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Gone Home is a visual novel. Deal with it.

Darbury

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This past weekend marked the unofficial start of summer here in the States, and to celebrate, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster threw down the gauntlet in a major way. The hot dog, it declared, is a sandwich. It consists of bread (the bun) holding some filling (a plump, juicy hot dog). It meets the textbook definition of a sandwich. Therefore, it’s a sandwich.

The reaction from Team Hot Dog was swift. “Nooo! That’s not true!” they Luke Skywalkered across the Twiterverse. “Hot dogs are hot dogs! Shuttuuuuuhp!” Whereas Team Sandwich raised nary a peep. “Cool,” they said. “We like sandwiches. Welcome to the club.”

And why was that? Maybe a look at similar sort of statement can help us try to figure it out:

Gone Home is a visual novel.

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Nooo! That’s not true! Gone Home isn’t a VN! Shuttuuuuhp!

Very light spoilers to follow.

If you don’t know, Gone Home is a game that came out in 2013, created by a handful of former BioShock devs. In it, you assume the role of an American college student who comes home from a year abroad only to find her parents’ house deserted, a cryptic note from her sister taped to the front door. The rest of the game is spent finding out just what happened.

Except it’s not a “game” as such. And you don’t really “play.” You simply wander the house using FPS controls, going from room to room and reading/hearing scattered bits of documentary evidence – letters, journal entries, crumpled-up notes, etc. – that help you unravel the mystery. That’s it. Some gamers have dismissively called it a “walking simulator,” but there’s clearly more to it than that. Gone Home is a digital experience that exists primarily to convey an authored text, one that shares structural similarities with traditional novels/short stories. That text is then given strong support by on-screen visual elements to form a cohesive whole.

While there’s no hard and fast definition of “visual novel” that I’m aware of, the above seems to do the job pretty well. And by that definition, Gone Home is a visual novel.

Nooo! It’s not a VN! It doesn’t take the form of a written novel!

Sure it does – an epistolary novel, to be specific. Here, I’ll even save you the trip to Wikipedia:

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An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic documents such as radio, blogs, and e-mail have also come into use.

Some well-known entries in this genre include Frankenstein, Dracula, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and World War Z. In Gone Home’s case, the main narrative thread is told via your sister’s journal entries, which are penned as letters in absentia to you. Additional plot is introduced via other letters, newspaper clippings, and historical documents. Sound familiar? Yup. In fact, if you printed the collected documents of Gone Home in paperback, it would hold up extremely well as an example of the epistolary form.

Gone Home is a visual novel. Deal with it.

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Nooo! It’s not a VN! You walk around in a 3D environment!

So what? Macbeth is a play; we can all agree on that. Sleep No More is a highly regarded re-contextualizing of that play as performance spaces meant to be walked through and experienced. The fact that you sit on your ass through one and physically traverse the other doesn’t change the fact that both are plays. They both have actors, scenes, and staging.

And besides, several other VN titles use the exploration of 3D environments to frame their textual elements – Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, Danganronpa, etc.

Gone Home is a visual novel. Deal with it.

Nooo! It’s not a VN! It’s a game that just happens to have text!

There’s almost zero “gameplay” in Gone Home. Seriously. Most of one’s time in so-called “narrative-driven” games like BioShock or Final Fantasy [n] or Persona is spent doing non-narrative things – fighting, more often than not. In Gone Home, if you’re not reading/listening to documents, you’re usually (a) walking, (b) turning on lamps, or (c) opening cupboards and looking at cans of soup. The “game,” such as it is, exists solely to deliver the narrative.

Baldr Sky, Aselia, the Rance VNs – all have far more gameplay than Gone Home could ever dream of.

Gone Home is a visual novel. Deal with it.

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Nooo! It’s not a VN! You can finish the game without reading most of it!

While Gone Home definitely gives you a great deal of leeway in what you choose to read, and in what order, there are still certain key documents that act as plot gateways. These help ensure there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end with an identifiable narrative arc in between.

Anyway, I can also “finish” a more traditional VN without reading most of it. Maybe I get an early bad ending. Or I can read one route to completion and decide to stop, missing most of the content.

Gone Home is a visual novel. Deal with it.

Nooo! It’s not a VN! If it is, then any game can claim the same!

