Ebi-hime is one of the most inspiring VN authors. Specialising in two very niche genres – Yuri and “Grim” VNs, the creator behind the likes of Sweetest Monster, Blackberry Honey, and Strawberry Vinegar has been incredibly prolific for years now: the Steam creator’s page features 26 games alone, with four more on the way, and that doesn’t include some that have not been released on Steam for one reason or another (such as the recently-released sequel to Sweetest Monster, which was banned from the platform).
As an indie creator, Ebi-hime is responsible for everything, from organising the art and music, to writing the things, promoting and publishing them. It’s a lot of work, and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain the kind of enthusiasm needed to work at this rate over such a long period of time.
We sat down for a long and in-depth interview on all facets of the indie VN gig, from where so many ideas can come from, at such a great rate, right through to the challenges of being an indie and at the whim of overlords like Steam.
You’re one of the most prolific independent game developers of all time! There are dozens of games from you on Steam, as well as the stuff that you haven’t been able to publish there. How have you kept your motivation going strong across all of these releases?
I’m not sure if I’m the most prolific game developer out there, but if I am, that’s probably (in part) because visual novels are simpler to create than a lot of other games. I don’t mean to diminish visual novels as a medium in any way (I love VNs and I read a lot of them in my spare time), but they require less manpower to put together than, say, a 3D platformer with wholly unique assets would, and they can be built with a much smaller team.
Visual novels can be tricky (and expensive) to create depending on how much art and music you need, and how ambitious you want to be (some Japanese VNs are upwards of one million words long, with hundreds of unique art pieces, and they’re fully voice acted), but the visual novels I make tend to be rather small in scope, and they can be created rather easily with a tiny team.
…In any case, I keep creating visual novels because it’s something I enjoy a lot! I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was very young. It’s a hobby I adore, so it’s rather easy to keep my motivation up.
I’m very thankful to everybody who supports me as I share my silly and self-indulgent stories with the world. It really does mean a lot to me! I’m sure the younger me, who used to write Pokemon fanfiction, would be thrilled to know I was able to keep writing, and there are people out there who actually want to read it!
Can you give me an idea of your creative process?
My creative process is rather simple! It goes something like this:
Get an idea → write idea down in a word doc → let idea sit for a bit to see if I like it → maybe combine ideas, adding or discarding elements until I’ve hit upon something I like (this can take several years) → write down a detailed breakdown of this idea, including information about the characters I’d like to include and a bullet point list of all the scenes I want to add → start writing the idea. And that’s about it!
I tend not to write more than one script at any one time, so I can focus fully on the story at hand, though I will juggle multiple scripts on occasion if I’m inspired enough. Sometimes I’ll write a ‘main story’ during the weekday, then a side story on the weekends, depending on my mood.
How long it takes me to finish a first draft of any story depends, but for shorter stories (sub 50k or so) the initial writing process can take about a month, while for longer stories (in the 80k+ range) it can take two or three months.
I’m rather fast at writing initial drafts, because that’s my favourite aspect of creating visual novels, but the editing and proofreading can take a bit longer because it’s more technical. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my writing (and yet, despite that, I make so many typos lol) and I’ll sometimes rewrite individual sentences seven or eight times until I’ve sufficiently ‘polished’ them.
I can get so caught up in the minutiae of swapping words around and rewriting sentences, however, I lose track of the bigger picture, haha ;;; I get so hung up on my writing being ‘pretty’, the overall pacing of my stories can be a bit wonky, but I’m working on that!
I tend not to commission art or music for my projects until I’ve finished the first rough draft of the script, so I know exactly how many assets I need. This also prevents me from getting excited about a project, commissioning a bunch of assets for it, and then losing steam and failing to finish. I feel a lot more secure in my projects coming to fruition when I’ve already done the bulk of the work before getting assets!
What is it about the visual novel medium that you love so much?
I first became aware of visual novels when I read the Umineko series by Ryukishi07. I was instantly drawn in by the usage of the colourful character artwork, the sound effects, and the evocative soundtrack (Umineko has a really great OST. You should check it out: it’s very robust, and a lot of the songs are very atmospheric!). I thought it all enhanced the story and it made the high-stakes nature of it feel even more intense.
I’d never heard of visual novels before I encountered Umineko, but I appreciated how it married traditional storytelling with more ‘cinematic’ elements (the art and the OST) – and, if I’m being honest, since I’m a weeb, I liked how ‘anime’ elements of it were, what with some of the more ‘out there’ character designs and the over the top shounen fight scenes.
