A struggling artist that can’t make the rent, the tempting job offer to trial a new medical application, a fan-art competition that could solve a lot of problems, customers that know they want a book, they just don’t know which one… Oh, and there’s the whole depression thing to deal with too.
There’s a lot for us //TODO: today… Better get to it.
Digital Diversity is a project shining a spotlight on games made by awesome game developers from the LGBTQIA+ community. On today’s episode we have both halves of Boys Laugh +, Felix and Rohan to talk about //TODO: Today; a game that had me having many serious feels and laughing so hard I may have almost died streaming it.
Kaiju: Welcome to the Digital Diversity project Felix and Rohan, it’s an utter pleasure getting to talk to you about your game. Please tell me a little about yourselves and what TODO: today is all about.
Rohan: Boys Laugh + aims to make well thought out narrative games with topics we find important and want to tell! We are part of the LGBT+ community and want to share our perspectives on LGBT+ themes in a way that others can relate as well. uvu I’m Rohan, aka Pectin, and I develop stories with Felix, design and illustrate for BL+. I also adorn myself with the titles ManagerTM and Art DirectorTM.
Felix: Hi! Thanks for having us! I’m Felix and at BL+ I’m mainly responsible for writing, programming, and UI design (and for some projects I also make the music as eerron). //TODO: today is a slice-of-life visual novel we originally made for NaNoRenO 2017 and that we expanded quite a lot since then. At its core the game is about figuring out what you want from life and puts you in the shoes of a young artist who struggles with financial problems, loneliness, and depression. Over the course of the story the protagonist gets help from an AI who fills a role somewhere between a friend and a therapist and various opportunities open up to solve their problems in different ways. Even if all of that is fairly heavy, we tried to keep the presentation cute and lighthearted.
K: It’s hard to know where to start with this one, I’ve so many things I want to know about TODO: today because so much of it hit very close to home.
I guess first off I want to know where the idea for this one came from? The Struggling Artist concept is far from new but you’ve managed to tackle a lot of the issues creative folks have in a unique way that really resonates. Was this a personal story that you wanted to tell, or something you just wanted to explore in depth and in your own way?
F: At least for me this happened fairly organically. In our initial outline this struggle actually wasn’t as much of a focus. We had only defined the key points of the characters and conflicts and how they fit in the plot but a lot of the specifics were still left open.
As I wrote the script and both story and characters were fleshed out more, I started filling in the blanks with experiences that I either had myself or saw other creative folks go through. The struggle to find motivation especially was something I took from experience.
Before we began working on the game, writing was more of a hobby for me and part of me still wanted to focus on 3D art professionally (even though I was already a generalist at that point). So I think as I was writing, the fact that I was moving further away from visual art and didn’t quite know if that was good or bad definitely found its way in, too, as part of the protagonist’s insecurities.
I never meant to make the game about me specifically, but I think when you try to tell a personal story you still end up putting a lot of your own feelings into it, even if they’re abstracted in one way or another.
R: There isn’t much for me to say about this. We agreed on the hero being a struggling artist because we both were familiar with the topic but the details in writing these scenes out were handled by Felix here :>
K: Something that struck me as soon as I began playing was the amazingly intricate character creation, not only having a good variety of pronouns, but also romance options that included bisexual, asexual and aromantic paths with variations on each. As someone who has both been playing a lot of visual novels and who is Bi and Demisexual this is a huge inclusivity step that I appreciate greatly.
I’m curious how difficult all those options have been to implement with the Ren’Py engine? I’d love to see these sort of options used more widely in games as they help the player follow a path that feels right for them, so would you say it’s something that most VN devs would be able to accomplish in their games if they tried?
F: It was actually a lot easier than I expected! For me, the hardest part was figuring out how to set up the character sprites and their variations properly. Now that I know more about Ren’Py I realize that there are multiple solutions to this, but the one we used was to include a variable in the file path to the image files so we could switch between variations at run-time just by changing that variable.
As far as the script goes, the pronoun selection for the protagonist didn’t mean any substantial extra work. We store the pronouns and all their declensions in variables that are weaved into the dialogue, so the same line of dialogue can be used regardless of the player’s choice. Although this meant that I had to rephrase some sentences during writing to make them work with all pronouns.
The only time we use unique dialogue is when the characters’ gender or preferences are directly referenced, which adds up over the course of the game but I think the payoff is definitely worth the extra work.
A while ago we actually wrote about our solutions to this in a bit more detail on our blog: Devlog #2 – Branching, Customization, and… Y-yaoi?! / Devlog #3 – Facial Sprites & Character Customization
The preference selection works in pretty much the same way in that it sets the sprites and pronouns for the romanceable characters and stores the protagonist’s orientation so we can properly reference it where it makes sense (or in the case of the aromantic option it sets a flag to avoid any dialogue or scenes that have romantic undertones).
