Making games is a hell of a journey. It can take years of time & ceaseless passion to tell a story in a way that feels right for the storyteller. This can be all the more true for visual novels, where narrative flow and character development are sometimes the only tools in a relatively restricted medium. A little flash, but a lot of love.
In this episode of Digital Diversity we’re talking with someone whose five year visual novel development journey has taught them not only about making games that feel true, but about who they are.
Kaiju: Today on Digital Diversity I’m talking to Sam from Oneirocritica Games about Love Hues!, a visual novel that we’ve been excited to learn more about for a while now.
Welcome, Sam. It’s wonderful to have you on the project. Please tell us a bit about yourself, what you do, and of course about Love Hues!.
Sam: Hi! Thank you for chatting with me today, I really appreciate it. I’m a hobbyist independent game developer, and it’s been my dream to share my characters with the world since I was little. I’ve since discovered that sharing my work and supporting the independent gamedev community is where my heart is at. The primary things I want to bring to my games are a feeling of safety and warmth for my players, an emphasis on healthy relationships, and representation.
I want to acknowledge that I have been very privileged and lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had with Love Hues!, and that they would not have been possible without the people around me. I’m grateful to you, my family, folx in my local and international gamedev communities, my contractors and my composer, Moode Myoozik, for helping me make the project possible.
If I recall correctly, I began conceptualizing Love Hues! 5 years ago after I’d had a conversation with my friend regarding the lack of diversity in visual novels. I had only played a handful of AAA(?) ones at the time. I was disappointed by the portrayal of relationships and how unhealthy some of them were, as well as the lack of characters who looked/were like me. I set out to change this – I also wanted to move away from high school visual novels and have characters in university, as I hadn’t seen this setting much. At the time I had no idea of itch’s amazing gamedev community, and I’m sure there’s many others I haven’t explored yet that also provide experiences with diverse and inclusive casts.
Other than safety, healthy relationships and representation, Love Hues! also reflects my growth. Throughout the five years, I updated the art and script as my skills improved, and I included mental health and relationship discussions as I encountered these issues to let people know they’re not alone. One of the things that was especially challenging in regards to this theme of growth was my exploration of (spoilers!) a bad past relationship in Toby’s route. They acknowledge what they did wrong, how it affected the other person, and they take concrete actions throughout and prior to the route to become a better person. This was a reflection on my experiences with one ex-crush in high school that I regret, and where I accept that I was wrong and needed to apologize. I wanted to invite folx to reflect together on what a healthy relationship looks like and to look at ourselves critically + change direction and grow when we are not being our best selves in any kind of relationship.
Essentially – Love Hues! is a very personal project that I want a lot of people to relate to, feel at home and safe with, and if there’s anything that doesn’t meet that criteria, I am always here to listen and make it a better space.
K: Gosh, this is a heck of an intro, and you’ve probably answered my next couple of questions already, haha.
Five years is a long time to be working on a visual novel, and the time & effort definitely shows in how well designed it is. I’m curious though how much it has changed over that year in terms of scope. Did you originally imagine something much smaller than what you ended up with, or did you always want it to be something this big and no doubt complex as it is now?
Essentially, if you showed the current version to five-year-younger you how do you think they would feel about how it all came out in the end?
S: When I first started working on Love Hues!, I knew that I wanted to make a visual novel with a diverse cast and healthy relationships, but I didn’t have a vision for the game beyond that.
As a result, I did little planning and started writing stories for my cast based on my limited understanding of them at the time. This turned into a cycle where I’d write particular scenarios, become dissatisfied with them, alter or scrap them, and then I would have to re-write that part of the game to fall in line with my new preferred scenario. While I learned a lot from this process, it made the development cycle long and it made it difficult to anticipate when I’d be done with the game. I would invest a lot more time in planning the story before starting development in the future.
To make a long story short, I knew where the characters’ stories would end + what Love Hues would look like as a whole about halfway through development, but it took several years to get there. I don’t think my original intention was to have a game of this size, but I’m glad that it turned out this way.
I hope that if I showed the game to my past self now, they’d be impressed that I saw it through to the end and gave the game’s development everything I had. I think that they would also be excited by the persistent data feature, and by how cohesive the Love Hues! story is. The game still has flaws and there are a few things that I would’ve done differently, but overall, I think both present and past me are allowed to be proud of what we’ve accomplished.
K: Let’s talk about characters, since that’s really what Love Hues is all about.
First I’m going to make you choose your favourite of the romancable characters, and why, because I’m mean like that.
But also I’d love to know your development process for writing each of their stories. Did you let the characters develop organically as you were writing their lives, or did you know you wanted each one to have certain personality traits and attitudes that you wanted to make prominent in the game?
S: It *is* tough to choose haha!! The character who’s most closely related to me in terms of their emotional journey would be Toby, but my favorite would be James. I sympathize with his arc and while I recognize and understand that folks may not like him (especially at the start of the game), he’s a combination of playful, affectionate, and considerate that makes him my favorite.
There was some organic growth, but it was guided by key aspects of every character that stayed relatively consistent over time. Ava’s and Nova’s routes used to have a more organic development process, but once I’d established Love Hues‘ world rules, I made their routes comply strictly to this ruleset.
