Writing Asexual & Aromantic Representation in Visual Novels ft. Stefan Gagne
Today another fabulous Ace Indie Game Developer, Stefan Gagne, joins us to talk writing Asexual, Aromantic, and Disabled representation in Arcade Spirits and The New Challengers. Plus, we get a special sneak peak into the forthcoming game Penny Larceny: Gig Economy Supervillain!
- Fiction Factory Games Website
- Arcade Spirits
- The New Challengers
- Penny Larceny
- First Bite (By Aenne Schumann)
Fiction Factory Games (Discord, Instagram, Mastodon, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube)
Stefan Gagne (Website, Twitter)
Aces Playing at Attraction YouTube VOD channel (including Arcade Spirits playthroughs), Twitch, Twitter, and Tumblr.
Courtney: Hello, everyone, and welcome back. My name is Courtney. I’m here with my spouse, Royce, and together we are The Ace Couple, and we are thrilled to have a guest with us today. If you have listened to our previous episode on Arcade Spirits – I believe we entitled that ‘The “Dating” Sim Where You Don’t Have To Date!’ – I highly recommend that you check that out either before or after listening to this one, because we actually have the fabulous developer with us today. So please go ahead and introduce yourself and then we’ll get into it.
Stefan: Hey there. I am Stefan Gagne. I am an indie game developer and a slightly reasonable writer. I created Arcade Spirits, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, and the upcoming Penny Larceny: Gig Economy Supervillain.
Courtney: Gig economy supervillain. I’m so excited to get into your new game. And we will. But as players of Arcade Spirits– and since we released that first episode we actually went ahead and we played New Challengers also, and we have just so many thoughts. We thought they were fabulous games and we really, really want to talk to you about just what was that process of creating these two games. Because Arcade Spirits, that we mentioned in our last episode, was so unique because it is this very dating simulator. You have all these different people that you can get to know, but you have a very specific option to pick none of them and just instead have a wonderful time with your best friend. And that is something that is so valuable to the ace and aro communities. But we just don’t see a lot of that. So I’d love to hear from you what the inspiration for that was and how it sort of evolved.
Stefan: So way the hell back in the day, I think like 2016/2015, I met my coauthor on the Arcade Spirit series, Aenne Schumann, at a romance and games panel for writers at PAX, and we hit it off right away. We were talking a lot about game development, talking about writing, and I forget who it was that suggested that we should collaborate. Probably her, she wants to dive in on projects. And I had been wanting to do a visual novel for a very long time. Like, even back in, like, the 2000 when Ren’Py was an early engine, I had a keen interest in doing this because this really aligns perfectly with my skillset. Like I am a writer, I can do some coding, I can do some design. That’s all I’ve got under my belt. And you can contract art music, but the writing, you want to make sure that if your focus is on writing, you’re making playing– you’re making a game that’s in general– that is entirely focused on writing, you know? Bring out your best aspect.
Stefan: So I’ve been keen on doing one for a very long time. I had seen some playthroughs of visual novels, such as Hustle Cat, Doki Doki Literature Club! by a couple of streamers that I liked, and I was kind of falling in love with the format. So it was either– Aenne and I suggested we should do a visual novel. And of course, you know, romantic comedy is very much in my wheelhouse. I wanted it to be sort of a throwback to the workplace sitcoms of the 1980s. So you got your Cheers, your Night Court, you got things like Wings and Murphy Brown, where it’s got romantic aspects to it, it’s got a lot of comedy to it, but it’s focused on one central location with one cast of characters who all have to get along and pull towards a common goal. Combine that with a 1980s underdog story and throw in this pastiche of like 80s and 90s games and cultural references.
Stefan: And it’s– basically it’s a big nostalgia kick, but we’re still trying to tell a very modern and relevant story for the current day and age. I mean, there’s a lot in there about economic desperation, and class struggle, and trying to overcome bigotry, and other funny things like that – nice and relatable – and mental health issues and so on. We just basically took everything that intrigued us, interested us and put it into a pot, mixed it up, and out came the game. Obviously, it’s a lot more work than I’m making it sound, but that was the intention from the start, was to take everything we were interested in, and themes that were fascinating to us, and try to put it all together.
Courtney: And I would say you did a wonderful job of it. We had such a fun time playing through it. And I suppose we should give our listeners who haven’t played through either of these games, there are probably going to be a couple of light spoiler warnings, especially for the New Challengers. Because we just got done playing it and I’m excited to talk about it. Because the sequel, New Challengers, then had a lot of the same vibes from the original game, but it was less a sort of workplace in a bottle, and more: you have a team of people that you are thrown into and you meet. In a sense, I suppose there’s an element of working together still, because you’re creating a team, a professional gaming team now. And this motley crew of characters immediately stood out to us as a little wackier right off the bat. Before you get to even know them, they’re all very quirky, they have their own very distinct sort of brand and flavor. And so immediately jumping into New Challengers we were like, “I cannot wait to meet these new people.” And it is in the same universe as the original Arcade Spirits. So tell us a little bit about what you learned from the first Arcade Spirits and what you wanted to either improve upon, or expand upon, or change, going into New Challengers.
Stefan: Yeah, there wasn’t really any point in repeating some of those same themes and ideas from the first game. Like we could make another depressed, down on their luck, character to be your protagonist so they are nice and generic and sort of a cipher anybody can plug themselves into. But we wanted to do something different. We wanted to take a different approach. And if the first game was all about managing an arcade and maintaining an arcade, then the second one was going to be about playing in an arcade. It was going to take that little aspect, which we had explored a bit in the first game with characters like Queenbee, and write it large and go into it, get in on it. And the two main things I really wanted to improve from the first game were defeating what I called the kindly meta. Which is that each of the responses that you pick in the game are tagged with a personality trait. They’re steady, kindly, gutsy, quirky and flexible. In the first game, you could just go mono kindly. You could just hit the green heart every single time you see it. Always get a good response, always score points with folks. It was a bit of a cakewalk.
Stefan: So I wanted to have a more challenging set of characters here where that won’t always work. There are characters, like Zapper and Jynx who, like, if you pick the soft, compassionate, empathetic response, they’ll be either dismissive or they’ll think you’re coming off as condescending. I wanted to make sure that you couldn’t sleepwalk your way through the choices and decisions.
Stefan: And the other thing I wanted to do was kind of defeat the idea that, like, a lot of the characters in the first game were kind of generically friendly. Like they were all totally open arms to you. They were all very smiling, they all were extraordinarily friendly, and none of them really had a lot of baggage. I mean, they all had some baggage, but they wouldn’t, like, bring it up to you right away. In the second game, I wanted this to be a team of misfits, of people who have problems, of people who are struggling, or people who have their own things going on in their lives that you’re walking in on. So that when you come in, it’s not just immediately all hugs and open arms. You actually have to do some work to try to build these emotional friendships and these emotional bonds with these people, to try to reach the levels of compassion that you were just sort of handed on a platter in the first game.
Stefan: So that’s why some of the characters are a little bit– go a little bit harder than the ones in the first game because we were aiming to make folks that had some upfront obvious flaws that they’re working through, and that you can help them see through to the end of their own character arcs. Beyond that, the only other major innovation which I’d really like to highlight is the character creator. Now, in the first game we were using games like Hustle Cat or other standard visual novels of the era – this is back in like 2017 – to do the character creator, which means you had some pretty limited options. Because we were having this custom character popping up in, like, the final endgame artwork with your romance. We were having this character pop up in, like, when you’re driving to an auction, they appear in the van. When they’re jumping in front of a cupcake fight, they jump in front of the cupcake fight. And you have to limit the customization options or else you’ll be drawing like 200 different versions of the same character over and over again. So for the second game, we heard feedback from folks who were playing the first game. They said they want more and more customization, which is not normal for visual novels, but we were like, “Okay, I think we can do this.”