The bulk of the work for this was setting up the logic for the character creation itself, after that it was only about keeping all the possibilities in mind and writing the dialogue in a way that accounts for them. So I’d say it’s definitely possible for other games to include similar options but it helped that we had planned this from the beginning and only have two romance-options in the game.
R: Same with the scripting, art assets had to be planned out for each variation as well. Although the player experiences a main cast of six characters in one playthrough, visually, we worked with a main cast of nine characters.
Especially illustrations that included one of the special trio that had varying looks (MC, Joyce, Phoenix) I would have to produce two or four variations of one picture. To reduce the workload as much as possible, I drew one setting and then drew the character variations separately on top. The tricky thing here was to come up with scenes, gestures and poses for the characters that would fit their gender expressions and that looked natural no matter which combination of cast the player chooses. We didn’t want to give the player the feeling that they just saw one variation of an illustration with characters copy-pasted on it, but instead give them the feeling that they are playing their original version of the story.
The accumulated amount of extra time needed to draw illustrated scenes meant that we had to be economical with the use of them as well. I’d say this definitely needs to be considered if someone wants to implement such a feature. But the positive feedback we received for this feature really made me think it was worth the time and effort. 🙂
K: That’s an amazing breakdown of the process, and having those devblogs along the way are a fantastic way for folks to learn some of the ins and outs of what worked for you and what might work for them in their own games. Considering how much preparation and effort you’ve put into this game it’s no surprise the response has been so positive. I definitely appreciate all the work that has gone into //TODO: today to make it flow so naturally.
As you said Felix a lot of yourselves went into the game, so I’m curious if there are particular parts of the game you each identify heavily with? Be they bigger elements like the struggles, or even little jokes or references that feel very you?
While we’re on that note, do you have particular favourite parts of the game? Ones that keep making you laugh or have good feels no matter how often you see it?
R: One of the most relatable points in the story for me is right in the beginning when our hero decides what they’ll have for dinner and go grocery shopping. It’s not an important scene for the whole game but it shows quite well how strapped for cash our MC is. When you’re poor you might be familiar with this situation: standing in a supermarket and calculating the sum of the handful of things your going to buy and feeling guilty about treating yourself to something as cheap as a cup of pudding. quq
Pudding is the cheapest dessert you can get in a German supermarket, you can buy a cup starting from 0,19€.
Another relatable part for me, which we included just for giggles, is the appearance of a cameo during the Naughty Cat competition. There’s a guy named “Rohan” he’s loud and very motivated haha. =u=
A scene that always gets me is when Joyce appears in front of the protagonist for the first time. The medical programme the protagonist signs up for implies something rather serious…but when the moment of truth comes you’re greeted by a sprightly AI ready to help you however possible! The music that plays in that moment, which is Joyce’s theme, adds well to the up-beat situation too.
Generally, I like the key moments with Joyce best. There’re the most emotional ones for me during the game. I cry and laugh every time. xD
F: I think one thing I can identify with the most is the relationship the protagonist and Phoenix have towards art. The reason why Teal wanted to be an artist and Phoenix’s struggle with the cost of prioritizing work and self-improvement over other aspects of life in particular. Of course I changed the specifics to make it more applicable to the characters but there are still a lot of personal thoughts and feelings at the core. Throughout the game there are also other, smaller moments and themes I can identify with in some way but the scenes where the characters talk about what art means to them and their lives are the ones where I drew most directly from my own experiences.
One of my favorite parts of the game isn’t super visible if you just play through it once because it is spread out over a lot of different scenes and variations, but I really like how the relationship between the protagonist and Joyce becomes more casual and how Joyce sometimes jokes around when they get closer.
The Bell Tech break-in is also one of my favorite story moments. When I was going through the first part of it for our last update, it actually made me laugh multiple times because I had forgotten some of what I’ve written and one scene in particular has some of the better comedic writing in the game. Towards the end of it there’s also a heart-to-heart with Joyce that I still really like. That conversation is also one moment where I feel that art, writing, and music really came together well to make it more impactful.
K: That’s a lot of feels going on, and I can definitely relate to a few of them. Although the whole game really gives me totally relateable feelings throughout, so I guess you got your target audience in me, haha.
There’s still a lot of game left for me to play, especially since I want to give it a few plays through to get the full feel of it all, so I’m reserving my right to pick a favourite part till the end. The online chat sessions are definitely up there though, some of them I would be giving out writing awards for.
Let’s move into the wider world of visual novels. I’m curious if there are specific titles or studios you think are really doing it right, both in terms of making damn good games and for representation. With so many visual novels that focus on queer spaces I’m curious to know if there are any others out there you’ve been able to relate to or you feel are great examples of the genre?
