An open house, a haunted mansion, and seven different characters make for a frightening visual novel in The Letter. In it, players will navigate the relationships of all of these characters, breaking or making friendships and romances while trying to stay alive as unnatural things start to come back to life.
Siliconera reached out to Danni Ann Taylan, director of The Letter, to learn more about the challenges they’re facing in creating a visual novel where players can control and shape the relationships of seven characters, as well as the work they did in creating frightening, potentially-lethal situations for those characters to escape.
What drew you to tell a story of seven people escaping a frightening mansion? What’s the idea that made you feel you needed to create The Letter?
Danni Ann Taylan of YangYang Mobile, Director of The Letter – As fans of the horror and visual novel genre, we’ve noticed that there are only a few horror-themed visual novels out there (the really good ones, at least). We wanted to contribute somehow, and using J-Horror as an inspiration, we slowly built the premise of the game.
We wanted the game’s setting and its characters to be as realistic/believable as possible, so it wouldn’t be too hard for the players to put themselves into the characters’ shoes. As for the story itself, we picked a known cliché (haunted mansion) and decided to play around it, how we can make it stand out by adding our own twists and turns to it. Hopefully we succeeded in telling a gripping tale!
What challenges do you face in finding uses and places for seven different characters within the game’s world? In making it so players will be drawn to all of them?
Since there are seven characters, we had to make sure that all of them will have an equal contribution to the story’s overall plot. There’s only so much important things/events/discoveries we could add in the game without making it bloat with (too much) information, and dividing said important things among the cast was quite a challenge without making one character outshine the rest.
We also needed to make sure that everything was flowing smoothly without gaps or loopholes, especially since the story was being told non-chronologically.
These characters will be in danger as players go through the game. What sort of horrors can players expect to face, and how will they escape/avoid them?
Apart from the obvious, horrific creature (“ghost”) that was seen in the game’s demo, we also placed heavy emphasis on psychological horror. There are moments in the game wherein a character’s past will come back to haunt them, and the only way to escape the various horrors of The Letter is by making the correct choices. It’s up to the player’s instinct to know what they are.
Since this is a horror game, no matter what happens, it’s impossible for the characters to leave unscathed (be it physically, emotionally, or mentally).
Still images show some frightening creatures. What thoughts go into the art for them? In making an image or creature that instantly unsettles the player?
Our primary inspirations for our “ghost” were Sadako from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. Of course, we also had to make sure she’s not a carbon copy of the two, and we had a lot of revisions as to how we wanted our very own “ghost” to look like; what kind of “uniqueness” or “twist” we’ll put in her to make her stand out. We wanted her to have black hair, be bloody, gory, and most of all, we wanted her to have eyes that can see right through your soul.
In the end, it was our players/the community who decided for us. From the two final studies we had (uncanny ghost & zombie-like ghost), we placed a survey online and asked the community what they thought was the most frightening/unsettling. The uncanny study won by a landslide, so that is now the version we’re using in the final game.
You’ve mentioned that there are quick-time events. How will these work? How do you feel they add tension to already frightening situations?
The QTEs serve as a direct confrontation with the entities found in The Letter. They are a matter of life and death, and depending on the character you’re playing, the reaction to these events are varying. We aimed to have different gameplay for each QTE, and we structured the mechanics and its overall theme based on the characters’ backstory, emotion, or situation for more impact.
Why did you choose to make them optional?
Since the release of our alpha demo, the QTE feature has always garnered a mixed reaction from our players. Some players loved the added tension, while others commented that the QTEs break their immersion from reading. To compromise, we decided to just make them optional.
When not horrified, what sort of connections will players be able to make with the other characters? You mention mending/breaking relationships, so how does that work?
Players would be able to know the characters on a deeper, personal level, and ultimately understand their goals and motivations – what they really think of the other characters in contrast to how they act in front of them.
At the beginning of the game, each character has initial or starting relationship points with one another. Some are higher than others, while some are lower. Depending on the choices made by the players as the game progresses, it is possible for them to make the best of friends turn on each other, inevitably ruining their friendship, or save an already rocky relationship from collapsing.
It is also possible for two characters who don’t have a pre-existing relationship to form a friendship or even a romantic link at the end of the game. It really just depends on the route and choices players decided to take.
What made you choose to tell the story out of chronological order?
Since the game is told in seven perspectives, we thought narrating things in a non-chronological fashion will be most interesting and will make for the most replayability. It also gives us leeway to play with the characters and the events of the game. We structured the story as kind of like a puzzle, and each missing piece is slowly being revealed as the story goes on.
For example, there will be moments in the game wherein you will feel confused by how a character is reacting to a certain situation, and then later on when you get to their story, you will understand that something had happened before that made that character behave the way he/she did.
What difficulties do you face in allowing player choice to affect how the game plays out? In keeping track of decisions and making them matter?
The most challenging aspect are keeping track of the hundreds of conditions that arose due to the freedom we gave to the players. Players have full control over who will live and who will die in the game, not to mention their relationship status with one another. There are so many possible combinations and we have to make sure all of them have been accounted for.
In fact, there are times wherein our programmers had to readjust the branch tree system’s UI in order to fit certain scenes; because the conditions we had to check exploded on our faces!