On Making a Protagonist – Caleb Hartmann

Hi, and welcome to The Combat Report, the development blog for the alternate-history love-and-war mecha VN, Steel Hearts. This is the 7th article–can you believe it? I sure can’t. Anyhow, this week’s article focuses on our protagonist, the one and only Caleb Hartmann.

What Makes a “Pro” Protag?

On VN protagonists in general, I think a lot of writers feel that the protagonist of a non-kinetic VN (that is, a non-kinetic VN being one with branching paths) must be generic or bland in order for 1. the character to make sense narratively and to the player (because there are multiple “variations” of the character depending on what route the player took, and because some choices could make characters act in ways contrary to how the player thinks) and 2. in order for the player to successfully “project” onto the character. Hence, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of VNs where the protagonist is there as a formality, perhaps a vehicle to get to the H or whatever. Cpl_Crud of Katawa Shoujo fame postulated as much in a recent article, and says that a protagonist in a linear VN avoids these problems, which is true.

Hisao, the protagonist of Katawa Shoujo, does succumb to those pitfalls as expressed by Cpl_Crud. Was it difficult to avoid those? Probably so. However, I believe these pitfalls can be avoided. In a post-Katawa Shoujo world, this is easy to claim, but regardless…

Bland protagonists in branching VNs–they do exist, and it is easy to fall down that hole and write one. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to do so, neither for the audience or the narrative. Two well-received examples stick out to me, Steins;Gate and Grisaia. In both of these, the protagonists are… well, exciting and off the wall. Enough character to fill the room, and then some. Okabe of Steins;Gate is a chuunibyou, over-the-top otaku who likens himself to a mad scientist, caught in a worldwide conspiracy. Yuuji of Grisaia is a womanizing jackass with a heart of gold, and his tragic, difficult past as a soldier/assassin factors into his mannerisms, thoughts, and actions. In addition to having their own quirks and mannerisms, they are also go-getters. Good protagonists, in my opinion, are not just piles of traits, but they also make things happen–the story reacts to them (not to say that the protagonist shouldn’t react to external events, but the reverse is important).

Remember the scene at the end of Lilly’s route in Katawa Shoujo where Hisao makes a fervent, life-risking race to catch Lilly at the airport before she leaves? It’s powerful seeing protagonists get off their feet and do difficult things–even if he was, admittedly, bereft of personality, I think proactive scenes like that would make him more memorable.

Moving on, many protagonists (VN or otherwise) are boring and blank-slate for the sake of relatability. That is to say, protagonists are blank-slates to more easily relate to the reader, thus immersing them more in the story. I reject this–for how many people do you know which are boring blank slates? Is it not easier to relate to someone with experiences, with defined thoughts and feelings? Surely, I would think people would relate more to the likes of the hopes and fears of Frodo, the anger and forgiveness of Luke Skywalker, or the idealism and determination of Emiya Shirou, rather than the blank slates of the protagonists of Fallout 3, Persona 5, Doki-Doki Literature Club, and so on. Even in romantically-inclined stories, defined protagonists like Okabe as mentioned, or Takeru from Muv-Luv seem to strike a chord more with people than the more “generic” protagonists of, say, Hisao from Katawa Shoujo or Semyon from Everlasting Summer.

Forging the Steel Heart

So, with all that said, where does that leave our protagonist, Caleb Hartmann? What sets him apart from the rest of the crowd? One defining aspect is his past–in the VN itself, Caleb attends the military academy of Streiterheim Academy as a decent, good-natured student. Before that, though, Caleb was an unruly, wild child, a delinquent, a bully. His parents enrolled him into the academy to straighten him up–and it succeeded. A combination of the rigid academy, the distractions of modern entertainment like pulp mags and radio shows, and a peaceful life free of war and strife (unlike his parents’) all pacified him to quite an extent, leaving him soft, lazy, passive.

But–the wolf inside him still exists. Within Caleb lies a burning heart, stoked by the flames of his childhood fury and the strength he idealized in his childhood heroes like Conan Nacon the Barbarian. In another time, Caleb may have been a great knight or warlord, but the comfort and peace of modern life has mollified his dreams and passion.

