An interview with Love in Space

In Announcements, General by Sekai Project

Today we have a special treat for fans of Love in Space, the developers behind Sunrider: Liberation Day, Sunrider Academy, and the new upcoming Shining Song Starnova! We’ve got an interview with Director, writer and co-founder of Love in Space, Sam Yang! We sat down with Sam to discuss their latest upcoming release, Shining Song Starnova, started from a successful Kickstarter to a popular Patreon, this title has been in development for 3 years with an already dedicated fan-base eagerly awaiting it’s release. Now with the project looming ever closer to release let’s get the thoughts on the creators on this highly anticipated project.

Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today. Starnova’s release is just a few days away now, after a three year long development cycle. How are you feeling now?

Very tired, haha. Starnova’s production really was unprecedented, as we had never made a single visual novel this large. It took the combined work of countless individuals to make Starnova into reality, so as director, I always remember that the final product must honor the countless talented people who worked on the game. It’s a huge weight to carry. However, I think we got pretty close to making something really great this time. Of course, there is no perfect creation, but this is a project that I can really stand by as possibly one of the finest works Love in Space will ever make. So despite being very tired, I also very pleased with the outcome on a personal level. I hope the people reading this will enjoy Starnova as much as I do.

Your past projects have been sci-fi, so this was a pretty big genre change. What are some of the differences between writing or illustrating an idol game versus a big space opera like Sunrider?

So, from a storytelling perspective, there are genres and those are supposed to generally dictate the story content. However, I’ve been gradually learning that with visual novels, the story length is so long that you can’t just rely on genre conventions the entire 40-50 hour run time, because the story ends up being too boring after the first 10 hours.

So with the past Sunrider games, this wasn’t as big of an issue since it was a tactical RPG and while they do have long stories, they still don’t feature the massive hundreds of thousands of words you find in a pure visual novel. Also, back then, we didn’t really have the money or staffing to make massive productions anyways, so my hands were kind of tied behind my back, haha. So I think Sunrider stuck closer to genre conventions and for the most part, it was all right since there was the game play to consider as well as the story. Adding complicated game play in a visual novel meant that back then, there wasn’t enough staff members to make more story, and vice versa. The point may be that going from a tactical RPG to a pure visual novel was a much bigger change than changing genres from science fiction to idol drama.

With visual novels, and really with Starnova, I don’t think a work needs to restrained in a genre, especially because these stories are like 40 hours long. Starnova was billed as an idol game, but it’s got an enormous amount of sub-genres. OK, all our promotional materials say “idol story” everywhere, but really, once you get 20 to 30 hours into the story, I think it becomes more apparent that this might be a business/political drama. Or a story about creating your business empire, like the Steve Jobs film or The Founder film. Or it’s a story about motherhood. Or it’s a story about the clash between good and evil. The game’s so long that it needs to be about multiple things to keep it interesting.

Ultimately, everything needed to get summed up as “idol story” in today’s social media market, but I didn’t think writing Starnova was all that different from science fiction. It might be about Japanese idols, but Starnova was supposed to tell stories with elements which anyone could understand. The idols were always in my mind, just a colorful vehicle for telling stories that everyone has some experience with.

Shining Song Starnova has a word count that’s longer than all of your other games combined. When you were first starting out, was it with the specific intention of making a super long game? Or did that kind of develop organically as you went?

So after Liberation Day, we finally had enough resources to make a massive visual novel, as long as we focused on just making a visual novel and did not try developing complicated gameplay systems. So yes, we did start from the very beginning with the plan that Starnova’s story script will be longer than everything we’ve made put together. In fact, I’m pretty sure we have Patreon posts back from 2016 where we claim (to probably skeptical fans) that Starnova’s script will be longer than all the Sunrider games put together. From the start, I really wanted Starnova to be Love in Space’s big entry into visual novels, so I knew we had to make something bigger than what even Japanese companies are making nowadays.

