Indieview #13 — Brian Trieu, Game Developer

Welcome to the thirteenth issue of Indieview! Indieview is an interview series where I speak with a special guest who works on personal or business projects related to games, whether they’re an artist, a composer, a streamer, a writer, or otherwise.

This week I’m joined by Brian Trieu, who not long ago released their fantastic visual novel Aquadine on Steam and itch.io, which you should definitely try out — take it from me, it’s very funny and engaging! This is SoftColor’s first game, and today we’re going to talk all about it and the future of the studio!

Want to get a feel for the game before you read on? Click here to try the free demo!

Mitch: Hi Brian! Can you introduce yourself please, for those who may not know who you are?

Brian: My name is Brian Trieu, and I am founder of SoftColors, Inc. I am also the writer-director for the visual novel Aquadine, which was released earlier this year. I develop story rich projects and am currently working on my next title.

Mitch: I bought Aquadine at launch, and other than how high-quality the visual novel looked, the thing that pulled me in most was the theming. A lost city under the seas, and the new city inspired by it, was interesting, and in-game it’s got very rich lore! Can you share more on how this story and theming came about, and how you incorporated various mythology?

Brian: Thank you very much for supporting Aquadine! It really means a lot! I knew from the beginning that the setting would be a beautiful aquatic one inspired by Venice, but it’d be boring if nothing more was offered. That is why I added the merfolk civilization to give it further depth. It took a long time to flesh out because I had to come up with the mythology, the culture, and so many other little details to support the story. Since Ciel is also a tour guide, I could use that occupation to weave information more naturally. I wanted to bring the world of Aquadine to life.

While writing earlier versions of the script, I realized it’d be best if Torrie didn’t have an ordinary disease. Not only does it give our protagonist a goal to work towards, it also sets up the story better. Robin learns more about merfolk lore after encountering a mermaid, and there are hints that his mother’s symptoms could be related. It makes the story cohesive, especially when focused on the main route and epilogue.

Mitch: Tell us more about the characters! I really liked all of them, and they’re all really well-rounded out. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be Elisabeth — I’m actually a big fan of AmaLee, but didn’t realise it was her until long after playing!

Brian: Our protagonist Robin is a bookworm who often shows interest in learning more about the merfolk civilization. However, he also works as a part-time gondolier under the alias of Ciel. He’s very diligent and cares deeply about his family, but he may push himself too hard sometimes. They’re two very different characters based on personality and appearance, but he has reasons for keeping it a secret.

Originally, there were only going to be two heroines — Anya and Elisabeth. Anya’s route would explore Ancient Aquadine, while Elisabeth’s would focus on modern Aquadine since she’s new to the town. Anya prefers to keep to herself, but she’s often seen either drawing or playing with a fat cat named Banjo. Elisabeth, on the other hand, is a former singer who recently moved from her hometown Sylphyr. She can be naive at times but is second to none when it comes to eating. Diana and Cameron proved to be likable characters in the early scripts, so they were given routes as well. Diana is a happy-go-lucky redhead who loves dragging her friends on fun adventures. Cameron is the absurdly athletic captain of the high school martial arts team. The five friends interact with each other often in the common route, and they still appear in each other’s routes.

Mitch: Ooh, I’m very happy that you did expand on Diana and Cameron, too! Can you tell us about the voice talent you brought on board? Were any of your characters influenced by them?

Brian: It was a pleasure to work with all of these talented voice actors. I think Meghan Nigrelli, Diana’s voice actress, had the most influence with how I wrote the character. She really brought out her happy and carefree nature, which helped me imagine Diana’s lines very easily. Jane Redd, Anya’s voice actress, also did an outstanding job with the character’s nonchalant tone. Jonah Scott was an excellent choice for the protagonist. Everyone did so well, so I wish I could mention them all.