Nope. Slippery slope denied. Just because Gone Home can be considered a VN, that doesn’t mean Tetris or Call of Duty: Jackalope can; it’s still a fairly high bar. Take The Walking Dead series by Telltale, for example. A number of people have argued that these games could (and should) be considered VNs, but I’d disagree. That could be a whole blog post by itself, but suffice to say their narrative form is much closer to that of a TV script than a novel or story.

All kings are men, but not all men are kings. Just because VNs prioritize narrative doesn’t mean all games that prioritize narrative are VNs.

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Nooo! It’s not a VN! It doesn’t have sprites against a background!

So what? Go tell that to Narcissu.

Nooo! It’s not a VN! It doesn’t have hand-drawn art!

So what? Go tell that to any recent VN using 3D character models/backdrops.

Nooo! It’s not a VN! It doesn’t have routes! And heroines!

Are we seriously having this conversation?

Nooo! It’s not a VN! Its creators don’t even call it that!

So what? Authorial intent means nothing. All the audience can judge is what’s on the page/screen. And what’s there is a visual novel. (For the record, the devs call it a "story exploration" game.)

Okay, class. What have we learned?

Our Gone Home experiment, interestingly enough, is the reverse of the hot dog situation. Visual novel fans (a.k.a., Team Sandwich) tend to be the ones arguing against Gone Home (a.k.a., Team Hot Dog) being considered part of the genre, rather than the other way around. Larger resists smaller, rather than smaller resisting larger. And why is that?

For Team Hot Dog, the object of its affection is more than a tube-shaped piece of meat on a bun. It’s the whole emotional experience surrounding the idea of “hot dog” – the childhood ballgames, the smell of charcoal in the backyard grill. There’s a good reason I can watch the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on TV next month, but not the Boar’s Head Ham and Cheese on Rye Eating Contest. To admit that a hot dog is just a sandwich is to risk making it less special somehow, to blur the lines of its magic.

And for members of Team VN, a “visual novel” is more than just any old game that combines textual narrative with computer graphics. It’s also the emotional experience of all the VNs they’ve played until now – experiences that are often colored by very specific art styles and narrative conceits. To admit that a “game” like Gone Home can be a visual novel is to risk making the genre seem less special somehow, to blur the lines of its magic.

In both cases, the emotional experience of a thing proves to be just as true and just as powerful as the dictionary definition of that thing. And unless your name happens to be Merriam or Webster, there’s very little to be done about the latter. But the former is a matter of personal interpretation; personal interpretation remains a hill that one can choose to defend and, indeed, die upon.

In other words, it’s possible for the statements “Gone Home is a visual novel,” and “I don’t consider Gone Home to be a visual novel,” to both be true simultaneously. But if you put ketchup on your hot dog sandwich, you’re just a bloody idiot.

Update #1: Now watch as I argue that Gone Home really isn't a visual novel. Proof you can have your cake and piss on it too.



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Although I disagree on this, heavily:

 

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Authorial intent means nothing.

 

It means a lot. It shows where the author is coming from, what s/he's trying to do and what are his/her references in doing so. It brings cultural intersections, intertextual references and genealogy to a work. Which may not be interesting, but certainly is useful in tracking down the history of a genre - let alone one as sloppy as visual novels.

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I very much enjoyed Gone Home when I played it. I considered whether I would call it a visual novel afterward and during, but rejected the notion. Why? It's just too interactive. When I read visual novels, I don't consider myself in control apart from picking which pages i want to read at certain well-defined points. In Gone Home, I was in control at all times, able to move as I like through a 3d space (the closest analogue to Gone Home in the 2d space would be the non-3d versions of Actual Sunlight, by the way). The feeling of self-insertion was utterly unlike the visual novels I know and love; I started roleplaying that little grill's oneechan soon as I knew who I was. Don't remind me of how I felt during Lilly's bad end in Katawa Shoujo, it's way too embarrassing.

The argument the vndb mods would make against it, though, is that through the average play experience you might spend as much if not more time exploring as actually reading anything. Is this valid? Bugger if I know.

All in all, Gone Home may or may not be a visual novel, but it ain't no visual novel o'mine (as you say :P). That said, I quite enjoyed it and may check out other walking simulators, or whatever new epithet people will have given them by then, at some point.

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so the vanishing of ethan carter, firewatch and basically any exploration adventure game is a vn then

btw I would love to see gone home included on vndb so I can give the big 1 it deserves :mare:

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1 hour ago, Palas said:

Although I disagree on this, heavily...
It means a lot. It shows where the author is coming from, what s/he's trying to do and what are his/her references in doing so.

