Visual Novels, According to Their Creators
“Can we please have more queer games that aren’t visual novels? Signed, a queer person who does not like visual novels.”
can we please have more queer games that aren't visual novels?
signed, a queer person who does not like visual novels.
can we please have more queer games that aren't visual novels?
Adam Koebel, author and designer of popular tabletop game systems like Dungeon World, tweeted this at the end of July. The response was varied, but immediate. Some agreed that games either made by, or representing, LGBTQIA+ folk were too mired down in one genre. Others pointed out a laundry list of reasons, both systemic and historical, explaining why queer creators seemed to only develop visual novels.
Conversations spiraled out. People quote tweeted and dissected and counterpointed and did all the other things we do when someone’s opinion strikes an online nerve. But the one opinion I didn’t see was from those making the games in question. So, I reached out to the teams behind some popular titles on Itch.io to pick their brains.
“I think it would be great to have more queer games outside of visual novels so I can definitely understand that there’s some frustration,” said eZombo, one of the developers on the Boys Laugh + team. “Part of the reason why visual novels appealed to me in the first place was because they were the first games where I saw queer representation.”
He and Pectin, another member of the team, were not surprised by the conversations happening on Twitter. To them and the four other developers I spoke with, the abundance of queer visual novels and not much else could be seen as a shortcoming – if you didn’t understand how foundationally important the genre is for this community, specifically.
Pectin and eZombo met in college and discovered a shared interest in visual novels through a music mix. Yes, it might have been from a “very NSFW game” but it spurned them to action programming their first game together.
Ryan Rose Acaea, developer of the critically acclaimed Genderwrecked, went to school for art but ended up hanging out with the people making games. They had stories to tell, and their new friends were glad to provide the means.
Naz Alakeshwari and Asif G., both working on episodic fantasy visual novel Gehennam, turned an online friendship into a partnership in much the same way. Asif began learning to use basic dev tools, like Ren’Py and Twine, as a means to breathe life into the characters in his head.
Dovah, one half of development duo Argent Games, discovered his inner fire at an ill-fated university game club. Without a supporting community, he went online with his ideas and was lucky enough to find an interested partner who eventually became his best friend.
These are the people who agreed to share their stories. Their backgrounds vary, but as we talked it became clear visual novels were not holding these creators back. Instead, the genre had provided them an open door into game development, an effective tool for exploring themselves, and access to a community otherwise hidden from them.
“Visual novels are such an accessible thing that anyone can make a game,” Asif said. “Which is also why I think a bunch of LGBT and PoC creators go towards visual novels because they’re just so easy to make.”
If you’ve never played a visual novel, a too-derivative explanation is “interactive story book”. Artwork and static images provide backdrop for a dialogue driven experience where the player’s agency may only extend to choosing responses in a conversation or prompts to action.
Except, that’s sort of missing the forest for the trees. Asif was drawn to visual novels because of how easy it was for him to simply start making a game, despite having almost no conventional coding experience. He learned as he went, turning to free online tutorials, or friends like Naz, when a problem needed solving.
“I have always been a fan of visual novels since I was little. But I’m not an artist, so I learned how to use Ren’Py and started creating little stories,” Naz said. “It’s super easy to learn and put in a bit of effort to actually create something.”
Very few of the developers I spoke with sought out a formal education in game development. They either bumped into it incidentally or were introduced by a friend, who often enough was roped in as a project collaborator. With visual novels, you don’t have to be a CG animator, level designer, artist and writer all at once.
Ryan Rose headed the transgender advocacy group at the University of Southern California, which they were attending for art.
“At a certain point, it turned out that more than half of them were from USC games. So I started hanging out with the games kids. Do that for too long and something starts to bleed over,” they said.
Every developer seemed to have a story where their interest introduced them to friends who would become partners, or collaborators who would become friends. Visual novels tied these folks together, creating tight-knit teams with a shared vision.
But when I asked about their involvement in the larger visual novel dev scene, the responses were starkly different.
“I’m not that into the dev scene only because I’m a reclusive person. I’m sure if I got into it I’d learn more, but I’m just not very into those groups,” Asif said.
“I looked on some forums to answer questions but never got involved. I never looked for that community,” Naz said.
“I’ve had a couple of people push me to be more involved. I’m kind of bad at that sort of thing,” Ryan Rose said.
None could pinpoint a reason why they weren’t more connected with other teams creating similar games, even though they all mentioned their recent favorites, or exemplary titles like Brianna Lei’s Butterfly Soup, or Christine Love’s Ladykiller in a Bind. They admitted they should reach out, but most were either full-time students or working multiple jobs. Creating games was an activity for the free time left after paying rent and buying groceries.
That’s something I tend to forget, which I’m sure means plenty others like me (read: not a developer) do, as well. The latest indie darling visual novel is often a passion project crafted over countless late nights and weekends in the bedrooms of people without the luxury of budgets or advertising teams, much less a formal studio space. They’ve crunched the math of their days, and found rent and groceries more pressing than self-promotion.
Which is probably why everyone sang praises for Itch.io, a game storefront alternative to Steam that has become a bastion for niche genres like the visual novel. Besides offering some of the most generous revenue splits (creators decide how much the platform takes), developers love the wealth of options for tagging and classifying games.
“They are so queer friendly, and I love them. They have a tagging system that’s always bustling with visual novels and other popular games,” Ryan Rose said.
The tagging system allows users to search specifically for visual novels and then limit that search by what kind of experience they want: gender of protagonist, horror, anime art style, or in the case of Ryan Rose’s Genderwrecked – “queer, weird monster art.”
