My first encounter with Synstoria was through their visual novel, Ballads at Midnight. It was a game jam entry made in no more than one month and had no more than five hours of content, but it left me looking forward to more nonetheless.
At that time, Imperial Grace was already a work-in-progress with an eye-catching itch.io page. A free demo was also ready for download then, but I didn’t actually get around to trying it out until recently. And to my delight, the demo showed similarly much care and effort as I recalled seeing in Ballads at Midnight.
Now that Imperial Grace is nearing its next major event of having a Kickstarter campaign launching early next month, we took the opportunity to interview Ayael, the director of Synstoria. After all, there were a number of things I was curious about after playing the demo — and apparently so was Thomas who kindly helped to conduct the interview. We asked Ayael several questions, covering topics ranging from her experiences as an indie visual novel developer to her decision-making processes behind various aspects of Imperial Grace, and we appreciate Ayael for taking the time to answer our questions candidly.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the following insightful interview we had with Ayael.
Please tell us about yourself and Synstoria.
Hello, I am Ayael, I founded Synstoria two years ago when I decided to create Imperial Grace. I had many projects in mind when I created it, so I wanted something quite broad showing my love for narrative games, so it’s the literal meaning of the name in old Greek, it means “with stories”!
Initially I was alone, and I wrote a detailed outline for the game before recruiting a team. I quickly recruited Arrapso, our lead artist because I loved her work for Made Marion (another otome game I strongly recommend!) then I met Edhie, our editor, she is a French and English native so it was perfect for us because she could proofread both languages. I already knew Jiro from my first project Anoldor so she joined as our translator and I found Pierre our composer thanks to his portfolio. Finally, a dear friend of mine joined to help with the writing and another to help with the management part of the game.
In the end, we have a big team for an indie game but I still do a lot myself: most of the writing and the programming and everything related to UI design and marketing. Besides game development, I am a full-time teacher, so it can be hard to balance everything sometimes, but I am very happy with everything we have accomplished so far!
Currently, Synstoria’s main work-in-progress is Imperial Grace, an otome visual novel/management game. What kind of a story and key features can we look forward to in this title?
Imperial Grace is a political game, so there is a lot of plot and “the realm has a big problem you have to fix” kind of story.
My first outline was really a list of “here is a problem and here is a range of solutions, which one will you choose?”, then I created the characters and worked to make everything more human. The romance is also here for that, but mostly because I am a very romantic person and I just looove when there is romance in games, it really helps me to immerse in the story. Your realm is not a vague entity, it’s a place where people you — hopefully — love and care about live.
I really hope people enjoy the story and love the characters but even if they don’t there are a lot of dilemmas awaiting them. It’s to make the choices even more meaningful and hard we added some (optional) management elements to the game. People tend to play like benevolent rulers, but having limited resources makes this more difficult because you can’t always give money to people asking for it for example. You have to say no sometimes, so it really adds a layer of complexity fully integrated into the story. But I really see it like “a hard mode of the game”, that’s why it’s optional. Sometimes, you just want to enjoy the ride, get immersed in the story, smooch hot characters and that’s all. Both are perfectly valid and it was important for us to offer the option to the player!
Finally, I think people can expect a mature tone, a work of fiction is never neutral, it always says something about the world we live in, and our convictions, Imperial Grace is no exception. I hope people enjoy the LGBTQ+ positivity of our game, and our fight against sexism that is deeper than just “a woman can make a good ruler”.
Regarding LGBTQ+ positivity, can you confirm whether we can romance Asha, along with the male love interests?
Absolutely, we can romance Asha and we have several support characters with different sexual orientations too. They are less open about it because of the medieval society they live in, but it is addressed in the story and we worked with a wonderful sensitivity reader to make them as realistic as possible!
For management games, players are normally not allowed to roll back to a previous choice menu to alter their decisions. The inability to easily swap choices would supposedly make every choice feel weightier. Yet curiously, although Imperial Grace contains a resource management portion, the rollback function is still intact for those parts despite being a “hard mode” (at least in the demo). Are you inclined to keep the rollback function as it is in the full game and why?
I thought about disabling rollback for the player. I am still pondering whether to do an option in the settings for this, but I won’t disable it completely for a simple reason: players know better how they like to play their game.
As game developers, we want them to have a certain experience but in the end, players always find a workaround. If we disable rollback, they will make saves if they want to. It’s just more tedious for them. As a player, I play most of my otome games with a walkthrough to avoid bad endings or I play Dragon Age on easy mode because I am here for the story, not the fight. It’s choices I make, because that’s how I enjoy games the most.
