Friday, August 31, 2012

So You've Decided to Write a Porn Game...

Hey guys, did you hear? A bunch of feeltards are doing a Katawa Shoujo rip-off, but with retarded girls.

What kind of person would want to do that?

What kind? I dunno. I guess I'm sort of a normal dude, as are my colleagues. Well... normal-ish.

Anyways, this may come as a surprise, but Missing Stars seems to have garnered some controversy by its mere existence. Generally, I don't bother reading or listening to criticisms said about our project, as they're mostly based on assumptions since precious few details concerning our VN have been released so far.

Nonetheless, I feel that there are questions that have arisen that deserve to be answered.

Why are you doing this?

It's fucking fun, that's why. Somnova isn't just a dev team. We're friends, too. Sure, we might want each other dead by the end of the project, but so far I'm glad to have become acquainted with my colleagues. Together, we've had some laughs, fapped over shared musical tastes, swapped porn, and provided company and solace in times of need. I'm happy to have met these talented folks, and to have the opportunity to create something with them.

What do you expect to accomplish?

I'm hoping to create a story that I can personally be proud of, and to have fun in the process. If even only a few people enjoy Missing Stars in the end, I'll be satisfied. I'm not counting on fame and adoration from the VN-reading public. I myself don't thrive on ego stroking. Honestly, I don't really handle praise well. I do want people to like my work, but I never know how to react to having my work gushed over, because I always feel like someone else deserves it more.

I'm not counting on Missing Stars blowing minds and revolutionizing the nascent subgenre of “captive harems in special needs boarding school” eroges, obviously. I just want to come out with a little story that people enjoy.

What's up with the characters?

We were faced with the challenge of unveiling our protagonists without spoiling our story or committing to characterizations that we'd want to change later. At the time, simply having a name and a picture seemed like far too little to show for our work. After all, we had to show how far we've come since imperial.standard first posted his character concepts in open forum.

In order to keep from spoiling the story or giving away character details, we pretty much wrote harmless and inconsequential fluff like trivia and measurements. In my case, I knew that readers would react strongly to a path girl wearing facial restraints, so I threw in the fact that she's a Twilight fan, thinking it'd be a silly little distraction from her striking appearance.

And what a distraction that turned out to be! I estimate that out of all of the negative reactions to Lena's début, a good 60% were complaints that she's a Twi-hard. Apparently, readers have very strong and clearly defined expectations of what sort of character would read and enjoy paranormal romance fantasy.

All in all, we did get some surprises out of the way readers reacted to the character profiles. Could this whole thing have been executed better? Maybe. However, given the general spitefulness of the internet at large (admit it, we're all assholes online) and the controversy that's surrounded Missing Stars from the beginning, it could have also gone a lot worse. The profiles are not worth retracting, in my opinion. Besides, it did give us exposure, and seeing positive, constructive feedback along with claiming of the girls as waifus made it all worth it.

Are you guys a bunch of redditors?

As far as I know, out of the nearly three dozen persons who are or have been a part of the development team, only two or three joined after learning about the project on Reddit. The majority joined after reading the proposal thread on the KS forums. The rest were recruited through word-of-mouth or other means. I myself don't use Reddit; I don't really like the website's format. I prefer traditional forums as internet hangouts.

So, no, Missing Stars is not the Reddit VN. That honor goes to the Eisei Gakuen VN project, which was at one point known as "redditvn" on their own forums. There may be other products initiated there, but I'm not sure.

So, what about those other OELVN projects?

With so many projects going on right now, it's really an exciting time to be a visual novel fan. I myself wasn't really into VNs before KS, because I would usually get put off by the involved process of installing and language-patching them. Soon, I'll have a whole bunch to look forward to reading. I've mostly been keeping to my own project lately so I've lost track of some of the others, but I'm looking forward to Con'Ai, Salty Tears, Rosae Dormientes, Con Amore, and the work of Team Mumei.

Are you aware that are you ripping off Katawa Shoujo?

A while ago, I took a step back and asked myself if I'm really okay with working on a VN that's a derivative of another work.

Well...? Yes. Yes, I am okay with it. To me, having a unique premise is only part of having a worthwhile product. This isn't a slavish remake to 4LS's creation. Missing Stars lives in its own lovingly-crafted world, and will explore its own themes and possibilities.

Besides, we never deluded ourselves and said “NUH-UH! This time, it's mental disabilities! It's totally different.” We make no pretenses that the premise is ground breaking.