I'll agree to disagree with you on that one. :) Both sides have merit, but I tend to fall in the reader response camp — e.g., "death of the author" and all that. I consider extratextual info (such as authorial intent) to be interesting, yet ultimately irrelevant to a critical evaluation of the text. After all, intent frequently fails to align with results.

For instance, did you know that Atlas Shrugged wasn't originally intended to be a comedy?

14 minutes ago, Deep Blue said:

so the vanishing of ethan carter, firewatch and basically any exploration adventure game is a vn then

For shame. You didn't read to the end of the post. No delicious hot dog sandwich for you. :P

As I suggested, it's not a slippery slope. Being a story-heavy exploration/adventure game doesn't automatically qualify something as a visual novel. What makes Gone Home special is that it's built around an already existing literary form, and the whole point of the gameplay is carry the reader through it.

2 hours ago, maefdomn said:

TL;DR : Who gives a shit ? Please enjoy game.

If nothing else, it’s worth taking time to consider what else visual novels can be, not just what they are. That’s how any art form grows. Otherwise, we’ll be locked in a perpetual ouroboros loop of big-chested high schoolers eating their own slice-of-life tails. (Oh god. That’s probably an actual thing in some VN. I just know it is. Euphoria, most likely.)

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An argument to make, I think, is that fake news doesn't become literature just because there is literature that is formatted like fictional news. You'll only categorize something as whatever it is you want to categorize if there is some utility to it, something that will make someone's life easier down the line if they are searching for the piece you're talking about or comparing it to others for some purpose.

At this point I already hate the slippery slope argument whenever it's made because so the fuck what? If you're like, "if I do this, then I'll have to do that" then just go ahead and do this and that. When you're talking about genres, they can only go as far as they are useful for people, not as far as they are pure. When it stops being useful, you stop doing it.

However, I don't think classifying Gone Home as a VN would do anyone any good. It's culturally so far away from basically every other VN out there and so much closer to other genres (say, the "walking simulators") that saying it's a VN doesn't help anyone in any matter. So it's best, for now, if we don't - at least while VNs aren't popular enough in the West to gobble up Gone Home's most similar games.

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1 hour ago, Zakamutt said:

I very much enjoyed Gone Home when I played it. I considered whether I would call it a visual novel afterward and during, but rejected the notion. Why? It's just too interactive

Two words: Gyakuten Saiban. Why VNDB, why? https://vndb.org/v711

TBH, Gone Home fits comfortably in adventure -> adventure having a combination of exploration, puzzles, and a story. If you're going to call this a VN, you'd be calling most adventure games VNs like 'The Walking Dead' ... and Phoenix Wright.

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I hope the mods man up and remove PW at some point, it would make me feel better about myself. Gone Home fits into the adventure genre quite well, though I'm sure there's fans of that genre feeling very sore in the bottom whenever someone says that... hmm, what does that remind me of again?

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8 hours ago, Darbury said:

If nothing else, it’s worth taking time to consider what else visual novels can be, not just what they are. That’s how any art form grows. Otherwise, we’ll be locked in a perpetual ouroboros loop of big-chested high schoolers eating their own slice-of-life tails. (Oh god. That’s probably an actual thing in some VN. I just know it is. Euphoria, most likely.)

I agree, but a discussion I recently had kinda showed us that people tend to be more incline to accept games as VNs when they have adult content and manga art in them rather than being story telling games (in any shape or form). Whereas some other people are a lot more conservative, the tendency people have to easily define X game as a Vn and another one that is close enough as not being one makes it way to difficult, if not impossible to accurately define.

By changing many small things, you end up changing the original a lot.

Depends on the community. For example, I and a few other people are open about accepting more stuff as VNs whereas a majority of the community doesn't. Because the VN community is a sub community of the anime community with a minority of exceptions (From what I see).

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I don't see any use in stretching the definition of visual novel. What good does that do anyone? It's okay for these games to be something other than VNs. It's okay to like things that aren't VNs, you don't have to transform everything you like into a VN. I just don't get why people want to do that so badly. 

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The definition for I and I believe vndb goes by is: "if significant parts of the story are presented with advancing text (which you virtually always click to advance), it's a visual novel or visual novel hybrid".

You could easily call that a narrative-centric game, or a game story, or something.

