Game Diary: Putting the Visuals in Visual Novels
All through the month of June, my partner and I are creating a dating sim for the International Love Ultimatum Gamejam (#ilujam on Twitter and Tumblr). Want to know what goes into making a video game? I’ll be posting weekly updates in a structured development blog here.
This week: making players connect emotionally with character sprites via expressions and movements: the art of the dating sim.
We have a lot of fun here in the games department of Women Write About Comics, but quite frankly, the art of video games and the art of comic books have to be evaluated separately. Still frames, gutters, and the narrative composition of a page: the visual elements of a comic book are entirely different when you can move a camera or race through a map. We’ve seen Marvel try to bridge this gap with motion comics, to (generously) mixed reviews.
But these days, there are more and more digital platforms enhancing and changing how people consume art. Traditional print media can’t, for example, do the work of Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg’s amazing cinemagraphs:
And art itself is changing: a trade print can’t capture motion or user choice. And that’s what visual novels do for comics fans who want more than the static image, and more than a linear storyline. The people who make that transition—from static image to motion graphic—are technical artists.
Lindsay Woods is a background artist, technical artist, and scene director for Date Nighto, as well as a founder of the company. I asked her some questions on how to bring movement and emotion to art.
(Full disclosure: Date Nighto games may be reviewed by Women Write About Comics, but never by me, and I will never see or influence advanced reviews before publication.)
Jo: Hi Lindsay! Let’s talk basics. I know you’ve done work in animation, and you’ve also worked in digital comics. Visual novels seems like a fun compromise between the two! What, to you, makes these kinds of games special, and what artistic skills have you had to learn to create them?
Lindsay: It’s been really interesting for me to go from working first in animation, then to comics, and now to visual novels, because I feel like each medium requires more and more self-control in terms of selecting what’s actually necessary to tell your story to the audience. You distill your characters into a set of poses and expressions that are going to repeatedly represent them as they go through your story, and you carefully choose what events warrant new artwork.
That sparing quality of visual novels makes it feel very special or important when you get to see certain events illustrated, like that exciting feeling of turning a page in a book and seeing that there’s an illustration to go with it. In comics and animation you get to show everything, so you can be sort of free with your scenes if you want to… with visual novels, you learn to say more with less.
Jo: I asked Kasey (your friend and co-creator on Hustle Cat) how to make a connection with characters via writing. With only a handful of character sprites and backgrounds to mix-and-match, how do you make a scene feel dynamic, and how do you make people care about non-playable characters?
Lindsay: I’m actually in the middle of drawing more poses for each character in Hustle Cat to help them feel more lively. I recently played through the Dangan Ronpa games and was blown away by how expressive the characters’ body language was with a limited amount of sprites; I want to be able to create that kind of connection to our characters as well. I think a lot of factors go into making a scene dynamic—visually you can have fun with scene direction depending on the kind of mood you’re going for (like, too much movement of static assets might result in a kind of comedic effect), but music and sound effects can completely change all that. I use editing skills I picked up doing animation to time scene cuts and background pans much in the same way I would working on a film, and it can add to dramatic effect.
Back to Beach Island: Art is hard, and I’m no artist. To save time, my partner made some cool stylized backgrounds based on Creative Commons-licensed photographs, and I’m making game sprites in the most efficient way possible: changing only the faces. Here’s Muriel, one of the romantic possibilities from Beach Island, in all her emotional glory:
Next week: a technically competent person puts the game together in a way that makes sense.