Caleb accepts his lot in peaceful Volksland as an aspiring student. In the routes, when things get in Caleb’s way, when things are taken away from him, I want to show that other side of Caleb–he breaks the rules, he defies the authority of parents and nobles, he gets into fights, he struggles against the weight of the world.

In turn, Caleb’s nature also precludes him toward any of the four heroines. Juliet is self-explanatory: she’s his childhood friend, after all. With Lisabet, Caleb could be swayed by her romantic nature, influenced by tales of romance that he’s read. Between Hannah and Brynhilde, Hannah’s delinquent, rough nature could remind him of his younger self, whereas Caleb’s present pacified nature might make Brynhilde’s authority appealing. Above all, I don’t believe having a defined character means restricting romantic options. How many of your peers did you envision as romantic partners when you were in high school? Although I’m sure they held commonalities, but it’s probably a diverse group, no?

Returning back to Caleb’s personality: If he holds a heart of a warrior, what happens in part 2, when he actually does go to war? Does Caleb follow orders or rebel? Does he embrace his nature as a warrior, a “wolf”, or does he keep hold of his tender side? I’m afraid I can’t answer those questions. Read the VN.


And yes, “Hartmann” was wholly intentional. It originated as a “placeholder” name, but… it stuck.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Steel Hearts, feel free to follow this blog, or follow us on twitter at https://twitter.com/heartscorps.
Contact me at:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/PalladionHearts
Discord – Palladion#5914

Writing Style and Design

Welcome to article #6 of The Combat Report, the development blog for the alternate-history love and war VN, Steel Hearts.

Continuing the break from character-themed blog posts, this one takes a look at the “writing style” of the VN as a whole, plus a quick dive into some of the UI design.

Steel Hearts Has No Prose (and That’s a Good Thing)

A clickbaity heading, but I couldn’t resist.

An interesting aspect about the visual novel medium is that it’s very unstandardized–there is no solid guide on how a visual novel should be created. Some have branching paths and routes, others don’t. The ones that lean more toward the dating sim genre have schedule systems and maps. Some are in NVL style where text fills the screen, while some are ADV style, where text is displayed, usually in a box, along the bottom. Some VNs are wholly textual, while some have minigames. Some create whole new mechanics to fit the narrative, like the cell phone in Steins;Gate. You get the idea.

The variety and nonstandardization is what I believe sets apart VNs as a medium. With a novel, plot aside, you know what to expect. A series of linear chapters to the end, with most of the mechanical variance being the tense and point of view. Compare the VN, which has much more flexibility in terms of style or mechanics.

You can’t do this in a book.

One such stylistic choice Steel Hearts uses is this: There is no prose. No “I open the door to the classroom, ready to face my demon of a history teacher,” none of “Lisabet continues her heartfelt, ceaseless ramble on the history of Hellenian mythology, blissfully unaware that we’re almost late for class,” no such except like “In a calculated motion, Hannah swings her Fenris’s arm towards the Noskovan walker, before laying into the colossus with a hail of autocannon fire”… you get the picture.

Instead of using paragraphs of descriptive text, everything in Steel Hearts will be conveyed through dialogue (plus inner monologue), images, animation, and sound. In our eyes, prose draws the reader away from the “visual” aspect of the visual novel, de-immersing them. With images, sound, and an emphasis on dialogue, the player is placed into the scene, moreso than if they were reading a description of what’s happening.

I don’t see many VNs opt for this sort of style, to the point where I don’t believe there’s a VNDB tag for it. The chief example of it is the Muv-Luv trilogy. Characters are not described to thwack their childhood friend on the head, or described to toss the lacrosse ball with a swing of their stick, or described to bob and weave in-between hordes of teeming aliens–they do those things, and the reader gets to see it.

Zoom. Whoosh. Thwack. “Aitaaaaa!” A fluidity not seen in paragraph form.

In this style, the visual novel treads a bit farther from the “novel” part, and leans closer to something akin to an animated stageplay (as weird as it sounds).

I’m not saying other styles are bad or wrong, but I believe this style is rather effective at gripping the reader. Is it ambitious? Asset-intensive? Yeah, probably. But, we at Heartscorps are prepared to do what it takes.

