Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Big Genesis Fan

Hey guys, it's been a while.

I realized there hasn't been much public talk about the music of KS, so I thought I'd take the time to give you a brief run down.

When I joined the project back in 2007, the soundtrack was basically nonexistent. The earliest devs made a handful of concept tracks that floated around the old forums for a bit, but they never really got off the ground. I ended up writing something like 20-25 tracks from scratch from between 2007-2008. I left the project for personal reasons, and Blue came just in time to take over for me. After about two years of being away from the project, I rejoined again in September of 2010.

With most of the soundtrack already done, my job switched over from being a composer to being a janitor. My old work just wasn't good enough anymore: it was just too far below the standards I had built up while being away from the project, so I remade it (you ever see Gundam 0079? it's like that part in Gundam 0079 where Amuro has become more powerful and his gundam is holding him back, so they customize it for him. I am Amuro. I am gundam). Believe it or not, I've been paying attention to the feedback we've been getting on the soundtrack. I addressed a lot of the issues people have been bringing up, in addition to completely rewriting several tracks. On top of that, there are several new tracks that weren't part of the Act 1 soundtrack. The end result is -- hopefully -- a soundtrack that meets the standards the rest of the game has set up.

I've always been a firm believer that, if you're releasing something to the public, you need to take them into consideration -- at least a bit -- rather than just throwing something at them and expecting them to like it. Thankfully, a lot of people seemed to enjoy the Act 1 soundtrack, but this made it a bit tough for me when I had to clean it up. In the end, I made a lot of big changes, but I'm certain you'll all enjoy it even more than the original (and if you didn't enjoy the original, hopefully you'll like this one).

Thanks for all the support you guys have been giving me and the rest of the team, and watch Gundam.

- Nicol

» Discuss this post on the forums

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reach for the Stars

As so often, people with interesting opinions spurred conversation on IRC, which inspired me to collect my (and our) thoughts into a blog post. Basically, various people seem to be unhappy with the state of western-developed Visual Novels. They are not good enough and what's more, they are not even as good as the originally Japanese ones are. Being a group of non-Japanese people who are making a VN, we of course feel somewhat interested in the topic, but the subsequent discussion pretty fast derailed away from that because none of us really is keeping a finger on the pulse of OELVN scene anymore. Instead we talked about what could be done better. It occurs to me that unlike my usual subject of the kinks of KS development, this time I'm not a sovereign expert of the topic. I've gone through a certain arc as a consumer of culture, just like anyone. People who have had radically different experiences from mine might not agree with my views at all. I've read a lot of VNs. Less than some, more than others. I've read great many of the ones often cited as the cream of the crop. I've liked some VNs I've read. I've found some VNs really good. These experiences shaped my view of the visual novel medium, and from what I have seen and learned about this niche of this subculture is the following:

VNs, such as they are, don't actualize the immense potential of the medium. They don't come even close. In fact, even the top tenth percentile predicted by Sturgeon's Law are awfully bad when you compare them with other storytelling media. And this goes not only for OELVNs as decried in that discussion thread but for all of them. Here's a fun fact: out of the fifteen or so of us, I can name only one 4LS member who is still actively interested in newly released visual novel translations. A couple of the artists follow new Japanese releases but only for the art they contain. We do take note of new releases every now and then, Japanese, western and translations alike, but it's always with this certain kind of apathy. Yet we all love the medium itself very much. We can imagine a VN we'd love to read.

Broad and generalizing conclusion: the VNs that get made are a gret deal worse than the VNs that could be made. Much more so than plays, novels or movies. Now, the immediate argument that kindasorta tries to defend VNs is that it is a young medium: people have been writing books, doing theatre, even comics, movies and animation for a long long time compared to the short decade and change that VNs have. There is definitely some truth in that, I believe, on the basis of comparison to the evolution of other relatively recent media like video games or comics. To reach a greater height, VNs have to grow out of the cave of lameness they're stuck in (and from what I can see, only descending deeper into). Here's four points that I think are pretty important in that:

1. Get rid of the dependence on genre conventions
This is the biggest issue, so big that it could be cut into like four or five bullet points by itself, but that'd bore the crap out of anyone reading this and I'm not writing an academic paper. Visual novel is a medium, but just about every single one of them falls into some sort of anime type genre, both story- and artwise. Conventions of that subculture, or tropes I suppose I should say, are the cancer that are killing visual novels (as they say). Portraying sex pornographically, hyperadolescent themes, archetypal characterization and so on keep VNs tightly locked as a niche that has no hope of ever appealing to anyone outside the incredibly tiny number of diehard anime fans that basically shape the limits of the potential audience current VNs have. Comics have grown up a bit already and broadened their horizons, arguably even video games have. VNs could try, too.

