Every time I settle down to play — or even to write about — a visual novel, I’m reminded of how much I love the medium.
I use the word “medium” when referring to visual novels rather than “genre” because in many cases, it’s not entirely accurate to call them “games”, despite the fact that they tend to be festooned in the trappings of video games. Most tend to include some sort of metagame element, be it a simple checklist of endings, a CG gallery with a completion percentage or, in the case of more complex games like the recently localised Steins;Gate, even achievements. Most of them are presented in a distinctly game-like fashion, with console-style main menus that make pleasing noises when you click on them, colourful but clear text boxes with a little spinny thing in the corner that tells you when you’ve reached the end of the current paragraph, and all manner of other things.
And yet they’re not games. Not really. They’re interactive stories — some having no more than one or two meaningful choices over the course of the entire narrative, and some even eschewing the element of choice whatsoever — that make use of multimedia presentation to distinguish themselves from, you know, reading a book. The combination of static background images, static or lightly animated characters, music, voice acting, sound effects and text all combine to create a very distinctive effect — and one that can be a powerful poke to the imagination.
Books, of course, are the poster childs for stoking the fires of the imagination, but visual novels also do this, albeit in a different way. Whereas in a book it’s left largely up to you how you picture the scene unfolding in front of you, in visual novels you tend to get a bit more in the way of audio-visual cues. You can hear the characters’ voices (at least you can in recent releases; earlier VNs were text-only), you can see the characters, you can hear the music giving you an idea of the overall mood and, if the scene is a particularly important one, there’ll be an “event” image depicting a dramatic moment from whatever is happening.
Far from being an inferior means of stirring the imagination, this approach simply works in a different way. While books provide the stimulus for mental pictures through descriptive text, visual novels use their multimedia element to stimulate the other senses, which allows them to cut back a little on the descriptive text and instead perhaps explore the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, or engage in some snappy dialogue between characters.
Visual novels present a particularly good means of expressing a first-person narrative. While in first-person perspective books you tend to feel like you’re just along for the ride, in visual novels it feels like you’re taking a much more active role — even if your influence on the overall story is minimal. You’re sitting inside the main character’s mind looking out through their eyes and listening to their innermost thoughts — and even if the main character is some sort of awful jerk (as they often are in visual novels) this provides a very good means of exploring that character, why they are an awful jerk and how they may or may not go about changing themselves. Character growth! How about that.
This isn’t to say visual novels have to be confined to first-person narratives, however. No; in fact, it can be very effective for a visual novel to “cut away” to another character, or even a complete shift in perspective to third-person. Nitroplus’ visual novel Deus Machina Demonbane is a particularly good example of this being used effectively; during its first-person sections, it’s something of a film noir tale about a down-on-his-luck detective and how he becomes embroiled in a series of increasingly ridiculous events. During its third-person sections, however, the true scale of what protagonist Kurou is involved in becomes apparent thanks to being able to get an overall picture of what is going on — coupled with the authentically overblown and distinctly Lovecraftian narration that accompanies these scenes.
The aforementioned Steins;Gate, also from Nitroplus, is a little more traditional than Demonbane in that it remains firmly stuck inside the protagonist’s mind throughout, but my gosh what an interesting head to be stuck inside, for Rintaro Okabe is a strange individual indeed — seemingly convinced he’s a mad scientist named Hououin Kyouma (a name which his voice actor bellows with admirable aplomb every time it comes up in the script) who is being pursued by “The Organisation”, it’s not entirely clear for a lot of the game whether Okabe genuinely has a screw loose or if he’s just playing up for the people around him. The sheer ridiculousness of his statements would seem to suggest the latter, but then he does something so outrageous that you have to wonder about his mental state. And when Steins;Gate‘s overarching narrative threads start to get moving, things become even more murky.
The upshot of this is that Okabe becomes something of an unreliable narrator. And this is something that visual novels are particularly good at exploring. Saya no Uta is another particularly good example of this — the entire story is constructed around this fact — but there are countless others, too; when you’re observing a narrative from a first-person perspective, after all, you’re only getting one person’s viewpoint on it — and how can you be sure that person is telling the truth? There’s a question to ponder.
This article originally appeared on my personal blog, I’m Not Doctor Who.