We have a rule that we always stick to the original plan, and do not deviate by adding more content. So no, I do not think a situation would ever arise where for some reason, we start adding in more content than the original project specifications. Developers who do that tend to never release anything, so I’m very strict that we always follow the original plan. Any new features can be dealt with after the game is safely shipped for the sequel, haha.

One of the most impressive parts of the game is the voice acting and insert songs. You guys even flew to Japan to oversee the recording. Can you tell us a bit about that process? Like from deciding you wanted to include voice acting all the way through to the release.

We knew from the very beginning that we could not make Starnova without Japanese vocal songs and Japanese cast members. It just wouldn’t be credible otherwise. So the process pretty much began even before anyone knew Starnova existed, when we Japanese voiced Liberation Day just to see if we could even voice a game in Japanese.

As it happens, I listened to Agilis’ podcast with Ayu Sakata about voicing games in America recently, since I actually have no idea how it works in America. I think the casting process is very different between Japan and America. So based on what I heard from Ayu’s podcast, I think in America, basically everyone who wants to participate in a project records an audition tape specifically FOR a character, which really blows my mind, because that sounds like an enormous amount of work, when realistically, the chances of being selected out of the probably hundred other people also auditioning are so low…

In Japan, I don’t think that’s necessary, because hundreds of works featuring voice talents are released every month. So, to figure out if a voice talent is right for a character, you find the last few works she’s been in, and listen to her there. Nowadays, with powerful tools like VNDB, you can even search whether she’s voiced a character similar to what you need.

In Japan, most voice talents are signed on with agencies, who have sample tapes of each of their talents. Usually, these tapes have her voicing some typical character types, like “cheerful high school girl.” “cute little sister,” “tough warrior,” etc. So the first thing I would do is to listen to everyone’s sample tapes. But more importantly, I consider the last few characters a talent has voiced, the type of works she has voiced, etc.

The voice acting community is pretty centralized in Tokyo, so once everyone has been cast, we rent out a recording studio in Tokyo and have everyone come in one by one, and we record all their lines. The trick is that since we need to record everyone separately, we need to remember how someone else said one line, to determine how someone else responds. To ensure the best result, you need someone on site who has a clear vision of how each scene will be acted out. In most circumstances, that ends up being me, hah…

Also, an additional challenge is the translation. Translating from English to Japanese is extremely difficult, and sometimes the characterization chosen by the translator doesn’t match my own vision. So the script sometimes needs to be changed on site.

Now, all of this was a learning process, so it took a while until I understood how this worked myself. But I think we’re getting pretty good at it, so I hope our titles will feature more and more Japanese voicing, with the final goal being a fully voiced game with over 100 hours of voiced dialogue.

The background music for Starnova is also excellent; tell us a bit about that.

The original sound track was created by Seycara Orchestral, and composed by Yuang, who is really committed to sky high production values. Yeah, so you really don’t hear the same kind of sounds you hear in the Starnova OST in other Japanese visual novels since most Japanese companies focus on using keyboards and synths, while Yuang used mostly real instrumentation with an incredible level of recording skill and engineering to make everything sound like you’re hearing a live orchestra.

Maybe it’s overkill making an OST this good from scratch, but it’s mostly because I’m a big fan of orchestral soundtracks that this all ends up happening. I think we’re pretty much the only visual novel company in the world who even bothers to use a real orchestra to create entirely custom OSTs. I know Age hired the Warsaw Phil Orchestra for Muv-Luv Alternative a decade ago, but nowadays, everyone uses synths. Still, we do want our games to feel more immersive, so we haven’t been sparing any expenses on the OST.

Starnova has a really huge cast of characters, between Starnova, Quasar, and all of the other side characters. What’s the character design process like? Who’s Ashton’s favorite design out of everyone?

Yeah, I think we have a total of around 27 characters with associated character sprites, which is definitely more than what you see in most visual novel productions. I was really impressed how in Fruit of Grisaia, there’s a huge amount of illustrated characters, so I thought we should have a large cast of characters as well.