2. Stop with the word diarrhea
With a couple of exceptions, every VN I've read has had completely inadequate story for its wordcount. Writing longwindedly can be justifiable, but it seems to be more of a rule to drown your sparse good ideas into a swamp of forgettable dialogue or templated events. Visualization (proper kind, the one I'm talking about in point 4.) makes a lot of words even more unnecessary than they would be in an equivalent non-visual novel. Consider the difference in wordcount of an average visual novel and an average theatre play script. Nowadays VNs seem to be overtly long mostly because they are expected to be so, but what started this trend? Maybe VN writers are paid by the word? Maybe competent editors are too expensive to hire? Who knows. Either way, artificially extending the script beyond what it has to offer makes for a terribly boring reading experience.

3. Develop the theory of interactive storytelling
This is the single hardest part to do well when writing a VN, and the one that sets them apart from other storytelling media most clearly. I have never seen a VN that does branching/interactivity in a way that'd satisfy me, and I feel that this is only because there hasn't been enough time and thought put into developing the way interactive stories should work. For a really satisfactory interactivity the choices the player has to make lead to such different directions that the sheer amount of content gets out of hand very fast. Notable is that western video games have had their parallel path of progression in interactivity, and while some of them have attained the broadness I like, it's unfortunately often at the cost of narrative coherence (I'm talking about stuff like Mass Effect where the weight of any given dialogue choice is miniscule and ultimately pointless sidetracks are lurking behind every corner). At any rate, this is the only area where western game developers (but not western VN developers) would actually make better VNs than their Japanese counterparts. There are some video games that tell their stories very nicely and inject the interactivity equally well.

4. Up the visualization
This is a tough one. Though delta sort of disagreed, I feel it's a vital point. Like in other visual storytelling media, the writing is much more important than the visual part, but only through the visuals you justify using a visual medium at all. With the current trends, even the best visual novel will be the rough equivalent of Dinosaur Comics. It's funnily written at best, but very pointless as a comic. Delta used video game cutscenes as a demonstration of the opposite, specifically this which I hadn't seen before but immediately liked. Even if the opening is (sparsely) animated, it's not really all that far from the basic structure of a visual novel. Pictures and narrative, that's all they are. So that's what a VN at its best could be like, all the way. Imagine the best video game cutscene you've seen, cut it into still frames in your mind and insert the story. Blows this sprites + bg + hentai CGs standard out of the water. Now this is something where I actually see constant evolution even now. The most innovative VNs are becoming more and more impressive visually, and I don't mean that the plastic moeblobs are drawn better, I mean that they use the visual aspect of a VN better. For a recent-ish example, Eden* by Minori comes to mind. Minori's visualization team has always been top notch, but Eden*, in my mind, marks a somewhat more concrete step forward. There's still a long way to go though. At the other end of the spectrum, the best OELVN I can think off the top of my head, The Dreaming, would've been better if the branching (good idea, horrible execution) and art (terribly unfit of the game) were stripped off, the story rewritten as a novella and read while listening to the soundtrack. That sort of defeats the point of it being a visual novel.

So that's what I think is needed. Now some of this stuff means you need a budget to make a high quality VN, and a budget is something current VNs don't have. Because the thing is, VNs are not all that popular, and the audience they have is very narrow. The visual novel I'd want to see is not really the kind of visual novel most of the audience would want to see, likely for a wide variety of reasons. VNs are a very tiny niche market, getting tinier every year but that has nothing to do with the medium itself. Obvious solution is that VNs would need to invent a new audience, but evolving from a delivery platform for cartoon porn and adolescent fantasies to a serious form of art is a thorny path (as proven by all the forms of art that have managed the feat, my hat's off to them).

Finally, to get in the personal aspect into this story, I guess I'll think about where KS stands. Or maybe not. I do have a set of opinions about how KS performs in each of the categories outlined above but I'll leave specific talking about that for after we release the game. Let's just say that my general sentiment is "not so good". And unlike with the scene as a whole, I know exactly why I think so. KS is totally an offender in all of the above, for the fundamental reason that we are terribly amateur - often outright bad - at this. Nobody had any clue about any of this stuff four years ago when we started. The project is a hodgepodge of experimental things, constantly evolving development paradigm and learning creators trying to live with the consequences of their bad decisions. It's pretty safe to say that about half to two thirds of 4LS don't like KS much at all. That's not to say that we aren't proud or happy about what we do when we get together, just that if we had known in the beginning what we know now, KS would be very different, probably not as approachable as it is and likely released a year ago already. I do like KS for what it is on some level too, but for me the actual merits of the game, if any, will be that it's made at all, the community that surrounds it and the, dare I say it, epic journey that is its birthstory. Now if we were to continue as a team, trying to find our own voice and way to do these things, we might eventually manage to get something actually cool out. However, making even a single VN is a huge investment, which is why evolving as a creator is kinda hard. We aren't likely to stay together for a decade or two, just to see where we can go. Neither is any current OELVN team. Japanese commercial teams are somewhat more likely to, I think, but their innovative drive might be bound in other ways. I don't know. For VNs to evolve as a medium, it'd need a lot of creators that are in for the long term, interact and strive to extend their boundaries. For these creators to emerge, they'd need an audience for their creations, to reflect and learn from them.

