Stress still has me down, but I’ve finally (at the end of the last month of work) moved on firmly from research to actual design-writing. The research I distilled down by a few key topics–aesthetics, thematics, and market research.
One problem is feeling like I’m saddled by my research instead of empowered by it. It should be a wellspring of potential/possibility, not the boss leering over my shoulder. That’s partially bc. I’ve never tried to write in this genre or about this subject matter before–I don’t want to screw it up.
I should just have more confidence and accept that there’s going to be fuckups along the way and that I will have the will and energy to address them as they arise: that’s really the only way to move forward.
One of the big draws for me for this project was shifting from off-the-cuff writing (which I can kind of do, but it usually ends up) to actual structured design: an iterative pre-planning phase before actual writing.
Another struggle I’m running into with that is shifting from a “it’s on the page–if I want to change it, I’ll do it in a later draft” attitude to a “change it now before you write it” attitude, which has me feeling weird about tweaks and experimentation, even though both of those are MUCH easier to deal with at this conceptual and planning phase than 10,000 or 20,000 words into a writing project.
I’m sure getting used to it will mean improving my work overall.
Design-wise, I’m collating all my ideas and spitballs from research and sharpening my editorial machete for the first thicket of feature creep. My key goal right now is getting the story down into a clear vision and structure that’s both interesting and feasible. (I really want to correct a lot of the elements that I found so unsatisfying about the works that I studied, but I don’t want to lose the “heart” that people love about the VN genre.)
Yesterday I got some of my social media set up, in part. I initially set them up using as much anonymizing web security as I could, but now I’m thinking that was probably pointless, so I’m going to go in and change all that today. (It was a fun cybersec exercise at least.) Twitter: CatXBirdGames Discord: CatXBird
This week’s mood is “bad”: worries about art skills rusting or not being up to snuff (haven’t started on design yet bc. I’m still hammering out the details of story) and coding being too much for me to produce anything good. I get mild to moderate seasonal affect disorder, so that’s probably part of it too–my sleep schedule’s totally inverted right now because of it. And then there’s my rapidly-dwindling bank account…
Incidentally, part of my research for the game suggested that exercise is a really good way to destress, so I’m going to (hopefully) add that as part of my work routine. (Similar to how that Oxford nutrition study recommended conceptualizing exercise as part of one’s meals.)
I’d like to blame some of my lack of productivity on holiday stresses + plague woes + fear of fascist insurrections + financial troubles…
so I will.
I’m still keeping track of the days on my organization chart, and it still feels like a boon, though I’m WAY overbudget on a few sections. My main problem is time allocation: I’m not going to crunch, and so I’m dipping into my “flex time” a lot more than I’d like as I struggle to do certain planning phases; case in point:
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been distilling my notes. I constantly feel suspicious that it’s procrastinatory make-work for myself, but as I start to come out the other side of it I DO feel like it’s been useful: isolating key elements of what I’m discussing makes them feel more accessible and plastic. My hope is that it will serve as a bible for the snowflaking I’m about to do–a philosophical ref. sheet and moodboard for moments when I might otherwise lose track.
On that note, I’m thinking the most efficient method of actually WRITING the story will be to do a full flowchart of scenes and triggers, then doing the actual writing within the scripting engine itself: basically combining the “scripting” and “writing” phases together, then handling editing with a debug system that lets me select parameters and scenes.
I’ve thoroughly refreshed myself on C# and Unity and I have a much better sense of how the engine and the code interact now. Even so, I suspect it’s going to be a lot of starts and stops once I finally sit down with it: a lot of discovery moments of “there’s a much easier tool to do X than the weird workaround that you’re doing”. But we’ll get there. Might work on that if I get the code sketch done this month.
And THAT is really the important thing right now: getting the bones of the game down–the key features, isolated from the chrome–and then hammering out the rest from there. As far as the scripting engine is concerned, my goal is to minimize any trade of efficiency for versatility while still retaining all the functionality I’m looking for. As far as the rest goes, I’m still not 100% what all I want to include. I had an idea for a cafe order memory/interpretation game/puzzle–a kind of low-energy Papers, Please mechanic–but I worry it will become to tedious, esp. on additional runs. On the other hand, I’d like more interactive functionality than mere branching paths and reading comprehension. IDK. I suspect it will come down to the structure the game ends up in by the end.