Most of the voice actors were found through the same connections as my main composer. I didn’t have an open audition for this since I didn’t really use Twitter much at the time. Quite a few voice actors reached out after the trailers were posted on social media, so I checked several of their demo reels. That’s how I casted the remaining side characters. I personally reached out to two voice actresses, and they both accepted the offer: AmaLee for Elisabeth and Mikutan for Cameron. I was very satisfied with their performances as well.

Mitch: Aquadine is very clearly anime inspired. What works inspired the aesthetic of Aquadine directly? Something about the city itself gives me a bit of a Miraculous Ladybug feel — which I absolutely love!

Brian: Aria the Animation and CLANNAD were the main two series that inspired Aquadine. I wanted the world to be just as beautiful as Aria’s with a cast as fun as a Key visual novel. CLANNAD and other Key works are very good at making their audience laugh before hitting them with an emotional sucker punch, and I wanted to recreate a similar experience in my own way. Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea was also a helpful reference when I had to come up with unique traits found in the merfolk.

Admittedly, I haven’t played many visual novels, so I had to incorporate what I learned from anime instead. This has its benefits though since I could approach visual novel development differently than what’s considered tradition. It’s always been a dream to see at least one of my works adapted to an anime.

Mitch: Obviously you’re here, and I’ve seen you show up on a few other interviews, so I want to ask about how you market yourself and Aquadine! How do you get the word out? One of the reasons I do Indieview is because mainstream sites often ignore visual novel developers, so personally it would be good to know for future reference, too, to better help.

Brian: I have to reach out to reviewers, streamers, and interviewers so Aquadine can get more exposure. Others reach out to me as well, and I’m happy to expand on my pool of connections. I promoted Aquadine at various anime conventions before covid, like Momocon, AWA, Sono Con, and Seishun Con. But with conventions shut down, I rely on social media to build my following. It’s hard being a first time developer since I have no other reputation yet, especially since this is an original English visual novel. There are a lot of challenges for pursuing this type of game because it’s really niche. Most visual novel fans prefer the Japanese made ones anyway, so it’s a constant struggle. Still, I’m trying my best to give Aquadine the attention it deserves.

Mitch: I think you’re doing a great job with it — it might just be the circles I run in, but I’ve seen enough chatter over Aquadine to know you’re doing it right. You can buy Aquadine’s soundtrack, so of course I have to ask about it! It’s very atmospheric, and it feels as if everything comes back to the peaceful town and its fascination with water. Can you describe how the soundtrack and ambience came to be?

Brian: Just like how I envisioned the setting’s gorgeous scenery, I knew most of the soundtrack should reflect Aquadine’s soothing nature. Relaxing music people would listen to on a memorable ride was what I aimed for. Aquadine is also filled with comedy, mystery, romance, and drama, so appropriate tracks for those scenes were made as well. I found reference music similar to what I had in mind and described the scenes to my composers. Overall, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Mitch: What was the hardest scene for you to get right? There’s a fair few emotional scenes, especially when Robin’s mother is involved, but each route is a bit of a tear-jerker, honestly.

Brian: The hardest scene was probably the very last one in the Memories epilogue. Endings are the last impression players get before giving their verdict, so it needed to be powerful. I did plenty of research on people who’ve had emotional experiences and rewrote the entire epilogue to get it right. All of the routes took so much editing before they reached this point though. So many scenes were deleted and replaced during development. Creative writing is difficult, but I enjoy doing it.

Mitch: …is the cat, Banjo, inspired by a real cat?

Brian: I wanted Banjo to be the mascot for Aquadine, so I used anime cats as inspiration. President Aria from Aria the Animation was the reference for the appearance, while Shamisen from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was the reference for the name. There are also some episodes where Shamisen can talk, so that spared a few ideas. A shamisen is a Japanese three string banjo, so I figured this could be a nice little tribute.

Mitch: How important is it to you as a developer to ensure that each player can experience all that your game has to offer? Aquadine is a kinetic visual novel, and it’s very easy to tackle all routes, attain all CGs, etc — was this intentional?

