After my review on Sanguine Rose, I felt that I there was more to this topic. In order to see this from a developer’s perspective, I asked Dusky Hallows developer team for an interview.
Q: Please describe yourself and your game in a few sentences for people who didn’t know you and Sanguine Rose!
A: Of course! We’re Duski and Hallows, and together we are the indie adult dev team Dusky Hallows. Yes Duski and Dusky are spelled differently, and it is an endless source of confusion. Duski handles everything visual in our projects and does most of the aesthetic broad strokes work for the world and characters, while Hallows handles the programming, the more detailed world-building, and the bulk of the writing which makes it to the final product.
Our most well known project is Sanguine Rose, which we’ve seen described as a dark fantasy, an erotic visual novel, a psychological thriller, and ‘Alien’ but with porn.
There’s a bit of truth to all of these we think, but it’s mostly a story about compromise. The story begins with your band of mercenaries kidnapping an extraordinarily powerful woman for a suspicious employer, and things quickly begin to fall apart. Your prisoner uses every tool at her disposal to win you over to her side, and the question of who is really in control, and whether you can get everything you want, is called into question. There’s a lot of fucking too, so there’s something for everyone.
Q: What made you get into game development and how did you end up making erotic games?
A: Like a lot of people we had creative aspirations from a relatively early age. Duski had her eyes set on making a comic, and Hallows wanted to write a novel or screenplay. Really we both liked the idea of making a game, but any ideas were very much just concepts written on paper. When we met we realised our skills could compliment one another, and by that point Hallows had picked up some programming knowledge for unrelated reasons, so we started brainstorming ideas on games. They were big, and ambitious, and not something we could realistically pull off. They weren’t sexual either, but we were no strangers to games with sexual content, and so one day Hallows brought the idea up and we ran with it. It was honestly a sort of natural conclusion once it was out in the open. We’d both enjoy making it, even if neither of us had much experience in the specific genre, and the industry was young enough that it’d be a lot easier to get noticed and bring in some financial support. Money isn’t everything, but it’s easier to draw with the lights on.
Q: Was Sanguine Rose intended to be a psychological mind-game from the beginning or did you take the project in that direction later in development?
A: That’s a tough one to answer. We did a lot of initial planning for Sanguine Rose to try and manage the scope of it and keep the assets within a range we could handle, so there were these long conversations and brainstorming sessions where we considered our options. Something we kept coming back to was we wanted the sexual content to feel organic, so we started with General Valentine, your prisoner. Power dynamics have a broad appeal sexually, so it sort of established a range of kinks while also giving us that initial catalyst we needed for all the eroticism to feel grounded. We didn’t want the sex to feel too one-sided. Maybe there’s a fun game about a band of mercenaries taking turns with their helpless prisoner, but those stakes felt too low, so we tried flipping it. She’s trying to seduce the mercenaries, and they’re trying (and often failing) to resist because she’s dangerous and they don’t want any complications. The psychological mind games sort of followed from there naturally. So it wasn’t in the initial plans, but there was never a big pivot. Even in our first concept demo Carmen Valentine was already shaping up to be a force to be reckoned with.
Q: Adult game developers often make the mistake of creating too many characters for their first game and then failing to manage them story-wise. Was it a deliberate consideration to have fewer characters but have them well written?
A: This is a great question for us, and the short answer is yes. Part of the planning we mentioned earlier was keeping locations and characters to a minimum. Something we felt confident we could finish. Sanguine Rose is a game with quite a few moving parts, and little interactions could have huge consequences later. More characters would mean either a lot more work, or compromising on the consequences, and it felt like a stronger approach to go for a small cast of really fleshed out characters with slightly conflicting motivations than to go for a huge harem of cookie cutter tropes. That’s not to say the latter is bad, or that there aren’t plenty of options in between, but for the story we wanted to tell it felt like a small cast of characters who developed differently in different routes would work best. Interestingly enough, because of the radically different ways the game can go, sometimes characters behave in radically different ways too. It’s a game where you’re always working off of partial information, and that goes for the characters too, and we love seeing how people’s opinions change on specific characters the more times they play the game.