Still chugging along, even if the engine is under duress.
The holidays are always a stressful time of year for me; this year tempering much of family drama with COVID safety drama as it has been for so many of us in America.
At any rate, work continues apace, albeit slower.
As I’m shifting from research and study into production, I built myself a new organization system:
I started off chopping the project up into “work to be done” blocks by “department”: research, analysis, design, coding, art design, art production, writing, and scripting (+ a week of flextime for when a particular portion NEEDS to go over budget–should be a MONTH, but w/e)), then taking the total number of days I have until my desired release date and blocking out a quota of “days” to spend on each portion.
On standard work days I put a red tally mark, and on days off (a.k.a. unofficial work days) I put a blue tally. (My day limits are only intended to include standard work days.)
The benefit of this system is twofold: — it’s flexible to fit my style of project management in which I might jump from one portion to another if I’m feeling burned out on it (so if, say, I’m overloaded on art theory, I can jump to coding or narrative design without losing track of how much time I have left to use). ((Obviously I won’t be able to shift gears as much as I’m further along on production, but for now it’s helpful in keeping myself fresh and eager.)) — it helps me think about my time as a “budget”, which has REALLY helped me make a lot of tough choices about what to spend time on and what not to
With that in mind, let’s see where I’m at now:
Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of gesture practice over the last few weeks–an hour a day or so–using a combination of Proko’s and Michael Hampton’s (Figure Drawing: Design and Invention) methods, using some really invaluable online resources including Line of Action and SketchDaily.
It has been…frustrating.
I definitely am feeling the muscles (and tool familiarity) built up by doing Drawabox over the previous few months, but unlike drawing a 3D box (where my considerations are limited and precise), the complex and multifaceted considerations in the human figure often lead me to artistic myopia where I’ll end up overblowing the dimensions of one part of the body or seeing a long stretch from:
My biggest issue is with ratios and my own concentration: often my focus will fail as I roam the model’s body trying to find a foothold that I can use to orient my next line around, and–failing to find one–I’ll just throw out a hasty guestimate which, when I go back and look at it, I immediately recognize as not being properly considered.
I WILL say that gesture has been helping me develop a three-dimensional sense of the body, but it’s slow-going that becomes painful when I think about my production schedule. It’s only been a few weeks and I’m not expecting miracles, but I AM rummaging around for those moments where things “click” + I’m anxious for my practice to convert properly into experience.
Multiple sources have indicated that one’s rate of progress in art is limited by two things: 1. optimal practice (which I would analogize to “using good form when exercising”–bad form can mean not working your muscles as hard as they should be AND learning bad habits) 2. personal aptitude (i.e. a combination one’s innate and pre-learned experience with line, form, and three-dimensional thinking) Aptitudes aren’t really something you can do anything about, but I am anxious that I might not be practicing optimally. If I’m still floundering come mid-January, I might beg for critique online and see if anyone can point me in a better direction.
At any rate, I’ll continue practice to keep honing my skills, but considering my limited time frame, I’m probably going to start character design even without a properly-refined sense of form, relying on both the line-simplicity of the manga aesthetic and the intensive application of CTRL+Z.
(Or to put it another way, I’ll just have to work harder, because I am presently incapable of working smarter.)
Beyond gesture, I’ve read most of Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink and, using it as a guide I’ve started pre-production on backgrounds and panels with some loose lighting value sketches and direction.
I can’t go too far into this without finishing up thematics (more on that at the bottom), but at the very least I’ve been able to start thinking about the world my characters will be inhabiting and the feeling/mood I want each set to evoke, which are good: I NEED a more concrete sense of the game, and visuals help me with that.
Another month has passed without doing any coding work, but that’s not to suggest I’ve been sitting idle.
I’ve been studying my flashcards (made with Anki) every night and that’s been helping me a lot with maintaining my familiarity with C#’s conventions and keywords.
Most of the code I’m going to use is going to be one-off tasks that I can just look up others’ solutions to online–the critical thing for me will be making sure I UNDERSTAND how the example code works so that I can tweak it for my own purposes. (Though I still want for an explainer on how objects in Unity function in relation to C#…)
Here, again, my primary bottleneck is in concept, which depends on thematics, which means philosophy/writing (next section, below) is what’s holding me back. Until I’ve defined the scope and design of the game, I can’t know the architecture it requires; until I know the architecture, I can’t know how to code it.
