Welcome everyone to the FuwaZette, the freshly-resurrected news and editorial section of Fuwanovel! It’ been long, sad few years of near-death for the Fuwa’s main site, but it seems that the internal issues it suffered from are finally getting resolved. And with our Eternal Chief Editor/Viking Lord Zakamutt once more at the helm, we wanted to open this new chapter in Fuwanovel’s history with something special – an interview with a developer who had a major role in shaping the visual novel niche in the West and who brought us numerous memorable experiences within the last 15 years, including titles such as Long Live The Queen, Magical; Diary: Horse Hall and The Confines of the Crown. Please join me as I talk with Georgina Bensley, the founder of Hanako Games and a long-time indie developer, about her past and present projects, Japanese-inspired games and visual novels as a medium!
Plk Lesiak: Thank you very much for accepting our invitation. I’m sure most people visiting this site are familiar with your work, but for those that don’t know much about the person behind Hanako Games label, could you say a bit about yourself?
Georgina Bensley: My name is Georgina Bensley. I’m originally from the Southern US, but have settled in England, where I’ve been for many years. While Black Closet is not really autobiographical, I did attend a private all-girls religious school growing up, and I’m sure it’s shaped my perspective in a number of ways.
PL: Among Western developers that delved into visual novels and related niches, few have a history as long and rich as you, reaching well into the early 2000s. How did you start creating your own games?
GB: I always loved Choose Your Own Adventure and related books when I was little. Probably my first attempt at making something resembling a computer game, as a child in the 80s, was with some old Apple software that was designed to write branching stories. Yes, at this point you’re probably doing the math and figuring out that I’m… not so young anymore. Shh.
When I went to university I started playing around more seriously with the idea of indie games and found my way into the text adventure community. I discovered an early version of the Game Maker software. I found Flash. I was also playing adventure games and RPGs, and somewhere in the midst of all this I found visual novels.
So with all of these influences, I started trying to put together games that used bits and pieces of all these ideas, playing around with genre conventions, taking things I liked and things I didn’t and trying to do them “my way”. One example of that would be Fatal Hearts, which is a hybrid of branching visual novel and puzzle-solving adventure game, released a few years before 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors came out. As an amusing coincidence, they both involve people wearing hooded cloaks and gas masks to disguise their identities.
PL: I think it’s safe to say that even your early projects, like the Cute Knight duology, showed some influences from Japanese games, especially life sims/raising sims, back then still very obscure in the West. What pushed you in this direction?
GB: Anyone looking at my game development history should be able to tell that I was a huge Princess Maker fan. Like many people, I encountered the abandoned PM2 translation “beta” which was in common circulation and played it obsessively, discovering all the different ways for things to turn out based on your choices and all the little secrets – hidden outfits, hidden characters, etc.
So, several of my earliest graphical games were, at their core, about trying to make my own version of Princess Maker, because I wanted more. Cute Knight is the best known of these, and the first game of mine that was successful enough for me to settle into making indie games for a living. Cute Knight removes the “parent” character from the Princess Maker formula, putting the player directly in control of the character, and runs over a shorter timeframe, but the overall idea and mix of stat-building + RPG is very similar. I went on to make Cute Knight Kingdom, which added more geographic area and travel time, unlike Cute Knight that took place entirely in one city. I had vague plans for a Cute Knight Empire which would have involved sailing from city to city and competing with other characters to be named the heir to the empire, somewhat in the line of the Angelique games (which, due to their lack of translation, I’ve never played). So far that hasn’t happened, but never say never.
PL: A game that definitely gave you the most of mainstream notoriety was Long Live the Queen. Did its success catch you by surprise? Do you think it changes much in how you approach game development?
GB: I’m not sure any tiny indie expects the success before it hits. I had to fight to push it through Steam Greenlight at the time, as opposed to getting it manually approved the way that Magical Diary: Horse Hall had been. That turned out to be a benefit in hindsight, because it was someone in Greenlight who suggested the game needed a better trailer, and the trailer we eventually ended up with is great fun.
As far as changing my approach to game development, I remain stubbornly focused on following my own ideas. Anyone with business sense would say I should have followed up quickly on my hit. Instead, I have yet to do anything resembling a sequel. Certainly, elements of game design that I learned from it have worked their way into other titles, but they’re all very much their own thing.
For example, one of the things people often talk about when playing LLTQ is “what if it were more random?” and Black Closet was in some ways my answer to that question: here’s a mystery and intrigue game where the plots you’re investigating are computer-generated, and the people scheming against you may be different every game.