Q: During creation, creators usually grow even more attached to their characters than the players. What do you think of the situation where a creator favors one or two characters, does it have a bad influence on the game as a whole?
A: This is something we’ve been accused of, and there’s some truth to it. It’s hard to say whether it harms the final result, but it’s no secret that certain characters are favoured in certain ways. Crow, the petite half-orc on your mercenary team who is seeking adventure, excitement, and romance, has a lot more relevance to the plot than she necessarily needs to, and makes up about half the sexual content on her own. Aside from being a character we love to cast in sex scenes, she’s also probably the most popular among fans, so in that regard it probably helps the final product, but it’s still a criticism we’ve received from people who wish Glasha, your closest ally, had more sex scenes. Glasha, for those who don’t know, is also a half-orc, but more of the bear-fighting type than Crow. We’ve also been accused of liking Carmen too much to let her lose, but this isn’t exactly the case. Winning and losing are relative things in Sanguine Rose, and there’s plenty of endings which Carmen considers failures. In the end, whether something is good or bad mostly comes down to who does the judging. You can’t please everyone all the time, after all.
Q: I personally felt the writing was very strong in Sanguine Rose. Did writing fantasy give you more artistic freedom or can we expect the same level of quality telling stories in different genres too in the future?
A: Thank you! This is another tricky one. When we first started working on Sanguine Rose, Game of Thrones was still at the height of its popularity, and dark fantasy had this raw appeal to it. We spent a lot of time building out our world and the political factions within it almost to fill the gap left behind whenever a season finished. We didn’t have any specific experience or preference for fantasy, that was just where are heads were at. However, as the project went on, we both started growing hungry to make something very, very different. And now we get that opportunity. In our current project comedy plays a much bigger role (although there’s still some schemes and deep conversations thrown in too), but we’re hopeful the writing will be seen as just as strong, even with the huge shift in genre. Ultimately that’s for the audience to decide, though.
Q: Do you have a personal preference for lewd and sex scenes or is it more influenced by the nature of the story?
A: A little of column A, and a little of column B. It probably goes without saying that we’re both pretty sexually open and explorative people, so we’re not ones to shy away from dressing a scene up with one kink or another, or adding sex simply because there can be sex. We bring our own biases to that too. The dark Gods which gifted Duski with her artistic talents will revoke them if she doesn’t draw anal sex half the time, and Hallows is of the firm belief that the most exciting foreplay is a long-winded monologue. The type of story matters too, though. We’re both into tabletop as well, and neither of us has any interest on integrating sex into the worlds we build or play in (or at least, not the present ones). If we had a hill to die on, it’s that variety is good. There should be stories with passionate fucking, and there should be stories completely absent of sexual tension, and there should be a bunch of stories in between. People fuck, but they don’t fuck all the time, and our fiction should reflect that.
Q: What’s your development process like? I’m curious how you share the workload. What are the most efficient parts and what is the most time-consuming task?
A: Our process has changed a lot over time. It’s difficult in a two-person team where we share everything equally to decide if and when one of us is going to take charge of a particular scene. We tried at times to draft out the broad strokes of a scene together, then go away and write and draw it respectively, only to find that minor communication errors now meant the art and writing didn’t match up. Parallel development is definitely not our strong suit. Our process tends to work best when we brainstorm together, land on some broad ideas of how a scene can play out, and then Hallows will make a more detailed outline, Duski will edit it and decide for herself what the accompanying art will look like, and then Hallows will busy himself with something else while Duski draws the feature artwork for a scene. Once all the art is finished, Hallows will write the first real draft of the scene. We’ll go over it together, make some edits, clean it up, then put it all together. We’re at our best when we stagger out multiple scenes like this, so Duski will be drawing scene B while Hallows is writing up scene A and drafting the outline for scene C. It’s not always especially efficient, but we learn as we go and try to make adjustments. The most time-consuming task is probably Duski drawing. She’s adopted some techniques over time to speed up her process but quality art will always take time. It’s hard to say what the easiest task is. Maybe character design. That’s usually a lot of fun for both of us.
