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Visual Novels are a Hot Medium

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Zalor

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Firstly, by “Hot” I mean purely in the Mcluhanistic sense of the word. Though I think we all acknowledge that VNs can be a very “hot” medium in the erotic sense as well. But seriously speaking, VNs are a hot, highly intensive medium; and this is precisely why I see so much artistic potential in them even if relatively few as of yet have fully capitalized on this potential.

To provide a brief definition of hot and cold media I think the simplest explanation is the more immersive a medium is the more hot it is. The less immersive, and the more causal the experience of it is, the more cool it is. Reality TV is probably the best example of cold media. You can enjoy an episode of Terrace House or Jersery Shore or whatever (insert reality TV show) while paying relatively little attention to it. In fact dumb television's appeal is precisely because you can passively enjoy it while watching it with friends and family. Honestly this is why I think most Japanese TV (I'm intentionally exuding anime here) is so bad, but that's probably a rant for another time.

Hotter media require more focus and attention from the participant. The best example of this would be literature. While reading a book, you need to pay sole focus to the words. And so this involves a hyper concentration. Hence it is high intensity, thus hot (seriously I didn't come up with these terms, famed academic Marshal Mcluhan did half a century ago).

So then why do I do think, and more importantly why do I boldly claim that VNs are fundamentally a hot medium. Well, because for the best VNs and and the most memorable experiences VNs induce, we are highly involved in the moment. Practically there ourselves. And this is because the combination of text, audio, and visuals create a sensory experience which practically places us in the fictional scenes that are being depicted. It's the same reason why Lets Plays of Visual Novels just don't feel right to most VN fans. At least not as a first time experience to a particular VN. Because the first time you experience a particular VN it is a deeply intimate experience.

I mean sure there are kusuge which are probably more fun to play with friends or in a live stream then they are to read individually. But then again they are called kusuge for a reason. Precisely because they aren't good, and more specifically don't conform to the medium's strengths. 

So where am I going with this? I don't exactly know. Maybe to start a discussion about VNs as a medium of their own; which I think they are. That is to say I think they exist in a separate category from video games. Though I acknowledge there can be VNs with gameplay. I think a “VN with gameplay” is very different from a “game”. And I suspect most gamers would also agree.

Anyway, its in my nature to make bold claims when I believe something. But if you disagree with me I'd be happy to discuss it with you. More then anything I like to create conversation about concepts which interest me. And if you agree with me, well I'll be happy to know I'm not alone.

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I've mostly given up on anyone in Japan utilizing the medium properly.  The ones who do don't seem to prosper (Light for instance) or are entirely reliant on a single genius (Caramel Box, Propeller before it disbanded after two failures in a row without Higashide).  I think the reason for this is that the medium got defined really early on as an ero and romance focused medium, due to the twin dominance of the moege and nukige genres.  While there are a number of VNs out there that qualify as true literature, it takes someone with a lot of patience to find them in the first place.  

I don't have the knowledge to speak definitively about the Western market, however.

Edit: Part of the reason the Japanese market is so awful is that Japanese find it difficult to ignore preconceptions.  It took even longer than it did here for otakus to stop being treated as second-class citizens, and even now, that prejudice is pretty strong in some quarters (particularly the over-sixty generations).  This tendency to simply believe the preconceptions created by others' words and initial impressions have led to mostly people interested in ero and idealized romances to take an interest in consumer visual novels in Japan, meaning that a greater majority of the games are made to satisfy that type of consumer.  The market is currently contracting (yes it is contracting) and as a result, a disproportionate number of games escape the 'moege' label than in previous years.  However, this is simply because the makers who cater to people who want actual plots or something else in their visual novels still have about the same number of consumers, not because there are a great many more such in an absolute sense.  In time, this shift might result in more serious works gaining an advantage, but that is only if the moege/nukige genres don't bounce back.