Right now, I have a big huge document full of ideas that, on a good day, looks like a huge brainstorm of potential, and on a bad day (which is most days) feels lot like feature creep and aimlessness.
Until I have my theme and structure hammered out, my emotions will need to be set aside and most coding will have to wait. (Hopefully, not for too much longer.)
With Sontag’s On Classical Pornography, Hiroki’s Otaku, Carter’s The Sadean Woman, a handful of the most critical Stanford Philosophy pages, and the most critical cross-section of the female gaze (Portrait of a Lady on Fire was FANTASTIC) under my belt, I’ve pretty much finished up–or rather, ran out of allocated time (I ❤ u new organization scheme!)–on philo research, and so my project now (literally now–today–as soon as I’m done with this month’s journaling) is to distill all my notes down into the key, guiding questions and principles that will define the project.
It’s exciting stuff–so exciting, that I’ve repeatedly found myself mentally and emotionally drained just facing the task–but it gets done just like everything else I’ve done so far: by taking one step at a time.
My main emphasis is on a few zones of inquiry: — the definitive limits of “female” (inasmuch as it can be isolated from the strictures of gender) — feminist critiques and revolutionary vs. survival strategies/ideologies (incl. the way human desires have adapted and various takes on the female gaze) — overlaps and distinctions between the myth of the “devouring feminine” and the vore fetish (with a particular eye to the context of each) — the ludonarrative of the visual novel and how it might be customized for my purposes given the above
From these (and my ongoing brainstorming throughout the research and study phases) I’m hoping to derive: — a concise theme and a collection of subjects — a good sense of world design (esp. the places where it deviates from our world) — some concrete designs for my LIs, peripheral characters, and antagonists — MC paths/routes (esp. ones that speak to theme) — guidelines for tone and subject — guidelines for ludonarrative design — theme(s) and subjects — lingering questions any mysteries to explore
What we leave out of a work is just as important as what we put in. In game dev, we aren’t just leaving ambiguities in theme for the reader to soul-search (as in literature and film), but INCORPORATING those ambiguities into play as modes of being. Figuring out what to leave out, I think, is going to be a challenge for me going forward.
My current concept is a bit of a gamble, but even if it fails I should be an interesting failure. I guess that’s all you can really hope for when it comes to being ambitious? Balancing fun with signifiance–it’s a headscratcher, to be sure.
With COVID, I’ve decided to go into deep(er?) sequester–only cooking through what food I already have; no more visiting parents–for the remainder of the winter, from now through May.
What this means–ideally–is having a five-month block to put this game together, start to finish, without interruptions.
How REALISTIC that ambition is remains to be seen. I plan on setting up a loose calendar of goalposts for the next five months based on my previous rates of progress, with at least one month’s “flex” time to work out kinks and bugs as they arrive. I’ve done a lot of preliminary work already: learning to code C#, getting the necessary hardware and software together, doing preliminary research into market demos and design. But now we’re getting into the actual design and production stages, which is where self-doubt (a perpetual enemy) can start to creep in and muddy any clear vision I might have.
(Vision questing from my research is my next major goal.)
Until then, here’s what I’ve been working on:
I finished up Molly Bang, and got about a third of the way through the textures exercise on Drawabox before I started getting drawn more towards conceptual research.
(As an aside, one thing I really appreciate about video game design is that whenever I start to feel burned out on a topic, the other two or three subjects I’m studying start to feel enticing again, and I can pivot over to them and let my current work cool down a little.)
I’m doing texture studies of an alligator’s scales on various parts of its body, though I’m not sure how much value this will have for me going forward since I’m not doing formal, realistic artwork for this project. (Still, I want a good foundation.)
Clip Studio Paint has been on Black Friday sale 50% off, and while I’ve heard lots of good things about it, I just don’t know that I can justify a $25 expenditure on a slightly better piece of software when I already have Krita, which is free (and which, according to various forum posts, handles colors better anyway). I guess I won’t BUT SALES THOOOOOO
I started putting together a moodboard of various artists and related subjects to get the feel of the game like I want. (I still have a lot more to do there, but it’s going to be a secondary concern to workshopping the “vision quest” primary design doc. for the project mentioned above: once I’ve done that, I’ll have an idea of just what all I need in terms of backgrounds, sprites, etc.)