Q: Unfortunately, it is still uncommon that developers finish an adult game once it has been started, but you did it. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that you can apply to make a new game?
A: Ambition is a great motivator starting out, but it’s a killer once the initial thrill is over and the weight of the work sets in. Most games fail simply because they were too ambitious for the creators to pull off. Neither of us had ever made something as ambitious as Sanguine Rose before, so we aimed low. We aimed for something we were completely sure we could manage, and we still ended up readjusting our scope mid-project and ending the game on day 3 instead of day 7. Maybe we could have toughed it out, but long projects carry risks. You’re probably going to get better at your craft as you progress, we definitely did, so you end up going back over previous content and wanting to redo it. Bring it back up to par with the present content. You get burned out making the same thing over and over. So here’s the big lesson: You have to finish. Accept that you’re going to finish at the start, and make something you can actually finish. Identify in advance what you can cut if it gets too daunting. Know where you’re aiming for so you don’t get stuck trying to tie things up. You don’t have to know exactly how to end the project, but you need to know when the ending is, and you need to be confident you can make it to that ending. Our current project is the far more ambitious than Sanguine Rose. It might take us a while and we might have to cut a lot, but we know where the ending is, and that’s a huge help.
Q: Speaking of finishing a game, how does it feel to complete a project? What are the following months like afterward?
A: Surreal. There’s never really a point where you’re definitely finished. That kind of contradicts what we just said, but what we mean is that you can always go back and add more to it. You can clean up assets, you can edit dialogue, you can polish it. We’ve talked before about how we intend to add bonus content to Sanguine Rose if the mood ever strikes us. Finishing for us is when we allowed ourselves to move on and work on something else, without feeling like more work had to be done. This is the last drawing. This is the last sentence. That kind of thing. The following months were like this huge weight being lifted, but it still hung above our heads. Positive reviews sometimes had this desire for more content, and while it’s a rule of creating content that you should stop while your audience is still hungry for more, it was tempting to add more. Negative reviews were much the same. Often we could just move past it, but sometimes someone would point out a legitimate flaw. Something which we felt an obligation to go back and fix. We had feedback from other devs as well, both before and after release, and some of it we incorporated, and some of it, while valid, we didn’t. There was this feeling like if we didn’t detach ourselves from it, we might never be able to.
At some point we just had to step back and be proud of what we’d made, rather than worry over whether it could be even better. And we are proud of Sanguine Rose. Immensely so. Neither of us have ever completed something of this size before, and our hope is that it can serve as a delightful appetiser for what we make next.
Q: What kind of game will Joystick Bliss be, the project you currently have under development?
A: Duski is a chaotic being and Joystick Bliss is largely a vehicle for her to paint the most outlandish scenarios and characters her mind can muster. Hallows is along for the ride to ensure each of these beautiful neon gremlins have dialogue as sharp as their looks. Joystick Bliss is something of a genre mashup, a love letter to nineties and noughties culture, a pastiche of arcade aesthetics, and an escapist fantasy grounded in the most elusive of fantasies: Having a bunch of friends you see on a regular basis and sometimes fuck. We have some mindfucks planned, but on the whole the goal is fun. Sanguine Rose played off of some of the darker aspects of the human psyche and sexuality, so Joystick Bliss is going the complete opposite direction. You’re a professional gamer of modest repute who travels to the mysterious town of Burgville, where a tournament centered around the eponymous arcade, Joystick Bliss, is taking place. You find the town is full of “horny twenty-something year olds” fighting it out with weapons fashioned from arcade paraphernalia and fucking each other’s brains out, but something or someone is threatening to disturb this obvious utopia, and so you’re tasked with winning the tournament and saving the town. Like we said, very nineties inspired.