PL: Let’s talk recurring tropes in your work. The first your games are known for is probably political intrigue, at times very grim in its tone. How did this theme make its way to your anime-style games?
GB: I’ve always been fond of political intrigue in books because it allows for complex plots to come together. It’s like a murder mystery, except instead of having to piece together everything that happens after the fact, you can watch all the parts in play as they go and try to work out which one is going to come out ahead. Also, in a murder mystery, you know who you’re supposed to root for: generally, murder is bad. In a story of politics, it’s not always so clear. There’s a lot of shades of grey. Who’s going to come out on top, and who do you want to come out on top? Keeps you guessing.
One of the potential strengths of branching narrative as a genre is the ability to see other outcomes, other sides to a story. What if this country wins, or that country wins? What if you choose to support the assassin instead of turning her in to the authorities? That, to me, naturally lends itself to a certain degree of politics, because it can easily become about choosing sides. Every character, ideally, has their own goals and motivations, their own ways of seeing the world. What if you decided to jump on board with them and see things their way?
Going back to Fatal Hearts, a lot of the plot of that game really boils down to “do you side with the vampires or the werewolves”? And neither side is totally right or wrong. They’re both potentially murderous, they both have reasons for being the way that they are, and you can’t completely understand the characters until you see both their good sides and their bad sides. Complex motivations are what drives an intrigue. Part of why Long Live The Queen absolutely could not involve any randomness or NG+ elements was that I wanted all revelations about characters to have been clearly there all along. It might take you a dozen playthroughs to make the choices that let you find out why a certain character behaves the way he does, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It was always there.
PL: Another common element in your titles is female protagonists, and both otome-style and yuri romance. Do you think of any of your games as targeted primarily to a female audience?
GB: When I started, ‘otome’ wasn’t a word that I think anyone in the English VN circles was really using, and the stigma against ‘games for girls’ was pretty harsh. I’ve always resisted saying that any of my games are “primarily” aimed at women. I don’t want to discourage people who aren’t women from playing them.
Of course, I’ve also seen reviews of my work claiming that it’s “clearly” aimed at men, usually because of the anime art. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve always had a crossover audience. I am, of course, a huge nerd, and my links to nerdy subjects probably affect who plays my games. It’s my understanding that RPGs and adventure games have always skewed more female in the userbase than many other genres of video game, as well.
PL: Your catalogue also includes some literary adaptation, which is surprisingly rare in the world of VNs. What gave you the idea to adapt Sword Daughter’s Quest gamebook into a video game? Were you hoping to reach fans of the original?
GB: I’m surprised that one or two fans of the original have actually found the game! The Sword Daughter project came about partly because I wanted to experiment with making games where someone else did the writing, as my writing speed drastically limits the number of games I can release. I’d been making comments off and on about wanting someone to sell me a completed script that I could turn into a game, but no one ever took me up on it.
So, it happened that I was visiting San Francisco and went by a bookstore that sold used sci-fi and fantasy books, where I discovered a cheap 80s gamebook that I’d never heard of, and bought it to take home. Later I had this book out with friends and I was doing dramatic readings and letting my audience vote on what choice to pick, where I would then overact the outcome. It was good popcorn fun. In the process, it also occurred to me that the book structure was much more similar to a VN than most gamebooks. It had clearly defined characters instead of a vague ‘You’. The protagonist had a companion throughout the story, so there was frequent dialogue. The setting was roughly consistent from path to path, with the same characters appearing even if you approached them from different angles. When I discovered that the publishing rights for the book had reverted to the author, I realised it might be possible to strike a deal and license the story for a VN. It seemed worth a shot.
PL: Sword Daughter is also arguably the worst-received of your recent projects. Would you change anything about it if you made it today?
GB: Mostly no. Sure, it’s not very successful, but it did achieve the goals I had set for it. It paid for its art, and its art looks really cool! In some ways, the quality of the art may actually play against it, as I think that leads people to expect a more serious story than what you get from an 80s gamebook aimed at kids. If I’d done it up in the artstyle of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon and added overly-dramatic voiceovers, perhaps people would have been more inclined to engage with it on its level instead of judging it against modern otome games. But for me, the art was part of whole-heartedly embracing my childhood fantasy vibe. There may not be much of a fanbase for that, but I had fun, and that’s what matters.
PL: Another game of yours based on a book is A Little Lily Princess, a yuri-themed reimagining of the classic novel… But there’s not much yuri in it?