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Thanks for some very thoughtful points made by some very thoughtful folks — Palas, Zakamutt, maefdomn, Decay, etc. (But not Rooke. Never Rooke. ;))

If it wasn’t already clear, the above blog post was 70% me playing devil’s advocate, 10% me being serious, and 20% me just wanting to talk about hot dogs. I’ll happily admit I have Gone Home tagged as adventure in my personal games database, and that’s exactly the genre I’d expect to find it under were I looking for it in a store.

But after I finally got around to playing Gone Home — backlog ahoy! — it occurred to me to ask, “Well, why couldn’t this be considered a visual novel?” The meat of it was inherently literary, and the extratextual gameplay almost non-existent. Then I realized almost all the obvious counter-arguments I could think of stemmed not from a positive definition of what VNs are, but from a negative definition of what VNs shouldn’t be. “Gone Home lets me explore in a way that VNs don’t.” “Gone Home gives me a sense of immersion and agency that VNs don’t.” It’s akin to arguing that tomatoes must be vegetables because fruit stands don’t sell tomatoes. 

And that’s the part that really interests me. There’s a pervasive sameyness among VNs; maefdomn does a good job addressing some of the reasons why. The answer to “What’s a visual novel?” ends up being, “It’s something that’s like the visual novels I’ve played,” rather than a more useful discussion about what the essential elements of a VN are and aren’t. (Chronopolis’s VNBD definition is a good start, but only a start.)

Without knowing where the outer edges of the art form are, both mechanically and creatively, we can’t fruitfully explore those edges. And that leaves us with wave after wave of lookalike kickstarted VNs whose main selling points are the number of romanceable characters they have and whether or not they feature imoutos. There will always be a place for that, of course, but there's room for so much more.

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And that leaves us with wave after wave of lookalike kickstarted VNs whose main selling points are the number of romanceable characters they have and whether or not they feature imoutos. There will always be a place for that, of course, but there's room for so much more.

While there is something to this, the problem here is arguably not the restrictions of the material regarding adherence to medium standards but instead the genre of the stories presented. There are plenty of very much classical VNs which are not moege in any way. I think a more interesting example would be Analogue, which combines a diagetic interface with partially non-linear narrative and other conceits - pushing the form somewhat, but being very much within it.

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3 hours ago, Darbury said:

Without knowing where the outer edges of the art form are, both mechanically and creatively, we can’t fruitfully explore those edges. And that leaves us with wave after wave of lookalike kickstarted VNs whose main selling points are the number of romanceable characters they have and whether or not they feature imoutos. There will always be a place for that, of course, but there's room for so much more.

I made a definition a very long time ago (more than a year now) to try and do exactly that. If I recall correctly, it still had a few problems.

Interactive storytelling describes the process of telling a story that is created out of the actions of the player, moment to moment, decision by decision, scene by scene. Interactive storytelling is when the narrative can be influenced by the users, either through gameplay decisions/actions, or decisions emanating from the story (from Crawford.)

The above definition makes it clear that Visual Novels, famous for their “routes” and divergent stories, are clear examples of interactive storytelling. And yet with Mass Effect and the Walking Dead examples of interactive storytelling, not all interactive stories are Visual Novels. Visual Novels are more specific and are clearly a sub-genre of the Interactive Storytelling form.

It is also clear that the genre of Visual Novels describes STORYTELLING techniques, and not gameplay (because “pure” visual novels have no gameplay.) This is important, because it indicates that a “visual novel” is a tag (term) denoting a storytelling technique, and not a gameplay style. And because storytelling tags and gameplay tags are different, they can co-exist alongside one another. So Visual Novels don’t have to “compete” with tags like RPG or Adventure.

So what is a Visual Novel? All “Visual Novels” have 3 things. 1) They are novels and should be written as such. Therefore they must rely on the text to partially narrate events to the reader (whether that is description of physical events or internal monologue.) 2) They present choices to the user through the narrative (or dialogue,) these choices allow the user to affect the story. This is different to allowing the user to affect the narrative through gameplay decisions 3) They contain images which depict the setting of each scene of the story.

If a game has only VN storytelling techniques, then it is a Visual Novel. If the gameplay is also an attraction, then it's a game which contains VN storytelling techniques. This does not make it any less of a VN, it means that it has gameplay accompanying the VN storytelling.

Interactive Fiction is another subgenre of the Interactive Storytelling form. These games differ from those of its sister genre (Visual Novels) by not including background images depicting the setting of each scene the text is currently describing.  They can either be all text, or include flavour images which don’t depict the entire scene, but help add flavour to the text.