Brian: Aquadine requires the common route and all four character routes to be played in order to unlock the epilogue called Memories. The experience is incomplete without it, which is why I decided not to include choices for this project. Personally, I feel traditional visual novels with a lot of choices can deter people from finishing the game. It’ll be fun for the first playthrough, but many players rely on guides to get the other endings. The need to save every time a choice appears could also affect the storytelling experience. I wanted Aquadine to be welcome for both those who are less familiar with visual novels and those who’ve played many. Kinetic novels often don’t have multiple routes either, so I figured this would be a unique approach for the medium.

Mitch: I certainly welcome the more striaght-forward approach. I get taken out if I need a guide, or do something wrong because the choices were pretty vague! Selfish question — where are the trading cards and points shop items on Steam, huh?!

Brian: They aren’t a priority, but I’ll take it into consideration in case we choose to implement them in the future. Our goal was to release Aquadine without any delays, and my attention is currently focused on a brand new project.

Mitch: A brand new project? I’ll look forward to it! Do you have any merch ideas for Aquadine? I’m a bit of a pin and charm collector, myself…

Brian: I thought about various ideas, like shirts, acrylic stands, pins and charms, etc. Maybe even body pillows? Haha. But I have to consider whether merch is worth the investment though, especially now when most anime conventions aren’t open yet. Aquadine is a new IP from a first-time developer, so I have no idea how well it would sell. Maybe a higher rise in its popularity could be the deciding factor.

Mitch: What words of advice do you have for other budding developers, and creators in general?

Brian: For story rich projects, I recommend writing a good chunk of the script first before working with artists. Get a bunch of friends to read it and provide feedback, then make adjustments. By fleshing out ideas, it will make the rest of development so much smoother and could avoid wasting unused assets. Once you feel ready, spend a lot of time researching the right people for your team. Always prepare references and be specific about what you need.

You’ll have a lot of things to keep track of as the director, and it will be stressful for longer projects. Promote often on social media to build followers and connections. Keep polishing your product however you can by finding beta testers. I edited my scripts countless times, even up until just a few months before release. Good luck. It’s going to be a long ride, but keep at it.

Mitch: If people want to follow you and your work, where will they find you?

Brian: I’m most active on Twitter nowadays @softcolorsVN, and links to all of my social media can be found on my official website. studiosoftcolors.com

Mitch: Is there anyone or anything you’d like to plug today? The world is your oyster — which I imagine are a little more common in the world of Aquadine

Brian: Just wanted to thank my family, friends, and followers for supporting me. Aquadine wouldn’t have been possible without them and everyone involved. I’m just happy we made it all the way to release, and the scores are really high. The fact that this beautiful visual novel was my big debut work makes me very proud.

Mitch: I’m still in awe this is your debut work — I’d never have guessed if I hadn’t look into it more. My final question — what visual novels should I and readers be playing?

Brian: Besides Aquadine? I really enjoyed Tomoyo After -It’s a Wonderful Life -. It’s the CLANNAD sequel that follows Tomoyo’s story from where her route left off. The beautiful art was drawn by Fumio; she’s the artist who worked on the Grisaia series. The music is very memorable, which is expected of a Key game, and I still listen to it in my car. The story delivers a very powerful message at the very end, and I was grateful to experience it. It’s one of the few Key visual novels that has yet to receive an anime adaptation, so I’m hopeful for it.

Want to support Brian, SoftColors and Aquadine? Check out the game on Steam here, on itch.io here, and visit SoftColors’ official website here, which also has all of their social media information!

I hope you’ve enjoyed Indieview #13 with Brian. I’ll be back with another Indieview in the near future, so thanks for reading, and I hope to see you all again soon!

Writing a novel | Communications Associate at Funimation UK | Hang around for #Indieview, Otome, and maybe a little more!