is “Last Night of Summer,” which previously played during the nighttime segment of Act I, a reminder that you’re still partially within the domain of the night.

The twilight of East Naven serves to illustrate that Auria (an entity of the day) and Mia (an entity of the night) have come together in the middle. The events of the game have dragged Auria toward Mia’s darkness, but at the same time, interacting with Auria, her first true friend, has pulled Mia out of the lonely emptiness of the night toward the domain of the day.

The twilight is calming, safe, and a little melancholy. There are people around, but the muted colors and somber music suggest that this isn’t quite the upbeat, welcoming world that the day normally is. It’s here, in the twilight, that Auria and Mia reach their resolve about what to do with their lives.

(The events of Act II’s finale, of course, wipe away the twilight and replace it with a fourth rendition of East Naven, barren and hopeless. The twilight period is never seen again in Act III: There can be no middle of the road.)

This was a little long-winded, but I thought I’d give an insight into how I develop characters and how I try to convey their characterization through the player’s interactions with the game. Hopefully, you found it interesting.

Posts

Hi Sailerius,

I'm stuck in Maladorr Manor.

I've entered the dark area, smashed several lamps, entered the areas behind the mirrors, and smashed another lamp.

It seems like I eventually need to enter what looks like a blinking door on the left side of the dark area, but it doesn't react.

Any tips? I really enjoy your game by the way. I found it via PC Gamer's feature.


EDIT: Got it!

I missed a couple of lamps in the rooms behind the mirrors.

Thanks!
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
Glad you figured it out and happy to hear you're enjoying it. Keep in touch if you run into any other problems!
I'm confused about the complete edition. Is it just an update of the same game? Or is it completely a different game. From the description you make it sound like an update, but the different titles have me confused.
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
author=Valoril
I'm confused about the complete edition. Is it just an update of the same game? Or is it completely a different game. From the description you make it sound like an update, but the different titles have me confused.

It is an update of the original game with some changes in the story.
author=Sailerius
Glad you figured it out and happy to hear you're enjoying it. Keep in touch if you run into any other problems!


Thanks a lot! It's not every day one's able to get tips directly from the developer. :)
Hi Sailerius,

I am experiencing a crash which is preventing me from finishing Act II+. It looks like someone else has had the same error - do you know of a fix?

It occurs when...
I'm back in East Naven, during the battle between Weapon and Rayonne.


Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
Yeah, someone else reported that error, but it seems to happen sporadically and I haven't managed to track down the cause yet. It might have something to do with Stormpike. Did you use it? See if not using it fixes the problem.
author=Sailerius
Yeah, someone else reported that error, but it seems to happen sporadically and I haven't managed to track down the cause yet. It might have something to do with Stormpike. Did you use it? See if not using it fixes the problem.


I did use it, I'll try not using it and see if it helps.

Thanks!
author=letstalkaboutdune
author=Sailerius
Yeah, someone else reported that error, but it seems to happen sporadically and I haven't managed to track down the cause yet. It might have something to do with Stormpike. Did you use it? See if not using it fixes the problem.
I did use it, I'll try not using it and see if it helps.

Thanks!


That did it. What an epic conclusion to Act II+! I'll be eagerly awaiting the final act of the Complete Edition.
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
Great! Thanks for playing and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

How did it end for you?
author=Sailerius
Great! Thanks for playing and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

How did it end for you?

Well,

Vanquish died in the fight with Kasch. I got Vel last so apparently at least one death was unavoidable.

Seri and Zaqris left the party, then Seri joined the Virad "temporarily" and led them back to her home in Alibaas where of course they destroyed everything and killed her father. Seri was outraged and swore to avenge her father and restore her country. Zaqris joined her once more.

Ejaro appeared to the party while Auria was meeting with Mia in Svaneholm and told them about the girls' demons. Ray was all too happy to have demons to slay, and Blaise was resolved to kill them as well. Blaise attempted to kill Auria but she was saved by Mia and together they fled to East Naven, with the party and the Virad in hot pursuit.

