Using Photographs in Visual Novels

Someone e-mailed me the other day, asking if I had any tips for using photographs in visual novels (as we did for the characters and backgrounds of Cat President). Here’s what I told them:

– As much as you can, try to use your own photos, or your friends’ and family members’ photos, if they’ll let you. It gives the game a more personal feel—two of my favorite restaurants appear in Cat President, for example, along with a few apartments I’ve lived in, my local library, a park near my home, etc. Most of the cat-stars are my friends’ actual, real-life cats. Using photos from my own life gave me a greater sense of ownership over the game, and helps defend it against criticism that I just took everything off the Internet and didn’t do any real work. That said…

Foreground: Michael Gray, Cat President’s writer, looking creepy.
Background: Photo from a trip to PAX East, lightly altered to be a political convention.

 – There are a LOT of great, free resources out there for photos. (And sound effects and music, for that matter.) Pixabay, for one, has thousands of public domain images that don’t even require attribution. Flickr has a lot that you can use, too—you just have to make sure that you’re only searching, specifically, for photos that are licensed for commercial use. On that note…
– When using photos sourced from the Internet, be super, super, super careful about checking the license on the photo. Obviously you can’t just pick the first photo you find on Google Images, because you probably won’t have the rights to it—but there are a ton of images out there listed under Creative Commons licenses. Even within the CC license, you have to be careful only to use those licensed under “CC Attribution,” if you’re making a commercial project. I learned that the hard way when, a few months away from release, I had to swap out around 15-20 backgrounds, because they were licensed under a “CC Sharealike” license, which had some weird implications that I still don’t quite understand. (Like, it’s possible that if I used them, that I would then have to release the entire game itself under a Sharealike license, meaning other people could do whatever they wanted with it.)
I put a lot of work into changing the decor in this restaurant, but we had to cut it because I mixed up the licenses.
– Whether using stock photos or your own, original photos, try to tailor them as much as you can to the game you’re working on. I spent a lot of time going through each individual background in Cat President, looking for ways I could Photoshop them and add more to the scene. That’s why nearly every hotel has a photo of a cat hanging up in the background, for example. Or, there’s a convention scene where all the signs say variations on “FRISKY FOR PRESIDENT”, instead of the corporate logos that were originally on them. Or there was an advertisement in the background of an airport scene that featured a guy in a sweater, and I changed it to a cat in a sweater. Stuff like that further helps you to exercise authorial intent over the scene, instead of just keeping whatever was in the photo when you originally took it. Similarly…
– In Cat President, we weren’t able to play around with the characters having different facial expressions, because 1) the characters were mostly cats, and 2) the human characters were mostly stock photos. That’s something we’re hoping to rectify in future games. For one of the games we’re working on now, we’re hoping to get people to model each of the characters, and take photos of them emoting things like “happy,” “angry,” “sad”—whatever the game calls for. I think this will make the game more expressive and, again, make it look like we actually did something.
Frisky’s wink was one of the few facial expressions we toyed around with in Cat President.
– One of the cool things about using photos for VN backgrounds is that it increases the number of backgrounds you can have in your game dramatically—so take advantage of that and have lots of different places for people to explore. Because we used photographs, we were able to visit 100+ different locations throughout all six pathways of Cat President; the scope of the game would’ve changed dramatically if we were paying out of pocket for each background.
– No matter what you do, you will absolutely, 100% get criticism from random people and professional reviewers alike that your art style is lazy and that the game is stupid and ugly. Even if you took every photo yourself, someone’s going to complain about all the “stock art.” Even if you spend hours tinkering with each photo to get it to fit the scene perfectly, people are going to say that you didn’t do any work. The great thing about using photos is that they’re easy and cheap, and the bad thing is that they look easy and cheap. Taking the above steps will help to mitigate some of these critiques, but they’re still going to happen, so you have to be braced for it.

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