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Two Frogs On A Devlog: Chapin
Guest Devlog by Chapin!
Hi, all. I’m Chapin, one of the writers and designers on Two Frogs on a Log. This project was an exciting prospect for me. I’m a total visual novel outsider: I don’t really play them, and I’ve never made one before! Prior to moving to game development though, I thought I might be a fiction author, so the idea of getting back to writing characters and scenarios excited me.
When we started Two Frogs on a Log, we had the main goal of creating a short narrative experience to allow us to release something while working on our current longer project of Skadi Tower. We also wanted to work with Siddarth’s artist friend, Xuan. A visual novel felt like the perfect fit. We spent a couple meetings brainstorming, found a jam we could work in, and got started!
As far as the process of writing went, it felt both intensely familiar and nostalgic, and completely alien. Writing characters and dialogue felt like looking back on an old life, an old idea of who I was going to be. I spent my first semester freshman year of college hanging out in the cemetery on campus writing stories about the people buried there. I was committed to the artsy writer life. As the years went on though, I realized my childhood desire to be a game designer wasn’t going to go away. I had to try it.
And try it I have. But getting to look back at that college student, burned out and tired of school, chilling amongst gravestones instead of doing his homework felt like smelling your old childhood home for the first time in years. It was a relaxing, breezy memory. I got to write in a rocking chair by a window on a rainy day, and in a little notebook on a bench in the park. Game design is an internal, restrictive workspace. I’m sitting in a giant gamer chair at a black desk covered in black appliances that light up garish LED colors that I haven’t figured out how to turn off. I’m surrounded by three monitors, all blasting some kind of information my way at all times. This set up works: it allows me to flow between the various complex tasks that game design demands, but it lacks the aesthetic comfort that fiction writing can allow. I don’t need three monitors to write about a frog having an existential crisis. I can lay on the floor, go on a walk, dictate the words. It is a relatively flexible type of work.
The writing itself felt comfortable, but also unfamiliar as I dove into a genre that I don’t interact with much. The cadence of writing a visual novel is totally different than other scripts I’ve written. You have to think, for example, about how you are going to repeat the sentiment of a menu option your player just picked. If a player can choose to have a character say “You’re too stressed out” on a menu, you then need to also have the character say something like, “You have to relax sometimes.” Unlike a non voiced RPG like Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s not enough to have your character’s dialogue in the menu. It doesn’t scan to the player.
The real challenge was the faces. We used Renpy to develop Two Frogs on a Log. It’s a great tool. Super lightweight, quick to edit and start up, and totally designed with visual novels in mind. It doesn’t play super nice with git, but you can make it work. In Renpy, you use tags to call up the various faces the characters can make when speaking. So if I wanted Nikhil to look angry while speaking and throwing his hands in the air, I might say, “show nik angry look talk hand”, and he would go to an image with those tags in the name. If I want him to stop talking and drop his hands at the next line of dialogue, I can say, “show nik -talk -hand”. That’s powerful stuff. It allows for this really intuitive flow when working.
But let me ask you this: if you don’t play or make visual novels, where are these facial expression changes supposed to happen? Should the characters open their mouths only on their lines of dialogue? Is it confusing if the character that isn’t speaking moves? Should I have them do something every line? Every other line? On top of all these questions (and more) how do I keep track of what pose the character is currently in?
I completely underestimated how much work applying the facial expressions would be, especially because I underestimated how little I knew about the genre. If you are a visual novel fan, most of my questions up top must seem obvious, but to me they felt like totally new creative ground. I didn’t even realize to ask what the genre convention was! I just started forging into this new area without knowing what I needed to know.
And that’s the way it can be when embarking on design in a new genre: the familiar and unfamiliar bleed together, and sometimes you don’t even know what you don’t know. I loved working on this project. It brought a completely different type of design into my life for its duration, and gave me a chance to stretch some old and dusty creative muscles in ways they haven’t stretched in a long long time.
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