The visual novel is a videogame genre that is often overshadowed by the many mainstream genres that make up the majority of the market. Whereas consumers are used to playing first and third person shooters, racing games, sports titles, RPGs and action adventure romps, reading an animated book is seldom what first comes to mind when someone says “what type of game do you enjoy?” Times are changing and the visual novel is becoming ever more popular. So popular in fact that you might be enjoying them without even realising.
For those unaware, the visual novel is effectively a book with flashy effects. As you read hours upon hours worth of dialogue and description, still pictures with some animated graphics give greater insight to the world described in the text. As the images paint a picture for you, the visual novel primarily functions as a script throwing dialogue between characters, briefly stopping to describe an action that cannot be portrayed by the simple pictures of motionless characters.
As time has progressed, the visual novel has evolved with technology. A lot of recent visual novels have incorporated more “gamey” elements and straddle the line between text-heavy books and commonplace videogame mechanics. The puzzle-solving Professor Layton series and the faux-lawyer Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series are both stand-out DS titles that tell gripping stories while engaging the mind. The Layton series alone has sold over 15 million copies.
BlazBlue, a fighting series by Arc System Works (famous for the Guilty Gear series) on PS3, Xbox 360 and Vita, has completely reinvented how fighting games tell their stories. Traditional fighting games, such as Street Fighter 4, have you select a character to play as, watch a minute-long videoclip that tells a brief origin story, have you fight a string of 8 or so unconnected fights, and then resolve the ‘story’ with another brief cutscene. On top of this, each character’s tale is usually unrelated to the next. BlazBlue threw away these shackles and dreamed big.
In BlazBlue: Continuum Shift (the second in the series) there is one story initially available to play, that of ‘Ragna the Bloodedge’. His tale is told through the visual novel form, interspersed with fights when the story calls for it. After about 10 minutes of reading you are challenged to a fight by Taokaka in order to hone your skills. FLASH. The game switches into its normal fighting mode and leaves you to have a single round fight. Upon victory the story continues. When you finish his story mode, which takes approximately an hour, other story modes open up. Like an ever-expanding web, you are able to play the stories of (most of) the characters you encountered in Ragna’s tale. By the end of the game’s 20 hour story you have seen the events of the BlazBlue universe from all angles, really fleshing out the world. That’s not even considering the game’s split-paths and multiple endings.
The Zero Escape series has received much critical acclaim for combining escape the room puzzles with mind-boggling sci-fi visual novel tales. The most recent game in the series, Virtue’s Last Reward, sits humbly on the 3DS and Vita. Each character is modelled in 3D and has wonderful voice acting, a real next step for what could be fundamentally considered a book. The tale itself is also brilliantly combined with the game.
Virtue’s Last Reward is littered with multiple choices that change where the game leads you. Upon accessing the “flow” menu you are able to see what previous choices you made, travel to said choice and travel down an alternate story path. Not only is this necessary to complete the full story but the mechanic of the player (yes, you, random stranger holding the 3DS/Vita in your hands) jumping between parallel timelines is actually explained within the context of the game’s universe. Quite simply, the way the game presents itself and its story could not be done in a better way.
Once upon a time ‘visual novel’ was considered a derogatory term used synonymously with ‘galge’, a visual novel that contains romantic dating elements. Especially so with ‘eroge’ galges that normally end with the players having explicit sexual intercourse with one of the many game’s female characters, more colloquially known as a ‘hentai game’. This is now far from the case. In fact, there are many harem-based visual novels that approach the subject matter with respect.
Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel in which you play as Hisao, a boy who develops cardiac dysrhythmia. As a result, he enrols in a boarding school for students with disabilities. The game is about the tender friendships he builds with a series of girls and the potential relationships that can blossom. Katawa Shoujo does a brilliant job of exploring these relationships in a very natural way and of exploring each character as a whole, not just their disabilities. The game does lead you down one of the five girls’ tales and each path eventually culminates in a tasteful sex scene. However, these can be completely skipped if you so wish, putting the focus on all elements of a relationship and not just the sex within them. One more thing; this game was made by a group of strangers that met on 4chan.
Japan is still very much the hub of interesting visual novels that are ‘pure’. Steins;Gate, Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni, Saya No Uta, and Corpse Party, which was eventually released on PSP, come to mind. It’s the ‘hybrid’ games that seem to have flown over to Western shores in a triumphant manner, the visual novels that gamify visual novels. And they are still in full force. This year alone sees the release of BlazBlue: Chronophantasma, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, and Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, a game where a group of students are locked in a school and tasked with murdering one another without getting caught.
I can’t imagine the the visual novel format working with every genre of videogame. Just imagine the pacing of the next Call of Duty if each mission was interrupted by a 20-minute long section of reading accompanied by cutesy anime marines. It would be ruined. Despite this, I believe that visual novels have the scope to experiment with new storytelling devices within other genres of games and will continue to do so for years to come.
Is it likely that visual novels will take the world by storm? I doubt it, but that’s ok. Visual novels have a strong place on my handhelds in my pockets and are welcome to tell me stories oozing with imagination one puzzle-filled commute at a time.
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