Sunday, August 8, 2010

What exactly are we making here?

I don't remember who brought it up first yesterday, but we were discussing the tricky problem of immersion in the dev channel yesterday which led into a bigger discussion about what exactly we'd classify a visual novel as.  This came from one of our favorite topics of conversation, which is what in the world is wrong with visual novels--or rather, why they can't seem to become a pop culture sensation (spoilers: they will probably never be a pop culture sensation).

The problem is that Visual Novels seem to be caught between being games and being novels.  Looking at some of the debates surrounding other developments on the VN scene (specifically some of the commentary about that novelstream thing that I refuse to have an opinion on) you can see would-be developers listing things they want their VNs to do while remaining blissfully ignorant that what they're describing isn't a VN at all and is more like an RPG.  Part of the problem comes, I think, from not having a definition of a VN, so let's lay that one on the table right now:

Presenting The Hivemind's Definition of Visual Novel:  A standalone form of electronic literature (that is, not requiring the internet), characterized by a combination of text and  sprites, photographs, or animation to tell stories (i.e. a visual element combined with text to tell a story).

This is a pretty wide definition, and leaves a lot of how the story is told up for interpretation.  The problem with narrowing it down would be to sacrifice room for innovation.  It also would introduce a bias--I had to say 'not requiring' the internet because while there are web-based VNs out there, they aren't the only VNs.  You might also notice I said nothing about any sort of reader control over the narrative, because that is also not a part of what is necessary.  The only two core components of the medium are right there in the name: the visual aspect has to be there, and the textual aspect has to be there.  Adding game elements makes it something else, not a visual novel, but maybe a different form of electronic literature.

While I'm defining things I guess I should define electronic literature--I'm gonna actually cheat and just use some other academic's definition (although they call it 'digital fiction' the definition works for electronic literature so I'm using it here): 'fiction written for and read on a computer screen that pursues its verbal, discursive and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium, and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium.'  Visual Novels would lose the movement of sprites, or the addition of music--some VNs wouldn't lose anything at all if they were presented as a book with pictures, but the fact that some would is enough.

Right.  That's got our definitions sorted out, so let's go a little deeper.  Let's examine what happens when we read something like Katawa Shoujo.

What are we presented with?  Well, KS is a story told in first person.  Not only that, but the reader is able to choose how they want Hisao to respond to particular situations, which in turn will result in different stories being told--just like a CYOA novel (remember the Apollo 13 CYOA?  Anyone?).  Does this make KS a 'game?'  Again, it comes down to definitions.  Games generally have conditions for something they define as 'victory.'  The player achieves victory by acting within the rules that the game has set out.  KS has no such victory condition--some endings are 'happy' endings and some are 'sad,' but we do not define any one such ending as the 'right' ending.  Hisao either winds up with a girl or he doesn't.  The 'sad' endings in KS are no more than the bad endings in a CYOA.  You go back and make a different choice and see where that gets you.  However, the first-person narration coupled with the ability to choose some of Hisao's responses makes a reader of Katawa Shoujo feel more like they are Hisao (an effect that climatic refers to as the 'IT'S LIKE I'M REALLY _______' effect).  This does not make KS a dating simulation, however, because you don't actually have to work within any set of rules to get the girls to like you beyond choosing the branches of the story that we as developers have decided will lead to a happy ending rather than a sad ending.

So VNs are not games--and those that market themselves as such are either not actually visual novels or are misrepresenting themselves.  Furthermore, VNs (and I feel like this is stating the painfully obvious) do not have to be romantic at all.  It is a more story-heavy bit of electronic literature rather than game-heavy.  Game-heavy examples of electronic literature would be something like Mass Effect, which also tells a branching narrative (this is a bit of an oversimplification but to really get into things would make this even longer than it already is) while also having skill-based challenges for the player to overcome (as well as all the character building and equipment selection that has no effect on the story but does make the skill-based challenges easier or harder).  Personally I'd love to see more VNs told in the third person, or VNs that tell stories that aren't in some way romantic.  The thing that is holding back VNs (apart from the stubborn insistence that they are games, which they are not) is a lack of experimentation with the stories.  We're still finding our feet--and I lump KS in with a rather ignoble list of derivative VNs that rely too heavily on romance and anime cliches (we have tried very hard to avoid this, but the setting itself is so heavily played out that the chances of it being original were crippled from the get-go).

I'm not saying such VNs don't already exist--I can think of a few off the top of my head, and I'm sure that you all can come up with a hell of a lot more than I can--but certainly they don't appear to be the norm.  Until then, VNs are doomed to be little more than occasional curiosities, eclipsed by stories that take more advantage of their formats.  The strength of a VN is that it can tell a complex narrative as well as blend it with impressive art.  Unfortunately, the format has so much baggage attached to it that it can really only thrive by making a clean break with its roots and spinning itself as something else.  'Electronic novel' has a ring to it, don't you think?

--The Hivemind

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