GB: I usually call the game “light yuri” myself. There are two main reasons for that. One is that I’m a huge fan of the original book. I read it a lot when I was a little girl, and bits of it have always stuck with me. I’ve also seen several adaptations, such as the Shirley Temple movie and the 90’s movie, and enjoyed them in different ways, but complained in my heart that they were not ‘true to the book’.
Many people talk about the game as “the book, but with a lot of lesbian stuff added”. These people have never read the book. I’m not adding that much yuri to it, because so much was already there! It’s not intended as lesbian within the context of the book and the time, but look at the text. Girls kissing and saying that they love each other. Girls commenting on each other’s prettiness. All of this gets stripped out of modern adaptations because they know how people will view it nowadays. So here I am, turning the lens the other direction, showcasing the book and pointing out that it actually is pretty gay.
Never explicitly so, of course, and Jessie’s game storyline, the most romantic of the routes, is made up almost whole-cloth. Jessie does appear in the book, but as a very minor character, which gave me a lot of room to expand on this girl without treading on the toes of any book fan. I love the original book dearly, and I wanted the game to be accessible to fans of the book even if they were not necessarily into yuri. So I did not consider it a problem that some of the routes are not romantic at all and others are more vague. It’s in keeping with the story.
The other issue is the ages of the characters. Sara Crewe is commonly played in adaptations as age eleven. I did not think modern audiences would feel entirely comfortable with a game about eleven-year-olds kissing each other, so I did some handwaving to move most of the girls into their young teens. Still, they have to be quite young for the story to work. Lottie, in particular, has to be a small child for her tantrum-throwing to make sense. That limits the level of romance that feels appropriate. Regardless, the entire story is very much about relationships between female characters, and even the routes that are not romantic in themselves provide, I think, the seeds to imagine more in the future.
PL: A project that many gamers might also know you from is the HellaYuri Steam curator. You write in the introduction there that you started compiling the list for fun. 27 thousand followers later, did anything change in how you approach it?
GB: I never expected it to take off! Though I’m glad that it did. I mean, part of my reasoning for creating it in the first place was that I would get tired of people saying that there were NO games where you could be a girl dating a girl. I still see comments like that sometimes, but at least now it’s easier to just say “Here! Look at these!”.
There are so many releases on Steam these days, though, I don’t do that much work in actively looking for new games myself. Usually, games get added because a follower tells me about it, or I hear about it in another community I visit, or the developer submits it to me.
PL: Do you think being the HellaYuri founder boosted your profile as a developer?
GB: I think most people still don’t realise the connection. I never went out of my way to talk about myself on the curator because I didn’t want to look like I was only promoting games by myself and my friends. Mostly, people just see the reviews. However, it’s nice to have access to a bunch of people who want to hear about yuri games. It does boost my confidence a little in terms of future projects.
PL: Let’s talk about recent events. Just a few months ago you’ve finished a massively-successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the new Magical Diary game, Wolf Hall. One thing that’s still not completely clear to me is how it relates to the first title in this series – we see recurring characters and locales, but in apparently different iterations?
GB: So, when I first conceived the setting for Magical Diary, I was thinking along the lines of a western RPG. Here’s this magical school with several Halls, so the first thing you do when creating your character is to choose what Hall you want to be in, right? Except almost immediately, as I was writing the first scenes of the game, it became obvious that the scope would be impossible. In a character-focused game, different Halls would mean different roommates, different friends, an entirely different storyline. For that reason, that game became Magical Diary: Horse Hall, the version of the story that you would get by choosing a Horse Hall protagonist.
Here, in Wolf Hall, we have the same school in the same year, but a protagonist with a completely different origin. The Horse Hall protagonist is a girl from a non-magical family in New Hampshire, who knows nothing about wizards until she arrives at school and bumps into the scary Professor Grabiner, who immediately takes a seeming dislike to her. The Wolf Hall protagonist is a boy from an upper-class wizarding family in Europe, who has been raised in magical traditions but only knows about America what he’s seen on television, and Professor Grabiner is a friend of the family serving as something resembling his godfather. So he comes in from a different position and knocks all the events down different paths, like billiard balls bouncing off each other.
Wolf Hall functions not as a sequel but as an alternate universe, where the Horse Hall protagonist never existed. Any actions she took during her game either don’t happen or happen to different people, which will affect their storylines, and so on. And again, this plays back to my love of factions and seeing different sides of a story. Here is the same school, but what if the story goes somewhere else than it did the first time around?