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I actually disagree with VNs being a hot medium. As far as I understand the concept of hot vs. cold media, it refers to density of information a medium provides. Thus hotter media require less "abstraction" on the consumer's part to construct meaning, not even in some metaphorical sense but like "what am looking at / hearing". For example a photograph is a hot medium, as it contains a lot of precise visual information, a sketch a cold one, as it's mostly lines and things are not portrayed in photorealistic detail. So compared to a live-action movie or even an anime visual novels are relatively cold. They are usually drawn in a stylized fashion, with the location of a sprite not even being the same as where the character is supposed to be in the room, only depict movement in a simplified way and the background sound tends to not be that authentic either. VNs are hotter than most manga or novels, but other than that I'd say VNs are closer towards the colder end of visual storytelling media. Which isn't a bad thing in itself.

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3 minutes ago, alpacaman said:

I actually disagree with VNs being a hot medium. As far as I understand the concept of hot vs. cold media, it refers to density of information a medium provides. (...) 

That is a completely different definition from the one Zalor presented though, touching on a seperate issue. It kind of makes both claims true... But when it goes to the mode of engagement, I'm definitely with Zalor on this. In my experience, reading VNs is close to reading a novel or watching an engaging show, when it goes to mental effort. I can watch YouTube or play traditional PC games for hours/days on end, but VNs are way more emotionally stimulating and I need proper mood and mental energy to tackle them.

...and that's why also get burned out on them and anime pretty regularly, even though I still consider those my favourite forms of entertainment. :C

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1 hour ago, alpacaman said:

I actually disagree with VNs being a hot medium. As far as I understand the concept of hot vs. cold media, it refers to density of information a medium provides. Thus hotter media require less "abstraction" on the consumer's part to construct meaning, not even in some metaphorical sense but like "what am looking at / hearing".

I see what your saying but that's not exactly it. For instance literature was a textbook example of a hot medium according to Mcluhan himself, and reading can be quite abstract; such as symbolic poetry, experimental novels, etc. And considering that Finnegans Wake was one of hits favorite novels, he was definitely aware of how abstract literature could get. That's why for simplicity's sake I explained it as hot mediums demand more of your focus and cooler media allow you to approach things more casually. Since that seems to be the way he more consistently uses it. 

1 hour ago, Plk_Lesiak said:

In my experience, reading VNs is close to reading a novel or watching an engaging show, when it goes to mental effort. I can watch YouTube or play traditional PC games for hours/days on end, but VNs are way more emotionally stimulating and I need proper mood and mental energy to tackle them.

...and that's why also get burned out on them and anime pretty regularly, even though I still consider those my favourite forms of entertainment. :C

Lol same. I wish I spent even half the time I do watching Youtube instead reading VNs and books. But Youtube is just so easy when you want to relax and passively distract yourself. 

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6 hours ago, Clephas said:

*snip*

Personally I've pretty much given up hope on the next era of great VNs coming from Japan for precisely all the reasons you mentioned. I feel like there is market potential in the English language sphere, but as I see it, it is a market that doesn't know it exists yet. Kind of like how movies were just dumb carnival entertainment in the early days, but then later on became a serious art form. The Japanese market is overly committed to the carnival entertainment of nukige and stories that are filled with tropes. EVNs don't have that problem from a marketing standpoint, but in practice many similar mistakes are made. Especially EVNs which try to mimic Japanese VNs too much.

That's part of the reason I made this post (and may continue to expand on my theory with additional posts), because I think once we (VN fans and developers) understand what the fundamental appeal of a VN is at its core, then people will start taking them to a new direction that at least attempts to actualize that potential more. Meaning most people don't know what a particular medium truly really is (in this case VNs), or rather they don't recognize its true potential until after it has gotten a decent chance to age a bit. Mcluhan describes my point much better in this minute long clip here: (link).

In regards to that clip, I think the "old content" that VNs are influenced too much by is their evolution from video games/text adventure porn games from the late 80s early 90s. 

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2 hours ago, Zalor said:

I see what your saying but that's not exactly it. For instance literature was a textbook example of a hot medium according to Mcluhan himself, and reading can be quite abstract; such as symbolic poetry, experimental novels, etc. And considering that Finnegans Wake was one of hits favorite novels, he was definitely aware of how abstract literature could get. That's why for simplicity's sake I explained it as hot mediums demand more of your focus and cooler media allow you to approach things more casually. Since that seems to be the way he more consistently uses it. 

At the same time he says cold media are the ones that are higher in audience participation (at least in every explanation I read, e.g. 1 2 3). Hot media are the ones you can passively consume. Or to quote the man himself:

Quote

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.

