Visual Novel Games
I admit this came to a surprise to me that I have taken an interest in the visual novel market. Until the discussion that we had during class I wasn’t really interested in this market. In fact, I ignored it. To me this mix of narrative driven novels, anime and games turned me away from them. I felt that it was a strange and unappealing format to play games. Now, I understand that this seems a little harsh seeing as I like playing Dungeons and Dragons, which is similar just more interactive.
Throughout this blog post I will be looking into visual novel games, in an attempt understand the appeal and market of these games I will be researching and analysing a few games by reading into their origins, audience, different styles and impact. I will also be looking into my thoughts of western games, like TellTale’s The Walking Dead (2012).
As someone who is not part of the intended audience, I want to use this to showcase research and gain a better understanding of the genre.
Topics discussed within the presentation will come up during this post, but I would like to delve deeper into what they actually are to start off with. But, I want to understand what the difference between the eastern and western Visual Novel scene. But, what exactly are they?
What are visual novels?
As the name suggests it is a splice between a novel and a computer game, in a sense. They follow a structure that is not the flavour of the day within western games. This video game structure is that there is very minimal interactions from the player. This is instead replaced with a focus on narrative.
Now in western triple A games there is narrative based games, but where these two genres differ is that Visual Novel games are text based narratives whilst triples are more frequently renowned to be visual like movies.
Game Play Style and Artwork
Within visual novel games you will typically find that anime is the major drawing point. Some of the artwork, characters and backgrounds are influenced by Japans culture and locations, as showcased in Fig.1.
Due to anime being popularised in Japan there is an abundance of visual novels that use this art style within their games.
Where game play is concerned they also had influence from western cultures. This was found within the game genre in America in the 1980’s called “Adventure Games”.
The creator of the first original visual novel game, that I will talk more about later in this post, Yuji Horii stated in an interview with Retro Gamer magazine that he “[..]read an article in PC Magazine about a US computer game genre called adventure games ‘Adventure Games’, which allowed players to read stories on their PC’s” (Horii 2011)
This article helps to highlight the beginnings of the game play structure found within visual novel games which Horii describes “It was a program in which the story would develop through entering a command and receiving an answer to it” (Horii, 2011).
Although this set a precedent for the visual novel games that came out the years following it, there has been improvements to the genre, game play wise and subjectively narrative wise, but adventure games is the foundation of visual novels. Which brings me to my next point.
Evolution of Visual Novel’s: From Beginnings to the Modern Day
As previously mentioned Yuji Horii worked on the first visual novel game “The Portopia Serial Murder Case”. (1983) This game, as Horii described, has you
The gameplay and narrative structure of adventure games gave birth to Portopia, to be the first of its kind, according to Horii, “We still didn’t have them in Japan, and I took myself to make one.” (Horii,).
This game resonated with many of Japans game developers. One note-able fan was Hideo Kojima who merged influences. However, the genre visual novel seemed to not be existent in Japan in these early stages. As evidenced with Kojima’s game Snathcer (1988), which is known, till today as an adventure game. However, it incorporates the culture of both western influences like Blade Runner (1982) and the adventure game genre. In Fig.2 we see that the game play is reminiscent of the adventure genre, in which we pick where we need to go and what action we will take and who to interact with.
Although Snatcher used these as influences it also incorporated manga motifs into its scene presentation. The game was presented like panels to show actions, reactions, backgrounds, establishing shots and characters. Fig.3, Fig.4.
In an article discussing the ‘History of Visual Novels’ Brian Crimmin’s highlights, “The challenge in adventure games came from observing static environments and applying knowledge about the narrative in just the right way[..]”
This accentuates how Snatcher follows this formula and presents it in a choose your own adventure video game and uses it to dictate layouts within the environment and detailing on the characters that influences game play. Typical of the adventure genre style.
The manga panel motif was incorporated, maybe as a response to the limitations the gaming systems had at the time. Transitions or other animations for the backgrounds and characters where limited or non existent because these systems where not made to house big narrative, almost cinematic games like Snatcher (1998).
In a short span of time we have seen the games have progressed onto more narrative and cinematic subjects and incorporated both cultures into the one game. However, Snatcher became more known in the US than its predecessor who did not see an English translation until 2006. Maybe because of its use of pop culture. But none-the-less it shows the beginnings of the western market becoming interested within these games.
Moving into the 1990 to the 2000’s we see an increase of the incorporation of Japanese culture. Which meant that anime was heavily incorporated into these games.