R: Oh yes, the chat sessions! SuuJ is a dear. ❤ We’re both excited that you’re interested in //TODO: today, we hope we didn’t spoil too much for you yet. :’D
For me it’s a little hard to find LGBT+ visual novels wherein I can identify with the hero character enough to be super engaged in the romance aspects of it. And I’m bi, so I do tend to play games which give the player the freedom to design their own protagonist with a diverse romanceable cast that’s player-sexual. (Haha sound familiar?) It’s so rare to find games with a cast that is tailored to a bisexual protagonist. :’I
There’re games of a developer which I turn back to now and then though which are the serialized visual-novel-styled mobile games by Pixelberry Studios. These are published on a mobile app that’s like their version of Netflix – called Choices. There’re different genres of serialized stories you can read and the character casts are pretty diverse. You also get the feeling that the stories are written from feminist perspectives and that’s a big plus for me. The art is well made too! I really love what they’re doing and I really really recommend the story “Perfect Match”. ^u^
Oh- and I do hype the BL visual novel “The Divine Speaker” at the moment which is currently in development. All of the guys are such eye-candy! The team is putting some serious effort into the title and I really hope it’ll be good! 😀
F: Ironically, since our work on visual novels intensified I haven’t gotten around to play all that many VNs myself. So I can’t say much about recent ones unfortunately.
One of my favorite visual novels is Christine Love’s “Ladykiller in a Bind” even just for the dialogue system and overall narrative structure. While I can’t personally relate to much of it thematically, the writing and the whole presentation really drew me in anyway. In general I really like how Christine Love’s visual novels all try to do something interesting with their narrative design that goes beyond usual VN mechanics. “Hate Plus” for example is another favorite of mine because the whole real-time mechanic is just so out there and really made the experience of playing it at least as memorable as the story itself.
Another VN I like that hardly has any branching but is really engaging all the same, is Brianna Lei’s “Butterfly Soup” which most people interested in queer VNs have probably heard of already but I feel like I should mention it anyway because it’s just really heartfelt and well-written.
A more recent visual novel I enjoyed is “After School” by Fever Fiction. It’s fairly short and doesn’t focus much on queer themes but it has charming characters and an interesting structure that makes it feel a bit like a dating sim but with primarily platonic routes which is a nice change of pace.
I’ve also heard good things about “Heaven Will Be Mine” and with the queer subtext I’ve seen in the genre I’m definitely intrigued by an explicitly queer mecha story, so I’m excited to check it out.
K: Oh yes! Ladykiller in a Bind and Butterfly Soup are two of my favourites I need to get back to at some point. I streamed Ladykiller at the start of this whole project when it was just let’s plays and I totally forgot to put it on SFW mode which was a bit of a blush-inducing experience, haha. Heaven Will Be Mine is still on my list so need to get around to it.
As for the other ones you’ve both mentioned they seem like great games to go check out and I’m definitely going to be adding them to my inexhaustible playlist.
You’ve told me a bit about what you love in games that already exist, so I’m curious about what you want to see in more games. Rohan you talk about it not being easy to find games you get to identify with the hero character but I want to know from the pair of you if there are things you’d like to see more of that would either help you feel represented, or that would be a positive step towards improving the digital diversity we all share?
F: One thing Rohan and I have talked about before is that we’d like to see more stories about mlm romance that actually focus more on the romance than on erotic content. As someone who is demisexual and vaguely masculine aligned I’d be personally happy to have more of that but I think for the diversity of queer games and all-ages content overall it would be great, too. The same goes for showing more diversity in (queer) masculinity because in my experience a lot of male characters fall back to either one of very few archetypes in that regard.
On the topic of gender, I’d like to see more nonbinary characters that maybe explore the width of the spectrum a bit more than just reverting to androgyny. But I think just having more nonbinary characters in general would already tackle that in some way.
More games that let you customize the identity of the protagonist would also be nice, although having stories with defined characters about specific experiences is just as important.
As for the overall diversity, I think it will get better when tools and platforms become more accessible so more people can tell their stories and have them heard. Just looking at the games on Itch.io , I feel like in the last two years alone there has been a good increase in the number of queer games so I’m positive that this will continue.
Having more support on other platforms would be great, too. The recent LGBTQ+ Sale on Steam looked like a step in a good direction so I hope they keep up the support and don’t treat it as a one-off thing.
For the medium as a whole I think it’s also important that larger studios and AAA games continue to include and normalize queer characters and themes. Being in a niche away from the mainstream has its upsides, too, of course but I’d love to see more queer content in mainstream games that isn’t purely optional.
