I sat down with the Head Director of Studio Élan to talk about their two upcoming visual novels, the Heart of the Woods and The Waters Above, what it’s like to get visual novels on Steam, and their creative processes. We also talk about Highway Blossoms, because how could we not?
1. I personally love tasteful yuri, but why the sole focus on it? Do you worry that it might alienate some people?
To put it simply, we focus on it because it’s what’s important to us. The majority of members of Élan are LGBT women, and we want to make games that people, and especially girls, can connect and relate to. Naturally, we hope that everyone will enjoy our games, and we try to make them accessible to everyone, but if there are some people who are wholly uninterested that, well, it’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make. Also, I think that there’s a difference between “tasteful” and “non-explicit.” It’s totally possible to have a game that has 18+ content that’s still tasteful. We’ve even talked about making games in the future that have a heavier focus on adult content, but with the same care and respect that is our trademark.
2. How would you convince people who aren’t into yuri to give your games a go?
For one thing, I hope that some people who aren’t necessarily yuri fans will still try our titles for the quality alone. Whether it’s Rosuuri or Namie’s incredible art, Sarah and Astartus’s lovely soundtracks, or anything else that catches people’s attention, I hope that we can earn a few fans just on our own merits.
Also, I’d recommend our games to anyone who likes fantasy. The mystical aspect is just as important to our stories as the yuri. So if you like ghosts and magic and monsters and that kind of thing, hopefully you’ll be into Élan’s games. In fact, I often say that Heart of the Woods isn’t a romance game with fantasy elements, but that it’s a fantasy game with romance elements.
3. Have you found much success on Steam? Visual novels are big there, and Highway Blossoms in particular has great reviews.
We certainly have. Earlier this month, Highway Blossoms actually surpassed 25,000 lifetime copies sold. That’s not counting the Humble Bundle copies. That said, visual novels are part of a changing market, and Steam is a changing marketplace. If we released Highway Blossoms today, it’s tough to say whether or not it’d be as successful as it was.
4. What do you feel that Steam could do that would benefit smaller developers and publishers?
At this point, Steam’s lack of clear content guidelines and poor communication with developers/publishers is pretty well-documented. Even with the announced changes to content filtering on the horizon, there’s still no timeline for completion and a lot of games are getting stuck in limbo. Improving those aspects would be the best thing Valve could do for smaller creators, in my opinion. Additionally, I’m personally a fan of curated markets as opposed to the “anyone can sell anything” approach, although that comes with its own questions of subjectivity and bias, of course.
5. Smoke Thief’s work on soundtrack is one of the many outstanding aspects of Highway Blossoms, alongside the other composers who contributed. How did those collaborations come about?
Each of the composers from Highway Blossoms have a bit of history behind them. In the case of Smoke Thief, I first found his music on the Nujabes subreddit back in 2013 or so, when he was working on a Japanese-inspired hip-hop album. I was a fan of some of the demos he posted and started following his work over the next couple years, because I admired his versatility with instruments and genres. We hadn’t spoken prior to my sending him an email in 2015 about working on HB, but we keep in touch to this day! As for the other composers in the game… Well, the “main” musician, Jake Abernathie, is the brother of the game’s director, Syon. And then Able Kirby is an old friend of mine. Years prior to Highway Blossoms existing, Able worked on another Western-themed VN that unfortunately didn’t see completion, but that style made him a natural fit for our game.
6. Be honest with me. Am I Highway Blossom’s biggest fan? Our readers need to know!
Oh man, if you’re not number one, you’re definitely up there. I’ll officially give you the title of “Highway Blossoms Superfan;” feel free to put that on your business card.
7. You work with Rosuuri often, and she’s an incredible artist. Was she always the clear choice for you to collaborate with?
Rosuuri’s been one of my favorite artists for years. Kind of like with Smoke Thief, I was a big fan of hers prior to actually working with her. I remember first seeing her art on DeviantArt and instantly falling in love with it. At the time, she hadn’t worked on any game or visual novel projects, but I knew that I wanted to make one with her someday. Heart of the Woods is the third project I’ve worked on with her, but it’s the first one where she’s the lead/sole character artist. Hopefully there’ll be more in the future!
8. Heart of the Woods and The Waters Above both look fantastic. As they’re both yuri, do you think that one title may appeal to someone whereas the other may not?