Rebecca mentioned that this time period was known as “The Lost Decade”. The economy collapsed and people began to seek jobs in creative industries. The government followed suit by supplying more funding to different companies to make these games, anime and manga.
In the game ‘Tokimeki Memorial: Private Collection’. We see that there are facial animations, and generic scenes that are switched out whenever there are transitions to different environments. This made the games flow much better, but the biggest improvement was the animation. These games, mainly ‘Tokimeki Memorial’ (1994) and ‘Tokimeki Memorial: Private Collection’ (1996), showcased these improvements as well as the influence of anime, it got rid of the adventure game genre framework to incorporate more ‘Final Fantasy’ like movement, and narrative focus. This would go on to be a house style for the games to come.
On saying that, there is a nice video that shows the evolution of the different games within the Tokimeki Memorial series.
Within this video we see the style change with time period. As the gaming software and graphics improved so did the games. This series is an example of such changes. Now, within the video it shows different styles of game design, I will turn your focus to the visual novel games:
Tokimeki Memorial (1994), Tokimeki Memorial: Private Collection(1996), Tokimeki Memorial Drama Series Vol.3: Tabidachi no Uta (1999) and Tokimeki Memorial Girls Side. 2nd Season (2008).
These 4 games in particular demonstrate the improvement and evolution in style and quality. In Tokimeki Memorial Drama Series Vol.3: Tabidachi no Uta Fig.5, we see the series ditch the sprite animation and motif to favour the flavour of the PlayStation era, which allowed for smoothly rendered 2D assets and better yet 3D.
The evolution of this series also showcases how the backgrounds had more personality and less negative space. Although they used generic locations, for example the school, Konami seemed to have added more background characters, although static, it made the environments and game feel lively and gave off a sense of community. As we see in Tokimeki Memorial Girls Side. 2nd Season (2008) Fig.7.
From this there was another big step for the genre. The incorporation of 3D. 3D would allow the medium to make games that have animated characters and backgrounds. Something that wasn’t achievable in the earlier games. 3D also makes it easier to animate, instead of drawing frame by frame in 2D, you can make a model, rig it and animate whenever needed. However, as witnessed in the example below, we see that the animation is limited to small movements, i.e breathing.
Proyecto is one example of how the visual novel looks with 3D applied. This game follows the same layout as the visual novels that came before it. The texturing used within this game seem to be based off of the 2D visual novels that came before, with the addition of the anime influence.
Another example of this would be a game called Midnight Sanctuary (2018).
From observation we still see the influence of Japanese culture within the game. The anime style has not gone out of fashion and this seen a release on multi platform, which suggests that there is a market in the west for these games. However, it is still not as big as the visual novel culture in Japan.
Thanks to rom hacks and fan dubs and subs, we have access to different visual novels. Although, there are western visual novel games, I wanted to explore it from the Japanese side. After all they did create an interesting genre with an in house style.
I was intrigued to learn that it is based off of western cultures and later fully implemented the Japanese culture to form the genre of visual novels.
However. The Midnight Sanctuary (2018) reminds me of other western games like TellTales The Walking Dead (2012).
Are TellTale’s Games viewed as Visual Novels?
Thanks to looking through the history of visual novels there seems to be adaptations of anime and manga. An example of this is Steins Gate. This leads me to believe, if Japan adapts there anime and manga into a visual novel, what makes the western adaptations of their graphic novels any different?
Well what genre are they apart of?
Although there is nowhere to factually state that the visual novel genre is very specific with its game mechanics, art and narrative style, there does seem to be a default “House Style”. Which is covered above.
Games like The Walking Dead (2012) and The Wolf Among us () are known as adventure games. As we learnt before, at its core, visual novels are adventure games, it is the Japanese equivalent.
Whats the difference?
Well at first glance there are a glaring differences, however, fundamentally they are the same, right? Well lets take a look at game play.
The west favour a “do-it-yourself” game play style, fantasy games and zombies where the meal of the day around the time of The Walking Dead’s release.
Gameplay you can move around, inspect objects and interact with other players. That is where the difference lies.
Fundamentally these games are the same however, TellTale games circle back to the point and click and choose your own adventure games with more input to the game play.
TellTale’s series have the same branching narrative as many visual novels. However, where the difference is here is that although it is narrative focused, choices within The Walking Dead do not really matter. However, a mechanic that is an interesting approach is that characters remember your actions whether it be good or bad. I have not really found this within visual novels.
I conclude that these game genres are similar in design, its just that the Japanese market seem to favour the text based game play whilst the US and other western countries prefer more interactive game play.