I’ve also been idly side-browsing a few artists I follow online when they do Picarto streams and wondering when/whether I need to start studying the digital-specific tips and tricks that exist for producing particular aesthetic effects? (The alternative, I suppose, being “fuck around and find out”.) I also don’t really know much about brushes–their creation, their utility, etc.–but scuttlebutt in art communities seem to suggest they’re a useful tool, but too often become an overused crutch to more fundamental skills of drawing and design?
IDK. I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on with what I already have.
(One area of concern is my draw debt (i.e. time spent practing rather than just drawing stuff for fun) is getting redder and redder… I keep reassuring myself that by the time this project is done, I’ll have paid it back in full.)
Haven’t touched this at all for the last month or so, and I can already feel the itch.
I’ve mostly committed myself to the philosophy side of things (see below) as it is my primary bottleneck which will inform not only the artwork and aesthetic, but also what ludonarrative and interactions will be necessary, so coding (by extension) has fallen by the wayside.
That being said, the fact that coding keeps getting pushed back has reopened the possibility of just abandoning Unity and switching to Ren’py. It would mean saving time on building an engine and codebase for the particular functionalities that a VN requires, but it would also mean needing to learn a completely different coding language and POSSIBLY having to drop features that I want for the game. (Then again, maybe a hardline block against feature creep wouldn’t be such a bad thing?)
VNs aren’t exactly a very code-intensive genre, so I’m not overly concerned with the burden of coding (even as a novice coder). There are tons of tutorials online for the specific features I need. Though I still have a lingering anxiety over my lack of firmness in understanding some of the features and functions of the way that Unity interacts with C# code vis-a-vis gameobjects. (Maybe I’ll devote some of the next few weeks to studying my C# and Unity flashcards…)
Of course, if the urge to code gets too severe I feel pretty secure in putting together the VN parts of the code (i.e. moving sprites around, transitioning between scenes, dialog boxes, interaction windows). Those conventions of graphics and interaction won’t really be different no matter where the ludonarrative falls in the end.
THIS has comprised the bulk of my November.
About three weeks back, I finished up Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (in a kind of truncated reading that included about 70% of Part II). TONS of useful material there, though I continually found myself questioning/second-guessing de Beauvoir’s relevance for contemporary women, and trying to find women talking about her relevancy today largely fell into philosophical discussions about de Beauvoir’s position feminism in general (i.e. as a political position) rather than differences/similarities in lived experiences and/or psychological principles.
A couple days ago I finished Zizek’s Violence(which was kind of a breeze until I got to the final two chapters, where I TOTALLY lost sight of the references he was making and whether the positions he was staking out were criticisms of his own).
Today I’m about an hour or two shy of the end of Angela Carter’s The Sadean Woman and have just hit on an opening final chapter that feels basically like Carter is sitting down and skimming my project notes and offering feedback, holy shit, this is awesome.
THAT is what I’ve done so far.
Lately I’ve been humming and hawing about reading Bataille’s Erotism, for several reasons:
I haven’t been running into many/any citations of Bataille in my other research
my motivations in reading him are more out of desperation at the paucity of other philosophical readings on the nature of/definition of the erotic than any particular interest in Bataille’s positions themselves
with the time crunch I’m under, I’m really trying to cut my conceptual research to the quick
These first two factors combined make me distrust any authoritativeness I’d lend it, and the time crunch I’m under amplifies the third point greatly.
That being said, IDK where else I can go for other information on this subject…? Maybe I need to drawl some philosophy/psychology forums some more.
If I give that a skip (which it looks like I might), I’m going to instead finish up Carter today and then move on to a handful of Stanford.Plato summaries:
Sex and Sexuality (skim at least for broad topics)
Foucault (esp. section on history of modern sexuality)
Double-Consciousness (vis-a-vis objectification)
Feminist Perspectives on Objectification (whole thing)
Erotic Art (whole thing–should be valuable for contextualizing VNs)
Love (esp. in terms of definitions and also in contrast with desire)
Alienation (in regards desire, esp. sexual desire)
Beauty (esp. with the Kantian idea of “beauty-as-distancing” and the double-concept of “taste”)
Jean-Paul Sartre (specifically, his work on “the gaze”)
Continental Feminism (specifically the sections where Irigaray rips into Freud and Lacan, and maybe the sections on Kristeva?)