And a Bit on UI

Beyond, of course, good plot and characters, I believe immersion is what makes a visual novel successful–a successful VN draws the player into the story, captivating them, leaving them free from distractions that take away attention from the game. This went into the stylistic choice detailed above, but I want it to factor into UI, as well.

Simply put, text boxes and UI are necessary, but they do get in the way of the sprites, backgrounds, and CGs. I have my gripes with NVL-style VNs for this very reason–I’d much rather the text not obscure the images of the game. That isn’t to say NVL doesn’t have its uses–I like how Grisaia used it for lengthy flashbacks where we got to see the inner thoughts of the characters in-detail. Of course, the NVL style isn’t really feasible for a VN like Steel Hearts where the text is dialogue-only.

This textbox is an eyesore. This textbox. This textbox. This textbox. Wait, wrong VN.

So, as it stands, Steel Hearts is ADV-style, with a textbox at the bottom. Textboxes get in the way of the images a bit, too, but it’s a necessary evil. In VNs with no box, where text is laid out by itself like a subtitle, the text is occasionally indistinct from the background when it comes to certain color combinations.

Another thing I see are textboxes accompanied by many “shortcut” buttons–buttons for skip, save, load, hide image, and more. In particular, many Ren’Py VNs keep these around, as they’re part of the default UI. It’s a minor thing, but I think they clutter up the screen a bit, so we are leaving those functions for menus and shortcuts. It’s no trouble, really (do you really need to save an extra click or keystroke when saving the game?), and it vastly declutters the screen, leaving as much real estate to the images of the VN proper.

Look at all those buttons! It’s a bit distracting, don’t you think? Buttons should be saved for walker cockpits!

Not all of our UI is even close to finalized, but I’m mostly certain one thing is clear: The main game UI of Steel Hearts will be limited to the text box, the nametag, and the text itself (and choice boxes when applicable). The rest of the screen is to be reserved for the images of the game itself. Buttons and UI are visual clutter–it might not be bad in normal scenes, but in scenes where our protagonist is, say, in the cramped interior of a walker, complete with dials, knobs, optics, and a limited viewport, using a limited screen space effectively is paramount.

Wait, is that… we wouldn’t *really* reference Shrodinger’s cat in our VN, would we?

Above is a mockup I made of a possible textbox (non-UI elements are just placeholders). Simple, concise, and distinct is the aim.

Next time you play a VN, notice how they use (or don’t use) stylistic, textual, or visual elements. What do you find effective or non-effective uses of the medium? I’d love to hear some comments.

A Note from the Director

Hello folks, it’s me, Havock, the Directorman ™.

A large part of our choosing to keep prose out of Steel Hearts is the fact that it actively takes the reader out of the action. By including expositional prose describing actions, events, motivations, etcetera, it constantly reminds the reader that they are not the protagonist. In my experience, this hampers emotional engagement.

It’s my personal opinion that one of the most important factors of emotional engagement in a story comes from having a protagonist that the reader can see a little bit of themselves in. People need something they can connect with in a story, something they can insert themselves into to really feel it.

By having no prose, something interesting begins to happen. The reader begins to be tricked into believing that they see themselves in the protagonist, because the protagonist’s actions are being attributed to them. Be they abusive, boneheaded, or oblivious, the reader puts themselves into the pilot’s seat. “This is me now,” the reader says to themselves, “This is how I am.”

It might be manipulative, but it does work. You see it in Muv-Luv and Steins;Gate (both huge inspirations for our project). You also see it to an extent in media such as Welcome to the NHK.

What, you thought being the protagonist would be all positive?

Make no mistake, Steel Hearts is intended to be an emotional experience. This is not just something to watch Caleb experience at arm’s length–it’s something that we want you to be right there in the thick of it with him. We want you to be him. We want you to shoulder every one of his hardships, and to celebrate every one of his victories as your own.


Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in Steel Hearts, feel free to follow this blog, or follow us on twitter at https://twitter.com/heartscorps.
Contact me at:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/PalladionHearts
Discord – Palladion#5914

Steel Hearts Progress Report – February 2, 2021

Welcome once again to the Steel Hearts development blog, The Combat Report. Instead of focusing on a particular character or aspect of the visual novel, I’d like to instead discuss the overall progress of the visual novel. Ideally, I will be posting these progress dates every so often (interval to be decided).