Umineko was a lot of fun all around, and I enjoyed it a lot!
I enjoyed Umineko so much, in fact, it inspired me to make my own visual novels. I’ve always loved reading and writing, but visual novels seemed more appealing than books to me because the visual aspects of the medium would let me show off exactly how I want my characters to look – and, as a lot of VNs are anime-adjacent and have more anime art styles, I thought it’d be a good excuse to be self-indulgent and write more deliberately ‘anime’ than you’d expect to find in a traditional novel.
I really like writing stories about cute girls, and visual novels seemed like a good fit for that, basically!
You’ve worked with so many different artists, too. What do you look for in an artist for visual novels, and how do you try to work with them to balance your ideas with their own creative approach?
I try to match the art styles of my projects to the tone of the story, the setting, and the writing style. To use my own projects as examples: My Dear Prince is a very cute, light romance story set in modern-day Japan, that’s full of anime tropes, so I decided to go for a very anime art style with a lot of bright colours to complement it. The characters have very cutesy designs, too, with a lot of gingham and flowing ribbons.
Salome’s Kiss, meanwhile, is quite a dour historical story set in Victorian England, with a more measured writing style that’s evocative of gothic horror novels like The Woman in White or Wuthering Heights (at least, that was my intention). Since Salome is akin to a period drama, I opted for an artist who draws in a more semi-realistic painterly style, and the colour palettes in the character designs and in the backgrounds are rather dark and brooding.
I can be rather choosy about what artists I work with, and I sometimes take a while to pick out the ‘perfect’ artist for each project, but I think it’s been working well so far!
Are there any particular sources outside of games that inspire you?
I don’t tend to be inspired by games very often, actually, largely because I don’t play a lot of them (unless you count VNs as games, which is a common point of contention…)
I’m not a big fan of anything with actual gameplay that you can lose, particularly if there’s a story attached, because I tend to be more invested in the story than the surrounding gameplay, so I get annoyed if the gameplay is too difficult or tedious and it gets in the way.
Most of my inspiration comes from books (I actually read more books than VNs), though I also pull inspiration from anime, movies, song lyrics, anecdotes my friends have told me, or my own life experiences. I’ve even gotten ideas from random remarks friends have made while I’m talking to them (case in point: one of my friends mentioned offhand they wanted to read a BL vampire story, and I wound up writing one over the next month because it seemed like a fun idea).
Inspiration comes from everywhere! I enjoy getting struck by random ideas (though I wish it wouldn’t happen when I’m about to go to sleep, because then I need to reach for my laptop and jot the ideas down while I still remember them, haha…)
It’s tough at the best of times to work as an independent game developer, but I’ve got to say that it does feel like people who make “anime” style games struggle the most, as they’re only ever on decision away from a ban on Steam. Without that, the game’s probably not going to break even. Does this concern you as you produce games, and how do you try and work with such conditions?
This generally isn’t an issue for me, as a lot of the visual novels I write don’t include R18 content, or even particularly fanservicey content. If you look at visual novels of mine such as Nothing & Nowhere or The Mermaid of Zennor, for example, they’re completely devoid of anything even remotely titillating, so I wasn’t particularly concerned about those.
As for the instances when I do write visual novels with R18 content, I’m generally very explicit in the narrative about the ages of the characters involved (for example, Letitia and Genevieve in Salome’s Kiss are 24 and 19, respectively; both Mitsuki and Kyouko in The Language of Love are in their early twenties; Safiya from Ashes is in her 40s), which makes them a little more Steam-friendly than a lot of the visual novels out there that are set in high school.
Sweetest Monster Refrain was the outlier here, as this is a visual novel with R18 content that features a younger-looking heroine. There is a plot-relevant reason for this, and I don’t think any of the sex scenes in SMR are particularly salacious (they’re all rather short, the art doesn’t show anything explicit, and they’re focused more on the main character’s internal narration than what is physically occurring), but I suppose whoever reviewed it on Steam didn’t think the story I wanted to tell was appropriate for the platform, so oh well.
I don’t think SMR’s ban was justified, given Sweetest Monster, its prequel, was allowed on the platform and is still on there, to this day, despite being more explicit content-wise, but I don’t make the rules.
… In any case, while SMR’s ban was unfortunate, I’d like to think this won’t happen to any of my future stories, as – like I mentioned before – I don’t write a lot of R18 stories in the first place, and when I do write R18 content I do so with adult characters.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to produce their first visual novel?
I’d give the same advice most game developers would give anybody wanting to work on any project for the first time: to start small, and to not spend too much money on it.
