This is a condensed version of the full article which can be found on my Main Blog Here.
Shiny New Things
Everyone likes to be rewarded for their effort and video games are happy to oblige with a variety of Extra Unlockable Content. These bonuses are often treated as a side show disconnected from the important main sections of the game and relegated to a sub menu where it has little impact on the greater structure. For visual novels this unlockable content has a much more profound effect them due to its more limited design space and options, leading to the choice to include these extras stand out. Both developers and players perceive the game differently depending on how this feature is handled and it achieves everything from holding player interest to encouraging an exploration of the narrative space. Not all the consequences are good and a poorly implemented extra can undermine key tonal and thematic elements. When talking about Unlockable Extra Content this article does not mean the unlockables common to most visual novels, such as a CG or music gallery, but instead to the bonuses that go above a beyond with side stories, concept art or even entire extra games. These stand out the most and draw the attention of the player because of the effort they showcase and as such they influence perception to a greater degree. With all that out of the way, let’s be filled with a sense of achievement and dive into the world of Unlockable Extra Content.
Rewarding The Player’s Interest
On its most basic level, Unlockable Extra Content provides a key means of rewarding the player in order to keep them invested in the game. Broadly speaking these rewards take two forms, those unlocked over the course of the game and those unlocked after the game’s completion. Incremental bonuses act as a bread crumble trail for the player and cue them into the fact that they are progressing in the right direction. Each individual reward does not even need to be the actual bonuses themselves, but instead the promise of a future unlockable as can be seen in Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. In this game the player is given a currency as they play and overcome certain challenges and this currency can be spent to unlock whatever they desire in the extras menu. Here the possibility of what the player could unlock if they continue playing is more powerful than the actual content and serves as an excellent motivation for casuals and completionists alike.
Encouraging Exploration Of Narrative Space
Incentives can be used in far more specific ways to steer player behaviour and for visual novels this involves getting them to explore the game’s narrative space. Many players will be tempted to stick to the most direct path through the game since they will be invested in the central narrative force and sideline the rest of the content. This is a major issue for visual novels with a more open narrative space or those who want to encourage certain slower pacing as it directs the player into a narrow and hard to control head space. What Unlockable Extra Content does is offer another avenue to try and correct the player impression of the game into the developer’s intended one.
Both Fate Hollow Ataraxia and Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk utilise bonus side stories to achieve this effect, but the implementation and exact results could not be more different. For Fate Hollow Ataraxia these side stories present the player with a direct incentive to explore beyond what is required to complete the game as they can only be unlocked through none mandatory content. This steers the player by giving them a concrete signal that what lies beyond the beaten path is intended as part of the core experience and rewards those who are curious about what it has to offer. In contrast Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk uses its side stories as a means to expand the narrative space in a more direct fashion through the very stories themselves which act as a supplement to make the player give greater consideration of events. Their optional nature also means they are not invasive and instead provide a gentle nudge for the player to consider other sides to the story to improve their overall experience.
Changing Pace And Context
Sometimes we need a break from the core direction of a visual novel, because either it is too emotionally taxing or gives clear stopping points, and unlockable bonus content can be exactly what is needed to keep interest within the context of the game. These often break the tone of the main content completely and many even address the production of the game itself in order to provide as much distance as possible. By showing another angle on the game’s material the player’s interest can be brought back to the main sections once they have finished with the extra content, ensuring a cycle of highs and downtime as new bonuses are unlocked that helps balance out the overall length of the game. However, it can also backfire on the visual novel since if the extra content is too disconnected from the tone and substance of the main content then a player may feel completely brought out of the experience the game was trying to sell and lose any enthusiasm to continue. We can look to Corpse Party: Blood Drive for a template of this approach to bonus content. Its unlockable material runs the whole spectrum from collectable tags to short audio snippets from the voice actors and they work as contrasting points which build a small area separate from the intense horror of the main game. Being so focused around fear makes Blood Drive susceptible to burning people out since there is only so long a person can stand to be held in tension before they long for something else, as such have a side space to unwind does wonders for keeping this pressure from become overbearing.
Gamification At The Cost Of Immersion
Not all applications of Unlockable Extra Content are beneficial to visual novels and using it inappropriately can risk a damaging gamification of key narrative spaces. Bonuses are inherently external to the core direction of the game since they hang off the side as optional segments and so when they are highlighted they draw attention to work’s nature as a game. This is not an entirely bad feature with many of the above benefits relying on a mild use of this disconnect, but should a visual novel lean on it unnecessarily or in a way that contradicts the intended tone then the consequences can be quite dire. Take for example Fate Stay Night, its has a collection element to its bad endings and getting them all results in a special scene not available through other means. The desire to collect stands in firm opposition to the way the main game depicts the bad endings as undesirable since the outcomes are terrible for characters the player has come to care about. In this confused messaging the tension these endings are meant to provide is lost as the player is pulled in two directions and given how many of them there are it is an ever present reminder that this is a game leading to the possibility of player apathy.
Visual novels are a sum of their parts in a way other types of games do not have to deal with and this is exemplified by the influence Unlockable Extra Content can has on them. They provide strong incentives to explore the rich narrative space available for the player while rewarding the time the player commits to the game and offering a change of pace so they remain engaged. Of course it is by these same methods a visual novel might be ruined since there can be an unintended gamification of serious and emotional elements which leds to a regular undermining of its tone. However, as a tool for a developer, Unlockable Extra Content is a surprisingly precise instrument that gives them a subtle way to shift the player’s perceptions of the overall experience and as such should definitely be taken into consideration when you are making your own visual novel.