Then why don't you do something original?

The thing is, Somnova Studios formed around the project founder's original proposal. We didn't all get together for the nebulous purpose of writing a VN, and THEN come up with the premise of a mental-school dating sim after failing to come up with an original idea of our own. The idea was out there, and each of us saw it and thought to ourselves “I can do this. I want to be a part of it.” That's how Missing Stars came to be.

That's not to say that we can't come up with an original VN. Most of our staff have kicked around various ideas for our own kinetic and visual novel projects. We would love to pursue further ideas, but for now, let's get Missing Stars finished.

Art by imperial.standard
btw, most of us are demofagsfriends, not feeltards

Saturday, August 25, 2012

What Even Is?

Art by blackjack

Looking back, it certainly has been a wild, wild couple of months since we all started making this VN. Development has been progressing pretty well over this summer, despite most of us being busy with real-life work. Scenes are being edited as we speak. We're also busy working on the user interface that will be used in-game, and making sure the scenes flow correctly. As far as art is progressing, we're getting sprites made, and they're looking incredible!

With all this talk about sprites and scenes, what exactly are we making? A game? A novel?

The true answer is hard to determine. The 'select choice, get next scene' element of most visual novels isn't really 'gameplay' in a sense - the player merely follows a path. Many game experts would indeed be hesitant to call a visual novel a 'game', as there are no real challenges (aside from the dilemma of what option to choose) that directly affect gameplay.

But what happens when you start to add actual game elements? VNs like Policenauts or Kara no Shoujo (A VN that I have just started playing, thanks to alabaster) have interactive sequences where you have to investigate a scene or object that provide clues or insight for the player. This alone vastly changes the VN, as 'game play' becomes a vital part of the story. Succeeding in these sequences directly changes the end result, and vice versa. 

So, what exactly am I attempting to say here? Is a visual novel really a game, or is it closer to a novel?

The answer is yes.

Visual novels share elements from both games and from novels, creating a final product that meets the requirements for both, but doesn't really fit into either category. Most game experts would hesitate to call it a 'game', seeing as it just barely meets the actual requirements to call it one. Novelists would also be on the fence, seeing as a good chunk of the story is told through the visual expression of the characters, and not through the text itself.

I would like to think that visual novels exist on a spectrum. This spectrum has increasing amounts of gameplay elements until you reach the line between the medium of Visual Novels and full fledged games. On one end, you have VNs with few or no choices, such as Dischan's recent title Juniper's Knot (sometimes called a Kinetic Novel). Then, as you start moving on the spectrum, you have the additions of choices - such as Katawa Shoujo - that branch out into their own predetermined paths depending on the player. Next you can see the addition of direct player interaction, such as choosing to head somewhere on a map or do a certain activity. This could result in an event that increases your favor with a certain girl, for example. This falls into the category of a 'dating sim', where choices are king. Events are triggered by the choice of the player, instead of the story continuing on a set path with a choice along the way.

As we head further, you can see the addition of more player interaction, such as puzzles or minigames. Ace Attorney is a classic example of this - investigating scenes for clues, cross-examining witnesses - it all leads to you trying to solve the case. Granted, some of the puzzles take a big leap in logic for some players, but can feel so rewarding when finally solved. 

At the very edge of the spectrum, it becomes difficult to determine if this piece of software you call a 'visual novel' is still a visual novel. Here, gameplay elements actually make it into, well, a game. Games like Persona 4 have elements of a dating sim, one that renders the relationships you make with your friends into an actual gameplay mechanic. Powerful Personas are made available as you deepen the bonds you have with your friends, and your party members will perform special techniques in order to help you and the team.

It's this point on the spectrum that I like to see most of all. When does a visual novel become a real game? Does it have to be when a certain element is added to the game? At what point does the visual novel become a mere mechanic of the game it's a part of?

Regardless of spectrum placement or definition, the visual novel is a fantastic medium to work in and play with. Seeing how Analogue: A Hate Story differs from 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors makes me think a lot about my studies in game theory and development. So much has changed in the gaming world since the development of the home console and personal computer, and I'm glad to play my part in all of it.


Discuss this post on the forums.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Yelling From The Sideline

Hi folks! I’m MDV and I work for Somnova Studios as a medical consultant.

‘A what? Goddamn, those missing screws fags will really take anyone into their project!’

