Cloisters Interactive’s creative director Shelley Chen always wanted to create a game herself. However, most of the studios she worked at in the past made games in genres she didn’t particularly care for, like shooters, fighters, and strategy games. Chen also wanted to start her own studio too. That’s when she discussed going into game design with her mother.
While Chen was inexperienced, her mother encouraged her to go beyond her production artist background and learn about the fundamentals of game design. The close relationship between Chen and her mother is the foundation for Cloisters’ first game, A Memoir Blue. “We’re basically best friends forever,” Chen tells Paste.
A Memoir Blue, which follows a champion swimmer named Miriam as she recounts her childhood memories with her mother, is based loosely on Chen’s own life. One of the earliest memories she has is that of a train station. She asked her mom where they were going, and if dad was coming as well. It was only until Chen was older that she realized this was the moment when her mother ran away from home, taking Chen with her and leaving her father behind.
“We had zero things. My mom worked really hard to raise me and send me to the United States back when we were in Taiwan,” explains Chen. She says that it’s really hard to tell her mother what she feels sometimes and show her gratitude for raising her.
“I guess more of it will be a way for me to thank her. She’s aware of the game and she’s very clear about the story.”
Chen also mentions that it works the other way around as well. Some Asian American families can be modest with their affections. That, in turn, leads some kids to develop awkwardness about expressing their own feelings to their parents too.
Early in the game, there’s a scene where Miriam wins a medal at a competition but doesn’t seem to be very happy during the awards ceremony. She also doesn’t pick up the phone when her mother is trying to reach out to her. After several years, Miriam still doesn’t know how to express her feelings and why she was unhappy during the ceremony.
Chen explains that’s one of the cultural nuances A Memoir Blue is hinting at. In the beginning levels, players might not come across many explicit references or influences related to Asian culture. However, Chen says that there will be more as the story progresses, and that plot threads will start to come together in later chapters regarding Miriam’s behavior.
In A Memoir Blue, water serves as a representation of memories. After all, the trip that Chen took with her mother on that train was to a neighboring seaside city. She also visited a lake where her mom rented out a boat just for the two of them to enjoy the view.
The game originally started as Chen’s Master’s thesis at New York University’s Game Center. She was struggling with coming up with a story, so she put herself in the bathtub and sunk into it the whole night.
“I was thinking about what could feel sad but not depressing. At the same time I was in a huge chunk of water. I thought about how the water was against my back and on my chest,” explains Chen. “I almost felt like crying because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t come up with a story. Then I thought, how about we make a story about water?”
She then asked her classmate, Kevin Zeng, to create a prototype of an object sinking down. From there, water slowly became the main element and mechanic used to tell the narrative in A Memoir Blue.
The representation of water also extends to Miriam being a champion swimmer. Chen grew up with the arts, playing classical Chinese instruments like the pipa and also admiring modern musical acts like Gorillaz. She views sports similarly to the arts as they both require skill and time dedication to become masterful at. “I think it connects with being an artist as well. So I thought [Miram] being an athlete was a good way to go.”
Chen describes herself as an Annapurna nerd, a fan of the company that is publishing A Memoir Blue. In 2018, she applied for and attended IndieCade in Los Angeles. Cloisters only had a very short two-minute demo and Chen wasn’t really expecting anything at all since A Memoir Blue was such a niche type of game.
The IndieCade event had a matchmaking system where developers could write down who they’d like to work with. Of course, Chen selected Annapurna Interactive. After meeting with the publisher, she was proud that she at least talked to them now as more than just a fan simply ordering sweaters from them, or something like that.
It was shortly after she returned from Los Angeles that she got the best news she possibly could have asked for. Chen says, “When I got back to New York, I got an email from [Annapurna]. They said they wanted to work together and I wanted to cry so bad!”
A Memoir Blue is Cloisters’ first project, and the studio’s primary focus is creating narrative driven games. As for what’s next, Chen wants to drive into other topics, such as religion. She won’t insert any specific theology, but wants to explore concepts like how different cultures view certain religions, such as how Asian people view western religions like Christianity.
Chen hopes that those who play A Memoir Blue feel something in their hearts. Her main influences were games like Journey and Kentucky Route Zero, and so her goal is for A Memoir Blue to invoke the same feelings that she experienced with those games. Making the player feel any emotion at all will make Chen happy, though. As she tells us, “No matter what kind of emotion, whether it’s positive or if it touches something anyhow, I will be really happy to know.”
George Yang is a freelance writer specializing in videogames and culture. His work can be seen in IGN, Polygon, Kotaku, The Washington Post, and more.