From the Archives: Reasons to Read

Those of you who enjoy visual novels have probably come up against at least one gamer friend who has refused to even entertain the possibility of exploring this interesting medium on the grounds that it’s “too much text” and/or “not enough gameplay.”

In fact, in several cases, visual novels which have hit “mainstream” platforms such as the Nintendo DS have found themselves saddled with middling or low review scores on these grounds — usually indicating that the reviewer has missed the point of the experience somewhat or is unfamiliar with this type of game.

So what I thought I’d do today is outline some reasons why exploring visual novels is a worthwhile use of your time.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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Spike’s Lifesigns, which we talked about last week, is one such example of what we’ve just described, forever branded as a mediocre game on the grounds that you don’t actively “do” much while you play, despite the fact that its story and characterization is actually very good. (As it happens, Lifesigns is on the “more interactive” end of the visual novel spectrum thanks to its minigames and surgery sequences, but all this achieved with regard to reviews was some rather unfair comparisons to Trauma Center.)

I’d like to examine this idea from two main perspectives: the angle of people who think they’d rather play games with more “interactivity” to them; and the angle of people who think that if you’re going to read something, you might as well, you know, read a book.

Here beginneth the lesson.

Multimedia and immersion

Chances are you haven’t heard the word “multimedia” used seriously since the mid-’90s and I apologize for its gratuitous resurrection in today’s column, but it’s hard not to mention it when discussing visual novels. They are, in essence, multimedia productions in their purest sense: they tell a story or explain something using several different forms of media blended together to create a coherent experience.

At the heart of a visual novel is, of course, the text. But the very nature of visual novels means that you’re rarely, if ever, dealing with just text.

No, your typical visual novel also incorporates any combination of sound, music, voice acting, static images and sometimes animations into the mix to create something that is immediately visually and aurally appealing and striking, and which helps to immerse all the senses into the story.

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Unsurprisingly, given its focus on the music business, Kira Kira is a visual novel that has had plenty of care and attention lavished on its multimedia aspects.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the way books do things — engaging the imagination using (more often than not) nothing but words — but the fact that when reading a visual novel you can see and hear the characters as well as imagine what they’re like is a main distinguishing factor of the medium.

And there’s still room for your imagination to do some work, too — with a few notable exceptions (yes, this is where I drop in my weekly mention of School Days HQ), visual novels tend to make use of a lot of text atop static images, meaning that the creative part of your brain still gets to “fill in the blanks” and imagine exactly what’s going on in a scene according to the narration, even with a still of it on screen.

This combination of different forms of media to create the entire experience helps give visual novels the appearance of being a “video game” — because, well, they are — and also serves as a fantastic way to encourage people who might not engage their brain with reading as much as they’d like the opportunity to do so in a manner which is somewhat more comfortable to them.

Themes you don’t get anywhere else in gaming

Ken Levine’s most recent opus Bioshock Infinite garnered plenty of praise for exploring weighty themes in a manner which is accessible to the mainstream, and the press and public alike tripped over themselves to point at it as an example of the medium trying — perhaps not completely successfully — to mature a little bit. [Editor’s Note: I could use a more contemporary example here, I know, but this was relevant at the time this piece was originally published and so I have decided to leave it as-is.]

At heart, though, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Bioshock Infinite was still a first-person shooter — and an (arguably) unnecessarily violent one at that — and thus some of the impact of its stronger messages was perhaps lost somewhat.

Here’s where visual novels’ jettisoning of the traditional reliance on “gameplay” is actually a good thing — by realising that no, you don’t have to let the player “do” every single thing in the story for it to be an interesting narrative that still retains a degree of player agency and interactivity, visual novel authors have been able to explore subject matter, themes and events that simply wouldn’t be particularly using more conventional game genres.

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Katawa Shoujo initially attracted attention for its disabled characters, but those who took the time to explore it discovered a deep and meaningful experience that didn’t rely on “shock value” at all.

Would Katawa Shoujo be a superior experience if you got to control protagonist Hisao as he wandered around and had palpitations every time you pressed the “run” button? Probably not — though that’s not to say it wouldn’t be an interesting experience of a different kind.

Would Kana Little Sister be a better experience if it took a more “simulation” approach, with you taking the role of Kana’s caregiver and administering medical treatment as appropriate? Again, probably not — but again, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be an interesting area for a different game to explore; it just wouldn’t be Kana Little Sister any more.

Did Kira Kira need to be any more interactive than it is in order to tell its story? Absolutely not.