That’s probably how /vg/ would respond, but I’ve figured they might not be the only ones who’ve heard about Somnova’s medical consultants and wonder what they actually do. In this blog post I’ll try to explain to you exactly what we do and why I think we’re essential for this project to succeed.

If you’ve been following Missing Stars, you know we’re writing a visual novel set in a school for students with mental disorders. If we want to tell our story in any way that makes sense, we need the input of people who have experience with and knowledge about people with mental issues. The medical consultants of Somnova Studios are those people. To make sure everything on the subject of how exactly certain disabilities work and how exactly they are treated, we have M22 on our team, a practicing psychiatrist. I’m not a professional like him though. I’m not actually a medic; my ‘expertise’ derives from practical experience only. I have spent six years in a school like the one we’re writing about as a dev team. I know how those places work and how their students interact, which means I can help the writers to tell a story that displays the setting in an accurate way.

Do realize though that accurate does not mean respectful, politically correct or even tasteful. I’m not here to make Missing Stars into the autism rights movement's wet dream. I’m here to make sure the story represents schools for mentally ill students like they really are. This means I’ll have to break some people’s sugary expectations. The most important ones are the following two:

- Mentally ill people are fine and normal people like everyone else
- In a special school, all the students will be mentally ill, so they’ll respect each other’s differences and be understanding towards each other

The latter couldn’t be further from the truth actually. Just try to imagine what happens if you put a hyperactive kid in the same room as an autist that goes mad if he gets too many impulses, of course that’s not going to end well! It’s also a good thing to realize that the students aren’t open about their reason for being in a special school at all. They’re usually ashamed of it and lie about it whenever asked. Many students have a ‘I’m not as sick in the head as they are’ mentality and will go far to keep that illusion alive. There’s a reason why we didn’t name any disabilities in the character previews. This insecurity won’t only mean that students will lie about their own disabilities, but also that they will mock and bully others to feel better about themselves. In the six years I’ve spent in a special school, I’ve heard things that make the autism-bashing on 4chan seem nice. Schools for mentally ill students aren’t paradises of tolerance, acceptance and understanding. Quite the opposite really!

About the former I think that if people will respond to MS saying things like ‘my negative stereotypes about mentally ill people are gone! They’re just normal people like everyone else. The differences are just small and superficial’ it means the project and especially my part in it will be a failure. MS is not about normal people that happen to be blind. It’s about people that have serious mental issues that make it impossible for them to ever act and live like normal people. The issues we’re dealing with are simply not superficial; they are serious and we take them very seriously as devs.

Now how do I make sure the writers get it right? In a way, I’m like a football coach. Football coaches aren’t as good as their players at football usually and have no place on the field. All they do is yell at the players from the sideline and tell them what they’re doing wrong, and the players accept it because of his perceived authority. I am not a good at writing dramatic prose, that’s why I’m not a writer, still I get to criticize the writers as much as I want because that’s what I’m here for. I’m on the team to emphasize the writers’ inaccuracies until they just won’t be there anymore. The writers accept it, because as a medical consultant, I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. That’s why one dev consistently calls me coach.

In a way, my role as a medical consultant is destructive rather than creative. Writers create, they use their creativity and skill to write a piece they believe to be good, then they deliver it to to me and I say something like this:

‘This part doesn’t make sense….cut it!....What is this even supposed to mean?... I’ve told you before, it doesn’t work that way!.... I’m going to have to ring the bullshit bell for this…They’re not normal people and St. Dymphna’s is not a normal high school, please rewrite this.’
And then the scene is rewritten into something more accurate that has a chance of being in the final product. So far, it has been going pretty well and I have to say things like that less and less.

I hope that clears up what the medical consultants are on the team for. Thanks for reading! If anyone has questions, feel free to ask on the forum.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Who Are You People and Where Is My Horse?

Happy Blog Day, everyone. I'm alabaster, and unless you frequent our IRC channel, you probably have no idea who I am. I'm a writer on Missing Stars. Nice to meet you.

If you're wondering why you haven't seen my name yet or, more to the point, why I haven't revealed my character yet, there's a good reason. We have enough already...

Actually, my role here is a bit different from my fellow writers. In part, I'm sort of like the team putty, stuffed into any and all gaps that materialize. I primarily write scenes that don't fall under the purview of the main writers – essentially, the scenes that don't involve any of the main path girls – and I do a fair share of editing too, wherever it's needed.