Stefan: So the third game, instead of being done from, like, a first person perspective, like most visual novels, where you’re looking through the character’s eyes and everybody’s looking directly out the screen at you– In the second game, we have more of like a three fourths perspective – where you’re like watching a stage play unfold in front of you – and the characters are looking at each other, and your custom character is there on screen posing and emoting and having body language just like anybody else in the game. That’s the trade off. You tradeoff the one off custom scenes for having your character always there and always present. Yeah, it was just the entire New Challengers was meant to be an evolution from the first game to take all the lessons we learned, all the things we would have liked to do differently, and try to make the best game we possibly can using what we know.
Courtney: And there were certainly a lot of things, just as a player, that I thought were just really beautiful, like, quality of life improvements. Like the menu screens, if you have several different people you can go and talk to and you only have a limited amount of time – you can only talk to, say, three people and there are five on screen – you can see where in the arcade they are and you know exactly how much time you have left to get in whichever people it is that you want to speak to. And just little visual cues like that, I thought were really, really well done. And I had never seen something like that before. So even simple improvements like that.
Royce: That was one thing we said early on, like, first hour into New Challengers, was the second game seemed to set expectations much better about what kind of interaction we were getting into. We also got to see the entire cast of characters in, like, display their personalities much earlier, whereas in the original Arcade Spirits, there were some people that we didn’t really get to know until we dedicated an entire playthrough to them.
Stefan: Yeah, there’s two reasons to that: one, like you mentioned, that the map where you see everybody’s icons and it tells you how much time you have left, that was kind of, I won’t say borrowed whole cloth, because it’s definitely different from Monster Prom when you’re arranging which table you want to sit at at launch and you see everybody’s characters you know. You can plan ahead like, “Okay, I want to go talk to this person. And this person’s at that table and they’re joined by these people. So I’ll see these characters.” We tried to make efforts in the first and second games to signpost heavily what your decisions are going to be and what the consequences will be. Because one thing I didn’t like about a lot of visual novels is a complete lack of signposting. Like, let’s say you’re leaving for school, and they give you the choice of either leaving without toast or eating a piece of toast. And if you eat the piece of toast, you miss a character and you never get to talk to them again. And like– [Courtney hums]
Stefan: But that’s not signposting, is just asking you if you want breakfast or not. It’s not telling you that you have this incredibly far reaching decision that’s going to be impacting your gameplay, just because you decided you wanted a piece of toast.
Stefan: So for Arcade Spirits, and especially in New Challengers, we wanted to make sure it was always clear when you’re picking, like, a major scene or branch, what you’re about to walk into and what you’re sacrificing in order to do that. So that’s where the map comes in. And we also took the idea of the lunchtime scenes from the first game, where you could pick, you know, who you want to go or spend an optional scene with in the middle of the level. And you progressed their story more and more, the more often you pick them. But that was really only like three opportunities in the first game. Here you get like three opportunities twice a level to do that exact thing. You get these three optional side scenes with all of the characters in the cast, not just the ones that are being focused on for that particular level. And you get to do that twice, like in the morning, in the afternoon. So we wanted more and more opportunities to interact with the characters, unlike the first game where it was kind of delineated to these very, very specific moments.
Courtney: Yes. And the setting expectations part, I think, is so nice and so refreshing because– I’ll use this character as an example because I loved her. I loved a lot of the characters in this, but I had a special affinity towards Jynx because she’s the Gothic character. She walks with a fancy cane. I walk with a fancy cane. But one of the early sort of decisions that gives you a very clear, like, setting expectations, is you meet Jynx for the first time–
Stefan: Oh yes.
Courtney: And you can see that she is disabled. And you have an option for something to say to her, and it tells you right off the bat there is no good answer. If you say any of these things, it is the wrong thing to say to her. And I thought that was a very interesting way, not only to set expectations for the players, but also to show that disability rep there.
Stefan: Absolutely. I’m a disabled game developer myself and so I was coming at Jynx’s character as like– I’ve always wanted to put a disabled character in the game, but for the longest time I resisted because, believe it or not, the interface – the text box at the bottom of the screen – if you have a character who has dwarfism like I do, or sitting in a wheelchair, that text box is covering up most of the character. So it’s very difficult to have disability representation when your literal UI is ableist. So I worked with a disability research advocate to figure out, well, what’s a disability which has some similar conditions to my own, so I can write from experience, but is able to stand up. And that’s how we landed on Syringomyelia. The idea that this is something where she’ll walk with a cane but she will be able to be upright and the user interface won’t get in the way.
Stefan: But yeah, the moment where you don’t get a good choice, you don’t get an easy out, you can’t just say the right thing and move on from this interaction. You have to say the wrong thing. This stems from a lot of interactions I’ve had myself where you meet someone for the first time, they get this deer in headlights look, they know that they don’t want to say the wrong thing. They want to say the right thing. They start to panic. They don’t know what the right thing is to say. They say something awful, without intending harm, without intending malice, without trying to be a bad person. They just don’t know what to do because it’s not a situation they’ve been in before. And if anything, they get so self-conscious that they misstep. So I wanted to present that moment as like, this is something that’s very common in the day to day living of disabled people, when you run into these extremely well-intentioned, good hearted people, like they’re not intending anything horrible to you, but they just don’t know how to react. And so they bungle it.
Stefan: So I figured I wanted to have a moment where the player drops the ball, but Jynx is cool with it and, like, explains her way through the situation. I did have, like, one person who gave me feedback saying that they wanted the option to say the right thing there. Not because they were, like, upset, but because they were disabled themselves. They’re like, “Oh, I should just be able to tell Jynx, ‘Oh yes, I’m disabled. I know what that’s like’.” But there’s two problems with that. One is that you kind of got to design the entire game around having a disabled protagonist. If you want to represent authentically. Like, you don’t want to have that just be a thing that only happens in one scene of level one. That has to be something that has a through line throughout the entire game. And that wasn’t really something within our scope.
Stefan: And the other thing is that we’re dealing with gamers here. Let’s be perfectly honest, gamers want to make the right choice. They want to make the choice that makes the most, makes the numbers go up, that gets them the most points, that meets victory conditions. It’s one of the reasons why they were mashing the kindly button in the first game. So I didn’t want to give people an out. I didn’t want to give them a way to just win at disability reaction. That’s– that’s not realistic and it’s gamey. So I left it as a no good answer where it doesn’t ruin you. It doesn’t destroy your relationship with Jynx. It’s just a teaching moment and then you move on.
Courtney: Yeah, I fully agree with that. I think that was an interesting way to do that in a way that I had not seen. And I hadn’t considered the actual UI component of having a disabled character. So thank you for that. It makes sense now that I hear you say that. But you’re absolutely right that if you were to have a disabled protagonist, it’s not enough to just say, “I am disabled,” because that life experience comes with so many nuances and you see that in Jynx’s character. She has different considerations. There is a trip she’s not able to take, not able to go on. She talks about what she needs for her own living arrangements, when they’re talking about getting a team house together, she says, “Well, that’s not so easy for me because I need an accessible living space, and that costs money, and that takes time.” And– and if you were to have a disabled protagonist that was really true, accurate, and meaningful representation, you’re going to have to rework the whole game, “Well, what accessibility considerations does our protagonist now need?”
