Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reach for the Stars

As so often, people with interesting opinions spurred conversation on IRC, which inspired me to collect my (and our) thoughts into a blog post. Basically, various people seem to be unhappy with the state of western-developed Visual Novels. They are not good enough and what's more, they are not even as good as the originally Japanese ones are. Being a group of non-Japanese people who are making a VN, we of course feel somewhat interested in the topic, but the subsequent discussion pretty fast derailed away from that because none of us really is keeping a finger on the pulse of OELVN scene anymore. Instead we talked about what could be done better. It occurs to me that unlike my usual subject of the kinks of KS development, this time I'm not a sovereign expert of the topic. I've gone through a certain arc as a consumer of culture, just like anyone. People who have had radically different experiences from mine might not agree with my views at all. I've read a lot of VNs. Less than some, more than others. I've read great many of the ones often cited as the cream of the crop. I've liked some VNs I've read. I've found some VNs really good. These experiences shaped my view of the visual novel medium, and from what I have seen and learned about this niche of this subculture is the following:

VNs, such as they are, don't actualize the immense potential of the medium. They don't come even close. In fact, even the top tenth percentile predicted by Sturgeon's Law are awfully bad when you compare them with other storytelling media. And this goes not only for OELVNs as decried in that discussion thread but for all of them. Here's a fun fact: out of the fifteen or so of us, I can name only one 4LS member who is still actively interested in newly released visual novel translations. A couple of the artists follow new Japanese releases but only for the art they contain. We do take note of new releases every now and then, Japanese, western and translations alike, but it's always with this certain kind of apathy. Yet we all love the medium itself very much. We can imagine a VN we'd love to read.

Broad and generalizing conclusion: the VNs that get made are a gret deal worse than the VNs that could be made. Much more so than plays, novels or movies. Now, the immediate argument that kindasorta tries to defend VNs is that it is a young medium: people have been writing books, doing theatre, even comics, movies and animation for a long long time compared to the short decade and change that VNs have. There is definitely some truth in that, I believe, on the basis of comparison to the evolution of other relatively recent media like video games or comics. To reach a greater height, VNs have to grow out of the cave of lameness they're stuck in (and from what I can see, only descending deeper into). Here's four points that I think are pretty important in that:

1. Get rid of the dependence on genre conventions
This is the biggest issue, so big that it could be cut into like four or five bullet points by itself, but that'd bore the crap out of anyone reading this and I'm not writing an academic paper. Visual novel is a medium, but just about every single one of them falls into some sort of anime type genre, both story- and artwise. Conventions of that subculture, or tropes I suppose I should say, are the cancer that are killing visual novels (as they say). Portraying sex pornographically, hyperadolescent themes, archetypal characterization and so on keep VNs tightly locked as a niche that has no hope of ever appealing to anyone outside the incredibly tiny number of diehard anime fans that basically shape the limits of the potential audience current VNs have. Comics have grown up a bit already and broadened their horizons, arguably even video games have. VNs could try, too.

2. Stop with the word diarrhea
With a couple of exceptions, every VN I've read has had completely inadequate story for its wordcount. Writing longwindedly can be justifiable, but it seems to be more of a rule to drown your sparse good ideas into a swamp of forgettable dialogue or templated events. Visualization (proper kind, the one I'm talking about in point 4.) makes a lot of words even more unnecessary than they would be in an equivalent non-visual novel. Consider the difference in wordcount of an average visual novel and an average theatre play script. Nowadays VNs seem to be overtly long mostly because they are expected to be so, but what started this trend? Maybe VN writers are paid by the word? Maybe competent editors are too expensive to hire? Who knows. Either way, artificially extending the script beyond what it has to offer makes for a terribly boring reading experience.

3. Develop the theory of interactive storytelling
This is the single hardest part to do well when writing a VN, and the one that sets them apart from other storytelling media most clearly. I have never seen a VN that does branching/interactivity in a way that'd satisfy me, and I feel that this is only because there hasn't been enough time and thought put into developing the way interactive stories should work. For a really satisfactory interactivity the choices the player has to make lead to such different directions that the sheer amount of content gets out of hand very fast. Notable is that western video games have had their parallel path of progression in interactivity, and while some of them have attained the broadness I like, it's unfortunately often at the cost of narrative coherence (I'm talking about stuff like Mass Effect where the weight of any given dialogue choice is miniscule and ultimately pointless sidetracks are lurking behind every corner). At any rate, this is the only area where western game developers (but not western VN developers) would actually make better VNs than their Japanese counterparts. There are some video games that tell their stories very nicely and inject the interactivity equally well.

