In Part 1, we looked at how simulation games appeal to players. Being the social creatures that we are, gamers often like to engage with others, even in the virtual world. We saw how dating sims are often – but not always – intertwined with “eroge,” (“erotic games”) and how there have been many successes and failures with the genre. Now we’ll turn our sights on the “visual novel” format, which are prevalent in practically every modern dating sim. We’ll look at how the reputation of this gaming genre has been tarnished, and why they continue to be made despite that.
What is a Visual Novel?
Visual novels are, along with eroge, commonly associated with dating simulators. Visual novels are sometimes thought of as “books in videogame format.” However, they aren’t simply e-books with illustrations (all though, depending on the game, they sometimes feel that way). There are in fact games such as the “100 Classic Book Collection” for the Nintendo DS, which contains some of the world’s greatest English literature like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” and “Les Misérables.” But visual novels are more like “choose your own adverture” stories than passive e-books, designed to give the player enough freedom so that the game is not the same when replayed.
Many games encourage multiple play-throughs by trying to get players to collect things, such as pictures that pop up in the story depending on the decisions you make. The game that may have basically defined the visual novel (though the term hadn’t yet been coined) was the 1983 detective game, “The Portopia Serial Muder Case.” It had very little gameplay, but its thoughtful storyline and ability to draw the player in with puzzles and clue-collecting made it stand out.
The term “visual novel” was actually coined in the early 90’s, when companies began to ditch the pixelated backgrounds and opt for more anime-style pictures. This is what we see now in the vast majority of today’s visual novels, because they’re easy to draw. As for the story-telling aspect of the genre, this description from Wikipedia is very informative:
[V]isual novels, which frequently use multiple branching storylines to achieve multiple different endings, [allow] non-linear freedom of choice along the way. […] A recent acclaimed example is 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, where nearly every action and dialogue choice can lead to entirely new branching paths and endings. Each path only reveals certain aspects of the overall storyline and it is only after uncovering all the possible different paths and outcomes through multiple playthroughs that everything comes together to form a coherent well-written story.
Mysteries and Drama
Mystery stories are generally popular with this genre, because the visuals and interactivity complement the heavy amount of text. From an article published in the Johns Hopkins News-letter, writer Alex Mui says that visual novels are “not inhibited by an overly wordy text or certain time limit, allowing the writer to create a story as long as necessary.” He continues:
Almost all stories told in this medium are told from the first person [perspective,] allowing the reader to see from the protagonist’s point of view. [… And a] majority are slice-of-life based, starting out with very little conflict to allow the reader to better know the characters. […] Once the reader has become situated with the characters and pace of the story, the plot suddenly turns and hits the reader with an unexpected event, for example, a tragic one involving one of the main characters. By this point the reader has become so invested in the character that the emotional impact of the event experienced by the protagonist resonates.
If you need an example of what exactly this may look like, the following video shows the first minutes of the game “Clannad.” Clannad has a very emotional story, the beginnings of which you can see in the following video, as the main character describes his awful family situation which has led to his degenerate behaviour. The very opening scene would make sense only to those who play through the game, but the second half is easy to follow regardless:
This type of gaming is also easy to play, and in general simple to make. In fact VisualNovelty.com, VisualNovelDai.com, and the more popular Ren’Py are three sources where you can actually create your own visual novel. The programming skills required are minimal, and they’re apparently quite simple to use. There’s even an forum designated specifically for visual novel creators.
The visual novel style of storytelling is an interesting way of telling a story, but nowadays the genre has become virtually synonymous with the eroge. One gamer on YouTube described the game 999 (mentioned above) in a review as an “escape-the-room, puzzle, thriller, action, text-based, adventure, reading game.” Nowhere in there did he say “visual novel,” because most people simply aren’t familiar with the term. Mui also discusses the association visual novels now have with pornographic material.