My first visual novels were all short, free projects which I developed on my own, without spending a single penny. I did all the writing, proofreading, and coding myself, used filtered photo backgrounds, free-for-use character sprites (there are quite a lot of cheap or free anime-styled character sprite packs available on Itch.io if you take a look), and stock music.
By doing this, I was able to teach myself the skills needed to actually finish a project, and these early releases might have helped me build an audience for my later commercial works.
While it’s good to be ambitious, I do think, if you start off with a project that’s very large in scope, or very expensive to produce, you might run the risk of burning yourself out – and it would be very unfortunate if a beginner dev was to sink several hundreds (or thousands!) of pounds worth into their first project, only to later realise they don’t particularly enjoy making visual novels in the first place.
Have you ever considered producing games outside of VNs, or stories outside of games – writing a book, perhaps?
I’ve never really considered trying to make anything with gameplay before (like, say, a stat raiser or an RPG) because this would be a lot pricier to produce than a visual novel, and I’m not sure if I would find it personally fulfilling. As I mentioned above, I don’t play a lot of games, so I have no real interest in making one of my own. I’ve dropped visual novels which had narratives I genuinely enjoyed because they included very minor gameplay elements which annoyed me (I’m looking at you, Shikkoku no Sharnoth), so I’d rather steer clear of anything like that in my own personal work.
I wouldn’t be opposed to writing books, though. The writing aspect is definitely my favourite part of creating visual novels, and I’ve had people tell me my prose tends to read more ‘novel-ish’ than ‘visual novel-ish’ because of my fondness for describing character appearances and landscapes. A lot of visual novels will cut this out, as these extraneous descriptions aren’t strictly necessary when you have art to illustrate your point, but I’ll never get tired of describing eerie marshes or starry skies!
I think it would be very rewarding to publish a book at some point, but traditional publishing looks like a bit of a nightmare to navigate, and I’m unsure how successful I would be if I self-published anything. It’s something I’ve considered, though!
Across all of the games that you’ve produced are there any particular moments or titles that you’ve been most proud of, and why?
I’m quite critical of most of my work, as some of my readers might know, if they read the author’s notes I include in a lot of my works. I do tend to mention aspects of my stories which didn’t quite pan out the way I wanted. We are all our own worst critics (though that mightn’t be a wholly accurate adage, what with some of the reviews I’ve gotten on Steam), and there’s always room to improve!
My favourite visual novel I’ve created purely in terms of the writing style, plot, and characters would have to be All Ashes and Illusions, though. I won’t go into too much detail, but I think Yuel, the lead of Ashes, is a pretty well-realised character with a lot of depth to him…
And he’s very cute too, which doesn’t hurt!
In terms of aesthetics, meanwhile, I think Salome’s Kiss might be my favourite of all my titles. I think the character art, provided by the very talented Rock CR, is utterly gorgeous. The character designs are all delightfully gothic, even if they are a bit over the top and not wholly period appropriate, and they work so well with the detailed backgrounds.
I think Salome’s UI is very nice and clean, too (the stark black and white design works well with the gloomy story and setting), and the music really helps set the scene.
I think Salome’s story is pretty derivative (it’s a very paint-by-the-numbers gothic romance story featuring a lot of tired tropes you’ve probably read before, especially if you’re familiar with Sarah Waters’s work), but it looks and sounds gorgeous! Everybody involved did a fantastic job bringing it to life: I feel very honoured to have worked with everybody!
Finally, with the Sweetest Monster sequel out now, what might we expect from you next?
I’m working on several visual novels at the moment (don’t ask me how many, because I’ve lost count, haha…) but I’m hoping to release a short, free yuri visual novel on Christmas this year to thank all my readers who’ve stuck by me for such a long time!
This visual novel doesn’t have a title just yet (because I’m terrible at thinking of titles, haha; I always tend to leave it to the last minute), but it’s a sweet story about a couple of schoolgirls working on an otome VN together. The story takes place in Japan in the early 2000s, so I decided to go for a bit of an ‘old-school’ doujin feel, with an 800×600 display, filtered photo backgrounds, and stock music. It seemed appropriate, given the story is about a couple of girls making their own indie VN without any funding.
In addition to this, I’m working on a few commercial VNs which are relatively close to being completed, including a sequel to my 2020 yuri VN The Fairy’s Song titled The Fairy’s Secret, which I’m hoping to release in January or February this year.
I hope everybody’s looking forward to it!
(Note: This interview originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of the Dee Dee Zine. See here for why we’ve put a hold on publishing this magazine.)