Q: I see that animation is slowly becoming almost a requirement for 2D CG games too, like it has been a staple for the 3D CG VNs for a while now, for example. Did the inclusion of animation influence the art design of Joystick Bliss?
A: It’s definitely something we’ve experienced, the pressure to add animation, and we’ve done so with mixed success in Sanguine Rose. Our initial plan for JB was to have lots of idle animations, but we’ve lowered our sights since then. Maybe when we’re mid development and have the money to splash on animators we’ll return to it, but as it stands any animations are made by a combination of our efforts, mostly Duski’s, and usually take up more time than they’re worth. We have added a lot of motion to things like the dialogue boxes though, and intend to continue that trend, even if images are still predominantly static.
Q: I must ask the question that almost every developer hates: When will you release the first version of Joystick Bliss?
A: It feels like every time we answer questions like this we’re wrong. Game development is notoriously tricky, and JB especially so has a variety of content that we want to include in any demo. The first release will be whenever we feel there’s enough to show, and who knows when that will be, but what we can say is that we’ll have something playable out in Winter. It likely won’t be the first release, but it’s a release we’re confident can’t be missed.
Q: Although it might be easier in 2021 to create a game with sexual content compared to several years ago, it’s still a niche market. The adult games industry still has to fight against prejudice and struggles to grow. What is your take on that?
A: It feels like in the last fifteen years, but especially since the advent of Patreon, adult games have gone from being fairly homogeneous to incredibly diverse. It’s gone from a handful of short flash games with nudity and questionable writing to an industry containing everything from breeding sims, to metroidvania inspired games with sex scenes, to dense visual novels, and so on. There’s definitely still a prejudice and stigma around them, but the diverse amount of content is a huge strength and it feels like we’re getting more normalized with each year.
When we started, we didn’t consider selling Sanguine Rose because we didn’t think we’d ever be able to, and now sales from Steam keep the lights on.
That’s frankly incredible, but also somewhat intimidating. As the industry grows, so to does the competition, and there’s definitely a pressure to not fall behind all the impressive talent entering the scene. A rising tide lifts all boats, though, and there’s a lot of shared successes that come with each new title bringing more people into our niche.
Q: Is there anybody you would like to thank for support or help during development?
A: Obviously our patrons, from those who gave us $1 three years ago to those who supported us all the way through Sanguine Rose’s development, to the people just starting now. PR isn’t really either of our strong suits, so the Patreon isn’t as polished as some teams, but we always appreciate the support we receive. We have some regulars on our Discord server who are also more help than they probably realise. On a rational level we know that tens of thousands of people have played our game and enjoyed it, but that’s just numbers on a screen. Talking to people who enjoy the content we put out satisfies a kind of narcissistic insecurity that I think most creators have to some extent. We’re not the most sociable of people, so we’re grateful to other devs who’ve reached out to network with us. We’ve made some great connections that way that were a source of advice, mutual appreciation, and a place to vent about some of the stresses that come with the job. We weren’t with our publisher, Tinyhat Studios, during development, but they were an enormous help when it came to releasing the game on Steam, and helping us with promotional things which we’re clueless on. There’s probably more people we’re forgetting right now, but we’re grateful to pretty much everyone who’s ever spoken to us about Sanguine Rose or spoken about Sanguine Rose publicly.
Q: And finally, do you have anything else you want to add?
A: Not really, just thanks for reaching out! If anyone reading this has any other questions about us, our studio, or our projects: We’re on Twitter, itch.io, Steam, and Patreon, so we’re pretty easy to contact, and we generally respond to questions. We hope this has been an interesting read for any fans, and if it’s your first time hearing about Sanguine Rose, go check it out, some people think it’s pretty good and we’re two of them.