Monday, October 7, 2013

What makes a game a game: a beginner's guide to visual novels


As video games continue to evolve, it's natural that the boundaries of the medium are pushed into directions that game designers in the 1970s and 80s would never have dreamed possible.

But at what point do these 'games' become something more, or less, than actual games?

I've been mulling this question over recently as I've started dabbling in visual novels over the past year, popping an odd review or two up when I can convince my editors to go for it.  Yet one question I'm asked by friends time and again is whether these visual novels are worth playing.

Quintessentially Japanese, visual novels are more like interactive comic books than video games.  Some are funny, others are dark, and many involve romance of one stripe or another - but what they all share is a distinct lack of gameplay.

Sure, you press buttons, click through menus, and juggle slots full of save data just like you would in any other game, but what's unique about visual novels is - for the most part - you have very little say on the outcome of the plot.

Like early platform games, there's an end objective and you come to it - eventually - by the game's end, but the choices you're given along the way will usually just affect interpersonal relationships and won't change whether your character will, say, go to a new location or stay put.

...and god help you if you want to control what they have for lunch.

Why didn't he order a salad for lunch?  I wanted him to order a salad.
 PLEASE. ORDER. A. SALAD!!!

The end result of this is natural bit of frustration as main characters invariably will make decisions players don't want them to in order to continue the story, but is this something unique to visual novels?

It's arguable that the answer here is 'no', as all but the most open-ended sandbox games force players to end and goals by leading them through a sequence of pre-ordained events.  Mainstream video games use levels and bosses to demarcate these events, but in visual novels the water's a bit murkier.

With player input only popping up during key moments in the story, it becomes natural for players should feel that their choices actually matter in determining how the story advances. Some visual novels recognize this and confront players with a list of "Bad End"s to unlock before they finally make it true ending(s) ordained by the story, but for the most part the point of quicksaves in visual novels is to streamline the reload process to get you to the real ending as quickly as possible while Bad Ends serve as little more than colorful game over screens.

The most difficult part of visual novels, however, lies in whether or not you'd recommend them as a game.  They're not something you pick up quickly or play for 5-10 minutes to kill time during your day and they usually offer little in the way of excitement or quick satisfaction. In order to get the most out of a good visual novel, you'll need to read it like a book and allow yourself to get lost in the story.

This takes a combination of time, focus, and dedication, but what it doesn't take is any actual skill.  There are no timed inputs to master or combos to learn - and there's very little strategy to employ past save, load, and save again.

But are visual novels worth playing?

If you're willing to accept that they'll deliver something completely unlike the games that you're used to - casual, core, or otherwise - the answer is an easy 'yes' provided you can find one that strikes your fancy.

To manage expectations, however, you'll need to accept that your time with a visual novel will be closer to time spent with a book than time spent with a video game and that your choices, such as they are, amount to little more than placing a thumb in the pages as you flip between chapters.

Square yourself with this, and you're in for a good time.