About Me: ValiDate's Dani Lalonders on creating a visual novel filled with empathy

Hello! Welcome to About Me, where we tell the stories of people in tech doing work that’s helping us build towards better, more diverse and inclusive spaces. 

Quick note: It’s still important to help donate to communities of color right now. The Strategist has a great roundup of places still taking donations, please consider giving what you can.

When Dani Lalonders started working on her romantic visual novel ValiDate in August of 2019, it was just supposed to be a project between friends—a way to tell a fun story. As development went on, though, she saw the opportunity for something bigger. She and her team wanted to make a game that would let BIPOC feel seen, and hopefully, inspire them to go out and make art of their own.

To make that kind of impact, they needed to get the theme and setting just right. “It’s exploring what it is to fall for someone in your 20s,” Lalonders said. “No one is taught how to love someone, especially when you hit your 20s and you realize all your relationships in the past didn’t really matter.”

With that theme in mind, the visual novel started to take shape. A game that started as a couple of hours exploring the fictional Jercy City, soon became the stage for a cast of twelve characters, all people of color, and the journeys of their 20s. Key to the game’s success, Lalonders said, was making every character feel unique and whole, like characters in their own stories.

Of the game’s twelve characters, each one has their own assigned writer and artist, and everyone on the team is a person of color. “The thing with a lot of visual novels is they all have the same art style, so it’s very hard to differentiate characters in some ways,” Lalonders said. There’s Isabelle, a 27-year-old who “liked Hamilton before it was cool,” but also no longer likes Hamilton. Then, there’s Malik, manager of the fictional Bopeyes and a fan favorite for punchlines and reluctant admiration.

Each character has their own art style and distinctive brand, ranging from believing that blocking contacts is a form of cowardice to claiming romance is dead while still yearning for it. By giving each character an assigned writer and artist, Lalonders hopes the game will provide a realistic, empathetic experience for people of color and LGBTQ players.

“It’s very hard to get out of peoples’ minds that this game isn’t about race when all they see is people of color,” Lalonders said. “Our stories don’t always revolve around race, we get happy, we get sad, all that shit.” That hasn’t taken away the importance of race in the game, though. She hopes that ValiDate will give aspiring writers a new perspective on how to write characters of color.

Despite the passionate fan base ValiDate has fostered on Twitter (the account has over 2,500 followers right now), the game is still in development, and for much of the team, it’s their first time making a game. None of that worries Lalonders, though; she’s made sure to create an environment where she and her team are able to make a game they can all love.

“You need to not be a dictator,” she said. “You need to let them be creative because you hired them to create something amazing you’re going to be proud of.”

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue