Ebon Light developer, Ahnna, started out her journey in Video Game Land a little differently, but still managed to put together one of the most acclaimed indie titles in her niche. With her “teeny tiny studio” of one, her visual novel saw immediate success and built a hefty following in a very short amount of time. The playthroughs and reviews still get a lot of traffic on YouTube, and the genre still continues to grow, with new visual novels appearing regularly for hungry fans.
If you have ever wondered why visual novels were so popular, you just have to take a look at the fanbase they accrue. We are talking loyal, dedicated fans and communities who love to discuss the inner workings of the deftly created characters and worlds. Ebon Light’s fanbase is no different.
We were keen to find out more about the game’s success, and the developer herself, Ahnna…
“Ebon Light is a dark fantasy visual novel with romantic subplots, lots of choices, a customizable protagonist, and multiple ways to die.”
Hey Ahnna! You started out in game development a little different than most – artwork as a teenager?
Hi! Oh yes, it’s true! The broody elves I used in my visual novel were initially a product of my teenage mind, which I’m sure is very, or not at all, shocking. Art was initially a means to an end, as I had characters and stories I wanted to show my friends and that was the best way for me to do it. I certainly had no idea at the time that I’d eventually make a visual novel with some of those characters back then, but here we are!
Your “teenie tiny little game studio” consists of just you, which is an incredible achievement! Did you also animate the scenes yourself?
Thank you! Yes, I did! In Ebon Light, that was mostly fiddling with rotations and transparency values.
We enjoyed the depth of the story, but most notably, the characters come alive quite effortlessly. Were there any you liked/disliked writing more than others?
Duliae, something of a driving force for the whole story, arguably one of the antagonists and a potential love interest of the main character, was always fun to write. I also loved to write Laceaga, who is just very rude. Writing treachery is very fun. What may be a little interesting is that Vadeyn, one of my oldest characters, was one of the more tedious to write. I wouldn’t say it was difficult, perhaps even the opposite, too easy because he was an idea cemented long ago.
The artwork in the game is sublime; absolutely a requirement for the genre. Can you tell us a bit more about your methods/medium?
Oh, thank you! Originally, it was all drawn in Photoshop with a drawing tablet, but toward the end of development I began to use my iPad with the Procreate app. With digital art, you can hack things up and blend them together again and again until they start to look good, and I think if I were to describe my process, that’d be it.
Since 2019, have you worked on any more games?
I’ve been working on a few ideas, but nothing beyond that, nothing concrete yet!
The game has seen great longevity and had amazing feedback since the beginning. VN fans usually also enjoy the community/discussion around the games. Did you receive any feedback early on in release that made you realize how popular it had become?
I have, yes, and it’s surreal to see so many people enjoying a game I wasn’t sure anyone would play! I’m not sure I had any idea, no, though in retrospect that so many people were willing to wait so long for the final release should’ve clued me in.
One of your fans’ favorite features is the custom character design. Was this difficult to implement from a technical perspective?
It was not difficult, but certainly tedious and time consuming. I think it goes a long way toward immersion, often helping players connect with the main character right off the bat.
Developing such a rich story that weaves between so many moving parts must be extremely difficult?
There were definitely times where I’d get lost (and frustrated) trying to find loose threads, backtracking to connect the dots again and again, certainly a fair bit of chaos. Sometimes I’d get stuck trying to figure out how to write a bridge from one section to another so that it seemed cohesive and smooth, but that was usually a matter of brainstorming for a while and then going with whatever the best idea had been.
What are you most proud of with Ebon Light?
How immersive some say it is for them! If you’d asked me what I wanted Ebon Light to be before it was released, I’d have said an immersive story.
What advice would you give to any aspiring visual novel designers?
I hope this does not seem very obnoxious, but start small, and do what you must to finish it. It doesn’t matter if it’s exactly what you wanted, just finish it. I could’ve saved myself a lot of time and effort if I’d started with a smaller project, and learning to let go of what I wanted Ebon Light to be is probably the only reason I managed to finish it.
Do you have any future visual novel (or other game dev) plans?
I do, yes! I haven’t written off visual novels completely, but I definitely want to try my hand at other sorts of simple story-centric games. Nothing official yet, though.
Right now, somewhere in a bedroom or attic, a Nintendo Game Boy is being found and dusted off. The small screen flittering to life, and the familiarity of the buttons and weight in your hands flooding you with nostalgia. The muscle memory kicking in, and the first game loading up and filling you with a child-like glee. Ah… nostalgia.
From Tetris to Metroid, we all had our favorite Game Boy title, and it is truly heart-warming to see developers not forgetting the handheld – and actually developing games themselves for it. You can play “There’s nothing to do in this town” all the way through in under an hour, either online, or by playing it as an actual ROM on your Game Boy. We had to get an interview with Simeon Smith to find out why he took on the project, how he did it and what the game actually is!