Back in East Naven, the various party members beat up on the Virad officers and confronted Auria and Mia. Rayonne killed Mia with his holy spear after she and Auria defended themselves. Auria was overcome with despair and frustration after losing her new friend, allowing Zezzorah to gain control. It seemed like she was on the brink of sending everything around into the Void, but Ray was able to calm her down and she rejoined the party, much to the reluctance of everyone (including Auria). With new information from Mia, Auria decided to head to Halo Locks and investigate Ejaro.


Now for some questions/criticisms:

I was upset about Mia's death, as I liked her character and found her interactions with Auria very interesting. However, she did seem like her purpose in the narrative was to convey despair and tragedy so perhaps she needed to die. Also, from a gameplay perspective it would be overpowered to have both possessed girls in the party.

Seri's actions made no sense to me. Did she think the mission back in Alibass would end any differently? Why was she immediately granted officer-like status in the Virad? At first I was very excited about how this part of the story would turn out because it seemed like Seri was thinking several steps ahead, but the way this played out suggested otherwise.

How did Auria manage to regain control of herself once Zezzorah began to emerge? The other characters all indicated that it would be next to impossible once the demon took power, yet a few goofy professions of caring from Ray (of all people) brought her right back. I would have understood had it been someone Auria trusted, like Seri or Zaq or even Rien, but Ray came out of nowhere.


Criticisms aside, the ending of the Act was still very satisfying and enjoyable for me. I may replay it to see how different of an ending I can get.

Great work!
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
Ahh, okay. Seems you got the ending that most people will probably get, so that's good. As for your comments:

I was upset about Mia's death, as I liked her character and found her interactions with Auria very interesting. However, she did seem like her purpose in the narrative was to convey despair and tragedy so perhaps she needed to die. Also, from a gameplay perspective it would be overpowered to have both possessed girls in the party.
It's a shame that she had to go. :< She was a fun character to write and I enjoyed what few scenes I got to put her in.

Seri's actions made no sense to me. Did she think the mission back in Alibass would end any differently? Why was she immediately granted officer-like status in the Virad? At first I was very excited about how this part of the story would turn out because it seemed like Seri was thinking several steps ahead, but the way this played out suggested otherwise.
Seri's problem is that she's clever, but she seriously overestimates her own intelligence. She lived a very sheltered life (hence her very naive beliefs). A classic example of someone's book smart but not street smart. If she had just gone to someone else (like Zaqris) and said what she was planning to do, he would have told her why it was such a bad idea, but she internalizes all of her problems into herself and thinks that she has all the answers. It just never occurred to her as a possibility that she would be outwitted or flat out lied to.

How did Auria manage to regain control of herself once Zezzorah began to emerge? The other characters all indicated that it would be next to impossible once the demon took power, yet a few goofy professions of caring from Ray (of all people) brought her right back. I would have understood had it been someone Auria trusted, like Seri or Zaq or even Rien, but Ray came out of nowhere.
She hadn't yet surrendered to Zezzorah, although she was perhaps moments away from it. She fell into despair and succumbed to isolation because she felt like she no longer had anything to live for, or that she had any lasting connection to the world. If she had gone through with annihilating East Naven, she surely would have cemented that. But she was reminded that there are still people who care about her and that she was on the verge of destroying her last remaining bonds. That realization jarred her back to reality.
author=Sailerius
Ahh, okay. Seems you got the ending that most people will probably get, so that's good. As for your comments:

I was upset about Mia's death, as I liked her character and found her interactions with Auria very interesting. However, she did seem like her purpose in the narrative was to convey despair and tragedy so perhaps she needed to die. Also, from a gameplay perspective it would be overpowered to have both possessed girls in the party.

It's a shame that she had to go. :< She was a fun character to write and I enjoyed what few scenes I got to put her in.

Seri's actions made no sense to me. Did she think the mission back in Alibass would end any differently? Why was she immediately granted officer-like status in the Virad? At first I was very excited about how this part of the story would turn out because it seemed like Seri was thinking several steps ahead, but the way this played out suggested otherwise.