Stefan: And you can do that. Like you can make a game where that is one of the thrust of the narrative is that you have this protagonist that’s living under various limitations and living with various things they need to keep in mind even while they do day-to-day stuff. You can do that, but upending the applecart and doing that for your character in this game just to get out of this one bad social situation, that didn’t feel like the right trade off to make. And since I wanted Jynx to be a teaching element to folks who don’t have to deal with disability in terms of like, well, here’s what disabled folks have to deal with on a daily basis, then that entire aspect gets tossed out the window if you can just have your character be like, “Oh yeah, yeah. I know, we’re good, I understand, you don’t have to tell me anything further.” So, yeah. Disability representation – representation in general, of queer people, representation of various sexualities, representation of People Of Color, representation of disability. This is very important to me and Aenne, we wanted to work it into the game, and we worked with sensitivity readers and researchers to make sure we were being as authentic as possible. We are still not living those experiences ourselves, we’re never going to get 100% on them, but we’re going to do our best to tell those stories.
Courtney: And I will say, as far as representation done in a way that I haven’t seen before, the sort of another new element of New Challengers that we loved – I think this was probably my favorite route just for that reason – there was a polyamorous route.
Courtney: Oh, we were so excited to see that.
Stefan: That was a community request. We had that in the first game. There were people asking for a polyamorous story path and we were like, well, you know, we can’t really work that in the first one because it’s just it doesn’t really fit with the story that we’ve already built.
Stefan: So for the second game, we planned it from day one. We were going to support this option from day one. We’re going to plan for it. We’re going to adjust the story accordingly. We’re going to program it in a place. We’re going to write it in a place. And it’s going to just fit in seamlessly. And again, we worked with folks in the poly(am) community to try to represent things authentically. A lot of the quotes and reactions that are in the game are almost direct quotations from some of the folks that we interviewed. And yeah, we did– We did our best to represent as well as we can and bring that to the table so that everybody feels welcome in the game and everybody sees something of themselves in it, regardless of who they are.
Courtney: That is absolutely fantastic.
Royce: And that’s a good point, that trying to do a poly(am) route in a game that revolves around people at a workplace is probably a big– a big conflict of interest.
Stefan: I mean, there’s– there’s a lot of ethical tangles when it comes to the situation where you’re literally the boss of these people and you’re dating them. I mean, Commander Shepard can get away with it because it’s Commander Shepard. But in any realistic workplace, you know, you’re headed for HR. That’s one aspect we’re like this is more of an idealized fantasy than anything even slightly realistic, and we’re just going to run with that.
Courtney: Let’s see. I think, yeah, that polyamorous route was the thing I was most excited to talk about. But I do want to make sure before we flip to the next game that I didn’t forget anything. So, Royce, was there anything that we definitely were, like, talking about while we were playing that I’ve forgotten?
Royce: I mean, there are probably lots of things. We played through both games within the last year and we went through every character route.
Stefan: Oh, the ace route. I can’t believe I forgot to discuss the ace route on the ace podcast! What the heck am I thinking? I also neglected to even explain what the game was at the start of the hour! I just drove straight into narrative theory. This is how I work. I think I’m like, “Here are the interesting challenges of writing and construction and narrative designs.” Just thinking, I made a game about managing an arcade, let’s get that out of the way first. [Courtney laughs] No, I just glossed straight over that and dived directly into, “How did I construct the intricate nature of the plot?”
Courtney: Well, that’s partially our fault because we love hearing about how things are written and–
Stefan: Oh yeah.
Courtney: And how narratives are crafted. So we’re also, I mean, Royce and I, we’ve played the game. We know what’s up, so we should– we should clarify for the listener, I suppose. [laughs]
Stefan: Yeah. So like, yeah, 24 minutes into the podcast, let me explain: Arcade Spirit is a romantic workplace comedy sitcom style game where you manage an arcade, and you deal with the workers and players in the arcade, and overcome challenges, and find love and friendship. And then the New Challengers is basically the same idea, but you’re managing a pro esports team that fights in an arcade. Okay, I really should have said that upfront, [Courtney laughs] but instead I just go straight into like composing the mise en scene of the scene and, you know, the narrative themes. [groans] Yeah, that’s what you get when you interview me. All right, so the ace representation. Because this is the ace podcast, I should seriously be talking about the ace representation.
Stefan: I am ace myself. Ace-spectrum, demi, question mark, Error 404: sexuality not found. I don’t know. I’m still sorting it out and I’m 47, and that’s kind of sad, but whatever. I mean, like, I grew up in the 90s in an affluent white suburb and I was damn lucky to even understand what gay meant. It’s like this– this stuff was not talked about. This stuff was not represented. It was not highlighted. Kids today have it so much better in terms of just being aware of what the hell is going on with humanity as a whole. Whereas I was a lot more cloistered, so I didn’t even find out asexuality was a thing until I was 40. It took me that long to figure that out. And suddenly it clicked. I was like, “Oh, I guess that’s why it’s never felt like a priority to me to try to find a relationship and settle down and pop out kids.” It’s just– I had 0.0% interest in anything along those lines. I always felt, well, you know, going through school, I don’t have time, I’ll deal with that one day or not at all. Oh, I’m going through college, I don’t have time, I’ll do all that later. I’m starting my job, I don’t have time, I’ll deal with that later.
Stefan: And finally it’s later, and I’m like, “I don’t want to deal with that.” Yeah, I’ve never been interested. So since then it’s been like I’ve been trying to explore this and understand it. And getting it into the game was very important to me because I felt too many visual novels– I prefer calling visual novels than dating sims, ‘cause a really, really good visual novel doesn’t need dating. It’s not like it’s mandatory, there’s nothing about the format which requires romance. Will give you options of how to approach it. Roleplaying options. Are you roleplaying as someone who is a lothario and hits on everything that moves? Are you playing as someone who’s single target on one love interest and just goes for it? Are you role playing as someone who just wants a job and wants to make a lot of friends? I wanted to make sure no matter who you are, no matter what you wanted to be in terms of the game, you could do that. And that meant having a path with no romance.
Stefan: And it’s not easy, but it’s not really hard either. You just find alternatives for any scenes which would require interaction with your love interest. Now, in the first game, kind of chipped out on that. I will fess up to that. Which is that I took the path, slightly hidden path, where you romance Juniper and I just gave it a whole bunch of wording tweaks so that instead of romancing Juniper you’re hanging out with Juniper. But otherwise it’s the same story path with the same beats and the same conflicts. So New Challengers comes around. I’m thinking, “Man, I can do better than that.” That was, like, just like I was running out of time and I knew I wanted this to be a feature and I didn’t have any good ideas. So I just repurpose the script. I can do better than that. So in New Challengers, when the time comes to start romancing and stuff, instead you have an entire full length unique scene where you go out and hang out in the park with all of your friends. You don’t have a designated friend, you don’t follow one single character arc. You just get to chill with everybody, learn more about them, see their own relationships, foster and grow and get closer to the team. And there are even mechanically rewards for it.
Stefan: Because in the end of the game – this is not really a huge spoiler because it happened in the first game too – two characters will kind of step back away from you and your friend group if your relationship with them is too low. But if you go friendship route in either of the games, nobody does that, they all stay put because you basically distributed the load. You talked to all of them equally, you showed them all care and affection, you befriended them all, and you didn’t focus on any one person. And they’re all– they’re mechanical parts of it. So you can pick additional scenes that you can’t pick if you’re on a romance track, where you’re just slotted into whatever the romance scene is going to be, you get to pick additional scenes. There’s– there’s all these extra benefits. I wanted to give it its own unique approach, its own unique rewards, and its own unique scenes. And I think we accomplished that in New Challengers. But we can do better! And I have done better with the next game, which I guess means we should probably start talking about Penny Larceny.