Feminist Epistimology and Philosophy of Science (specifically any mention of “cognitive style”; skim the other subtopics for anything else of relevance)
Psychoanalytic Feminism (seems crucial to finding new ideas/flaws)
In addition, I’m to check out Susan Sontag’s “On Classical Pornography” lecture, and I absolutely MUST read my excerpted copy of Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, which had some theories about contemporary consumer culture that really looked intriguing. (I also need to finish Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and dig more into the Pleasure Principle via Lacan.)
Then I’m going to do some contemporary film analysis on the aesthetics of the female gaze:
Secretary (2002) [as an offbeat romance plot that treats female sexual agency frankly]
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) [by way of a counter-example: a totally failed attempt at female gaze aesthetics that falls back into objectification/]
The Handmaiden (2016)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) [probably the most widely- and highly-recommended example of the female gaze PLUS a treatise on the nature of the gaze itself PLUS it’s just a really great movie]
Wynona Earp (S04E02–2020)
Cuties (2020) [as autobiographical work/treatise about male gaze turned inward and the dissonance between sexuality and sexualization]
Once all that’s done, I’ll assemble my own thoughts from the research I’ve done (plus my own ideas inspired by the various sections) and jump into the design proper. (As in my previous post, my primary concern is over my central position/theme, which will determine story and ludonarrative, and then every other design decision will be built up on top of that foundation.)
It’sssssss a lot. It’s a lot of a lot.
But I gotta do it so that I can at least feel reasonably confident that I know what the hell I’m talking about. (And I already have a lot of ideas.)
I’m also somewhat anxious to develop my CHARACTERS more, which can only come after I understand what their function in the story/in relation to my main character will be…
So what all have I gotten done in the last month on game stuff?
As of today, I’ll have finished the 250 box challenge (and possibly Molly Bang too), and moved on to the next lessons! My draftsmanship is improving somewhat, esp. with digital tools, which no longer feel totally alien (though they are a bit crude in my hands, since I’ve only been using a standard hardline brush, the line tool, and layers).
I also reevaluated my learning resources (books, Drawabox) and have redesigned my “path” through, based on what Drawabox does and doesn’t offer and when:
Drawabox 0 – Getting Started
Drawabox 1 – Lines, Ellipses and Boxes
250 Box Challenge
Molly Bang – Picture This
Drawabox 2 – Organic Forms, Dissections, and Form Intersections
Marcos Mateu-Mestre – Framed Ink
James Gurney – Color and Light
(gesture drawing practice–from here onward)
Drawabox 3 – Applying Construction to Plants
Drawabox 4 – Applying Construction to Arachnids
Drawabox 5 – Applying Construction to Animals
George Bridgman – Constructive Anatomy
George Bridgman – The Book of a Hundred Hands
George Bridgman – Heads, Features, and Faces
Michael Hampton – Figure Drawing
Ozawa – How to Draw Anime and Game Characters Vol. 1
Bang and Mateu-Mestre will hopefully give me a good grounding in composition (which I’ll need for CGs) and Bridgman and Hampton seem to be solid foundations for figure drawing. (Loomis remains a widely recommended resource, but Hampton seems more inline with the construction-based approach which Drawabox teaches, and Bridgman has been recommended as a better “bottom-up” resource for figure drawing, as opposed to Loomis who presumes a bit of experience (which I probably don’t have enough of).) The Ozawa books seemed particularly geared towards my personal concerns, but many folks online were recommending just copying the drawings of other manga artists that you like as a way of learning manga style, so maybe I’ll do that as well?
I’ve done some more research here and there, but none of my fiddling and poking hasn’t gotten me much further in memorizing what I need to know.
I’ve made some Anki flashcards for C# to try and ingrain the various terms and methods and keywords that will come up a lot in coding, just so I don’t have to cling quite so desperately to my notes from Miles’ book.