I want the players to be able to experience the game how they want. If they want to stick by their decision they can, if they want to rollback they also can. It’s up to them and they can even change their mind between two playthroughs or in the middle of the game. I like the idea of offering them as much liberty as possible! That’s also why our guide will contain three level of helps: non-spoiler, step-by-step walkthrough, and an in-depth breakdown of each choice and their consequences.
Out of the many exciting aspects of Imperial Grace — from the range of romanceable characters and choices to the intricate in-world politics and resource management — which part did you, as the lead writer, enjoy working on the most?
The romance! It’s clearly the scenes I have the most fun writing because I really love to show the evolution of the relationship and all the different ways to display intimacy between two people. A small gesture, banter, a stare… I love the story too, but it comes less naturally in the writing. I always want to picture the situation as clearly as possible so people can make an informed decision while still keeping things exciting, it’s a bit more tedious to do.
Imperial Grace is originally written in French and then translated by Jiro into English. In what ways has translating this visual novel into another language added to the complexity of the project?
It’s probably one of the decisions I regret the most. When I started the project I wasn’t good enough in English to write in English so it happened naturally but it really makes things more complicated.
Typically the process is Writing > Editing > Translating > Editing. So if we are late on the writing or the editing the translation is late too and since our audience is mostly English, we can’t release the game in French and have an update later for the English version. It’s really a long process, we estimate the French version to be finished by December 2023 but the English version to be ready by March 2024 and that’s because we have a good process where we divided the script into smaller chapters and scenes so we could translate them as we go along but it leaves us little room to go back on an earlier scene to make modifications for example. Another problematic thing is the marketing as I often have to translate the screenshots on the fly if I want to post something on social media.
Finally, I also know we will have a problem if we want to translate the game into more languages because our software will create translation files French to > Other language and not English to Other language.
On the topic of making Imperial Grace accessible to more players, it is a delight to find accessibility options such as a story mode where managing resources is made trivial, the colorblind mode that swaps colors for symbols, and an on/off toggle for erotic scenes. Were there any memorable dilemmas you have faced while implementing certain accessibility options? How were they resolved eventually?
Accessibility features are important, but they take time to implement. For the colour-blind mode, I had to create a new set of icons for all the resources, and then find a way to display them conditionally. It’s also important to know that something that will be helpful for some people will be annoying for others — for example the dyslexic font is a nightmare to read for people who don’t need it. I always weigh everything before adding anything and I rely heavily on the feedback of people using them. Typically, if someone didn’t tell me they couldn’t see the colours of the resources, I wouldn’t have thought about this feature.
For the final game, I want to add an option for people who are light-sensitive because it was brought to my attention that the effect of the parchment opening on the dark background could trigger headaches but it requires modifying the full code so I haven’t the time to do it yet. I also wanted the possibility to increase font size, but it can be tricky because of the textbox size. It’s always a question of time and resources, hopefully there is always nice people to help with the code, I just planned the development on those features in our timeline, like any other features the game can have!
As for the erotic scenes, for me it’s not really a question of accessibility and more a question of consent. Which is something very important for me.
A Kickstarter campaign for Imperial Grace will be launching soon on 5 April. What has been the hardest part for you when it comes to preparing for this Kickstarter?
Administrative stuff. We were lucky to have our publisher Abiding Bridge, to help us with it, but figuring out the budget including the VAT and other taxes, filing the bank information, asking for quotes for the physical goods… It’s clearly another set of skills I am not used to! I also wanted everything to be perfect on the marketing side, so it was very time-consuming to find ideas and execute all the marketing campaign while preparing the page itself. It’s a lot of work and a lot of stress!
One of your planned goals for the upcoming Imperial Grace Kickstarter is to fund the full-body character sprites. It is surely something to anticipate as the character illustrations by Arrapso seen in the demo are all beautifully rendered. Prior to the final character designs we see now, though, which major character has been redesigned the most times? What changes have since been made to their initial designs?
So far, most of our characters stick to their original design, there was only two changes. Theodore who had a glow-up because the artist wasn’t satisfied with his skin tone and his pose and the MC when we decided to let the player customize her appearance. Arrapso really made 4 different faces for each of the skin colour because she wanted the MC to have slightly different features common to those skin tones and not just do a colour swap. Arrapso is really talented at drawing clothes, so it will be a whole new challenge for me to decide between all the sketches what will be the final outfit of the characters, fortunately, our backers will be here to help me decide between the gorgeous proposition!
If budget, time, and feasibility were all not an issue, what are three things you would like to add to Imperial Grace?
In a world where I have no limit, I would have full voice acting in English, French, and Japanese, cinematic scenes for the most important scenes, and a song worth of Disney movie for the climax of the story!
Complementing the pretty art in Imperial Grace is the grand orchestral original soundtrack by Pierre Genaudeau. What is it about Pierre’s music that drew you in and made you want to recruit him for this project?