[...]

Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue. Source (chapter 2)

 

The immersion of actual VN reading vs. watching a playthrough in a youtube video is imo a perfect example of why VNs are a cooler medium than a youtube-video. The video dictates the pace and sequence of consumption for the audience, forcing them into a more passive role and making the experience more streamlined. The interaction with the medium becomes more superficial. From what I get, the terms hot and cold refer more to the effect a medium has on a society, not how immersive they are, which is admittedly pretty counterintuitive. Btw I would categorize VNs as somewhat lukewarm.

Edited by alpacaman

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7 hours ago, alpacaman said:

At the same time he says cold media are the ones that are higher in audience participation (at least in every explanation I read, e.g. 1 2 3). Hot media are the ones you can passively consume. Or to quote the man himself (....)

Its funny because when I read the part you quoted I felt like it was mostly in line with my point, although I admit there were some bits that seemingly contradict my point. But I'll go with the watching a playthrough on youtube example. Here is why I think its cool, going with the quote you provided:

Quote

High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." [...] Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener.

Although a Lets play is more streamlined, it is precisely because the consumption is more passive that makes it cooler because the information conveyed is in a more low definition way. When watching a lets play we aren't paying so much attention to the games its self and all the high definition visual and audio assests that went into the games as much as you are watching to see the comparatively low definition reactions of somebody. And in either way, even if we disagree on the technical term this falls under, it seems we are both in agreement that this is a more passive form of entertainment. And that's really the point I'm concerned with.

It also seems that you agree that VNs are more immersive, which is the main point I want to get at. I know it might seem obvious to most VN veterans that they are an immersive medium, but I think its an important ground point to establish when thinking about the question "what are the appeal of VNs?"

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On 6/16/2020 at 7:56 PM, Zalor said:

 

It also seems that you agree that VNs are more immersive, which is the main point I want to get at. I know it might seem obvious to most VN veterans that they are an immersive medium, but I think its an important ground point to establish when thinking about the question "what are the appeal of VNs?"

One thing I've noticed about the best Japanese VN companies is that they manage to keep all elements of their VNs at a high level or at least an aesthetically pleasing level.  Visual elements are pleasing (though the Japanese baseline is much, much higher due to a near-standardization of the art quality in commercial vns, than the Western one), music direction is still a thing (you know, the thing that vanished after the PSX era from regular games, due to the arrival of voice acting), and voice-acting is even more refined (for the most part, though there are exceptions) than what you see in anime.  

The area where the Japanese stumble is writing.  Due to the 'crutch' of voiced dialogue, there is a tendency for many writers to try to tell most of the story with dialogue and sprite poses.  However, that is like using only black and white when you have a full color palette available.  If there was one thing that struck me immediately playing my first VNs, it was the sheer impact of combining first-class narration with the other elements of a visual novel (as well as coordinating those elements).  Heck, I've even encountered games where the appropriate use of music, narrative, and voices have carried the game past lower quality artwork to startling heights (Devils Devel Concept being a premier example) that only get better the more times you play it.  

When everything is high level, however, you wouldn't believe the degree to which it blows you away... the first time I played Dies Irae (In Japanese) it destroyed me completely.  Everything about it quite simply was so different from what I'd experienced previously, while using many of the same elements.  Bradyon Veda did something similar to me, as did Sakura, Moyu and Kitto, Sumiwataru Asairo yori mo,.  To put it simply, there are works out there that utilize the full 'palette' of what the medium is capable of.  However, I can tell you that very few companies would have the wherewithal to gather the talent that can create such games.  

First, writers with that kind of sheer brilliance are rare.  Second, companies that might gather such writers would not be able to handle them, because each one needs different things to work at 100%.  Third, maintaining all the other parts of a game (Art, VA, Music, and direction) at the same high level even if you have the writing staff has got to be a serious pain in the rear.  

To be blunt, Visual novels have a lot of moving parts, and just throwing extra people at it doesn't usually work (very few games with multiple main scenario writers or artists have turned out well, though assistants sometimes work out fine).  In retrospect, is is amazing that I can name double digits worth of games that have drawn on every element of the medium to its fullest, considering what a pain it must have been to put it all together.

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