Studio Élan has their brand on lock, from their pink-haired mascot Melanie, to their vibrant and warmly evocative game art, to even their studio name, which translates to a sense of grace, energy, and style. Born out of the success of Highway Blossoms, Studio Élan self-describes their work as “uplifting stories of magic, fantasy, and love between women.” They have since launched other successful titles such as Heart of the Woods, in addition to launching a publishing wing for smaller titles called Bellhouse.
We caught up with Studio Élan founder Josh Kaplan to chat about Highway Blossoms, Studio Élan’s creative process, and their future projects.
How did you get started creating visual novels?
I started making VN’s as a hobby towards the end of high school, almost a decade ago at this point. Like many others, I was inspired by Katawa Shoujo and decided to try making one myself. I joined or formed a lot of different teams over the years that didn’t really work out, but stuck with it anyway. At one point my dream was to learn Japanese and go abroad and work for a VN company like KEY, but I’m much happier with how things turned out instead.
How was the concept for Highway Blossoms created?
The co-creator of Highway Blossoms, Syon, is a longtime friend of mine. At the time, we were part of the writing team on another, bigger project and decided to do a small game on our own in order to gain some more experience. He supplied the idea of two girls on a road trip together. We needed something to the story other than just sightseeing, and so I suggested a treasure hunt element. From there, everything including the Miner’s Journal, the side characters, and the overall themes in the game started to fall into place. We didn’t anticipate HB ending up as long as it did – we were planning for it to be half the length or less. But as we started writing and working on it, we had a lot of fun and a lot of ideas, and so it grew up a lot before release.
With the DLC Highway Blossoms: Next Exit, what did you want to expand upon from the original game?
There were a few goals for the DLC. For one, we wanted to expand the roles of some of the side characters. The candy shop girl Cassi, who’s one of the primary characters of Next Exit, was just a minor character who had a couple lines in the original. She really took off as a fan-favorite character based on her design alone, and so it was fun to come up with a larger role for her. Same with Tess, who has maybe a dozen lines in the original but is one of the main protagonists of the DLC. In addition to fleshing out the characters, we wanted to develop Amber and Marina’s relationship a bit more, too. Even though the first game has a happy ending, we weren’t totally satisfied with where the two heroines leave off. Next Exit was a way for us to get them to a point that we thought was healthier and were happier with.
Could you tell us a little about the creation process of Heart of the Woods?
Heart of the Woods was the first real Studio Élan project, since Highway Blossoms was originally done under a different team name. I put together a new team from scratch, and we workshopped the story of the game together. I mostly hired people who had never worked in games/VN’s before, or to fill roles that they hadn’t spent much time on before. I wanted new, fresh perspectives on development and being part of a game development team. Many of those people form the core of the studio as it is today. As director, I was responsible for things like deciding on the art and music styles, as well as the major story beats and character concepts. The actual development process was very collaborative – we’d finish drafting a scene or there’d be a new demo for a music track, and it would be shared in our Discord server for everyone to give feedback on and comment on. More than anything I wanted Heart of the Woods to be a project where everyone felt like they were contributing to the game’s identity, not just being told what to do.
What achievements or milestones in your VN development career are you most proud of?
It’s difficult to say. Every time we release something new, there’s a sense of satisfaction and relief that I’ve found to be unmatched. The “simple” act of finishing a game and getting it out there for the world to try is super validating. If I had to choose a single moment though, it might be when we brought Rosuuri, the illustrator for Heart of the Woods, to Chicago as a guest of honor for Anime Central in 2018. To me though, the best part of development is the people I get to work with. I’ve had the privilege of working with several of my favorite artists and musicians, and I’m very proud of those opportunities.
When you founded Studio Élan, what drew you to focus your studio on yuri VNs?
When working on Highway Blossoms, from the very beginning we knew that we wanted to avoid the “but we’re both girls” kind of taboo trope that pervades yuri media, and not treat Amber and Marina’s relationship as if it was different from any other. After the game came out, it was unexpectedly successful, and one thing that we heard a lot was that people appreciated the way Amber and Marina’s relationship was portrayed. I wanted to use the platform that I suddenly found myself with to help create more of that kind of media. The vast majority of our team is LGBT women and nonbinary folks, and we still have that primary goal of more positive representation. We’ve also started Bellhouse, our very small publishing wing for helping promote small titles by friends and other folks that share our values.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects? What do fans have to look forward to next?
We’re working on a few games right now! The two projects that I’m focused on are our solarpunk game Summer at the Edge of the Universe and Please Be Happy, a slice-of-life story about a gumiho (Korean fox spirit). On PBH I’m only the writer, but I’m the director and one of the writers for Summer. Both are “good vibes” kind of games, meant to be relaxing and peaceful. Summer is about intergalactic sightseeing and reconnecting with old friends, whereas PBH is set in a fantasy version of Wellington, New Zealand and is about the main character Miho settling down and learning how to be a part of society. Both are really lovely games. We also have one other project in-progress at our studio, although I’m not working on it myself: Lock and Key is a story about a married pair of adult magical girls on the verge of aging out of their powers, and the one last battle that they have to fight.