That's not to say that I don't have a character of my own. In fact, I have two. I'm responsible for Missing Stars' two big side characters. It may seem odd to give these characters their own writer, but I think it speaks to the way we're treating our cast of characters. Let me explain.

I feared early on that we might develop a sort of tunnel-vision when it came to our characters – that each writer would focus on their one character and one story and neglect the world as a whole: how that writer's character affects and is affected by those around her. Just because certain characters aren't dateable doesn't mean they're not vital to the world. These secondary characters don't exist solely as a source of exposition, for instance, or to be the token jerk, or the comic relief, even if one of them does fit that last role pretty comfortably. They are three-dimensional people and deserve as much attention as any other. After all my time spent nagging the writers for more cross-route connectivity, I guess this was my punishment: write the two characters who weave their way in and out of every story we have to tell.

Since the beginning of the project, I've been convinced these characters were crucial to the world of Missing Stars. We're writing a fiction, of course, but as artists we want this world to feel as real as we can make it. It's the reason we took on consultants to advise us on the elements of the setting we weren't familiar with. And it's the reason we strive to make the setting feel connected, dynamic, alive. In real life, no person's story is self-contained. Lives intersect. People collide. Your future changes because of one chance meeting.

St. Dymphna's is full of interesting, odd, lovable characters. Some of them are selfless, kind souls who guide Erik along the way. Some are infuriating critics who belittle him for every mistake he makes. All of them are people, and they have an effect on the world and on the people around them. Even the characters somehow immune to Erik's impossibly good looks – they may not get a story all their own, but they're sometimes the most important of all.

Despite my fears, there's no tunnel-vision here. The communication between writers is always present. Ideas fly back and forth, criticism is welcome, and problems are solved with help, if you want it, from an enormously talented group of peers. The writers, just like the characters themselves, are continually effected and changed by the people around them. Storytelling in Missing Stars is a communal thing, and I don't know why I ever doubted it would be.


Discuss this post on the forums.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Building a Better Broken Bird

Good evening, everyone. Allow me if you may to introduce myself first: I am Gloom, the writer in charge of Katja Böhm's route. 

Now that you have someone to blame for the upcoming, let us without further ado move on to the subject of today's discussion, which I believe is one that unavoidably will be touched upon (in all the wrong ways) during the creation of a game such as this:

Broken Birds.

Also known as Fragile Flowers, Damaged Damsels, and Tarnished Treasures, Broken Birds are a literary archetype extremely prevalent in the romantic VN genre and one that you are quite likely (almost by definition, being readers of this blog) well acquainted with, if not officially.

Usually female, usually young and beautiful, the Broken Bird is a character meant to evoke a very specific set of feelings at the reader. Where the Poor Little Kid with Leukemia is meant to tug on heartstrings through pure pity, the Broken Bird goes a step further: through pity, she seeks to attract the reader.

And indeed, that is a very attractive archetype: the reasons are multitude, and range from sociological and psychological to, arguably, even evolutionary (hence the babylike appearance of the classical "moe" figure, with her big eyes and round face). 

The Broken Bird isn't just attractive and weak – she's attractive because she's weak. Her weakness (be it psychological trauma, a physical disability, a painful disease or what have you) is presented in such a way as to purposefully invoke feelings of parental/territorial protectiveness. She makes the reader (put in the role of the loving protagonist) feel strong and important by making it obvious that she needs someone strong and important to survive.

You have to wonder what the fact that this kind of ego-stroking works so well on us, the VN reading crowd, says about us, don't you?

I could go on and on about all the various sociological and psychological implications of the recent, rampant idolization (not to mention eroticization) of weak and needy female characters in our media (while women who were weak in the sense of not being able to protect or finance themselves were always seen as desirable in popular media, we are now dealing with women for whom simple day to day existence is a challenge), but this time I'd like to say something more specific:

Prior to its release, Katawa Shoujo was often accused of shamelessly exploiting this archetype for cheap melodrama (that, and creepy amputee sex, but that is aside the point). 

But defying everybody's expectations, not only did KS eventually turn out to avoid this trap: it went further to lampshade, subvert, deconstruct and reconstruct the trope in every way possible. While literally all love interest characters in the game were actually, physically crippled, not one was a "Broken Bird" as per this trope: they all, in one way or another, dealt with their problems themselves (even when their method of coping was inefficient or self destructive, it was still their own – a valid option and realistic situation, if I might add). 

