Arcana Visual Novel’s Protagonist Is You, Whoever You Are

  • Android
  • iOS
Two different paths your character can choose in Arcana.
Two different paths your character can choose in Arcana. (c) Nix Hydra Games

Arcana is a visual novel/romance sim, a crowded genre in mobile apps. Artist Dana Rune and writer Nikolas Ladizinsky aimed to create something they would want to play themselves, and that meant fighting back against some of the genre’s more unfortunate conventions.

“We’re simply making what we ourselves would want to play, and what we want to see more of in the world,” said Rune. “There’s a ton of romance games and visual novels on mobile platforms, but the vast majority are super heteronormative.”

Rune cited problems familiar to any fan of the genre: love interests who “all have the same face with palette-swapped hair,” or a player character “is either a pale skinny brunette, OR a customizable avatar that very often is still restricted.” Of course, there are technical reasons behind some of this sameness. “For example, offering different body types on a 2D avatar means multiplying all the clothing assets, which blows up art time and app file size,” said Rune.

That is why Arcana doesn’t use a player avatar at all. “We’d rather the player have to use their imagination there and keep the game more inclusive that way. We want anyone to be able to imagine themselves immersed in this world, especially those who rarely get to see their identity or experiences reflected in the media they consume,” said Rune.

While the protagonist of Arcana is never depicted visually, they aren’t a totally blank slate. The main character is a roleplaying opportunity for the player, but has only two distinct personality routes of their own: “sweet, friendly, sometimes naïve” or “sassy, rebellious, sometimes mean,” according to Rune. The protagonist also has their own backstory and relationships, some of which have yet to be revealed.

“Whichever way you choose to play the protagonist, they are always going to be open-minded and curious, sometimes to the point of self endangerment,” said Ladizinsky.

The balance between letting a player imagine their own protagonist and sketching out two different personalities is a tricky one, said writer Elle Hudson. “We do have certain limits on how that character can react. There’s also certain things we have to be careful of never mentioning in the narrative: heights, hair, weight, etc,” Hudson said. “It makes it trickier to establish a meaningful relationship, but I think the result is ultimately more rewarding for the player.”

The game’s Twitter account features retweets from players who’ve created their own protagonists, down to their favorite foods and flowers. The open protagonist is a hit with the fanbase. “We love seeing players get creative with their protag, whether it’s drawing fan art or just fleshing out their personality, habits, likes and dislikes in a level of detail that the story leaves open for them to explore,” said Rune.

Arcana ’s celebration of diversity makes it a rarity, one which fans can’t quite seem to believe. “We get a lot of questions during our weekly Q&A sessions on social media asking things like ‘wait, so you can really date any character regardless of gender?’ or ‘people will really respect the pronouns I pick?’, and I think a lot of it has to do with those options not really existing in other games. People deserve to feel accepted and celebrated for their identities,” said Elle Hudson, another writer on the team.

“That’s why it’s important we offer a different experience, where you’re free to be exactly who you are, and have someone love you for that.”

Ladizinsky points out that game makers can create a world, and choose how people of all stripes are treated in that world. “If we are going to be making an experience for people, where we have the freedom to decide how the world will treat them, the least it can be is a place where basic elements of their identity are accepted and treated respectfully,” said Ladizinsky.

For more on Arcana, check out our detailed review here. Arcana is free to play and available here for iOS and here on Google Play. You can also follow the game’s official Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram to stay updated.

Visual Novel Arcana Marries Magic, Murder And Romance
Beautiful art, great writing and a strong sense of character make this visual novel a hidden gem.
  • Great art
  • Great dialogue
  • Characters feel distinct
  • Plot is intriguing
  • Main character is no wallflower
  • Not enough dialogue options
  • Must wait for new chapters
  • No multiple save slots
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