Consider, too, the “dating sim” genre, often incorrectly lumped in the same category as narrative-centric visual novels — something like Casual Romance Club is a very different experience to something like, say, The Sims because despite the fact that in both games you’re building relationships, in the former you’re exploring an author’s depiction of a number of different characters, while in the latter you’re exploring the effects a bunch of AI routines have on each other when they interact.

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Casual Romance Club didn’t really have a story as such — it was simply designed as a bunch of virtual characters for you to spend time with and get to know.

While many other games — particularly RPGs — have relationship-building elements, it’s only in the visual novel and dating sim genres you’ll find interactive experiences that are purely about relationships and nothing else. Even people who aren’t ninjas/pirates/aliens/legendary heroes/The Chosen One are interesting — so I embrace the opportunity to play something that is purely about talking to people and not about some Great Evil that needs defeating.

The importance of the fact that many visual novels also incorporate adult-themed content (both in terms of sex and violence) without treating the player like they’re an immature teenager is also worth highlighting. Yes, there are visual novels in which the sex and/or violence is gratuitous or purely there for titillation — there’s even a name for this type of experience: nukige — but a good visual novel can incorporate these things into its narrative without them feeling like they’ve been forced in for the sake of being “edgy.”

Choices with consequence

Visual novels vary enormously in their approach towards player agency. Some, known as “kinetic novels,” are rigidly on rails from start to finish, with no input from the player required. These are most like books in their execution, though they benefit from the multimedia angle we discussed above. Ne no Kami, School of Talent and Supipara are all excellent recent examples of this, with none of them suffering at all for the lack of player input.

Many others, though, allow the player to make decisions over the course of the narrative — and because the number of times the player gets to make a choice is typically relatively limited, these decisions have meaning, consequence and real weight.

Even within branching path visual novels, there are different approaches: School Days HQ’s use of a “sliding scale” rather than triggering flags with your choices means that seemingly-innocuous decisions made at the beginning of the game can actually have a significant impact much later on, for example.

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Deus Machina Demonbane features some fairly horrendous consequences for making poor choices.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, My Girlfriend is the President features precisely one meaningful decision in the course of the entire game which determines which character’s “path” you end up on. The Fruit of Grisaia works rather like this, too — though each route does at least have a “good” and “bad” ending based on later choices — while its direct sequel The Labyrinth of Grisaia explicitly allows you to pick which route you want to read before you start playing.

In many cases, visual novels that feature player choice include at least one decision point that has a significant impact on how the rest of the story goes. This impact could range from picking a fixed “route” through the game to influencing the subsequent events or even shunting the player off down an optional side story path. A good multi-route visual novel will encourage the player to think “I wonder what would have happened if…” and not always make it immediately obvious that the choice they’ve made is a significant one.

Right here is a big distinguishing factor from books, Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy aside, obviously: the fact that the story can potentially branch off in one of several different directions.

Rather than diluting the overall sense of narrative, however, a good multi-route visual novel will give the player a much fuller understanding of the characters and the events they are involved in by allowing them to witness various happenings from different perspectives. It’s not impossible for books to do this, of course, but depicting the same scene several times from different perspectives in a linear, fixed narrative tends to be a little more jarring than when it occurs in something which is made to be re-experienced with different choices.

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The Fruit of Grisaia features some weighty choices, but its sequel The Labyrinth of Grisaia (pictured) isn’t a lesser experience in any way for stripping out this aspect in favour of multiple linear narratives.

Having choices with consequence also allows us the guilty pleasures of the “bad” ending without it feeling like a “game over” — we discussed this in more detail here. Stories don’t always have to have happy endings, and a well-crafted “bad” ending can be even more powerful than a “good” one. Katawa Shoujo is a great example of this — several of the paths’ conclusions feel a lot more “fitting” with what is technically the “bad” ending than the usually rather happily-ever-after nature of the “good” conclusions.

So there we have it. Visual novels will likely always be a niche interest to one degree or another — for some players, the concept of “video games” is too inextricably tied to the concept of “shooting dudes in the head” to even contemplate exploring anything else — but that doesn’t mean we should stop celebrating them.

The very nature of the fact that many of them have been composed as “creative works” rather than “products” makes them particularly noteworthy in this modern age of big-name games seeing the “business” part of the industry interfering with the “artistic” part more and more — and hey, if nothing else, they’re the source of some great stories that you simply can’t get in any other type of game.


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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