In the meantime, I’ve dabbled with prototyping in a Visual Studio sandbox those features that will be used in the scripting program (and, by extension, in the game itself), mostly by Googling the techniques or code I need and learning how others did it and tweaking it a little to fit better with what I need mine to do.
My current sticking point (from a design perspective) is working out the nitty gritty of how to encode in-game dialog and event SCRIPTS so that they take up as little memory as possible during actual game runtime, while also being versatile enough for my needs, and also so that they’re easy to code for. (It’s feeling like the most efficient method might be aping something similar to the way disk space is allocated in hard memory, with a “key” file at the start denoting character positions of specific lines, scenes, etc.?)
Right now the game is looking like an interaction between two “engines”: the Architect Engine that monitors the worldstate and moves the game between different scenes or gameplay elements based on that worldstate condition, and the Dialog Engine, which handles the standard VN presentation of text in a dialog box, moving sprites around, changing sprite faces, and triggering special effects/sounds/user interactions.
I’m also coding in a “skip previously-seen dialog” function, which most VNs have, but I want to incorporate that into narrative design rather than just being an immersion-breaking hard jump. (Specifically, I want the game to treat it as a diversionary path into alternative dialog that sums up the conversation that was going to happen, but didn’t.)
I’ve watched a couple of the aesthetic references, but this part of things has been neglected over the last month in favor of getting my art skills through Drawabox’s boot camp.
I’m still making progress on the “Myths” sections of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and the insights there have been equally conciliatory and thought-provoking. (And hopefully SCENE provoking once I start drafting the script.)
I also still need to finish compiling my VN market research… Maybe I’ll do that tonight as a breather from learning for a bit?
I’m still at 2/15 on the snowflake, but with an eye towards the future.
Overarching design remains a concern, but that will undoubtedly be fleshed out by the later stages of the snowflake method, which remain bottlenecked by philo. research, so maybe I’ll focus on that more in the next month.
Emotionally, I’ve been feeling the usual vacillations of ennui and optimism that mark most of my creative projects, doubting whether it’s a good idea at all vs. seeing the potential in it. (Doubt is a good friend to have for a creator, just as long as they don’t have the reins.) Usually I try to keep terror at bay until the end of the project, but for a longer project like a game or a novel means having to work on everything piecemeal; I guess existential dread is part of that too.
My main worry is that I’m offloading too much “work” onto the narrative portion of the project. I do have some confidence in my ability to write, but the story itself still feels extremely vague and lacking in characterization to me: I have the loosest sketch of the story, but I don’t know where or how many divergences that story will have. The more effort I put on the other sections of the game–artwork, coding, design–the emptier the (pivotal!) narrative feels, and the bigger my ulcers get.
I’m also fretting over how to balance narrative against player agency. Specifically, I want to avoid any situation that will override a player’s entire “run” through the game due to the choices they’ve made, and their unanticipated consequences–I don’t want the player to feel like their entire run/narrative arc is meaningless bc. they were aiming in a specific direction and failed to get it. Or maybe the real problem I’m having is balancing “a feeling surprise/wonder” with “player agency in narrative”? Or maybe moving away from a linear VN format means I shouldn’t worry about edge cases like that?
So. Making a game then. (This would have been back in July or August)
Time to take inventory: What resources did I have at my disposal?
lots of free time stuck indoors (thanks, COVID)
moderate writing skills
minimal drawing skills (mostly a handful of drawing courses, once again from over a decade ago)
an endless supply of free sketching paper (so much advertising; so little mailbox)
a computer (not powerful, but stable)
a carrot (procrastinating on other projects)
a little bit of savings and no major financial burdens
access to the internet’s fortune of educational resources and freeware
Not the worst place to start from, all things considered.
I already had a concept for a game that I wanted to make–a dating sim/visual novel; genres that particularly leverage writing over coding and artwork skills, which I felt maximized my positives over my negatives. Good.
My next step was gathering market information.