Courtney: Yes! I’m excited to hear where you go from this! Because I mentioned the polyamorous route was probably my favorite, I think it was tied for the friendship route actually, because we– we did actually take notice of the fact that this is a group party. We have all our friends here. It’s a completely unique scene and that did stick out to us as a really beautiful evolution from the first game.
Royce: I think you said that the end of the friendship route in New Challengers was what you were looking for in the original Arcade Spirits.
Stefan: Yeah, I wanted the ace route to be its own thing, to be unique, to have its own content, to have its own beat, its own rhythms, its own patterns, its own style. And in the first game, it was really just a slightly altered version of Juniper. So for the second game, I wanted it to be its own unique thing. And for the third game I was like, “No, we can even take it a step beyond that.”
Courtney: Oh, tell us about the step beyond. Because this new game, it’s– it’s not an Arcade Spirits game. It is– It is Penny Larceny. So, how is Penny Larceny going to be different?
Stefan: Well, this time I’ll actually talk about the game before I start diving immediately into narrative structure. [Courtney laughs] Penny Larceny: Gig Economy Supervillain, which will be releasing this year, is a new IP, a new story, new characters, new world. This is a broad social satire using comic book heroes and villains as its inks and paints. You start out as an aspiring cat burglar supervillain, and you join a service called Crimr, C-R-I-M-R, which is basically DoorDash for supervillainy. [Courtney laughs] Various super villain bosses hire you to go steal stuff for them. And then you carry out these heists and you get rated 0 to 5 stars, depending on how well you do on the heist. [Courtney exclaimes excitedly] And the more capers you pull for a particular boss, the closer you get to them. Which is, you know, for the romance– romance arcs, you absolutely want to do three or four capers for your one person that you’re chasing after.
Stefan: But here’s the twist. You don’t have to romance anyone, but you can still see their character arc through the finale without any changes, without any wild omissions. You get the entire full character story of that boss without needing to actually romance them. You couldn’t do that in Arcade Spirits or TNC. If you wanted to see, like, Naomi or Locksley through to the end, see where their characters are going, and see what their hopes and dreams are, you can’t do that because the ace path is its own separate, compartmentalized thing. Here it’s a parallel track to the romance track. You go through the same scenes, you go through the same ups and downs. It’s just different dialog. Either you’re in love with them or you are bffs for life and you are supporting each other and trying to find your dreams together. On top of that, you can turn off romance but leave on sexuality. Ace and aro are independent toggles in this game.
Stefan: And because this is more of an end for mature type game– I mean, there’s no actual nudity, there’s no actual sex scenes, but you can seduce your boss, and you can do that aromantically if you set things up the way you want them. And then you just have this casual relationship with the boss, instead of needing to specifically go with the whole route of, like, dating and flowers and candy and romance trimmings and all that. It’s a different flavor, or a different feel, to the same overall content, where you’re still going through the bosses storyline, you’re still seeing them character beat for beat, but you have, like, these basically three different ways you can do it. You can do it as ace, aro, both, neither. I guess that’s four ways, nevermind. [chuckles]
Courtney: Oh my gosh, that is so cool!
Stefan: So yeah, it’s like the final evolution of the tech, right there, is that we have the same character stories, studies and character arcs that you can follow regardless of whether or not you’re romancing them, regardless of whether or not you’re having sex with them, you could do both or neither. And it’s the same story.
Courtney: That’s so neat. Because Royce and I have just had conversations like, you know, theoretically, if we were to write a game someday, we’ve understood that it could be difficult to make a distinction between ace and aro in certain games like this. Because a lot of them are not inherently explicit. And so the actual act of sex is not necessarily something that you see or read about in all of these games. So if that is a game that doesn’t have that component already–
Courtney: How do you sort of separate the romance from the sex? Because romance kind of stands in for asexuality in that case.
Stefan: Yeah, like in Arcade Spirits, most of the storylines there, there isn’t even a hint of sexuality in them. It’s just pure romance. So how do you represent, like, aro while still doing that? And the answer is, well, we didn’t. We just– we shunted you into this other track, which is entirely focused on friendships and you get a different story. And I wanted to do better for Penny Larceny. I wanted to be able to have the full game experience with no compromises and allow you to be whoever you want to be.
Courtney: I’m so excited. I was already very excited when you posted the teaser for Penny Larceny on Twitter. We– we saw that and we were like, “Oh, this looks good!” Oh, but now we’re even more excited.
Stefan: It’s fun. I really– I can’t wait to see people playing this thing. I think they’re going to like it a lot. It has a lot to say. And on top of being an enjoyable, entertaining experience, it’s got a lot to say about modern society, about the struggles people are facing, about the systems that are aligned against them, and about breaking out of those systems. There’s one chapter that basically scream trans rights at the top of its lungs for about an hour. Yeah.
Courtney: [laughs] As it should! In this day and age.
Stefan: As it should, absolutely. It’s like– minor spoilers, but like you’re in the middle of the caper and you end up dropping it to help someone basically escape Florida.
Stefan: Like that becomes the mission, is “Okay, let’s forget what we’re already trying to do here and let’s just try to come up with this cockamamie shenanigan filled scheme to try to help this person escape from Florida.”
Courtney: New plan! This is important.
Stefan: You know, it’s like escape from LA, or escape from New York, except get to escape from the DeSantis. [Courtney laughs] Yeah, I go out a lot of limbs on this one. It’s kind of been like an escalation. The first Arcade Spirits game, I was just coming off writing a series of sci-fi novels that were like a parable about Gamergate. I was like, I desperately need something that’s not going to crush my soul for my next project. I need something a little bit lighter. So we did Arcade Spirits and I thought, “Okay, this is a nice, safe, milquetoast middle of the road. Not particularly offensive or troublesome game.” That’s a comfort. And then we still had people coming after us over it like, “Oh, this is– this is leftist trash.” Like, oh my God, you’re not even going to let me have this. Fine! If that’s what you want from me, here’s New Challengers. We have a character in who is literally saying, “Eat the rich.” [Courtney laughs] And this is basically the next step beyond that, is just me being more true to the things that I feel passionate about as expressed in game form without hesitation.
Courtney: Yeah, Locksley was a hilarious character for us. Very Robin Hood-esque, very old timey gentleman, but very much a champion of the people and a lover of claw games.
Courtney: Crane games. Which I am myself as well. So I really, really felt that. And I will say–
Stefan: My condolences.
Courtney: [laughs] I know… I will say, because every time you do a new route on these games, you sort of unlock an ending piece of artwork. We loved Locksley’s artwork at the end,
Stefan: Oh yeah.
Courtney: That was the best ending artwork. It was so funny. We thought it was perfect.
Stefan: That’s all on Molly. It’s like I just– I just said, “Draw Locksley, like, posing lingeriously on a pile of plushies.” [Courtney laughs] And Molly came with the artwork–
Stefan: “Is the open shirt too much?” Like, no, no, this is what– This is what people will want.
Courtney: It’s perfect! [laughs]
Stefan: Give them what they want.
Courtney: [laughs] It was glorious! Kudos to the artist.
Stefan: Absolutely. Just amazing character out there. And we’ve got great character arc coming up through Penny Larceny. And it’s a visual novel, the focus has to be largely on character arc, because that’s what’s going to sell you on the game, that and the writing. So we try to make sure we do our best in those regards.
Courtney: Absolutely. I should ask– I want to talk a little more about this concept of the gig economy for supervillains, because I think that’s hilarious. So we’re going to put a quick little pin in that. But I would be remiss if I did not ask you about exactly what the heck is up with the pizza bagels.