Our art process involves multiple artists doing parts of every piece. There’s not an illustration in the entire game which was entirely created by one artist. So to get the process started, I provide a text description of a design I want, as well as providing any reference pictures. From there, one or more contract artists quickly create rough sketches, which are cheap enough to be modified or abandoned without blowing too much of the budget. Once those sketches are approved, they are sent to Ashton, the head illustrator, to be made into game ready assets.

So I was actually the artist in charge of designing the main girls, while the majority of the other rough designs were done by Pastelle, and some done by Haku. My primary consideration for the look of the main girls was A) creating characters resembling our past characters to make it easy for people to pick their new favorites, while still looking new and improved and B) making sure there was ample variation in the design so that each girl felt totally different with no two girl looking too similar. Unfortunately, I’m not a very good artist so my job was quickly taken over by other better artists once the main girls were finished, but thankfully Ashton is such a good artist and managed to translate my early scribbles into the girls we have today, haha.

There are also a lot of different costumes and outfits. The Starnova stage uniforms in particular are really cute. Where’d you get inspiration for all of the different clothes?

Ah yes, it was so much work to come up with outfits for every single girl.

The general idea of the Starnova stage uniform came to me in a moment of inspiration. Sometimes you catch lucky breaks where an idea just comes randomly which ends up working out really well. I can’t really explain what happened there, I just randomly was struck with the vision of a red idol uniform with the girls’ navels exposed by a giant star, and I made a pretty bad sketch of it really quick, and then when I showed it to Ashton, she translated what I saw in my head into reality.

As for the girls’ casual wardrobes, I mostly scoured Japanese fashion magazines to find the right look for each of the girls. I really wanted the game to feel Japanese, so I wanted to nail each of the girls’ looks as something a fashion conscious Japanese idol would wear.

In terms of story, Starnova is a lot darker and focuses more on the kind of sleazy sides of the idol industry, as opposed to the typical bright-and-happy stuff you see in most idol shows. What made you want to take that approach?

What really strikes me as a feature of Japanese entertainment is how the comedic and cute are juxtaposed side to side with situations which only adults would understand. I think this is a result of the fact that in America, animation is always associated with children’s entertainment, so when we see Japanese animation, which target demographics of every variety, it’s striking to see cute and colorful animated characters in stories aimed at people who are in their 20’s and 30’s. Still, I have enjoyed Japanese animation precisely because it is not aimed at the children’s market, but for adults.

Now, yes, there have been many idol shows which are primarily meant to promote a real life quasi-idol group of seiyuus, and there are many things you’re not allowed to show in a product like that. But you know, since Starnova doesn’t have such big corporate funders, we can pretty much do whatever we want, which is great. Our stories have always juxtaposed cute and overly silly situations with black and sometimes depressing stories, so Starnova’s tone is not very different from my past works. The best thing about being an indie is that at the end of the day, you can pretty much create what you want, so it’s important to maintain the vision instead of making safe products which other people are also making. And I say that despite the numerous challenges indies like us face, haha…

Any hints as to what comes next for Love In Space?

If all goes to plan, we will be able to continue to make bigger and greater visual novels! The sky is the limit, my man!

Haha, but really, it’s very challenging to make games as an indie. So it would be amazing if we are able to keep doing what we do best.

Any closing comment or message for fans?

Shining Song Starnova took over twenty people two long years to make. At times, it was an enormous weight to carry. Now that it’s finally coming out, I have no idea what the response to it will be. However, I stand by Starnova as Love in Space’s greatest accomplishment. (That is, until we release our next project, of course!) Starnova’s story isn’t really about idols, but is about regular people who are trying to become something – something we can all relate to, I think. Sometimes, the struggle of the girls in their road to becoming stars was all that kept production on the game going. Please give the girls a chance and support them in their endeavors!

 

Shining Song Starnova is coming soon to steam, there is a playable demo available now on Steam!