PL: Magic Diary: Horse Hall was by itself a pretty unique and complex game, with its dating sim, visual novel and dungeon crawling mechanics, especially for an indie title. What new will the upcoming game bring to the Magical Diary formula?
GB: For one thing, it’s bigger, even without considering the extra options from the Kickstarter. Many players wanted more focus on the RPG side of things. We’ve added more dungeon exams to the schedule, as well as ‘practice’ dungeons available on the weekend, so that players have a chance to learn the quirks of their different spells before having to use them on the important puzzles. Horse Hall eased the player into the RPG aspect very slowly, but here we’re trying to get you some spells and a chance to cast them more quickly, so that it’s more integrated into the experience.
While the Wolf Hall protagonist comes from a fixed and plot-important background, we’ve made a group of “personality types” that are set fairly early in the game and will flavour the dialogue as the game goes along. This, along with the character creator at the beginning of the game, will help you customise your protagonist and make each playthrough feel different. Also, Wolf Hall takes a cue from Long Live The Queen and shows little popups at times to give you a clue when your past actions are changing the text that you’re seeing, which can help you to plan out a different approach for the future.
And, of course, with all the Kickstarter additions, the game now features a full twelve romance options, with five full routes and seven “side romances” who get much less screentime but can be taken to the ball at the end of the game.
PL: Are you worried about the upscaling of the game that came with its Kickstarter success? How much work do you think was added to the development cycle through the stretch goals?
GB: The biggest time padding that the campaign added, for us, was having to stop writing midway through and wait while we polished the RPG engine for the Kickstarter demo, and then wait again through the campaign itself to find out what options were going to be selected so I could fit them into my overall plot structure.
The Magical Diary universe was originally conceived to cover multiple Halls, so there is a large cast. Many characters make small appearances with references to the plots that they will have if they get main routes in future games. Because of that, it’s not hard to give one of these characters a short side romance. They already have hooks and artwork in place.
On the other hand, the little ‘design your own character’ cameos, despite only being a brief appearance and a line or two of dialogue, are harder than they look! Where do these people come from? Why are they suddenly speaking to the protagonist? I want them to blend into the setting, but I also want to do justice to the characters that were submitted, because these are other people’s babies. So that takes much more time to think about than the end result would suggest.
PL: Talking about VN development in general, we’re living in a pretty turbulent time for EVNs, with Steam’s algorithm and policy changes affecting small devs heavily and the indie market being extremely oversaturated. Do you ever find yourself struggling with the current environment?
GB: My biggest problem in the current environment is that I haven’t released anything in far too long. That’s a combination of issues. I had a wrist injury, my partner Spiky was unavailable, Wolf Hall is a big game, etc. Because I don’t have anything new out, I can’t fairly judge what the market or the algorithm are really like.
The approval policy issues don’t directly affect me much as I don’t create 18+ works. There have always been distribution issues with adult content, though the details change a lot over time. I would certainly like to see some clear, stable rules laid down. If the rules are clear, people can design around them, and maybe we’d see fewer cookie-cutter high school games. But the rules have to stay still for people to be able to make plans!
PL: Beyond the Magical Diary: Wolf Hall, are there any projects fans of your games can look forward to in the foreseeable future?
GB: I have a ‘concepts’ folder deeper than the ocean, most of which will never come to fruition. The only thing I have a prototype of at the moment is a raising sim in which you are trying to turn a little girl into a powerful master vampire while dealing with her tendency to bite anything she sees. It’s cute, silly, and definitely NOT full of complicated intrigue, so it might be just the thing to relax with at the end of a big project like Wolf Hall. Still, no one knows what the future will hold. Especially when you live in England in 2019…
PL: And as the last opportunity for shameless self-promotion: what are the best places for our readers to find your games and support your endeavours as a dev?
GB: The best source to find all my games is on my website. All my active games are for sale there through both BMT Micro and itch.io, including titles that are too old for Steam. The best way to keep up with what I’m working on every month is through my Patreon, where I’m also posting sketches and scripts from previous games.
PL: Thank you for your time!
I hope you’ve all enjoyed this glimpse into the mind of Hanako Games’ founder! We’re hoping to make this kind of content a common sight on Fuwanovel from now on. Also, for more interviews with EVN developers and other articles about non-Japanese visual novels, consider checking out my personal blog, EVN Chronicles. You can also follow me on Twitter to be notified about my posts on Fuwanovel and beyond. Thank you for reading!