All of the creators I spoke with told me making visual novels was inextricably linked to their experience as a queer person, and in some cases helped them come to terms with parts of themselves.
“Games have this ability to make you feel better. There’s a way they connect with you and
give you experiences you can’t have in real life,” Asif said. “While [players] are struggling in real life, they get a break through games. Everyone can relate to that. Everyone deserves a time and place outside of their struggles and their harsh, harmful realities.”
Naz admitted their characters were often self-inserts and helped them explore social and emotional situations. Their writing career sprouted from wanting to make the characters they loved “a little bit gayer.”
“The story gives you a sort of safety net to express who you are. I can be any character I
want and others will respond positively to that,” they said. “I guess as gay people we have a hard time finding a community, and it can be scary and hard to open up and reveal who you
are. But through something like VNs you can do that and people will accept you.”
Ryan Rose directly addressed visual novel’s efficacy in portraying not just the queer self, but how community helps that self become a lived reality.
“I want to talk about people and the relationships between them because my friends are
the most wonderful and important things that have happened to me in my life,
especially as a queer person. And to be able to pour that into these avatars is really easy
in VNs,” they said. “It makes a game about creating relationships and then a community. Which is really what Genderwrecked is all about.”
Despite the praise, the creators understood why players would be frustrated by the dearth of queer games in other genres. They, too, want to see representation across gaming’s landscape – both indie titles and AAA productions.
“I think it would be great to have more queer games outside of VNs so I can definitely understand that there’s some frustration,” eZombo said. “Part of the reason why VNs appealed to me in the first place was because they were the first games where I saw queer representation and I think that’s the case for many people.”
Some wondered if the sentiment gestured towards a larger frustration.
“As much as I think VNs are wonderful, there are so many other kinds of games. It’s fair to want more and be able to experience queerness in other kinds of play,” Ryan Rose said. “So I think that frustration is not so much ‘Fuck VNs’ but more ‘fuck the fact that nobody is giving us the resources to make anything but VNs’”.
They mentioned Dream Daddy as one game that found unusual success but was ultimately treated as a lark. Being developed by popular web series and YouTube channel Game Grumps certainly helped. To them, the market seems to only have space for one standout visual novel a year but will happily pile on as many action-adventures or first-person shooters as possible.
“I don’t know what a first-person shooter about gay dads would look like, but I bet it would be awesome having a team of gay dads to play with Overwatch style,” Ryan Rose said.
So, what’s to be done? Players are restless. The individual devs are underfunded. AAA publishers seem keen on largely ignoring a niche, but passionate community. Those I spoke with aren’t so easily pessimistic.
“I feel like on one hand it’s not a problem with the players; it’s a problem with the overall community and the capitalist mindset of studios. They don’t want to be “divisive” and anger the really big part of the player base that’s super homophobic,” Ryan Rose said.
Their comments echo others who blamed larger studios that seem unwilling to risk public opinion turning on them when a character is more than a “token queer.” Worse still, they claimed, is when they attempt representation without consulting actual queer people.
“When companies tried to support queer people by including related themes without proper research and advice the game tends to stereotype LGBTQ+ issues,” Pectin said. “If the content is informative as well, players unfamiliar with [those] themes might think more open mindedly about them.”
The developers want to empower the people who play games to be agents of change. They are more confident in the public’s ability to shape the future of the market than in big publishers shifting where they invest their money.
“Make a lot of noise. Be excited about gay visual novels when they come out. Play those games, share those games and support the queer creators who make them,” Ryan Rose said.
“When Christine Love made Ladykiller, people were like ‘Oh, all queer games are VNs.’ And partly in response to that she’s now making Get in the Car, Loser, which is an RPG style queer game. So, you see what happens when you uplift and support creators no matter what kind of games they are making.”
Lack of faith in AAA publishers is not hard to understand. We’re still less than five years out form the height of Gamergate’s hate-fueled crusade, followed by a tepid (if at all existent) response from industry leaders. More recently, the twitter accounts for GOG and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 tweeted out transphobic jokes in the name of promoting their products and brands.
Instead, the dev’s appeals focused on individuals and communities promoting visual novels – and queer games at large – from within, relying on grassroots support that circumvents online channels where known hatemongers reside.
“Supporting the game, talking about it, encouraging interest in these games is the most important thing and maybe the most difficult,” Asif said. “Instead of a stranger saying, ‘Hey play my game’ but a friend did it, they will trust their friend more.”
“We thrive on feedback. We eat and breathe feedback. Tell us if you liked our game or didn’t like our game or whatever you feel,” Naz said.
In the end, a frustrated tweet helped me discover a small part of a community of artists expressing themselves via a genre too often maligned with pornography (shaming of pornography and sex workers is a whole ‘nother can of worms). If you’re fresh to visual novels and curious about the stories they tell, I asked the devs to provide suggestions from their recent favorites:
- Butterfly Soup, by Brianna Lei
- We Know the Devil, from Pillowfight
- Ladykiller in a Bind, by Christine Love [NSFW link]
- Dream Daddy, by Game Grumps
- Heaven Will be Mine, from Pillowfight
- Extreme Meatpunks Forever, by Heather Robertson
- Hardcoded, by yoplatz [NSFW link]
And if you’re out there wondering if you have what it takes to start making games like these, the devs could not be more supportive of growing their ranks.
“If you wanted to create your own character or put yourself into a story, that’s what this genre is for. You are placing yourself into the absolute truth of a character,” Naz said. “Don’t be afraid to fuck up. You are gonna fuck up. It’s not going to be perfect, but just get it done!”