R: I completely support what Felix said! And my thoughts are the same considering customizable protagonists. uvu
LGBT+ people are a minority still being easily misunderstood considering the existing stigmata, so I also believe that bigger production studios would profit from trying to gain deeper understandings (careful research, expert advice) of the community and tell stories that are not exclusively their own perspectives. They could reach a broader audience and this could help educate society and fight prejudices.
A focus group interview I conducted last winter with a bunch of LGBT+ people and people familiar with related topics lead me to the notion that there needs to be more media surrounding the older generations of the LGBT+ community, people who’re disabled belonging to the community and LGBT+ people who aren’t just overly attractive. This would help normalise topics.
Something I’d personally like to see more often is also media aimed at people who’re yet finding and exploring their queer self. Thinking of how I discovered bisexuality and deal with it, I’d love to see more stories that give the viewer the feeling that “it’s okay to be (insert favourite LGBT+ label) and it’s okay that my (insert favourite LGBT+ label) is different from your (insert favourite LGBT+ label)”.
K: All really good points, and definitely stuff that is relateable. As someone who has been focused on trying to find games that represent as broad a spectrum as possible I agree there are some glaring holes in the representation. However in the last year alone more than 500 games were uploaded onto Itch with the LGBT tag, and plenty with the more specific tags for the queer community. It’s my hope that in there are the games that focus on what we seem to be lacking, or perhaps the developers that we need to be talking to to make these games happen.
Media that focuses on letting the player explore their gender and sexuality, more than focusing on a predetermined course is one I definitely think we need more of. So many of us don’t really start figuring ourselves out till later in life because we don’t get to experiment and explore, and that’s something I think we need to do more of.
What’s next on the cards for Boys Laugh +? Is there are current project you’re both working on or one on the horizon you’re excited about?
F: Right now we’re working on a relatively small project for this year’s Yuri Jam. This one isn’t a visual novel for once so we’re using the jam as an opportunity to test the waters for possible future projects with more gameplay. It’s kind of a music game where you string together melodies to write a love song for your crush. It still has a little bit of story and hopefully some surprises along the way but we’ll announce it properly later in November.
Once the Jam is over, we’ll get back to work on the remaining few Acts of “Brassica – A Marry Tale” which is an episodic fairy tale visual novel about three princes who are sent on a quest to prove they are the right one to marry the princess of a neighboring kingdom. Just that the princess is scheming to prevent exactly that because she already has a girlfriend she wants to marry. So as the princes go through hardships on their journey because of the princess’s meddling, they grow closer to each other and maybe realize that there’s someone else they’d rather be with than the princess.
We’ve originally started working on it during last year’s Yaoi Jam and have released the first two Acts since, so I’m pretty excited to get back to it and finish up the rest.
R: More than 500 in a year…This is an encouraging number! It’s great to see how LGBT+ are more in the open now and available for people through the internet. 😀
In the process of embarking to new platforms we planned to kick off a mobile game project in the future as well. The details aren’t set in stone but our philosophy is to keep our cast diverse and tell intriguing stories. In relation to LGBT+ topics we would touch on the subject of self-expression among others too. We hope the key-feature we had in mind – a somewhat different take on a dress-up game – would be an interesting starting point to address this.
Aside from our fixed plans with our current jam project and Brassica, we’re curious about and looking forward to what we’ll be up to in 2020 as well.
K: Sounds like a lot of amazing stuff in the works and I can’t wait to play Brassica at some point, I’m also really keen to see what you manage to get out on mobile platforms. I know I’m not alone in wanting more diverse games that we can take wherever we go.
Well I think it’s about time we wrap this interview up, it’s been utterly fantastic have you both on to talk about TODO: today and hearing your thoughts about the gaming world. Thank so much, Felix and Rohan, it’s been a delight having you on Digital Diversity.
Do you have any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with players of your games or folks that might be wanting to make their own?
F: Thank you so much for having us! I’ve been following the Digital Diversity project for a few months now and I really appreciate all the work you’re putting into it.
I think one last thing I want to say is that when we first released //TODO: today I was really positively surprised by all the good feedback and interest we were met with. Without that BL+ probably wouldn’t have continued like it did so I’m really glad there’s so much positivity in the VN and queer games community.
We’re trying to be as open and transparent with the development of our games as we can and share some insights into our process to give back a little and maybe help others who want to make narrative games themselves. It’s been an exciting journey so far so I hope we can add something to the space and help make it welcoming and approachable for others as well.
R: Yes, we’re happy we could be part of this! Thank you very much for having us! I hope this doesn’t get across as pompous haha. My piece of wisdom would be this: If you’re confident you could tell a story through a narrative medium – go for it and give it a try! Putting it out there will add to the diversity of stories that are being told.
And you never know what kind of positive impact you might leave or reaction you might get. But I believe that like this we can create connections and inspire each other in helpful ways.