Yeah, I definitely think they each have some unique appeal. Heart of the Woods is more straightforward and conventional, as far as visual novels go. It has the main couple meeting and falling in love over the course of the story, and a large part of the plot revolves around that romance developing. The setting being modern Germany (well, a fictional village therein) makes it easier to get into, and the plot is also what people might more traditionally expect from a fantasy game, with an ancient curse and tricky fairies and an enormous forest spirit.
On the other hand, The Waters Above is delightfully weird. It’s set in a celestial ocean and one of the main characters is the physical manifestation of a star. The plot is epic and has cosmic consequences. In this one, the romance is just as important, but it takes a different approach – Clio and Maera are already in a relationship from the start of the story and even well before it, rather than meeting through its events. It’s a bit less conventional overall, but I’m still just as excited for it.
9. What is your ideas process like? Are there any ideas which may never see the light of day that you can speak about?
I’m actually probably a huge a pain to work with because I’m constantly changing the outline or adding new ideas. In fact, we totally reworked a massive chunk of the plot for Heart of the Woods just a month or so prior to releasing the demo – and after over a year of work on the game. An even earlier draft had the same characters but in an entirely different setting that had nothing to do with forests or fairies, but did have time travel.
I think that’s kind of indicative of my process though. I tend to try to think of a couple things that I want to include in a story, and then build a framework around that. For instance, with the new and current version of Heart of the Woods, I knew that I wanted a snowy setting with a fairy tale atmosphere, and for the romance to develop (or at least start) without them being able to directly speak with each other.
I very rarely outright abandon ideas, and instead tend to set them aside and try to make them work in other contexts or stories further down the line. That said, one idea I’ve been really into lately but don’t have any plans for yet is a story about online dating and long-distance relationships.
10. For those who might not know, what does a Director do specifically on a visual novel?
Just like in film, the director is generally the person with the vision for the story, and who decides how to present it. They’ll be the one to decide what the art should look like, what the music should sound like, the tone for the script, everything. Basically, it’s their job to determine how all the pieces fit together. Of course, since most VN teams are indie and tend to be pretty small, the specific role of the director can vary from team to team.
11. Are there any plans to bring your games to other platforms?
I’d love to, although there aren’t any plans right now. Like many others, I kind of view the Nintendo Switch as the perfect system for playing VN’s, so I’d love to be able to release games on there. Maybe someday!
12. Do you think yuri games could become as popular as otome games? What do you think they’d need to do to catch on?
I sure hope so! The main thing to do is to just keep making good yuri games. Over the past few years we’ve seen both Western yuri VN’s as well as Japanese ones do well; games like Heaven Will Be Mine, Blackberry Honey, Flowers, Kindred Spirits on the Roof, and others have all enjoyed at least moderate success. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but I think that as the number of high quality titles available increases, the genre naturally become more popular too.
13. Are there any official release dates for your games yet, or a window for players to look forward to?
We have some release dates that we’re targeting internally, but nothing announced or official yet, because it’ll be a couple more months before we know for sure if we can hit them. But, we really want to have Heart of the Woods out by the end of this year, and have The Waters Above out early next year.
14. Are is there any chance of a full voice-over for any of your games, if they got enough sales like Highway Blossoms has?
Adding voice acting to Highway Blossoms was a lot of fun and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. If it were feasible, I’d add voice acting to all of our games to be ready on launch. As it is, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do retroactive voice updates again for our current games, and maybe launch a title with voice acting in the future.
15. Why the E? Will you be mad if I forget it? How do you pronounce Elan?
Haha! It’s okay, I usually just type “Elan” without the accent myself. It’s a French word meaning “vigor and enthusiasm,” and is pronounced as “ay-lan.” Confession though: it’s also super self-indulgent and is named after a song by my favorite band.
16. Where can fans find you, and what’s the best way to support you? This is your chance to plug!
You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr as @vnstudioelan, and I’m @JkaplanAW on Twitter. If you wanna support us directly, please check us out at patreon.com/vnstudioelan – we post lots of updates and sneak peeks there, including about our unannounced titles at our highest tier. You can also play the demos of our games on Steam or on Itch.io. We’re super duper grateful for any support we get – not just on Patreon, but even just getting comments and messages and stuff. We read every single message we receive and every response to our social media posts, and appreciate all of them, both positive and negative.
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