After Portopia, another video game genre was produced known as eroges, bishōjo or the dating sim. Any praise brought by Portopia was tainted by the adult games controlling the industry in the following years. Instead of adapting the medium for storytelling, companies decided to market to an adult audience by hashing out cheap, plotless dating games filled with mature scenes. This still haunts the medium today.
Just like in other artistic formats (e.g., movies, music) genre-bending occurs, and it’s not always easy to distinguish one from another. Most visual novels may or may not be dating sims (it’s hard to say, considering how many go unnoticed on the shelves in Japan) but most dating sims are certainly visual novels. And since companies who only make dating games don’t usually have a substantial budget, it means that they have to rely on text. This means that, compared to most other games, developers’ money is spent on writing and the storytelling, as opposed to the technological things like programming, or graphics and audio (though there are exceptions, which will be discussed in later articles).
We can thank developers “Chunsoft” – who created both the Portopia Serial Murder Case as well as 999 – for many of the best visual novels, in part because of their more flexible budget. According to 1up, Chunsoft’s 1998 game “Machi” (“Town”) put visual novels on the map. I’m not sure whether that’s really true or not, but it’s certainly one of the best visual novels to date.
Machi was so highly acclaimed that in 2006, readers of Famitsu – Japan’s most popular video game magazine – ranked it #5 in “top 100 games of all time.” That’s higher than all the Mario’s, the Zelda’s, and the Metal Gear Solid’s that were available until 2006; all though the highest-ranking Zelda title was close behind. “Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” which came out in the same year as Machi, was ranked #10. A little further down was another visual novel, “Tokimeki Memorial,” which ranked #23. This is a visual novel dating sim, (but not an eroge). Clearly, Japanese people are enjoying these games.
Presumably, the recently-released “Zelda: Skyward Sword,” said by critics such as IGN to be “the greatest Zelda game ever created,” had a chance of beating Machi’s #5 rank. But then again, Chunsoft’s most recent sound novel, released in 2008, entitled “428: Fūsa Sareta Shibuya de” (“428: In the Blockaded Shibuya”) was also considered to be an extremely well-made game. In fact, both of these games were two of only 18 titles to which Famitsu has ever given a perfect (10/10) score. Instead of animation, 428 used live-action footage, which you can see in the video below. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a movie; it’s still a visual novel:
The Future of Visual Novels
It’s still too early to tell whether or not they will die out, but I suspect that visual novels will only fill the need for a small segment of the gaming population. Since they never made a substantial impact on the gaming industry, the demand just isn’t there. In fact, it’s a little disconcerting to note that the visual novels I mentioned above as examples of quality gaming were almost all created by the same developer, Chunsoft. Where have the other quality visual novels gone?
Perhaps Chunsoft’s move to trademark their games as “sound novels” was a clever way to distance themselves from the visual novel (i.e., sex + bad script) stigma. This strategy may explain why another visual novel creator, Visual Art’s, have adopted the name “Kinetic Novels.” But then, Kinetic Novels aren’t actually games – they have no choices to be made, making them a true hybrid between a movie and a novel – and most of their games are eroge as well. Their most successful games were likely to have been the non-eroge titles (based on the amount of anime, manga, and card games made from them); but success is relevant, and the company still has little name recognition in the industry. For example, you probably wanted to correct me on the apostrophe in “Art’s,” since you didn’t realize that it’s really in there.
Regardless of what they call them, it’s not easy to find a quality visual novel that’s not a dating sim (which isn’t made by Chunsoft); so I can’t foresee a particularly bright future for visual novels, unless more companies get serious about it. The genre essentially needs something to stand out – which probably means success outside of Japan. Clannad and 999 helped, since they were also in English, but they weren’t enough. I also suspect that the appeal of eroge will dwindle as time goes on, because access to pornography is much greater than it was when such games were first introduced onto the Japanese market.
So now that we know what a visual novel is, we can look at it as more of a cultural phenomenon. That is, an especially Japanese phenomenon. Therefore, Part 3 will investigate the question: “Why are visual novels successful in Japan… as opposed to everywhere else?”