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Timed Choices – An Anatomy of Visual Novels



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


Under Pressure


As a medium visual novels lack many ways to get the player to make split second decisions and one of the few they do have is the Timed Choice. These are as simple as they sound, the player is presented with a normal choice but must consider and act on it under the pressure of a time limit. Some games show the timer ticking down while others merely state that the clock is ticking leaving the player in dark about how much time is left. Both offer a precious avenue to apply stress in calculated amounts at the developer’s discretion and can be fine tuned through the spacing between Timed Choices or their narrative placement. Despite their utility they are a relatively infrequent inclusion due to the inherent issues of tone caused by stressing the player in visual novels aiming for a more relaxed or measured experience. However, the spread of genres making use of Timed Choices is wide with everything from horror to comedy putting its benefits into practice for vastly different effects. Let’s race against the clock and discover how the Timed Choice has been used in visual novels.


Death Breathing Down Your Back


Under pressure people are prone to making mistakes and Timed Choices can be used to deliberately cause this reaction for the player. This is especially effective when backed up by an atmosphere which already places a sense of dread and foreboding onto the player and as such horror loves this type of choice. Here it serves the purpose of making the threat of death posed to the characters seem more immediate as the player suddenly has to make choice in roughly the same time-frame as the people they are playing, putting them into the character’s shoes. It also acts as a way for the game to follow through on the promises of a gruesome ending implied in the existence of whatever monster or threat is stalking the halls and increase the likelihood of the player choosing the wrong option thus witnessing said demise. This helps create a sense of actual consequence to the choices and a fear of failure to reinforce the tension that horror feeds off. 




Death Mark showcases this approach to Timed Choices very well throughout its entire length. The first feature to note is the relative sparsity of this type of choice as the game want to save their impact for key moments in order to not reduce the effectiveness of this tool or irritate the player who might feel hounded by the game. Alongside this is their connection to the monsters the protagonist faces, the majority of the Timed Choices focusing around his encounters with them and give a more direct feeling to their lethality and the odd set of rules each is governed by. These choices form a short test to make sure the player has been paying attention to the clues about the monster which have been unveiled so far. This is an important role given the way the ‘boss fights’ against the monsters rely on the following of a proper series of actions the game has hinted at, meaning the Timed Choices tell the player that they should be paying attention for future events.


Think Fast


Introducing a timing element into a scene inevitably gives it a sense of forward momentum since the game is pushing the player for a response. In this trait we can see another common use of the Timed Choice, providing a feeling of action and excitement. Titles focused around the Thriller genre love to make use of the Timed Choice as a complementary feature for climatic moments involving life or death stakes resulting in increased tension. In many ways this usage is similar to how other type of games place quick time events (QTEs) in cinematics in order to provide the player an bit of active participation even in the more passive sections. Hybid visual novels like AI: Somnium Files often mix Timed Choice in with QTEs due to how much they complement each other and demand a different type of quick reflex. It also reflects the importance the game places of narrative by demanding the player consider the consequence of their actions even when suddenly presented with a choice.




Comedy In Panic


Sometimes the suddenness and pressure of a Time Choice can lend it a certain absurdity which leads to laughter rather than tension. It is this contrast which comedy visual novels tap into when they make use of this kind of choice. They are used infrequently in order to ensure when they do appear it is a complete surprise to catch the player off guard and this is complemented by the out there nature of the options presented. Often the game will not even wait the full duration of the timer before forcing an outcome on the player with a certain comedic timing that lends itself to making the player laugh at their own lack of control. The contents of these choices is always of no consequence to communicate to the player the low value of any outcome and add a certain levity to the surrounding events. Everything is put into making the Timed Choice a form of meta joke and points out the nature of the medium itself. The Maji de Watashi ni Koi Shinasai! games provide a good example of how this is implemented in practice. Over the entire series there have been very few Timed Choices and they are all sprung on the player without warning in scenes where a somewhat absurd tone has already been established to ensure they are not too much of a shock. They are also in line with the established brand of humour the games have put a lot of effort into cultivating so shifting between the banal and the insane required for a Timed Choice makes sense in this context.






Controlling how someone engages with a game system is always a powerful tool and it is doubly so when it applies pressure on them. This is a feature visual novels rarely have access to without using another gameplay style alongside themselves and as such Timed Choices have been put to use across the medium. Horror titles take advantage of the pressure to instil a sense of panic and fear while paying off the promised violence when the player makes the wrong choice. When the choices are made simple and clear they can be put to use within a Thriller setting to help sell the heart pumping tension in the same way QTEs do for other games. Timed Choices have an inherent absurdity to them due to the artificial nature of their demands and this can be played around with for comic effect in order to get people laughing. These different angles on the same system showcase why a single element can provide interesting new possibilities for the presentation of ideas and tone within visual novels.




Recommended Comments

I never liked timed choices as a mechanism in VNs... most of the time, they were just annoying.  I guess it is because if I wanted to feel pressured, I would just go play a normal video game like a shooter or an a Souls-like game.  

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Well like mod Clephas said this feature seems like to be quite annoying, especially if one need time to either thinking or open the walkthrough so that they can answer the choice right in case the timed choice really affected the story. Thankfully though there's no much VNs that apply this feature, which is for good reasons with the few VNs that apply it are usually mystery or thriller like you mentioned above. Oh yes, other than the VNs that you mentioned, according to VNDB Danganronpa and Schoold Days (Also IxShe Tell) also applied this feature, although I don't recall if it's true or not.

That's all for what I can comment in regard of this topic.

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