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Hybrid Visual Novels – An Anatomy of Visual Novels



This is a condensed version of the full article which can be found on my Main Blog Here.


The Best Of Both Worlds?


When talking about visual novels there is a tendency to present the medium as pure and distinct from all other types of games. Of course the reality is that other games influence visual novels and visual novels influence other games in a cycle of mutual adaptation and growth. The most noticeable manifestation of this union is the hybrid visual novel. This being a visual novel which includes another style of gameplay. While this might seem like a simple definition at first glance it is slippery when examined more closely as it is unclear where it ends and the other gameplay style becomes the dominant aspect. Straddling this line between worlds provides many unusual benefits and showcases the strength of visual novel design, but runs the risks of harming the overall vision of the game through confused presentation and engagement. Let’s seek to bridge the gap and examine what makes hybrid visual novels such an interesting part of the medium.


Defining the Hybrid


Debate over the point at which a hybrid ceases to be a visual novel and transitions to another genre of game is one few people can agree on. This makes defining what constitutes a hybrid visual novel a difficult task as the only thing most people will agree on is that it is a merger of visual novels and some other gameplay. However, even this is not set in stone as there are those that would argue that the addition of another gameplay style fundamentally changes the game and excludes it from being a visual novel. So rather than providing a rigid definition. the extremes of the design space will be demonstrated by examples in the hope of presenting the idea in practice.




If there is one visual novel which exemplifies the hybrid approach best then it is VA-11 HALL-A. This game blends in a strong gameplay element in the cyberpunk bartending where the player must mix drinks to meet the individual needs of each customer. What is important here is that the emphasis is on the visual novel part of the game rather than on the bartending sections. Both work in tandem to sell the experience of the narrative and provide a sense of place the visual novel elements would lack on their own. As a complementary whole the game spends more time in the important visual novel sections and brings in the bartending to break up the scenes, control the pacing or sell the sense of being in the protagonist’s job. On top of this VA-11 HALL-A is informed by visual novel design sensibilities throughout its entirety which manifests in the way it places and uses its assets to present key moments and how the dialogue is utilised. All of the techniques found in VA-11 HALL-A are the hallmarks many hybrid visual novels choose as their basis.




Standing on the opposite side of the divide are the many games which include aspects from visual novels but are definitely not hybrids. The one chosen for this example is Persona 5, a JRPG that stands far apart from visual novels. The reason for its inclusion is the presence of textboxes in combination with portraits that are generally associate with visual novels and yet their existence here does not make Persona 5 a hybrid visual novel. While it might be tempting to just point at the large sections of RPG dungeon crawling to prove that the is not a visual novel and call it a day, there is more to it than that simple statement. The way in which Persona 5 presents its narrative is baked in a RPG understanding of story presentation which is visible through the manner it chooses to use its 3D models and how place them within a scene. In this contrast we can see what makes a hybrid visual novel and that is the design behind it and how the creators use the assets to achieve the desired effect. Hence why something like AI: The Somnium Files can be considered a visual novel despite its heavy use of 3D assets and space, as it has a visual novel ideas baked into is very presentational fabric.


Informed By Visual Novel Design


Being so focused on visual novel design philosophies leads to every part of the game becoming warped to meet these needs and results in a heavily influence on how the secondary gameplay manifests. This often means that the gameplay is something which is dipped in and out of to make a narrative point before returning to the visual novel alongside an ability to present character ideas through subtle cues. Danganronpa’s debate sections showcase this warping well. The main focus of these sections is the deducing sequences and mini games, but they are regularly broken up by visual novel story sections that go on for long stretches of time. This makes it clear which part of the gameplay the important content lies in since everything on consequence happens in them. The deduction and mini games serve to highlight specific thoughts Danganronpa wants the player to remember while at the same time selling the atmosphere of a live or death mystery. In addition, these elements continue the visual novel tendency towards character intimacy found in Danganronpa through a fixation of the actions of individual cast members and their interplay with the story.




For hybrids where the other gameplay has a greater presence, the visual novel design makes itself felt through how the two parts interact with one another and flow as a whole. This often results in visual novel elements poking through and directing not only the narrative but the next objective for mission completion. These gameplay ‘missions’ also lean into an emotional resonance to obscure their mechanical nature and brings them into line with the visual novel aspects surrounding them to prevent a clash of identity for occurring. Games from Eushully are some of the most gameplay leaning hybrids that manage to maintain their visual novel core focus and Kamidori Alchemy Meister perfectly encapsulated their design philosophy. This mix of visual novel, shop sim and turn based tactics combat is blended together through their common element, characters. It starts off with the visual novel sections acts as the backbone of the character interacts and shows the player what kind of person they are inside and out. This is then reflected in the shop sim and tactics sections where character abilities take on the characteristics we have come to know them for in a practical setting and helps from an emotional link that informs how missions and narratives play out.


Reasons For Creating A Hybrid


By far the biggest selling point of choosing to make your visual novel a hybrid is the additional avenue it provides a developer to create a link between the narrative and the player. Through this more immediately visceral extension the player can be made to experience a simulation of the characters actions without losing the internal and complex ideas that are the core of visual novels. In doing this merger the game gains an extra level of robustness since if the player misses a subtle theme or character moment provided by one part then the other offers another chance from them to pick up on it and preventing them from losing interest. We can see a good example of this practice in Eiyuu * Senki. The main thrust of this game is the world conquest and the idea of uniting while overcoming our differences. These two ideas are present in both the visual novel and SRPG sections with each offering a different expression of them. Having the SRPG sections provides the game with an avenue of presentation it would not otherwise have and allows it to express its events through direct involvement in the conquest and by having the people the player recruits have a role in helping their success. Without these additions the narrative would not have the same impact and in through their link to the narrative and the player they can form an emotional resonance not possible if either part was in isolation.




Risks Involved In The Hybrid


Including another gameplay style invites the risk of it either overwhelming the visual novel element or becoming so detached from it that the two feel as if they exist in separate universes. By inviting this aspect into your visual novel you also saddle yourself with the accompanying genre expectations and the temptation to lean into them often leads to the aforementioned issues since they are not always compatible with visual novels. The Bunny Black games fall into this trap with their dungeon crawling gameplay as it ends up entirety segregated from the main narrative. This is the result of its emphasis on the complex party management and min-maxing which it inherits from its genre influences and how they do not fit alongside the themes and emotions presented by the narrative. It is not initially a major problem with a good balance being struck in the early game, but as the later game brings in more extended and complicated systems and enemies the gap between visual novel sections lengthens to the point that the two come across as unrelated to one another.






While it might be difficult to pin down exactly what exactly counts as a hybrid visual novel, there is no denying their ability to expand how the medium engages with the player and way the games form their narratives. Possessing a design informed by visual novel sensibilities gives the other gameplay style a unique means of interacting with the player and invoking the right emotional resonance within them. By providing another avenue of expression and an ability to create breaks to make longer visual novel’s more manageable, the secondary gameplay element can merge with the visual novel sections in an organic way and contribute to the game’s overall vision. However, if handled incorrectly the two parts can become detached to each other and create a dissonance that cannot be repaired. Despite this risk, the hybrid approach to visual novels is definitely one your should consider as it offers a distinctive set of tools not otherwise available to the visual novel developer.




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