James was always going to struggle between his dreams and his medical studies, and he was close with Devlin from day 1. Toby always had their energetic nature and desire to grow and be a better person from their last relationship. Devlin had always been uptight, distant, and strict, though I thankfully made him more relaxed and more of a quiet, mature type who finds it hard to open up and rely on others. Nova always had an adventurous and curious streak, but she was changed numerous times when it came to her story and goals. Ava especially changed a lot during development, but her withdrawn and uncertain character became definitive about halfway through development.
K: Having Toby as the first character you get to know I think was a great idea. They have a lovely, welcoming personality and it really helps set the scene for the rest of the stories that come up later. It’s hard not to fall for that cutie.
Let’s move onto a little more representational line of questions. We all had to start somewhere on our personal journeys, and getting to explore who we are in video games can go a long way towards working out who we are and how we want to see ourselves. Was there a game that gave you a euphoria moment like that in your own life story? One that you could point at and go “this is me, I am included in this narrative.” or did you find you had to write your own stories to feel represented?
S: I unfortunately didn’t experience a game like that growing up, but I suspect that’s likely because I had such a difficult time identifying my identity. The other half of it is that I didn’t know where to find games that offered a representative and diverse experience until late through Love Hues!‘s development, and I’m excited to start playing them!
I think the thing outside of games that helped me the most when it came to defining and understanding myself was the split attraction model, and the recognition that I didn’t have to narrow my orientation to one specific group.
Love Hues was definitely a way for me to start putting my experiences out there, and almost all the characters have some aspect of me represented in them.
K: And what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself over the half-decade of working on Love Hues?
S: The biggest lesson I learned from developing Love Hues is that community is critical for all parts of the independent game development cycle, if not the gamedev cycle in general. Several significant accomplishments I reached with this project – having the story mature and grow, resolving difficult coding issues, having have a mostly custom soundtrack, to its performance once it was released, and having folx stream it – would have all been impossible if it wasn’t for the various communities around me. This also means that contributions back to the community are important to me, and I’d like to explore ways to support other visual novel (as that’s my niche) developers in the future.
Also, if I can add a secondary lesson: as many devs have said, starting with (a) small project(s) before taking on a big project is essential to building development skills, confidence, and your audience.
K: Important lessons indeed, and definitely well learned. Now that Love Hues is released and getting the love it deserves, have you got your next game project already planned out, or are you taking a break after this five year journey to focus on yourself?
S: I’m still in the process of figuring it out, haha. Depending on how LH does over the next couple of weeks to months, I’m interested in making some kind of sequel to the game if folks are interested. If not, I’d love to make another visual novel, but there are opportunities I haven’t gotten to pursue as a result of LH‘s intense development cycle. I think I’ll likely take some time to myself, figure out what those opportunities are and how I can pursue them, and try some of them before I begin a new large project at the very least.
K: I hope you do take a little bit of a break to look after yourself, you’ve put so much into Love Hues. After five long years in development you deserve some me time.
Something that really impressed me about LH is how each character has both a romantic route and a platonic route. Meaning you can get to know their story, without being made to enter into a romantic narrative with them. Is this something you’d like to see in more games? Often games with romantic options tend to go in an all-or-nothing approach to relationships. Do you feel it’s important to give players the chance to get to know the characters properly without pushing them into romantic entanglements in games that have strong romance themes?
S: It’s definitely valuable for games to give the player the option to engage with a character platonically only, at the very least on an action-by-action basis rather than a fully separate route (though this’d be amazing as well!). LH’s internal code works on a similar action-by-action principle – instead of a full new route, it either skips or substitutes romantic story beats for folx on the platonic path and provides them with a customized experience. Personally I think my game is on the weaker side when it comes to giving the player an opportunity to know the character prior to selecting the romantic/platonic path, but it is absolutely important. The opportunity to know the character before romantic actions occur reflects the more organic growth of a real-life relationship as well.
K: We’re coming up to the end of our time together, so I’d love to know. Are there any specific media that have really influenced how you see the world and tell your stories?
S: I think I honestly haven’t consumed sufficient media over the years to give a strong answer to this one, but I should give a nod to Undertale. To my knowledge, it is one of the first games to thoroughly use previous playthrough data as a game mechanic. I dodged playing it for years during LH‘s development cycle to avoid accidentally plagiarizing as I wanted to try something similar, to a smaller degree. I did play it in the end but I mainly saw how much thought had been put into this mechanic through folx’s playthroughs online, and it’s always been impressive to me.
K: That’s about all we’ve got time for today. Thank you so so much Sam for joining us on the Digital Diversity project. It’s wonderful to see a game that someone has put so much of themselves and their lives into finally out in the world to be played and appreciated.
Before we go, though, tell us what makes Love Hues so special, and why folx should play it?
S: Thank you for having me, Kaiju! 🙂 What makes Love Hues special is that it’s a little self-contained digital ecosystem, with interconnected pieces that work consistently and harmoniously. I believe players will enjoy discovering and investigating these pieces one by one, and that they will feel at home exploring the story with the kind-hearted cast.