Stefan: Okay, I can explain. [Courtney laughs] Or at least I could attempt to explain. All right. I read a blog article years and years ago talking about premium mediocre. This idea where you have this luxury good, which is not actually a luxury good, but it’s as much luxury as you can get, and therefore, you treat it like it’s luxury. You know, it’s a premium good, even though it’s mediocre. And when you’re poor, this is all you get in terms of a nicety. So pizza bagels to me were premium mediocre food, where it’s a treat, but it’s not something you should really be eating. It’s terrible for you. It’s unhealthy. It’s packed with sodium and fat. This is not something you want to live on.
Stefan: So in the first game, when the character comes to realization, you know, “I don’t want to just punch in and out of my job. I don’t want to just exist and collect the paycheck. I want to try to go above and beyond and build this into something which can become my dream,” then they use the line, which is totally out of Gone With The Wind, which is, “And if God is my witness, I shall never eat another pizza bagel again.” That’s because the pizza bagel is a metaphor for poverty. However, our community basically just turned it into a running joke. Pizza bagels became a meme within the Fiction Factor Games community just because of Iris’s obsession with them. Because of that silly 90s commercial jingle, “When pizza’s on a bagel, you can have pizza any time.” That commercial is burned into our brains. [Courtney laughs] So by the time New Challengers came– rolled around, it’s like this isn’t really a metaphor for poverty anymore, this is just a running gag. And we’re just going to keep mashing the running gag as hard as we can because it’s funny.
Courtney: Yup. We died laughing at the climax of the game when an Iris is talking to another Iris and you can just whip out that pizza bagel line.
Stefan: The reason there’s a secret achievement tied to that line is because we were doing voice recording sessions for Iris, and we had like 10 minutes at the end of the hour, and my casting director, because we were doing this all live, said to me, “Listen, we’ve got like a little bit of extra time. Is there any more dialog you want to, like, throw in front of the microphone while we’ve got this actress in place?” I was like, “Yes!” And then I dug out that scene. [Courtney laughs] And Stephanie Bruneau just went ham on those lines. Just the most dramatic reading of the ethos of pizza on a bagel, that by the time we were done, we were having so much trouble trying not to laugh over the voice chat while we were recording this– this voice session. I was like, “We’re putting an achievement on that.” That wasn’t planned. It wasn’t planned to be voiced. It wasn’t planned to be an achievement. But because we fit it in and it just took off like a rocket, I was like, “Yes, we’re making this an achievement.” And I’m so glad that I have the achievement artwork for the pizza on a bagel because I found a place to reuse it in Penny Larceny.
Courtney: Oh!! You did not?! That’s going to be great.
Stefan: But I won’t say where yet. I won’t say exactly where yet. But let’s just say if you’re a fan of Arcade Spirit, you’re going to be happy.
Courtney: We will be watching for that.
Stefan: Oh, yeah.
Courtney: You better believe. [laughs] So fun. All right.
Stefan: What did we put a pin in? Gig economy.
Courtney: Gig economy!
Stefan: Gig economy.
Courtney: The concept is hilarious. Gig economy for supervillains.
Courtney: Where did that come from? I love it.
Stefan: It came from the dumpster fire of the 21st century! The gig economy–
Courtney: [laughs] Fair!
Stefan: To me, the gig economy is representative of every shortsighted, profit minded tech bro industry disrupter piece of crap trying to come up with ways to reinvent what was already working, but do it in a way that profits them and only them. Like what is Uber? Uber is an illegal taxi service. What is Airbnb? Airbnb is an illegal hotel. These are things that shift all of the weight, onus, responsibility and cost onto the people who can’t afford it just to participate and scoop up some meager pittance from the folks that are raking it in. So I wanted to do a broad social satire of where the hell we are right now as a society, and the gig economy was a perfect fit. The idea that you’re going to take super villainy and do a DoorDash version of it was just so ridiculous to me that it felt very, very appropriate.
Courtney: It does. It feel– It feels right. It is–
Courtney: Oh, it’s so good.
Stefan: I mean, there’s a bit of irony because, like, it’s not really playing out like that in the game. Like if it was truly DoorDash that you’d have like these contact free, you don’t even know who the boss is, you’re just stealing the thing and leaving it on their porch. No, you’re actually getting to know these people and you’re talking to them and you’re forming relationships with them. But, even in the story of the game, they kind of acknowledge, you know, Crimr doesn’t really want us to do and form these relationships, they kind of want this to be a service, but we’re going to kick you some under the table because we know you’re being paid terribly and you’re barely getting anything from the service. So like, let’s see what we can work out between us just on the side. It’s very much a story of people helping each other through the garbage and the mire of the economy. So yeah, gig economy supervillainy is basically just a neat little summary of all the terrible, terrible trends of the last decade.
Courtney: Let’s see. Royce, help me out here. You’re the video game programmer.
Stefan: Oh, yeah. I can talk about the technicals.
Royce: Well, that’s what we were talking about before the interview started. Courtney was like, “You should talk a lot this interview.” I don’t know what questions to ask. I think I understand the tech and the development process and the writing process to some extent at least.
Stefan: Well, I mean, I can give some inside dirt on the tech and like the process of actually constructing the game. We built the whole thing using the Ren’Py engine, which is an engine that’s very, very, very specifically made for visual novels. It comes right out of the box with pretty much every tool you’re going to need to make a visual novel. It’ll handle saving and loading games, it’ll handle the flow of dialog, it’ll handle the needs for art in terms of placing it on screen, all with fairly simple scripted commands. But in exchange for this power, there’s one pretty big trade off, which is that there is no console port. There is no way to get this game onto anything other than an open platform like PC, Mac, and the likes. There is technically Apple and Android, but those app stores are dumpster fires. There are so many monetization problems in the industry for mobile games that, like, you cannot release a full priced single player all in one package experience. You have to completely design your game around some weird on-the-go monetization model. And very few visual novel authors are interested in doing that, so they focus entirely on PC, Mac, and Linux.
Stefan: Now, Tom has said that they are considering getting it on the Switch. It’s kind of up to Nintendo to cooperate, but otherwise there’s basically no path for getting these onto consoles. Which means if you want to do basically a full on indie release, like we did through Pqube, the publisher for Arcade Spirits, you gotta go through a third party company to port it. They’re probably going to do it under their own homebrew engine, which is similar to, but not entirely like Ren’Py. With its own host of problems. So there are tradeoffs. And the other major tradeoff is that a lot of Ren’Py games kind of look the same. Because their user interface is like, “Yeah, you can reskin this and tweak it around and move everything, but why would you at all?” It just works, you know? It’s fine. Why do you want to move everything around just for the sake of looking unique? And so that’s like a two edged sword, because it means everything just works right out of the box. You’ve got all the tools you need, but you’re going to look like every other sword out there in terms of being a two edged sword. I’m running away with this metaphor.
Stefan: The point is you have to do a lot of work to elevate it above the baseline that you’re given, and a lot of folks are not really capable of that work because it is a lot. It’s a heavy lift trying to do massive customization, trying to find some path to getting it on consoles. But for folks who are looking for a good, powerful, low cost entry into the visual novel space, it is a delightful engine. The other major advantage, which is the reason why I keep using it despite those problems: accessibility. It has a host of accessibility tools just built right in. Full text to speech, easy to navigate UI, and the ability to switch fonts on the fly to like, other ones, like OpenDyslexia. I’ve moved a lot of those under the hood features to above the hood, to the front seat of the car – I’m running away with the metaphor again – for Penny Larceny. Like you can switch the fonts to something that’s dyslexia friendly right there in the main menu for Penny Larceny. You can invert the colors of the text to make them readable if you’re having vision issues right there. And like Arcade Spirits, if you turn on the text to speech mode, it’s not just reading it aloud to you. It has additional lines of narration, it has different user interfaces, it has adaptations to help a visually impaired player get through the entire game and get an equivalent experience. So all those tools combined mean that this makes for a very, very accessible experience for everyone, regardless of ability.