The one case that seemed to go the Way of The Broken Bird (I am going to assume that you know which one I am referring to) was actually the one who went the farthest to deconstruct it: the message of the story was directed at the player in the clearest, most poignant way possible. 

Love must be between equals. There can never be a fruitful, healthy relationship between a protector and a protectee - and by forcing one as such upon your loved one, you're only causing lasting harm to the both of you.

Now, we are making a game in which the player (as Erik Wilhelm) interacts romantically with girls who are all, in one way or another, mentally disturbed. By definition, they are all somehow damaged. Somewhat weak, and seemingly, somewhat in need of assistance or defense – otherwise they wouldn't be in a special institution.

Following in KS' steps as we do, it wouldn't be much a spoiler now to go on and tell you that (or so we hope to manage) no girl in Missing Stars is a classical "Broken Bird". 

Of course, as much as we want to follow in KS' steps (at least conceptually), we don't want to come out as mere copycats. As such, we are striving to come up with new interpretations of the archetype with every one of our routes. 

As aforementioned, a character does not become a "Broken Bird" merely by being weak (which all of our characters, protagonist included, somehow are) or attractive (which all of our main character, protagonist especially, most definitely are): the appeal of the character must be derived from her damaged status and apparent need for protection.

This distinction is even more important (or so I selfishly feel) to me, seeing as my character, Katja, is not only mentally disturbed, but obviously physically damaged as well.

There is no point in making a "damaged character" (traumatized, weak, crazy) who's damage never becomes apparent, or isn't relevant to the story. Its poor writing (generally, details which contribute nothing whatsoever to the story are considered poor form, unless they're sort of the point… but I digress). Worse, it creates the mildly offensive impression that the writer is attempting to insert a crippled character into his story solely for the drama/political correctness/fetish value ("Look at my excellent and sensitive story! The love interest is deaf! Of course, she's good enough a lip reader and vocalizer that she might as well be hearing, b – but she isn't!"). At the same time, we must avoid creating characters defined by (or only approachable) through their disabilities.

And yet, our game isn't one about mental disorders. It's about the people who just so happen to have them. Each of them is unique, set apart from characters that came before (in KS or other VN's), and from those who stand by them (in this game). 

Our game will be full of Broken Birds – seemingly. There's nothing bad about it: it's a powerful image, and not unrealistic (terrible as it is to say, the world is often a cruel place and those kinds of things just happen: beautiful girls do get their brain cancers, they do get traumatized for life, and they do end up breaking their spines and becoming paralyzed from the waist down). But if we succeed as we hope to, none of them would be nothing but – and as importantly, neither would they be Broken as a KS character.

Drawing upon reality as much as upon other literary sources, we've been busy looking for interesting examples of the myriad ways by which people handle the sort of damage that would Break a Bird. The variety is, to say the least, staggering. Starting to list now even the general categories of reactions to trauma to any adequate level would fill by itself an entire essay. The human brain (not to mention the human mind, two concepts that are related yet distinct) is an incredibly complex, and as of today, far from completely understood mechanism. Its inner workings are sometimes nothing short of a full blown mystery, and far more so are the ways in which they get broken. 

Each human mind is a world unto itself, beginning to end, top to bottom, deep inside and all the way out. Shake it, steer it, freeze and boil it: each would react differently, in more way than could ever be discerned by even the brightest of psychiatrist. What might make one person shrug in indifference might scar another for all eternity. One person's scars may drive them to change their life completely, to drive away their friends and family and to never see the world the same way again. Another's might be hidden deep beneath the surface, deep under a mask of nonchalance, perhaps forever, perhaps until the day they snap and down a bottle of sleeping pills. 

And yet another might have simply been born with the blessing and the curse of being able to speak to the birds and the fish. Who are we to say they won't answer?

The fact that a girl has been damaged does not in any way mean that she must passively wallow in misery for that. And if she does, it may not mean that all she needs is the powerful hug of some loving White Knight to fix her. People are more complex in real life, and interesting stories should probably reflect that – at least in this regard.

Believe it or not, but we really are doing our best to ensure that our characters are unique. For all of their representation of archetypes, they are each tailored towards being their own person; their own kind of story, with its own kind of lesson and atmosphere.

They are each their own mental maze of multifaceted madness, each their own practical puzzle of personality problems. 

They are broken because they are.

They are loved because they are.

(artwork courtesy of Imperial.Standard)