Art from Code: Doeheaded

Growing up, I had a lot of problems. I still do. Mental illness plagued my life. It weighed on me immensely, and sometimes I feel so suffocated by it, it’s almost like I’m wearing a mask or helmet, blurring my vision, making it hard to breathe. Simultaneously, I had always seen myself in one animal – deer. They’re weird-looking and skittish and have these long funny legs, and 13 year old me saw myself a lot in them. At the same time, they’re beautiful and graceful and pretty cute. Today, whenever I look at a deer, I still get that feeling. That’s where the idea for ‘Doeheaded’ came from.

I decided to create Doeheaded, a short visual novel, to convey this feeling of having something physical representing the non-physical problems I struggle with. Using the metaphor of an animal head or mask, I created this little world in which people’s issues manifest in this form. When I began working on this project, I had just arrived to college, and was struggling with the adjustment. Change has always been difficult for me, and my mental health wasn’t the greatest as a result. I therefore wanted a story that I saw myself in, and one that other like-minded struggling individuals can see themselves in.

I began by making the different assets for it, from character designs to backgrounds. This involved sketching out concept art for each character as well as writing up the novel story itself. I’m at the point right now where I have a lot of the sprites done, such as every emotion that Dylan, the tiger-masked girl, experiences in the story. On the other hand, I only have the base emotion for Ezra, the rabbit-masked boy, and Pavit, the snake-headed girl. This is something I need to work on between now and the end of my conference project. I created these assets in Procreate on my iPad. These heads all symbolise different things. Ezra has a rabbit mask because he is like a rabbit – perpetually terrified, would rather run than experience conflict, and acts like a pushover a lot of the time. Pavit has a snake head because she is metaphorically ‘coldblooded’ – she struggles with feeling and communicating her emotions. Dylan has a tiger mask due to her anger issues making her almost act like a predator. And finally Rowan, the main character, has a deer head for many of the same reasons that I relate to deer. They’re both skittish, and jumpy, and afraid. And like a stag, much of the time, she resorts to fighting.

Creating this world was inspired a lot by other visual novels, such as Pesterquest, Doki Doki Literature Club, and in particular the video game Night in the Woods. The format of a visual novel is something I grew up on – in particular I was obsessed with webcomics. I think it’s a beautiful way to tell a story. Additionally, I love the concept of taking human characters and assigning them animalistic traits in order to convey a certain characteristic about them. This is why I was so interested in Night in the Woods, and my sidescrollers were inspired a lot by the designs seen in that game. I created my sidescroller by using my own artwork – I created a simple animation of Rowan and Pavit walking, then other assets such as trees, leaves, fireflies, lampposts came next. 

Working on my sidescrollers allowed me to flesh out this project a lot more, and imagine the world that these characters live in a lot more vividly. My first sidescroller features Rowan walking through the town that she lives in, with her friends driving by. My second sidescroller features Pavit walking through the woods during nighttime. I plan to flesh these out a lot more and connect them, with a scene where Rowan, Pavit and Ezra drive to the woods. I did a lot more work on my second sidescroller, including a scene where a prompt comes up to allow the so-called ‘player’ to prompt Pavit into sitting on a bench and smoking. I’d like to end the scene with the characters all sitting around a campfire together, chatting about their days. I see these sidescrollers as a prequel to the story itself, an introduction to the characters and the world that they live in.

I plan to take this project further by adding more complexity, such as fading in-between scenes, different music for each individual scene, and different boxes depending on which character is talking. I love how Pesterquest did this, in that they used a gray box to convey description of a scene, and literal messenger boxes for when each character is speaking. It’s something that I’d love to replicate in my work. I’m also inclined to start remaking some of the backgrounds, as I’m not too happy with how they came out at this point. I want this story to be visually appealing and my best work, as it is a topic that I am extremely passionate about.

This project represents a part of myself. It’s the part filled with struggle and stress and weighed down with so much. I wanted to give that part of myself an avenue to be seen, and hopefully to be shared with other people so that they can too see a part of themselves in my work. ‘Doeheaded’ is a story that is filled with animal imagery and symbolism, partially due to my love for animals but mostly because of the deep meaning and symbolism attached to every one of them. I’m extremely passionate about mental health and mental wellness now, and as I am in a better, more stable place in my life, I feel that I can share my story in a meaningful way.

Author: Juno Szozda