From my initial research, most of the highest-grossing* and best-rated dating sim games were developed in one of three ways:
Ren’py – a freeware system designed specifically for creating visual novels
Katawa Shoujo, Sunrider Academy, Doki Doki Literature Club, Analog: A Hate Story, Dandelion
Unity – an all-purpose freeware game development engine using C#, designed for very small development teams
unknown/console/in-house engines – software platforms created by the developers themselves or platforms designed for specific game consoles
True Love ~Confide to the Maple~, Clannad, The Fruit of Grisaia, Amnesia, Nameless ~The one thing you must recall~, CollarXMalice, Code:Realize, Sweet Fuse, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly
There were a couple of other options–other engines designed for V.N.s–but for my purposes, it looked like Ren’py and Unity were my front-runners.
After weighing the pros and cons, I decided to go with Unity over Ren’py. Technically, Unity is overkill: Unity can do VNs no problem. But I wanted to come out of this project with skills that I could build on, and developing in Unity meant picking up some C# experience as well (which I was always curious about). Unity was also more versatile in the event that there were game play or interface features I wanted to implement that might be a burden to backdoor into Ren’py.
So, Unity (and, by extension, C#).
My lurking uncovered widespread acclaim for Rob Miles’ (FREE!) C# Programming Yellow Book as an introduction to the coding side (with the key concepts for Unity going through to about the end of chapter 4), and for Unity, there were countless resources and videos online discussing ways of coding the various bits and pieces that I would need to make a VN out of.
I immediately set about reading Rob’s book and taking copious notes, while in the background I studied two other resources on organization:
Game Architecture and Design – a somewhat dated text on game development that offers a good overview of the stages of production, a cursory overview of game philosophy, and the different parts of a video game
Cloudnovel – a website/blog focusing on the different elements of VN development with an emphasis on writing, including an expansive section on the snowflake method.
I Frankensteined these two organizational methods together into a modified snowflake system. That became the “spine” of my project, with the sequential “vertebrae” serving as attachment points for all my other research, taking each step of the game and iterating on it, gradually, picking up skills along the way.
Now, at this point I realized I had played a few games which included VN elements in them–as they’ve permeated the western video game landscape over the last decade or two–but no purebred VNs. Might be a good idea to get a sense of the history involved here.
This was when I started doing market research, looking at various VN fan forums and reading the fans’ favorite games/characters and their most loved/hated conventions**. Then I checked out demos and Let’s Plays of the most beloved titles, studying their interfaces, artwork, character design, sound effects, music, storytelling, player agency, architecture–everything that made the gameplay experience what it was.
So that’s programming and background research. That left two other glaring shortfalls: Artwork and Philosophy.
I no good art. Me need good.
With no money to spare on paying somenoe with actual talent, I would need to teach myself how to draw human figures–my VN’s character models (sprites)–in an at least passably attractive aesthetic (bishojo manga-like, if only for convention’s sake), and in a digital environment.
Fortunately, “art” has been around since pre-10,000 BC, and folks have written a tutorial or two here and there for beginners to learn by. Again, it was time to hit the forums. Reddit’s art communities were particularly helpful in providing various online and textual resources, which I cobbled into a lesson plan:
TIER I – THE BASICS
FUNDAMENTAL SKILLS – drawabox.com (for the basic technical skills that my college drawing classes never quite instilled, but also getting into beginner anatomy) and Loomis’ Fun With A Pencil(Loomis being a beloved source for beginners–this is considered his most basic work)
TIER II – TECHNICAL SKILLS
DIGITAL ART – Krita’s official documentation, various YouTube videos, and a compiled collection of forum suggestions for beginners
(Though I happened to have an old copy of Photoshop, I decided on using the freeware art program Krita as others had suggested that PS–while undoubtedly powerful and with a whole lot of fans–is a bit cumbersome for digital painting, as compared to photo manipulation that it’s designed for; the forums and various review sites all led me to a $65 investment in a modestly-sized Huion drawing pad.)
(Actual practice with digital art would come later, but mainly by doing my regular drawing exercises
ANATOMY – Loomis’ Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth
Bridgman’s Constructive Anatomy and Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life
Hogarth’s Dynamic Anatomy and Dynamic Figure Drawing
COLOR AND LIGHT THEORY – Gurney – Color and Light (seemed pretty universally praised)
COMPOSITION AND PERSPECTIVE – Robertson’s How to Draw, Bang’s Picture This, and Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink
TIER III – MANGA AND MORE
MANGA – Ozawa’s How to Draw Anime and Game Characters Vol.1 and Vol.5, YouTubers Feng Zhu, Sycra, and Alphonso Dunn, and the Etherington Bros’ ongoing series, How to Think When You Draw
MORE DIGITAL ART – 3DTotal’s Beginners Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop – Characters and ImagineFX’s Manga; The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Digital Painting Techniques
MORE ANATOMY – Bridgman – Drawing the Female Form, Hampton – Figure Drawing: Design and Invention, Bridgman – The Human Machine
(Throughout all of this, I would of course be engaging in regular exercises–linework, figure drawing, anatomy practice, etc.–and doing artwork for my game to fine-tune my skills a little.)
