PAX Aus 2023 Highlight – ShelfLife: Art School Detective

Posted on October 16, 2023

One of the best things about PAX Australia 2023 was the increased focus on indie devs. It was easy to get lost at PAX Rising – I certainly did – surrounded by dozens of wonderful teams. It was also thrilling to see a whole section spotlighting New Zealand games, which is where I chatted to the studio behind the upcoming narrative game ShelfLife: Art School Detective. 

I was engrossed by the snippet of ShelfLife I played. It’s a detective game set at a fine arts school where a perpetrator is destroying paintings. It’s up to psychic protagonist Johana to gather clues, including by travelling inside paintings to see the thoughts of their creators, to solve the mystery. The gorgeous pixel-art-on-3D-background art style and clever writing, as well as something the devs described as  “queer neurodivergent energy” drew me in immediately.

“There’s a murder mystery element but the stakes are very low. It’s only artwork that’s being killed, no characters are harmed. It’s a non-violent game – at least physically,” said Thomas Barrer, who describes himself as co-founder, co-director, co-writer, and co-artist at Fnife Games, based in Christchurch. “I’m doing that classic indie thing where you wear a lot of hats,” he joked.

Barrer admits there’s a level of art school angst in ShelfLife, not in the least because it’s set at a fine arts academy with a cynical administration. “We are art school grads, but we now think of it as a lovable weird old uncle. So there’s a little bit of, not revisionism, but anachronism, where we’re revisiting our experience but adding psychics, vampires, and security guard himbos.”

I got to see that anachronism IRL as I was presented with one of the best business cards I’ve ever seen: a WordArt laden fine arts degree from the in-game Cruston Beaux-Arts Academy.

The game started out as, according to the team, “the resurrected corpse” of another game that the team wasn’t happy with. “It was too angsty, too self-indulgent. Like a diary entry, but not a cohesive one. We took all the key factors of that experience, and with support from the New Zealand Film Commission, reconstituted our materials together.’

Barrer spoke on what it’s like to make queer games in the New Zealand indie scene. “We feel less isolated now, but we had to take a leap of faith to put ourselves out there and trust that we land in the safety net of community. Getting in touch with the Christchurch Game Developers Association was my entry point into meeting other LGBTQIA+ devs. When you’re first starting to create something, it can feel very scary, especially if it’s got autobiographical elements to it, but it’s a really inclusive scene.”

“I really want to create a queer experience that covers a lot of different bases. There’s a big discussion among queer artists about how queer storytelling can often be really tragic. So there’s almost a reactionary movement to create content with a lot of queer joy that’s incredibly positive and evocative. We really want this to be someone’s favourite game.”

“What we’re trying to thread the needle on is to make a game with comedy, drama, silliness, and seriousness. It’s campy, it’s post-modern, it has dark moments and really light moments. We’re trying to find a new happy medium for dark queer vibes, happy queer vibes, and cosy queer vibes. You can do it all!”

Based on the vertical slice I played, ShelfLife: Art School Detective could be a favourite for many mystery loving queerdos out there. It’s currently projected for a 2025 release on Switch and PC. Fnife Games has another game in development, Small Town Emo, which currently has a playable demo.