Royce: I was holding on to a thought there. Courtney, could you imagine playing a visual novel and getting to a romance route and getting paywalled?
Courtney: Oh no…!
Stefan: That is literally how visual novels on mobile work.
Courtney: That’s terrible!
Stefan: I know! I’ve seen VN’s on mobile where, like, they gave you the standard three choices, right? The first two are boring. The third one is interesting. Guess which one is paywalled? [Courtney’s disgruntled noise] They paywall option number three. I have to spend energy to do the option that will actually advance the story in an interesting way. I have no interest in that. I don’t want to participate in that. I don’t want to support that. If somebody is making bank off of it, fine for them. But that is not my goal. And that’s why I’ve always resisted putting this on mobile. I could throw it out there as a full price title on mobile, no changes from the PC version, but that’s basically just throwing it out there to die. It’s like it’s not even worth paying the price to get it up on the App store at that point. It’s just a different market.
Courtney: Yeah, that’s– And I’ve never played them under that context. We’ve also played some of the games you mentioned earlier, Doki Doki Literature Club, that was one of our first ones that we played together as a couple, that we were like, “All right, we need to play more in this genre.”
Stefan: Oh, yeah.
Courtney: But Royce, is that what our friend and former interviewee on this podcast, Satan, means with the mobile gacha games? Is that what’s going on here?
Royce: I mean, gacha games are a different mechanic–
Courtney: Oh, okay.
Royce: But they are often very micro-transactiony.
Courtney: I see.
Stefan: Like, you’re talking about Sharky and Satan from Aces Playing At Attraction, right?
Courtney: Yes, indeed.
Stefan: Yeah, they are flippin’ awesome.
Courtney: They are!
Stefan: There are like visual novel elements to some gacha games, like Fate GO and okay, but that’s not the driving point of them. The driving point of them is to deprive you of your money in order to give you various rarities of these JPEGs. And it’s just not what I want to make, man. I want to make an experience where you sit down to play through a story, like reading the book, and you get to choose what path you go down and how you want to express yourself and how you want to live in this world. And that is not really possible through mobile monetization. So I just don’t.
Courtney: Yeah, that makes sense. And really the visual novel genre is so vast and expansive, but I feel like people who have not played through a visual novel, or haven’t really had that experience, often tend to write it off as like a lesser form of game or lesser form of entertainment. But it’s so important to so many people, and I would say especially the queer community, because there are so many queer stories that can be done in a way that you don’t see in more mainstream media. And it really is like reading a book. And I’m glad that you brought up the point about accessibility because that’s something that’s very, very important to us. And especially when it comes to visual novels, if there’s a visual novel that isn’t fully accessible, that’s almost a little more annoying, because you can make it so easily accessible compared to a game where you have to be, like, reflexively reacting to visual cues. Because it’s text on a screen, and you’re playing through a story and it’s buttons to choose a route.
Courtney: But it is kind of funny, because I’m thinking back to when I was younger and when I was starting to get into, like, Nintendo 64 era games, Gamecube era games. There would occasionally be a situation where I’d be flipping through a bunch of text and dialog on, like, a Mario game or something. Paper Mario I think specifically, my mom would walk in and she’d be like, “What– What are you doing? This doesn’t even look like a game. You’re just reading. What’s the point? You’re just reading.” And it’s like, well, now so many of the games we play are reading, and that’s– that’s not a bad thing. That’s a beautiful thing, I think.
Stefan: Yeah. The stigma on visual novels is really disappointing. Especially since, as you mentioned, these are– this is a genre that’s extremely popular in the queer community. And allow– it’s a genre which doesn’t have a very high barrier of entry, it allows people to tell their own stories. It’s a delightful, delightful genre, but it has a huge stigma on it where, “Oh, that’s just those goofy dating sims from Japan. LOL Get a wife, loser, nerd, not a game.” It’s frustrating. It’s like there are so many people who have told me visual novels– They didn’t say it that way. They say, “Dating sims aren’t my thing. But I sat down and I played Arcade Spirits and I loved it.” [Courtney laughs] And I’m like, yeah! because they were always your thing. You just hadn’t given it a shot until now. You hadn’t sat down in front of one that clicks with you. I will admit there’s a lot of– I– God, I don’t want to call them trashy. There’s a lot of, let’s say, low effort visual novels out there where they’re like, “Give us five bucks. Here, some boobs. The end.” On Steam especially.
Stefan: And that kind of thing, like, really taints it for the folks who are trying to do something different in the space. And you know, I don’t want to game shame, I don’t want to say, like, “Oh, it’s the asexual who doesn’t get sex. He doesn’t understand why people would want to look at porn games.” No, it’s that I don’t like anything being painted with one brush. And there is so much more to visual novels than that. That is a valid part of the visual novel experience, but that is not the sum totality of it, nor is it the general whole of it. So if we can have folks accepting these games for what they are, games, and engaging with them at the level that they’re coming in on, instead of trying to fit them like a round peg into a square hole, I think we’d be all the better for it. But I mean, like getting gamers to put aside preconceived notions is always a fun task. And I don’t really know of any way to do it myself personally, besides just trying to make what I make for the kind of folks who want to play what I want to play.
Royce: Like you mentioned low barrier of entry, and that’s something I wanted to talk about. Because particularly in the queer community or really any sort of marginalized or progressive community, you’re going to find the most representation wherever those simple barriers are. Like, one person with enough time and determination and the right skill set can make a game or write something, whether that’s self-published or a fanfiction. There are a lot of avenues that you can get into that are much lower in effort than a big studio budget required for a TV series or a AAA title or something like that. And webcomics, manga, that’s where we see a lot of modern things being created and iterated on very rapidly.
Courtney: Fewer gatekeepers telling you that there’s not enough audience for it.
Stefan: Yeah, I mean, this is a genre of game which I’m not going to say it’s easy to make, but it’s easier to make than many other genres. Because it is largely static artwork, lots and lots and lots of writing, and the toolsets have matured to the point where you don’t have to completely derive an engine from scratch. You can just pull something out of the box and start going. So it’s very easy to get into even if you don’t have a lot of resources, and you still want to tell your story. But that said, it’s like– it is unfortunately also very oversaturated. The visual novel market, even from back from 2017/2019, when the first Arcade Spirits was out the door, has become very saturated. It’s very hard to get noticed. I mean, I’ll put it to you this way, The New Challengers has not made its budget back yet. Penny Larceny may never make its budget back.
Stefan: I will admit, like, things went a little ham on the budget there. We tried to give it, like, almost a Double-A level of polish. But it is really hard to make it out there with this. So you either need to go very low budget, like, have writers and artists who are passionate about their story and willing to throw in on a project without collecting 100% of what they would make if they were doing it to a corporate entity. Or do everything yourself, do as much yourself as you can, with the assumption that you get royalties on the back end. Nobody is getting rich doing this. At best, they are breaking even. And that’s a bit of a shame. I would love to see more artists able to get their stuff out there, at least be compensated for what it cost them to get their words out. And unfortunately, that’s not happening. So it’s a tough, tough market to get into. I mean, you don’t get into it hoping to become the next JP Godbox. You’re just trying to get in and out alive. And now it’s getting harder even with the low barriers of entry.