4. Up the visualization
This is a tough one. Though delta sort of disagreed, I feel it's a vital point. Like in other visual storytelling media, the writing is much more important than the visual part, but only through the visuals you justify using a visual medium at all. With the current trends, even the best visual novel will be the rough equivalent of Dinosaur Comics. It's funnily written at best, but very pointless as a comic. Delta used video game cutscenes as a demonstration of the opposite, specifically this which I hadn't seen before but immediately liked. Even if the opening is (sparsely) animated, it's not really all that far from the basic structure of a visual novel. Pictures and narrative, that's all they are. So that's what a VN at its best could be like, all the way. Imagine the best video game cutscene you've seen, cut it into still frames in your mind and insert the story. Blows this sprites + bg + hentai CGs standard out of the water. Now this is something where I actually see constant evolution even now. The most innovative VNs are becoming more and more impressive visually, and I don't mean that the plastic moeblobs are drawn better, I mean that they use the visual aspect of a VN better. For a recent-ish example, Eden* by Minori comes to mind. Minori's visualization team has always been top notch, but Eden*, in my mind, marks a somewhat more concrete step forward. There's still a long way to go though. At the other end of the spectrum, the best OELVN I can think off the top of my head, The Dreaming, would've been better if the branching (good idea, horrible execution) and art (terribly unfit of the game) were stripped off, the story rewritten as a novella and read while listening to the soundtrack. That sort of defeats the point of it being a visual novel.

So that's what I think is needed. Now some of this stuff means you need a budget to make a high quality VN, and a budget is something current VNs don't have. Because the thing is, VNs are not all that popular, and the audience they have is very narrow. The visual novel I'd want to see is not really the kind of visual novel most of the audience would want to see, likely for a wide variety of reasons. VNs are a very tiny niche market, getting tinier every year but that has nothing to do with the medium itself. Obvious solution is that VNs would need to invent a new audience, but evolving from a delivery platform for cartoon porn and adolescent fantasies to a serious form of art is a thorny path (as proven by all the forms of art that have managed the feat, my hat's off to them).

Finally, to get in the personal aspect into this story, I guess I'll think about where KS stands. Or maybe not. I do have a set of opinions about how KS performs in each of the categories outlined above but I'll leave specific talking about that for after we release the game. Let's just say that my general sentiment is "not so good". And unlike with the scene as a whole, I know exactly why I think so. KS is totally an offender in all of the above, for the fundamental reason that we are terribly amateur - often outright bad - at this. Nobody had any clue about any of this stuff four years ago when we started. The project is a hodgepodge of experimental things, constantly evolving development paradigm and learning creators trying to live with the consequences of their bad decisions. It's pretty safe to say that about half to two thirds of 4LS don't like KS much at all. That's not to say that we aren't proud or happy about what we do when we get together, just that if we had known in the beginning what we know now, KS would be very different, probably not as approachable as it is and likely released a year ago already. I do like KS for what it is on some level too, but for me the actual merits of the game, if any, will be that it's made at all, the community that surrounds it and the, dare I say it, epic journey that is its birthstory. Now if we were to continue as a team, trying to find our own voice and way to do these things, we might eventually manage to get something actually cool out. However, making even a single VN is a huge investment, which is why evolving as a creator is kinda hard. We aren't likely to stay together for a decade or two, just to see where we can go. Neither is any current OELVN team. Japanese commercial teams are somewhat more likely to, I think, but their innovative drive might be bound in other ways. I don't know. For VNs to evolve as a medium, it'd need a lot of creators that are in for the long term, interact and strive to extend their boundaries. For these creators to emerge, they'd need an audience for their creations, to reflect and learn from them.

Eggs are not going to start spontaneously appearing, so what the scene needs is some chickens.

- Aura

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