The RPG, “There’s nothing to do in this town”, is a cool little Nintendo Game Boy ROM or browser based game that players can get through in under an hour. What inspired you to make it?
I’ve been making music with Game Boys for over a decade now with my project “donotrunwithpixels” and am always looking at new ways to present my music both live and online. When I saw the GBstudio tool I thought a short RPG would be a cool way to present some of my music, but at the time I played around with it a little but lacked the commitment to the project. Over the Coronavirus lockdown, though, my mental health took a massive dive and I knew I needed a new and all-consuming project to throw myself into to distract myself from all the sh*t going on in the world. This project was perfect for that and aside from my work and family responsibilities I lived and breathed the game for a few weeks.
Are RPGs you favorite genre?
Totally. I’m a massive fan of Final Fantasy, Golden Sun, Zelda and that kind of RPG. I also love fighting games like Street Fighter, Samurai Showdown and Tekken.
How did you get into game development originally?
Originally, originally? My Dad had an old boxy Mac II, back in the mid nineties, and my friend Danny and I would make short point-and-click adventures for each other in HyperCard and swap them on floppies. Since then and until a few months ago, my programming had been limited to musical applications using PureData.
Did Game Boys feature heavily in your gaming arsenal?
Oh yes! It was really the only console I had as a kid. My family moved around a lot and we rarely had much money, but there was always the old Game Boy. Link’s Awakening was what got me hooked, and I then played through Mystic Quest a few dozen times (which I think was called Final Fantasy Adventure in the rest of the world).
What development tools did you use?
When I first saw GBstudio it was like someone had created the software just for me! It’s pretty limited in some regards, but those limitations just encouraged my creativity. MilkyTracker [is] where I made the music, I’ve been using trackers like LSDJ (Little Sound DJ) for the Game Boy and DefleMask for PC for years, so it was kind of second nature.
You created the chiptune in the game yourself. How did you do this?
GBstudio uses a driver called GBTPlayer to get music to work on the Game Boy. Once again, it’s very limited, even for the sounds the Game Boy can produce, but there are templates with all the instruments loaded for you to edit in a tracker into music for the game.
Originally I had wanted to put more music in the game, but the music I was writing was too complex and hanging up on notes when you changed screens. My music usually has a heavy rhythmic element and it just sounded horribly out of time while playing the game. In the end I had to simplify the main theme a lot, so I then pulled out all the stops for the music during the credits, where you can run more complex things. I’m really happy with how it turned out though, and I think all the trouble I had getting the music to fit right with the game paid off.
What are you most proud of with “There’s nothing to do in this town”?
I think the thing I’m most proud of is the town and character design and how cohesive it’s turned out.
The top-down elements and side-on pixel art feel like the same world, and the music feels right for the game. A lot of games have characters that don’t feel like they come from the same game or the music doesn’t quite fit and however proficient the programming is the design of the in-game world just doesn’t seem quite right.
I was really inspired by Link’s Awakening with the little platformer segments that are totally different to the rest of the game but fit so well because of the sprite and background design.
Do you have any advice or tips you could pass on to anyone getting started in Game Boy ROM development?
“A lot of tutorials say things like “Keep it simple” and “don’t try to run before you can walk”. I say f*ck that sh*t.”
Simeon Smith – Developer: There’s Nothing To Do In This Town
Yes – Get yourself a flash cart and play the game on the original system throughout development. It’ll massively help your player experience and give you a different perspective on the game.
Also, a lot of tutorials say things like “Keep it simple” and “don’t try to run before you can walk”. I say f*ck that sh*t.
If you’ve got an idea and the passion to make the project happen it’ll be a better game if you throw every idea into it and obsess over every detail. That’s not saying it should be complicated, but don’t compromise your vision just to get things done in an easy way.
What are your future plans for game development?
Now I’m familiar with the tools I’d love to make a longer RPG, but I need to come up with a great storyline for it. I think of the most impactful moments in RPGs I’ve played like the Ghost train in Final Fantasy VI and they’re all based around an incredible storyline where you get really emotionally connected to the characters. That’s what I need to find for my next game.
I’m also always making music and now I have the experience of getting my music into a game made in GBstudio would love to contribute my music to other people’s games. I’ve noticed a few games on the platform with little or no music and it’s a real disservice to otherwise great games.
So, yeah, if you’re developing a cool project and want some classic 8bit music, hit me up!
What games (indie or mainstream) are you looking forward to seeing released and playing this year?
I’m looking forward to playing The Survivalists with my 10 year old. Spiritfarer looks like my kind of jam too.
It’s the apocalypse, and you are running for your bunker; you can only grab ONE game (not your own!) to play as the world crumbles around you, for a long, long time… what’s the game?
I’ve been playing Street Fighter II Turbo for decades now and I’m still not bored with it. I think that’d have to be it.