Eggs are not going to start spontaneously appearing, so what the scene needs is some chickens.

- Aura

» Discuss this post on the forums

Saturday, January 1, 2011

State of the Shoujo, 2011

Greetings to one and all, and happy new year from everyone at Four Leaf Studios.

Well, it's a new year. I liked the sound of "twenty-ten" better, but maybe "twenty-eleven" will grow on me as the year progresses. And progress it will, just as the game has been. It would be nice to say the year was rosy and friendly and we all got along and hummed lighthearted tunes while happily working away on KS... but I don't think any staff member could say that with a straight face. But despite the fights, the bitching, and the tantrums, we've managed to stick together and make steady progress.

As far as notable events during 2010 go, we've lost developers, regained developers, were extremely lucky to meet a certain person who's been working with us on some special surprises for the game, and Crud and I did a KS convention panel (which some reading this may have even attended). Things have happened in every developer's life outide of KS, some good, some bad, but KS itself has more or less kept trundling along with more writing, more art, more music, more editing and more direction being done nearly every day.

But all that pales in comparison to what this new year will bring, if only for one reason:

Ten years ago, almost to the day, Schuppen Harnische was released by RAITA at Comiket 59 on the 30th of December, 2000.

Four years ago, in January 2007, a post was stickied on 4chan's /a/ imageboard with the idea of making a game out of the concept on one of its omake pages.

Six months hence, in June 2007, Four Leaf Studios first arose as a named entity and work on the game began in earnest.

Almost two years ago, in April 2009, the Act 1 preview was released.

And within months from today, after four years in development, Katawa Shoujo will be released.

It feels somewhat strange to think about the game being released, from a personal perspective. It's been a part of my life for such a long period, it's certainly something I will never forget, and I would imagine that much the same is true of most of the other developers. Nor will I ever forget some of those who I've worked with closely during its development. Time marches on though; word by word, line by line, and argument by argument, the game is progressing towards its final state and the eventual release.

We've have a lot of progress status requests over the past year (and the year before that, and the year before that), and unfortunately, we've had to knock them back for quite a number of reasons. For those that asked reasonably, we did at least try to state why. With the new year though, it feels pertinent to give a good rundown of where the project is to the best of our ability. As such, here is a more detailed status update than the usual, including direction status. This is included because it's the best indicator of "final" portions of the game; that is, a directed act will be subject to no further changes. It's because of this that direction only takes place after all writing for an act has been completed (first draft -> second draft -> editing by editors -> direction).

Emi path:
Writing: Path script is finalised.
Direction: Path direction is completed.

Lilly path:
Writing: Path script is finalised.
Direction: Act 3 out of 4 complete.

Hanako path:
Writing: Path script second draft finished, Act 4 in editing.
Direction: Act 2 out of 4 complete.

Rin path:
Writing: Act 4 second draft in progress.
Direction: Act 3 out of 4 complete.

Shizune path:
Writing: Act 4 second draft in progress, Act 3 in editing.
Direction: Act 2 out of 4 complete.

Direction of Act 1 and Act 2 is complete, and Act 3 is most of the way towards completion as well. Emi path is now finalised as far as script and direction goes, aside from small-scale edits and direction tweaks to account for specifics of the art assets as they're done. The current hope is that with the game assets being in the position that they are, direction should hopefully be able to continue without stopping and waiting for acts to be written and/or edited. Art is, as usual, largely under wraps as far as progress goes. All sprites are complete for every character (barring the odd expression or two that's sometimes needed during direction), so the artists are working on completing the remaining CGs and cutins. On the CG side, there are very few CGs that require drawing from scratch, with most of those remaining requiring colouring before completion.

So that's where the project currently stands. The coming months are going to be a busy time in preparation for release, but rest assured that Katawa Shoujo will be released in 2011.

To celebrate the new year, here is a picture from Weee. We at Four Leaf Studios wish to thank everyone who's remained patient throughout the game's development, and hope that everyone will have a safe and happy year ahead.

- Suriko

» Discuss this post on the forums