Kinetic Novels are almost identical to the definition of a Visual Novel except there is no way for the user to affect the story through narrative or dialogue choices. Because of this Kinetic Novels are not a part of the Interactive Story genre despite sharing a great many similarities to Visual Novels.

Dating sims are not VNs. They are sim games which may or may not contain VN (or KN) storytelling. So something like "True Love" would be a dating sim with VN storytelling. Games like Persona contain dating sim gameplay, but no VN storytelling. This is because 'sim' is a tag denoting gameplay, and has nothing to do with the storytelling techniques within (if it has any storytelling.)

Most adventure games people usually identified as VNs are most likely adventure games with Kinetic Novel storytelling (no decisions in the story to branch narrative.)

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I strongly disagree with not including kinetic novels in visual novels. I would rather consider the kinetic novel the base from which the VN with choices can be formed. This doesn't account for how visual novels developed (rather the reverse of the relationship I propose), but feels more natural to me and my personal #opinion of what is really central to the visual novel medium. Then again, I'm not a guy who finds himself bored by a choiceless story, whilst I know you're a gameplay VN fan :P.

The problem with the term interactive storytelling is that most games these days are not storyless, and are certainly interactive. It's pretty hard to find non-silly terms though.

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Now that's the kind of post I like, Rooke! I love how much thought went into this. :)

13 minutes ago, Rooke said:

I made a definition a very long time ago (more than a year now.) If I recall correctly, it still had a few problems.

[...] All “Visual Novels” have 3 things. 1) They are novels and should be written as such. Therefore they must rely on the text to partially narrate events to the reader (whether that is description of physical events or internal monologue.) 2) They present choices to the user through the narrative (or dialogue,) these choices allow the user to affect the story. This is different to allowing the user to affect the narrative through gameplay decisions 3) They contain images which depict the setting of each scene of the story.

Qualifications 1 and 3 mostly make sense, but I question whether #2 is necessary. Most sources (VNDB, Wikipedia) categorize kinetic novels as a sub-category of VNs, rather than a similar but distinct category of its own, as you do here. If so, then #2 should be omitted.

So, staying in devil's advocate mode, if we strike #2 and use that broader definition of a visual novel, Gone Home qualifies as a VN — or at least "a game which contains VN storytelling techniques," which, as you say, "does not make it any less of a VN." It (1) is written as a novel of the epistolary type, and (3) contains images which depict the settings of the story.

If we keep #2, then Gone Home still remains a kinetic novel under your definition. (Again, playing devil's advocate.)

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First, mayo >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> mustard >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> slurry > ketchup

 

Second, no. The dichotomy between gameplay and storytelling is absolutely false. Its storytelling techniques are gameplay techniques too, should you consider the story not only as the process of collecting events in a certain order but also as information that can affect a player's behaviour towards the information system (namely the story itself) at hand. As such, interactive storytelling is not (only) the process by which a story stems from a player's decisions, but the process by which a certain narrative can affect the player's behaviour towards the information he is given through stimuli. Contingency is far more important than agency, as it happens even in the absence of choice, and is a crucial aspect of gameplay.

Visual novels use literary text as its primary source of information, which means it is the literary text that delivers the information a player seeks to shape his behaviour. Other systems of the lack thereof absolutely don't matter as long as they don't have a self-contained feeling of progress that can steal the text's primacy in doing so. For instance, an RPG level system doesn't stop a visual novel from being a visual novel as long as the text doesn't become its subset to give flavour or explain its system to the player (which is the case when "goblin loses 4 hitpoints" stops being a source of information in and for itself and becomes the translation for the RPG system).

Therefore it doesn't matter what choice system a visual novel uses or what other systems it has. If progression inside the game system is delivered through literary text, it is a visual novel. There are no pure visual novels - it's just a system that can happen in any genre and just happened to have its own genre by putting this literary text in evidence as much as possible.

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If kinetic novels have gameplay, what stops dead-tree books (or ones on your Kindle or whatever newfangled devices are out there now) from having gameplay?

 

EDIT: I'm pretty sure I didn't actually read the above post. RIP.

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1 minute ago, Zakamutt said:

If kinetic novels have gameplay, what stops dead-tree books (or ones on your Kindle or whatever newfangled devices are out there now) from having gameplay?

Nothing. Some do. Gameplay is not a property of things, it's a property of man. Yet, there's no point in calling them games because they aren't made as such, aren't sold as such, aren't bought as such and aren't discussed as such.

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