To provide some context, Deemo is a Taiwanese rhythm game developed for the iOS and Android by Rayark Games. For the most part, I think this game has escaped the notice from most western otaku. Which honestly would make sense, since it isn't marketed towards Otaku like other rhythm games (notably Love Live and Osu). In fact, the game play is arguably not even the primary purpose of the game. Rather, the songs serve the broader purpose of telling a story together with the visuals.
The word "visual novel", by its name suggests a story that emphasizes the visual aspect to express the story. Taking this loose understanding of the term (and not the conventional definition), Deemo certainly qualifies as an interesting example. In fact, Deemo mostly relies on its visuals and audio to convey its story, hardly using much text at all. This aids the experience excellently as the story is quite simple, and most of the experience is emotional. And nothing conveys emotions as well as music.
The game begins in a cut scene showing falling sheet music, and a mysterious figure that resembles a walking shadow (Deemo). The next thing we see is Deemo peacefully playing a piano, when he is suddenly interrupted when a girl falls from the sky into his house. Catching her, they then ponder on the best way to return her where she came from (in the sky). It is then that they discover a little sapling growing on the ground, and they realize that when it grows into a large tree, she could climb it up. Thankfully, the tree grows through the power of music, and that is where the game play becomes relevant.
The tree grows by playing music, but in order to keep it growing you need to keep discovering new music. This is where the other key game mechanic becomes important. For the most part, you unlock new songs when the tree reaches certain heights. But usually you can only get the music by finding it. So you have to search through Deemo's house to find new songs. In doing so, you discover all sort of other clues that provide hints about Deemo's true identity. As you search through Deemo's house, you are not only discovering new music to progress the game, but also learning about the weird world you are in. Deemo's house, is essentially the whole world in this universe. By exploring, you will inevitably ask yourself 3 questions. Who is Deemo, who is the masked lady, and what is this world?
Visual Novels typically use choice structures as a means to direct the story. Similarly, but also quite differently, you guide the story and its progression in Deemo through exploration of the limited areas. There is not much to explore, just like how VNs usually only provide a few branching choices, which provides the same sense of confinement that VNs give. You are given some room to explore and deviate, but you are mostly restricted to a few places.
The art cover for each song also adds a level of storytelling as each picture captures an image of Deemo's and the girl's relationship developing. The song itself provides the mood to interpret the picture. In other words, the song is essentially the words. Or another way of thinking about it is that each song could be broken down into musical notes and transcribed on paper as sheet music. Well that sheet music, is the script to this story. The game focuses all the comprehensive aspects of the story to imagery and exploration (with minimal use of text), allowing for character development and all things emotional to be expressed by the music as opposed to text. And while narrative can always communicate plot points more efficiently than music, music trumps narrative in terms of emotional expression. And ultimately Deemo's story is more focused on mood, than it is on plot.
The game wants the player to use their imagination to string the plot together by using images and the music as the core tools to do so. In much the same way that novelists want the reader to use their imagination when visualizing descriptions. In this way, I think this music game, captures the true heart of music; emotional expression.
The title of this article suggests that I think that Deemo is in some way a visual novel, and using the term loosely, that is true. As I briefly mentioned before, the term “visual novel” implies a story that is primarily expressed through visuals (this is of course ignoring the historical context to how the term was coined in the first place). And I have seldom seen any story that has relied on the visual aspect as much as Deemo. The game almost solely relies on images to express what is going on, and music to infuse emotional meaning to those images. And it is truly impressive how effective a story can be told in this limited way. To the extent where by the end of this journey, I was in tears. And when I return back to replay certain songs, or to view certain cut scenes, the feelings I initially felt are still there.