Courtney: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Because even if someone were, say, a writer and a programmer but can’t do any artwork on their own, so at the very least you need to bring in an artist.
Courtney: So many people are going to want to say like, “Well, I want to pay that artist fairly. I want to compensate them for their work. I want to make sure it’s worth their time.” But that can be really difficult to do if you’re banking on having a profit for a project like this.
Stefan: And that is exactly the problem we faced. We tried to make sure we were paying everybody’s asking price. We didn’t want to lowball anybody. We’re like, “We recognize that you are contributing your hard work and your time and your effort into our dream here. We want to pay you your rate. We don’t want to try to negotiate you down.” And even doing that, even getting the best deals we can without trying to be exploitative, without trying to be unfair, it still came in so huge that, like, the sales are not offsetting the cost. So you really gotta unfortunately look to cut corners one way or another, whether you’re going to be teaming up with other artists rather than contracting, whether you’re going to do everything yourself, there has to be some way you can bring it in under. Or you’ll have to swallow the fact of like, okay, I’m going to get this game out the door, but it’s going to cost me. And that’s just how it’s going to be.
Courtney: Well, since we did start– or since you started opening up the conversation of no one’s getting rich doing this, there are a lot of things to consider if you’re bringing on collaborators. If I were to theoretically ask if there were theoretically a couple of aces who were maybe in the early stages of writing a visual novel…?
Courtney: Theoretically. What– What advice would you have for them? What are some things you wished you learned before you began this journey?
Stefan: Hmm. Plan around your limitations. For instance, if you know you’re not going to have a whole lot of character resources available to you, spend them wisely, trim down the cast, eliminate characters that only show up for one scene, or don’t contribute greatly to the plot. Find ways to write your story so that it condenses things down to just the core people that you need to have for the story. Don’t indulge too hard. Same for background art: condense down the number of locations you’re going to need to tell the story. If you want to have your characters duck into an office for, like, an interview – which is what happened in Arcade Spirits – and then you realize, “Wait a minute, we’re never using this office again in the story.” Cut the office. That’s why Francine interviewed you in the break room. Because we realized, like, okay, we drew up this blueprint for the funplex where Gavin has an office, how many scenes are we realistically going to have in Gavin’s office? Almost none other than that initial intro. Cut it out.
Stefan: Find ways to compress things down so that you’re working with what you’ve got. Don’t overdesign and then trim later, design for the right size from the beginning. Otherwise, you’re going to have a heck of a time trying to adapt your plans around something that you realize, “I can’t get this in.” You’re always going to have something that gets cut while you’re in the middle of production. There’s always going to be something where, like, “Man, I really wanted to do this one thing.” Have this person show up, go to this place, do this thing… but it’s just not a good use of the resources and I have to cut it and then you have to write around it. But the less you have to do, by doing a very good pre-production run and a very good design that takes into account those limitations, the better.
Courtney: Hmm… That’s very good advice. That’s very, very good advice. Thank you for that. Yeah, I would say– I mean, it is very, very early stages, so I don’t want anyone out there listening thinking The Ace Couple’s going to be dropping a game this year, like, hmm…
Stefan: It’s coming out in September!
Courtney: [emphatically] No. [laughs]
Stefan: Yes. Yes.
Courtney: [laughs] Not even a little bit.
Stefan: You heard it here! It’s confirmed.
Courtney: [laughs] No, no, no, no. Penny Larceny will be out and maybe, maybe even the game after that of yours will be out before it would even theoretically see the light of day. But it is something we have been thinking about for a long, long time. And even before we had the plot in mind, that we do now, we thought that there was such a huge opportunity to expand upon a script that we’ve already seen in games and in other mainstream media, and take it even a step further in a way that is within our vision to do so. It’s– it’s something that’s been on our radar and we’ve kind of started dipping our toes into it. So, we’ll– we’ll see
Stefan: I mean, I’m all for more explicit ace representation and like stories revolving around that. Because all too often it is seen as a default; it’s just what happens if you’re not focusing a story on romance. “Oh, then I guess it’s also an ace story!” No, no. Ace is ace. It doesn’t just mean that there aren’t romantic elements in the story. And we’re kind of an invisible sexuality in the spectrum as a result. Because we’re kind of a default, an omission, something that people do sort of assume happens, and that they don’t need to think too hard about. It’s like– it’s great to have these voices writing a story without it just being like, “Oh, well, this is a YA story where nobody romances. I guess that means it is ace.”
Courtney: Yeah. Well, just like we were saying earlier with the disability rep, if you call a character disabled, are you going to actually write that character differently if you take that label away? I would argue you should. Because that is a huge part of somebody’s life. And same with any sexuality. You can call someone ace, but are you actually writing them in a way that keeps that identity to the forefront and in a meaningful way that changes the story?
Stefan: It’s like there’s two levels of trying to make a story of diversity and tolerance. Level one is the one that most corporations reach, which is just: everybody is the same. We’re all– we all have the same hopes and dreams. We’re all doing the same things. It doesn’t matter what you look like, we’re all the same. Level two is: no, there are differences in how we lead our lives, and it’s important to acknowledge those differences and represent them authentically. It’s not that everybody is just a cookie cutter and can be swapped in and out like individual cogs. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t just reach into someone’s skin and suddenly you’ve got the exact same character. You need to take into account how they interface with everything around them. And you know, it’s not saying it’s lesser or greater. It’s just– it’s still saying equal, it’s just saying that it’s equal along a different track. And you need to acknowledge that fact or else you’re not being authentic.
Courtney: Yes, very, very much that.
Stefan: It’s like the difference in The Burger King Kids Club and a novel actually written by a diverse audience.
Stefan: If you can literally swap out the character with a full-ability cisgendered white person and absolutely nothing changes about your story, you do not have a representative story.
Courtney: Yes. I agree with that 100%. As– Yes, Part– part of what we really want to play with is, you know, the asexuality representation. Because we sort of see it as, you know, there is so much more to the spectrum that we in the community know of. But so many people who are not a part of the community, who don’t know other aces, don’t understand all these nuances. So how can we– how can we show more of that spectrum? But we also think there’s just so much potential in the visual novel arena. Because it is– it’s essentially a choose your own adventure story. So–
Courtney: Even people within our community who aren’t even necessarily playing it for the sake of learning, can still have their own unique experience in the way they want to have it. But one thing that– I mean, sort of going back to the fact that so many people sort of dismiss and write off the genre, it’s not all just fancy fluffy flirtations 24/7. It is a medium, it is a type of storytelling. And within the storytelling you can have so many diverse genres. And I think Doki Doki Literature Club was one that started getting that concept in front of more people. Because it looks like this cutesy fluffy, you know, Japanese art style girls in high school kind of a game, but then behind the surface, there’s a whole horror element here that took a lot of people off guard when it was first coming out and first being played by streamers. So I think that was the first time in recent memory that I remember a lot of people going, “What?! A game like this can do that?! You can– You can have that genre in this format?”
Stefan: It’s so interesting that Doki Doki Literature Club feels like an entry point for a lot of people into visual novels. Because it very much isn’t, because it’s extremely specifically commenting on a lot of the tropes of visual novels, which you may not be familiar with if you haven’t played the genre yet. Like, when the protagonist shows up in the literature club and the very first thing he thinks is, “OMG, this club is full of really cute girls!” It’s like, that’s the expectation that they’re trying to set up just to pull it out from under you. But that expectation existed in other games and that’s why it can be pulled out from under you. Because you’re already going in expecting – based on prior visual novels – that this will be a fluffy slice of life romance game in which you pick a girl and go after them relentlessly and they reward you in the act.