The Writing

The writing is currently our present focus at the time. This is mostly done by myself, although our director, Havock, will write scenes on occasion (mostly Hannah scenes).

Common Route

As it stands, the writing of the common route is 99% complete, including branches. The final 1% comes from the scene of the “walker fencing” duel at the festival. Due to the unique nature of this scene and the amount of art assets/animation required, this scene is on the backburner until we storyboard it out, so to speak.

The common route as it stands runs for about 75k words, and has an estimated runtime of 7 hours.

Scenes completed: Approx. 122/127

After the common route, naturally, the game splits off into four unique routes, one for each heroine.

Juliet’s Route

Juliet’s the one I have the most work in (Brynhilde has more scenes completed, but I believe Juliet’s scenes are usually a bit longer). I spoke a bit about Juliet’s route here–it’s a deeply personal, heartfelt route, full of emotional ups and downs. In some ways, it comes easy to write (but there are some subtleties which are hard to get a grip on myself). It’s coming along well, I believe.

Scenes completed: Approx. 33/86

Lisabet’s Route

Lisabet’s route is, as I said before, is definitely the most traditionally romantic story. Thus… it’s hard to write(!) especially when you take into consideration Lisabet’s eccentric nature–it’s a challenge to write her as she is and not pigeonhole her too much into an archetype. It’s the route I’ve worked on the least so far, but then again, so too does it have the potential to grow more.

Scenes completed: Approx. 27/85

Hannah’s Route

Hannah’s route is a real monster to get a handle of. We’ve revised the structure multiple times, but I think we’re working on its final draft. Due to the route’s focus on internal conflicts, we’re making sure to make it right. Many a time, I see similarly-themed routes blasted as “pretentious” or hard to understand. I want to be sure the route is not hard to grasp or self-indulgent, while still being gripping.

Scenes completed: Approx. 30/85

Brynhilde’s Route

Brynhilde’s route is coming along well. As I wrote in her article, her story is action-packed, making it fun to write. I especially enjoy writing Beatrice and Marie, her foreign rivals (who later might end up helping you out…?). If I keep at it, I think this route will turn out great–maybe one of my favorites.

Scenes completed: Approx. 34/84

All in all, if you add up the scenes completed, about one route and then some has been written–not bad! I aim to amp-up my writing schedule into full gear to complete some routes (or maybe all?) this year.

…And Beyond

After the conclusion of each route, they then branch together for part 2–the half of the story set during a terrible war, one that even surpasses The Great War. Depending on what route you took, some scenes and endings will have variations.

Some of the more significant scenes have been penned out, and the general outline of the story is complete, but I plan on writing part 2 in full once the prior half is finished. Will part 1 and 2 of Steel Hearts release separately? It’s possible, though I wouldn’t put your money on it (put your money on Dogecoin instead (this is not financial advice)).

The Music

We’ve received a few preliminary tracks from our artist, a good friend of ours. I can’t give you an estimate on how many tracks we’ll need, but I’d like to have a fair amount (I’d also like a synthwave alternate soundtrack, though that’s just my personal pipe dream).

Here’s a favorite of mine, a nice waltzy piece. I think it’ll fit for peaceful outings in the city, or perhaps for some Brynhilde scenes.

The Art

Although I have commissioned pieces from a few artists to see how our characters look drawn (previously I had drafted them with Custom Maid 3D 2’s character creator), we have not yet decided on an artist. Our director, Havock, believes it’s a good idea to wait until our writing is more complete before finding an artist. After all, we wouldn’t want to commission some BGs, character sprites, or CGs but then realize we don’t need them after we change something.

Nevertheless, if you’re interested or know someone who might be interested in providing art for our project, give us a shout!

The Yadda Yadda

Thank you for reading this far! And if you’ve been reading all our articles, thank you once again! If you have any comments, concerns, suggestions, praise, scathing criticism, death threats, or anything else, feel free to comment below or contact us.

Our discord can be found at: https://discord.gg/QCRxwpd
Our twitter can be found at: https://twitter.com/heartscorps.
To contact me personally, message me at —

Twitter – https://twitter.com/PalladionHearts
Discord – Palladion#5914