How do you describe a piece of interactive entertainment? Chances are the first thing you mention is the way it plays, or the supposed “genre” it is part of.
Final Fantasy is a JRPG; Gears of War is a third-person shooter; Mario games are platformers. And this isn’t only true for mainstream games, either — even the most esoteric indie games tend to be described in terms of their mechanics. Fez is a puzzle-platformer; The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike shooter; Minecraft is an open-world building and survival sim.
While you may then elaborate on that by describing the setting — sci-fi, fantasy, cartoonish crazytown — it’s highly likely that this is not the first thing you mention. Interactive entertainment is pretty much the only artistic medium in which we do this.
This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.
While it is possible to describe, say, books in terms of their core “mechanic” — i.e. whether they’re a linear novel, a reference book, a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style gamebook — most other forms of media tend to focus more on the genre of their content rather than mechanics.
The Dark Knight Rises is a superhero movie; Brave New World is a book about a dystopian future; Ke$ha’s Animal is an album about being an obnoxious party girl who spends most of her time blind drunk or vomiting in some rich dude’s closet.
You could argue that visual art is often described in terms of what “school” it is following — the “mechanics” of how it was created — but even then, it’s impossible for an art critic to describe a painting, sculpture or installation without delving at least a little into its themes, inspiration and message.
It is the history of the medium and the very nature of interactive entertainment that causes this disparity. The earliest games focused entirely on the functional aspects of how they played and how the player interacted with them rather than attempting to tell a story.
For sure, as it became clear that this was a growing industry which the public was interested in, developers often tried to provide some context as to why the player was zapping aliens this time around with a bit of blurb on the back of the box, but integrating a true sense of unfolding narrative into an interactive experience is something which started to come about a little later, well after commentators on the industry had become accustomed to describing things as “shoot ‘em ups,” “beat ‘em ups,” “adventure games” et al.
If we zip forward to today, though, and look specifically at the visual novel genre, we find a subsection of interactive entertainment where it becomes pretty much necessary to eschew the usual ways we talk about “games” and focus more on their content. All visual novels play fundamentally identically — we sit and watch and/or read for a period then occasionally make a choice that has an impact on the way the narrative unfolds or concludes.
But finding this simple, elegant mechanic appealing as a gameplay conceit is not necessarily a guarantee that you will enjoy a visual novel, much as enjoying the physical and mental process of reading is not necessarily a guarantee you will enjoy every single book you will pick up.
Compare and contrast, if you will, the experiences of playing something like Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story with Alcot’s My Girlfriend is the President. Both games involve a lot of reading, getting to know characters and making choices that determine how the story unfolds.
And yet enjoying one is no guarantee that you will appreciate the other. Analogue deals with serious social, political and cultural issues in depth and features some powerful, emotional writing; My Girlfriend is the President is a wacky, madcap comedy based on an absurd premise, and constantly raises the bar on how ridiculous the events of its story are.
Widen the net and you see still further examples of the diversity of this “genre” of gaming — 4 Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo is an aspirational story (well, five stories) of love and determination triumphing over physical and mental adversity; D.O.’s Kana Little Sister is a tragedy where you pretty much know what is going to happen from the very beginning, just not how the story will get to that point; Christine Love’s earlier title Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story is a high school drama that raises pertinent and topical questions about attitudes towards privacy and social networking. In heavily branching titles such as School Days HQ, we get an experience that can be several things, ranging from romantic comedy to emotional love story via outright tragedy.
This is one of many ways in which the visual novel genre could, in fact, have a positive influence on the rest of the interactive entertainment medium. With more and more narrative-led game experiences blending different mechanics together to create a diverse but coherent whole, isn’t it about time we started focusing on what these stories are trying to tell us rather than whether or not the graphics are any good, what the frame rate’s like and how many guns there are in it?
There will always be a place for describing “pure” games such as puzzle titles and shoot ‘em ups in straightforward mechanical terms, but when it comes to a game that is primarily trying to tell a story, it perhaps behooves us to focus on that side of things rather than the technical aspects — unless, of course, the mechanics or technical aspects of a game actively get in the way of the story that the game’s creators are trying to tell.
If I piqued your interest with my mention of My Girlfriend is the President and its absurd premise earlier, you’re in luck — next week’s column will explore this title in greater depth and establish whether or not it’s something you might want to try for yourself. (Editor’s Note: There are also already two articles here on MoeGamer taking a closer look at this entertainingly silly work, sadly seemingly out of print at the time of writing.)
For now, happy reading, and may your life proceed ever onwards towards the Good Ending of your choice!
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!