As places to discover and publish games seem to be growing more accessible, we often take for granted how interests of the previously niche were hard to find and unapproachable, especially in online spaces. Although tracking down obscure media remains a challenge—and games preservation in particular remains a contentious issue—the influences left by fleeting memories of something seemingly lost has inspired many developers today to turn what was old into something new for contemporary audiences to indulge in.
Otome games, story-based games that originated in Japan targeted towards women, for example, have seemingly left an imprint on visual novel and romance elements that exist in games of other genres. I had an opportunity to discuss that question and more with Georgina Bensley, founder of Hanako Games. We discussed what goes into doing work as “Hanako,” and how the continuously changing landscape of the games scene—especially for independent games development—has offered both challenges and opportunities for visual novels and other forms of interactive fiction. From its early beginnings working within the narrow scope of its influences through Cute Knight, to expanding into even wider themes with more recent titles like Night Cascades, Hanako Games has every intention of growing its library while continuing to work in an ever-evolving industry.
What brought your interest in game development? What are your sources of inspiration?
I’ve been playing video games since I was a very small child—for me, that starts with the ColecoVision, which is probably obscure history these days. I moved on to other systems as well as PC games and became a big fan of the Sierra adventure games and developers like Roberta Williams, Christy Marx, Lori and Corey Cole, and so on. I also went through a phase as a child of being obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure books.
Growing up, I was always trying to make my own games and tell my own stories with whatever tools I had access to. In grade school, that was using Story Tree on an Apple II. In high school, that was building mazes on a TI-82. In college, I ran into the interactive fiction community and worked with TADS. After graduation, I found GameMaker, and eventually Ren’Py.
What eventually led to the conception of Hanako Games?
I’d been making and releasing little games just for fun, but I wanted to try building something I could sell, particularly as I was unable to work at the time and any income was welcome. As part of that process, I felt that I needed to create a web presence that looked like a business, so I had to take a business-sounding name to sell under. I was, at that point, exploring a lot of Japanese games (a hobby which was much less widespread in the West in 2003), so I picked a name to evoke that while also being something that the average English speaker could spell.
How do you reach out to and determine which artists work with since each project uses a completely distinctive visual style and aesthetic?
I’ve never met almost any of the artists I’ve worked with, it’s all been through the Internet. I usually have a vague idea of the style category I’m looking for—cute, cel-shaded, slightly wacky, dark, painted, etcetera—and I’ll put up a job posting with an explanation of the kind of thing I’m into and call for portfolios. Sometimes applicants have styles that are completely unlike what I asked for but might spark my interest in another direction. If something unusual inspires me, then I hope it will inspire players as well! I’ll usually filter down to a small group of maybes, all of whom might be quite different from each other, and then do paid tests where they draw one of the characters. This lets us both get a feel for the whole process and how we communicate, as well as how much their ideas gel with my concepts. And if I already have art for some parts of the game, then I can take the test pieces and see how well they work together. Sometimes a great style on paper doesn’t quite work in the game engine.
What were your initial setbacks when you first started publishing games? Can you talk about what the scene was like when Cute Knight was first published?
The biggest difficulties I faced back then were that I had absolutely no money. I had to do almost everything myself, working with whatever free tools I could get my hands on. So it was all pixel art and MIDI soundtracks that I banged together on my own. The total budget for the first release of Cute Knight was $50, and that was spent entirely on the title screen. It wasn’t until that game started selling copies that I was able to hire an artist for the “deluxe” upgraded version.
In the commercial indie games scene at the time, a lot of your marketing was distributing demos to shareware sites and hoping someone noticed them. Success was being accepted onto a “portal” site, of which there were many at the time focused on casual gaming. ArcadeTown, Reflexive, Big Fish Games, places like that. I was really lucky at the time that someone who worked in the acquisitions part of one of those portals thought Cute Knight looked interesting and was willing to pick it up, and then those sales led to more sales, which led to me being able to start paying people to do artwork.
As one of Hanako Games’ latest releases, is there anything that sets Night Cascades apart from previous titles? Is there anything about it that is also reminiscent of what has been already explored, whether thematically or mechanically?
