Visual Novels That Are Made in Canada, an East meets West Ideal
Game designer Alfe Clemencio sits behind a small brown desk and calls to potential customers. He has two independent games to sell, and one for which he really wants to get some attention. Yet, how he’s attracting that attention would be considered deviant, perhaps even backwards, by North American standards. He’s trying to sell them as a disk in a box.
Clemencio feels that having a physical copy of a game, especially an indie game, immediately increases its value and uniqueness to the player. While many developers find producing physical copies to be an actual barrier to publication, Clemencio believes that this is a phenomenon unique to North America.
“Back when I took my internship in Japan, I went to Akihabara. Right when I got there, I saw a store selling independent games from local developers,” said Clemencio. Akihabara is a region of Tokyo famous for its shops that sell “niche market” or “geek” merchandise. It is no exaggeration that within this region, you can find almost every video game released in Japan.
“[In North America], you hear people yelling ‘Digital download! Digital download!’ but you almost never hear about physical copies of [indie] games,” says Clemencio.
The twenty-five-year-old is the founder of Sakura River, an indie video game company. Clemencio got started in 2007, two years into his computer science degree at the University of Waterloo.
“[Sakura River] started as an on and off, sometimes full time, sometimes part time job. I had to be able to manage making the game and my studies,” says Clemencio. “The main challenge was getting artists. We use freelance artists … to do the artwork. This took up most of the time.”
To put the game together Clemencio had a small team, only about five to six people. Clemencio does most of the coding and writing himself, and hands off the rest to the artists and composer. His team mostly consists of university students or recent graduates.
“I don’t set out to hire students, I look for quality. I just so happens that a lot of students are pretty good at art and music,” Clemencio explains. Once he had all the pieces for his team together, he found that making his first commercial game took up those last two years of university.
Despite his base in Canada, it’s not just his marketing techniques that have a Japanese tinge. His games Falling Hearts and now Infinite Game Works, are heavily influenced by Japanese culture. Had his games been released in Japan, they would have been defined as “visual novels”.
Visual novels are a distinctly Far East style of game. They focus entirely on story, limiting their gameplay to occasional choices the player can make to guide the story in one direction or another. Visual novels have a massive independent game scene in Japan due to their relative ease to create. There are entire stores and conventions devoted to these games as demand for them in the Far East continues to grow.
“There’s a certain class of visual novel that are called ‘crying games.’ The stories are tragic, and they’re known to make a lot of men cry,” he explains. He’s referring to games where the whole story is focused on coming to a dramatic and horrifying end, with the hope that it leaves the player in tears. It’s one of the many subgenres of visual novels. “I’m not at that level yet, but this is something we’re trying to approach.”
Falling Hearts and Infinite Game Works are available at sakurariver.ca, and in person from Clemencio and staff at Fan Expo during the last weekend of August.