Seri's problem is that she's clever, but she seriously overestimates her own intelligence. She lived a very sheltered life (hence her very naive beliefs). A classic example of someone's book smart but not street smart. If she had just gone to someone else (like Zaqris) and said what she was planning to do, he would have told her why it was such a bad idea, but she internalizes all of her problems into herself and thinks that she has all the answers. It just never occurred to her as a possibility that she would be outwitted or flat out lied to.

How did Auria manage to regain control of herself once Zezzorah began to emerge? The other characters all indicated that it would be next to impossible once the demon took power, yet a few goofy professions of caring from Ray (of all people) brought her right back. I would have understood had it been someone Auria trusted, like Seri or Zaq or even Rien, but Ray came out of nowhere.

She hadn't yet surrendered to Zezzorah, although she was perhaps moments away from it. She fell into despair and succumbed to isolation because she felt like she no longer had anything to live for, or that she had any lasting connection to the world. If she had gone through with annihilating East Naven, she surely would have cemented that. But she was reminded that there are still people who care about her and that she was on the verge of destroying her last remaining bonds. That realization jarred her back to reality.


Thanks for commenting!

I hadn't actually picked up on Seri's naïveté while playing the game, but sometimes I zone out. :P
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
author=letstalkaboutdune
I hadn't actually picked up on Seri's naïveté while playing the game, but sometimes I zone out. :P

There are a couple places where it shines through:

Act I: Willingness to trust and befriend Ray and Auria
Act I: Protecting Weapon, who had just attacked her
Act II: Insisting that there must be another way out of Kasch's dilemma
Act II: Believing that Zaqris will follow her into exile
author=Sailerius
author=letstalkaboutdune
I hadn't actually picked up on Seri's naïveté while playing the game, but sometimes I zone out. :P
There are a couple places where it shines through:

Act I: Willingness to trust and befriend Ray and Auria
Act I: Protecting Weapon, who had just attacked her
Act II: Insisting that there must be another way out of Kasch's dilemma
Act II: Believing that Zaqris will follow her into exile


Well there you go.

So there was about a 4-month gap between the release of Act I+ and Act II+. Do you anticipate a similar gap between II+ and III+?
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
author=letstalkaboutdune
author=Sailerius
author=letstalkaboutdune
I hadn't actually picked up on Seri's naïveté while playing the game, but sometimes I zone out. :P
There are a couple places where it shines through:

Act I: Willingness to trust and befriend Ray and Auria
Act I: Protecting Weapon, who had just attacked her
Act II: Insisting that there must be another way out of Kasch's dilemma
Act II: Believing that Zaqris will follow her into exile
Well there you go.

So there was about a 4-month gap between the release of Act I+ and Act II+. Do you anticipate a similar gap between II+ and III+?

Yes, although not for the same reasons. Act II+ was already almost done when Act I+ was released, it just needed testing (and apparently needed more than it got). Act III is similarly almost done, it just needs some new scenes written and a boatload of testing - as well as numerous bugfixes in the earlier acts.

But it's going to be on pause for the next month or so while we focus on the Kickstarter for Awakening.
author=Sailerius
Yeah, someone else reported that error, but it seems to happen sporadically and I haven't managed to track down the cause yet. It might have something to do with Stormpike. Did you use it? See if not using it fixes the problem.

I haven't met the error after avoiding to use Stormpike. It really has something to do with it.
Sailerius
did someone say angels
3304
Great, thanks for the report.
have a question during the kagrin park festival whats the right order of gifts

so far i've figured out its...
Vel - teddy bear
Ray - cologne

but everyone else i'm a bit stumped any ideas??
author=longshot
have a question during the kagrin park festival whats the right order of gifts

so far i've figured out its...
Vel - teddy bear
Ray - cologne

but everyone else i'm a bit stumped any ideas??

Vel: Teddy Bear
Ray: Cologne
Zaqris: Watch
Seri: Journal
Blaise: Tie
Vanquish: strategy game set (I forget the name; it's in the Orkan shop)
Mia: Music Box
Rien: Orkan Wine (look for her after talking to Mia)