One of the major themes for Night Cascades is the importance of owning up to your mistakes, even those that you might have written off as lost in the past or too far gone to fix. In order to have that kind of past, the characters are a little older than the more common student age seen in many VNs. They’re both working adults in their twenties. Jackie is a policewoman, and Diane is a writer and substitute teacher. It’s also my only game which focuses on just a single couple, again, because there was a particular story I wanted to tell.
Of all my games, stylistically Night Cascades is closest to Black Closet, which also features a darker art style, relationships between women, mystery-solving, and the suspicion of supernatural powers or dark conspiracies at work. Both involve people being accused of witchcraft, which is something that did happen to me when I was young. Mechanically, though, they’re very different. Black Closet is a strategy game which involves careful management of risks and resources to find answers that change between playthroughs. Night Cascades is a more story-based experience with a set direction. There are puzzles to engage the player in the process of mystery-solving, but there are no Game Overs. It’s never too late to make the right choice.
How have your approaches to game development changed as both technology and the climate in games evolved over the years? For instance, a platform like itch.io now offers ease of opportunities for developers to publish their work and be discovered, but something like the Ren’Ai Archive was such a valuable directory to find a niche that felt like such a scarcity back in the early 2000s.
I always have to poke around and find new trends and new methods of advertising—I’m still distraught about Project Wonderful shutting down. It’s really hard to find decent low-budget self-service advertising anymore, but I don’t think it makes that much difference to my actual development approach at this point. I’ve been around for a while, I have some followers, and I have an idea of the kind of games I want to make. Generally, whenever I hear about exciting new game dev trends like the wave of iPad apps, phone games, free-to-play, VR, what-have-you, I consider it briefly and then ignore it and go back to doing what I like.
If it’s something I can expand into without undermining what I’m already doing, though, that’s worthwhile. I have moved into spaces like itch.io, Patreon, and Kickstarter, but I’m not designing new projects purely around them.
Do you consider Hanako Games’ titles to be otome games? What makes the genre so alluring?
Some of them, but I wouldn’t consider myself an “otome producer,” if you know what I mean. Obviously term usage varies a great deal. I’ve encountered people who thought that all visual novels are inherently otome, people who thought that one of my games I consider the most otome shouldn’t be counted as one at all because it didn’t have enough fluffy romantic slice-of-life scenes between sword fights, and everything in-between.
For myself, I only use the term if there’s a fixed female protagonist, a strong focus on pairing up with a character, and the characters available for that are primarily male. I wouldn’t personally use “otome” to describe something like Cute Knight, because romantic pairings are a very minor element of the game, but someone else might.
As dating sims have learned to find more presence in Western pop culture—from more developers doing their own serious takes on the genre and through parody and homage—what directions do you think otome games will be taking on in the future? Will games of this nature be more commonplace in the Western games scene? Or are there aspects to the genre’s origins that will still make this niche?
I feel like there is still a divide in the market between the people who are into specifically-Japanese otome, with the high production values and famous voice actors, and the people who are into the Western-developed games, which tend to feature more player customisation and different viewpoints on sexuality. Sometimes they feel like entirely separate fandoms.
So what is the potential synthesis? What does a high-budget Western-developed romance game look like? I suspect it would actually look a lot like an RPG. There is a huge dating-game fandom invested in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. More recently we have games like Life is Strange: True Colors which has a fixed female protagonist, multiple romance options, and voice acting. Does that qualify as an “otome” game? That depends on who you ask.
What directions are you hoping Hanako Games will take in its own future?
I just want to keep making games and earn enough money to pay good artists and keep the lights on! I always have far more ideas than I have time to produce, and I hope to be able to get more out there.
Currently, I’m working on the early stages of a Long Live the Queen follow-up, which means pretty big shoes to fill. I have a lot of big complicated ideas for politics and disaster that I hope people will enjoy. That project is still mostly under wraps right now, though a few tiny hints are available on my Patreon.
Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things. She currently helps with managing the socials to ensure that the secret recipe will never be revealed.