Stefan: Without that foreknowledge it’s a weird artifact unto itself and wouldn’t make any sense. Now, fortunately, there’s a lot of misconceptions and tropes floating around about visual novels that even if you’ve never played one, you could probably play it Doki Doki and get something out of it because you go in expecting an experience and then it gets yanked away. But it’s interesting that a game that is explicitly commentary on visual novels is becoming an entry point about visual novels. It’s like– it’s like having your first comic you read be Watchmen. It’s like you’re not going to get the same experience as if you were already a comic book fan and suddenly you understand what it’s trying to say about comic books.
Courtney: Yeah, it is really interesting that people unfamiliar with the genre are still getting something out of this subversion of it.
Stefan: I mean, a lot of it is shock value. A lot of it is just, oh, you know, it was– it looked like it was going to be cute and adorable, and oh no! It’s horrible! And, you know, you have Markiplier reacting on webcams, [shocked exclamation] And things like that. But even beyond that, it’s fascinating to me that, like, this is an entry point when it’s such a meta commentary.
Courtney: Mhm. Yeah. And we love things that do subvert but we also just love things that are just weird and wacky. I mean we are obsessed with Hatoful Boyfriend, where you’re just dating pigeons.
Stefan: Ah, the pigeons.
Courtney: Everyone’s birds. And it’s so silly and nonsensical that the average person would be like, “Why would I play a dating simulator where you’re dating birds?” It’s like, actually if you play it, there is a fascinating story!
Stefan: It’s weird because that’s the other, like, trope misconception of visual novels. It’s like what– The main driving visual novel misconception is, “Oh, it’s all fluffy romance games with anime girls.” And the other driving misconception is,” Oh, it’s all: date this weird inanimate object. LOL nothing matters.” [Courtney laughs] It’s all goofy prank fun. And it’s like– So we had people who were asking about Arcade Spirits, already they were saying, like, “Dating Centipede and Frogger? LOL.” No, no, we’re– we’re– we’re approaching this sincerely. Thank you. Like again, I don’t want to hate on those other games, but it does contribute to this overall, like, misconception, this broad brush that’s being stroked over the entire visual novel genre. Like, it’s all this, or it’s all that, when really it’s a wide variety of things. You’ve got horror, you’ve got thrillers, you’ve got romance, comedy, drama, like look at the Zero Escape series. Nobody is going to mistake that for a dating simulator. It’s a visual novel. Look at Ace Attorney. That’s certainly not a dating simulator. That’s a visual novel.
Courtney: No, absolutely.
Royce: Yeah. And I do wonder how many people who get into those– those entry points that are a critique of the entire genre, who then find a curiosity in learning what those critiques are actually targeted at by going to the sources of the influences of those games.
Stefan: I hope a lot. I mean, I’ve certainly had people who come to us and say, “Listen, you know, I didn’t think I was a visual novel fan, then I played Arcade Spirits and now I’m looking for more visual novels. Do you have any recommendations?” So I like the fact that we are also, like, kind of an entry point. Like even beyond like, thank you for playing our game, I’m glad that you can see the genre for its vast potential and are interested in digging deeper. That’s great.
Courtney: Yeah. And what are some of your recommendations for other visual novels? Especially if you’ve got any that have a really interesting take on queer representation, I think our audience would love to hear it.
Stefan: I’m usually interested in visual novels which approach things in different ways mechanically. Like I mentioned Ace Attorney, for example. That is a visual novel. Danganronpa. That is a visual novel. These are things which incorporate different gameplay elements and different narrative styles and different approaches while still being a visual novel. ValiDate, which was recently released. High Elo Girls, which is going to be coming soon. These are visual novels which have great representation and great self-expression. I’ve always felt a really, really good visual novel is also kind of a role playing game. Because it’s asking you to decide not just, like, “Are you going to cut the red wire or the blue wire?” Or, “Are you going to put the bullet in the man or miss?” No, it’s asking you, “How do you feel about the situation? How would you– how would you work your way through this problem? How would you approach this? What would you say?” These are– these are ‘puzzles’, quote unquote, that rely on empathy, critical thought, and just parsing what’s in front of you in terms of the narrative and figuring out where you want it to go. And that’s what’s so fascinating to me about the genre. That it’s in– You can– Like, call it a choose your own adventure, but it’s not just about deciding the flow of the plot. It’s about deciding what you believe in and what your values are and how you want to express that through the tools that are given to you.
Courtney: Very well said. So is there anything else that you would like to plug and shout out while we’re here? I mean, obviously you’ve got Penny Larceny, which for our listeners, we will have links in the description to that and the Arcade Spirits game, so you can find them super easily. But where else can people find you?
Stefan: Well, I’ve got my own personal Twitter, outside of Fiction Factory Games, which is on twitter.com/twoflower like the Terry Pratchett Discworld character. I’ve technically written a whole lot of self-published novels, which are up at stefangagne.com. But that was like from before games. I’m totally almost entirely focused on games now. I don’t have a lot going on in my life outside that right now. [chuckles]
Courtney: You say there’s not a lot going on and yet, you’re like–
Courtney: Stafen: Yeah, really.
Courtney: “Oh, I have three whole video games and several self-published novels.” That sounds like a lot to me!
Stefan: It’s a lot. But, like, right now, I’m, like, momentarily focused on making games. And like, I’m still in the extremely early stages of what could be the fourth game project, but it’s kind of going to depend on how well things shake out with New Challengers and Penny Larceny. Because, like, I don’t want to go into the red. Uhm, we’ll see. I also recommend my writing partner Aenne Schumann, who did the other half of the writing for the Arcade Spirits series. She has a game that she helped work on called First Bite, which is a very naughty visual novel about vampires with lots of great queer representation. That’s also extremely good. They also have the DLC that just came out, and they are working on a new game called Killing Boys, which will be in the distant future. There’s just a lot of really great folks and like the constellation around Fiction Factory Games and all that they do, with amazing work being happening in the game space.
Courtney: Well, we will absolutely put links to all of those things. I’m so curious about naughty vampire game. [Stefan chuckles] But– I am so very into vampires, but I’m also so very, very ace and I’m very on the repulsed side of things that I’m always like–
Stefan: Yeah, that– that one has a really–
Courtney: Will I like this as a player or not? Sometimes there’s enough separation between something that I can be like, “All right, this is fine.” But–
Stefan: I think–
Courtney: I never know where that line is.
Stefan: It’s got an interesting approach to how it handles it. Because it’s like it’s almost like a survival horror game, because you’re trying to keep these vampires from killing you by, like, making sure they’re happy and, like, picking the right conversation decisions, essentially. It’s an interesting game, and I highly recommend that. Like ace or not, even though it is absolutely not focused on ace themes.
Courtney: Very, very cool. Well, this was such a wonderful conversation. I thank you so much for being here. We love your games. We’re excited for Penny Larceny. Hopefully our listeners are too.
Stefan: Yeah, I will see everybody and Penny Larceny on– releases on July 25th. And the demo which will be hitting during Steam Next Fest. Get a little taste of it. One mission, one caper introduction to the game.
Courtney: Excellent! Thank you so much! So everybody out there listening, please jump down to the show notes, find those links, find these games, spread the word. And if you are less of a player and more of a ‘watching other people play things’ we did previously mentioned our friends Aces Playing At Attraction on Twitch. They have played through all of the original Arcade Spirits game as of now, and you can watch those VODs on YouTube as well. So I think on that note, that is about all for today. So we will talk to you all next time.