Music is not my forte, as a director I would say it’s even my weak point as I have a really hard time giving proper direction for it, I just know if I like something or not, explaining why is much harder. I remember I adored the orchestral composition of Pierre in his portfolio, that’s why I contacted him. Initially, I wanted to commission him our trailer music because I wanted something very grand but when we talked about it we completely matched. He liked the story and understood almost instinctively what was the needed vibe for a scene without me having to give much input so it was truly perfect for me!
As seen in the Imperial Grace demo, a summary table of the choices we made is displayed at the end of a chapter. Should we opt in for the online mode, we can additionally view the percentage of players who chose the same choices as us. What inspired you to include such an interesting system to the game?
It was inspired by the Telltale games! They had a similar feature and I always look at the end if people choose like me or not! It’s also a good input for me as a writer, because I can see if a choice option is never taken which might indicate it’s not as interesting as the other for example!
The User Interface (UI) design for Imperial Grace is simply stunning. We were equally impressed by the elegance seen in Synstoria’s NaNoRenO 2022 entry, Ballads at Midnight. Could you share with us what your usual process for UI design is like from conception to implementation, and which stage do you find most challenging?
First thank you very much, it’s always very flattering to know people liked my work! Usually I start by creating the textbox, I think it’s a good ground for the whole UI design because you have to be careful about the readability of it. It’s usually while creating it I pick the colours, the shape, the ornaments, the fonts I will then use in the whole UI to make something coherent. It’s a lot of trial and error, I have a huge database of ornaments and sometime I will try 10 before I found the perfect one, I also spend a lot of time creating the texture of the background. One thing I learned with UI design is that plain colour or patterns are usually not enough, you really have to work on the textures and gradient to give the extra professional vibe and it’s often quite long. I think the part I hate the most is the setting screen, making all the buttons look legible and pretty is really challenging for me.
By the way, if people want to learn UI design there are unfortunately not many resources about it so I want to mention I gave a talk about it during the last VN conf, it’s available for free on Youtube!
Speaking of that, you have participated as a speaker at Visual;Conference a.k.a. VNConf for two consecutive years, giving short informative talks on narrative choices and UI design that no doubt provided your audiences with much food for thought. It is heartening to see your passion for the visual novel medium. We would like to know what you love about the indie visual novel community.
I started programming with 0 knowledge and I learn thanks to the wonderful work of passionate people who created tutorials and answered my questions. I am SO grateful for that truly. Same for the marketing I learn thanks to people’s articles on the web (special shout out to Arimia and Chris from howtomarketagame.com). Overall I think the indie visual novel community is really friendly. I never felt like we are in competition but more like we are in the same boat and we lift each other up? When I started I had 0 followers but more famous dev shared my work, gave me advice, and help me to progress and I see this positive circle all the time! I am really proud to be part of this community and I made many friends in it!
On top of working on Imperial Grace, Synstoria has also participated in NaNoRenO and Spooktober Visual Novel Jam last year. What are some of the experiences gained through the two game jams that you believe have subsequently helped you with the current game’s development?
Releasing two games really helps to anticipate the hurdles of a release, like the bare-bone process of putting a game on a store for example. I think it’s also one of the reasons I am making a Kickstarter to fund full-body sprites. I really enjoyed programming the sprites to make them move around on the screen, I found it adds so much life to the game and I wanted the same thing for Imperial Grace. Overall, working with different teams really helped me to get better as a director, I don’t know if changes a lot for Imperial Grace because we had documents and work habits already established before but it will definitely help for my future projects!
From the time you started developing Imperial Grace until now, what is one moment you are most proud of?
I think it was when we released the demo. I was so proud to finally be able to share publicly all our hard work, and so grateful for the support we received. As a creator we try to dissociate our self-worth to the public reception but it’s not that easy so it was a very important step for us and I am so proud and happy to have a game with such a lovely community.
In the Imperial Grace demo, four tutelary gods were briefly named: Basan, Myriade, Horel, and Amatera. If you must choose one to bless Synstoria’s game development journey, which of the Four would you pick and why?
Myriade! Because she is the one who brings money and success!
Last but not least, where may we find updates on Synstoria’s game projects?
I am the most active on Discord where I share daily progress of the game, but otherwise we have a mailing list you can join to have the most important news! You can also find us on tumblr and Twitter!
Thank you to Ayael from Synstoria for talking with us. If you’d like to check out Imperial Grace, you can back Imperial Grace on Kickstarter when live or sign up for notifications before then.
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A person with many hobbies (and even more WIPs), KuroKairin plays, playtests, and reviews PC games. She loves games with good stories that bring her on an emotional and thought-provoking journey. Her favourite genres include otome visual novel, point and click, puzzle, and RPG. Follow her @KuroKairin.