Philosophy is nitro for my creative engine–a toolchest for my thinking–and my limited theoretical knowledge of the themes I wanted to explore with my game indicated a fair bit of background research was needed:
The Male/Female Gaze***
Visual Novels (as a medium)
The Psychology of Death and Sexual Desire
I already had some background in Hegel, Lacan, and media theory, so that helped orient me a little. I found a lot of promising essays on the various topics, but to avoid too much of a researching burden, I narrowed down my book-reading to a handful of core texts:
Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex (a seminal existentialist treatise on the orientation and condition of “woman” within male-dominated society; the 2009 new translation which restores the text in full, and I’d been wanting a good excuse to read this for ages!)
Slavoj Zizek – Violence (one of Zizek’s more accessible, introductory works, covering the ways society ideologizes violence, legitimizing or deligitimizing it, exaggerating it or rendering it totally invisible, depending on who is doing it and why)
Susan Sontag – On Classical Pornography (a one-hour lecture Sontag gave back in 1964–I don’t know a whole lot about this one, but Sontag is a solid theorizer of the arts, and it looked relevant)
Georges Bataille – Erotism (Bataille’s extensive theory of erotic desire, pleasure, and satisfaction)
Hiroki Azuma – Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Azuma’s philosophical treatise that examines contemporary Japanese media and consumer habits as the postmodern product of a culture being crushed under late capitalism and consumerist nihilism)
Angela Carter – The Sadeian Woman (Carter’s analysis of the Marquis de Sade’s controversial text as a commentary on the state of the woman in society and an aesthetic strategy towards her liberation)
Julia Kristeva – Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Kristeva’s Lacanian psychoanalytic account of the subjective experience of horror as a phenomenon borne out of abjection: the pre-Oedipal formation of a proto-Self which is threatened by these reminders of one’s ontologically uncertain status)
(with Partially Examined Life episodes and Stanford.Plato articles providing broader background material to each of my subtopics, and with a number of other side materials as “optional” reads, if I want to dig more into a particular subject.)
* * *
And that was that.
My game still needed music and sound effects–both sourceable from license-free websites by browsing and having a little bit of patience. (Trying to learn to play music would definitely be a bridge too far.)
So, basically, that brings us to today. Here’s where I’m at currently:
Project Snowflake: step 2/15
Artwork: drawabox’s 250 box challenge: 60/250 (still need to upload my earlier practice for critique)
VN Market Research: gathered (still needs final compiling)
articles: most already read–still need to go through the Stanford summaries
The Second Sex: 25% of the way through the selected sections
The Sadeian Woman: 53%
Programming: finished reading the C# guide and gathered some snippets of code; currently trying to wrap my head around the way GameObjects work in relation to code within Unity and designing the architecture for what parts of the game’s code do what
Overall, it’s going pretty okay, but I could stand to step it up a notch or two. I think winter will be a very productive season for me, but if I’m going to get to the finish line before my bank account dries up, I’m going to need to start coding and writing sooner rather than later.
WATCH THIS SPACE FOR MORE!
* Highest-grossing, here, is a relative term: as I soon discovered, the North-American dating sim market is staunchly loyal, but modest in size–fine for a smaller dev like me, but not something a AAA studio could hang its hat on.
** A big shout-out to the Tailor Tales blog that did a huge poll of VN fans with TONS of data: this was a particularly invaluable resource.
*** In addition to the general philosophical readings, I also found a few threads that pointed me to some media demonstrating the female gaze in contemporary media: Handmaiden, The (2016), Outlander S01E07 – The Wedding, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Secretary (2002), and Wynonna Earp S04E02 – Friends in Low Places (with Blue Is The Warmest Color as a male-gaze contrast against these works)