July-to-present Retrospective: Taking Stock, Getting Organized

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 coding experience (mostly HTML, CSS; dabbled in some C++ and JavaScript, but that was over a decade ago)
  • 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
  • gumption?

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
    • Hatoful Boyfriend, Dream Daddy, HuniePop, Monster Prom,
  • 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.

Great!

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.

ARTWORK

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:

  1. TIER I – THE BASICS
    1. 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)
  2. TIER II – TECHNICAL SKILLS
    1. DIGITAL ART – Krita’s official documentation, various YouTube videos, and a compiled collection of forum suggestions for beginners
      1. (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.)
      2. (Actual practice with digital art would come later, but mainly by doing my regular drawing exercises
    2. ANATOMY – Loomis’ Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth
      1. supplemental materials:
        1. Bridgman’s Constructive Anatomy and Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life
        2. Hogarth’s Dynamic Anatomy and Dynamic Figure Drawing
    3. COLOR AND LIGHT THEORY – Gurney – Color and Light (seemed pretty universally praised)
    4. COMPOSITION AND PERSPECTIVE – Robertson’s How to Draw, Bang’s Picture This, and Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink
  3. TIER III – MANGA AND MORE
    1. 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
    2. 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
    3. 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

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:

  • Feminism
  • The Male/Female Gaze***
  • Visual Novels (as a medium)
  • Eroticism
  • The Psychology of Death and Sexual Desire
  • Violence

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)
  • Philosophy:
    • 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)

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