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Clephas

Thoughts on VNs

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One thing that I've consistently noticed about around ninety percent of the VNs I've played is that they tend to be personal stories, even when they are large in scale or not overly focused on the characters.  A protagonist, a heroine, a villain develops on a personal level, the story flowing through their point of view, effecting their way of seeing the world, altering how the world effects them. 

 

VNs where the events are not intensely personal to the characters or where there is no specific protagonist are rare, and this at least partly because of the fact that VN narration is almost never carried out by a third-party uninvolved or only peripherally involved with events.  This is contrast to the tendency in modern novels for a story to be filtered through dozens of different, almost 'disposable' points of view (ie: Game of Thrones, Malazan book of the Fallen) that contrasts with that preference.

 

This is a function of the way the medium works, at least from what I can see.  The habits and conventions of VNs include the protagonist not possessing a tachie and the protagonist being the narrator, at least part of the time.  Multiple points of view share a similar tendency, with each point of view having an individual, similarly limited point of view in the narration.

 

In my mind, this actually shows that VNs have a potential to evolve far beyond their current uses.  It gives me hope that VNs will one day take their place as a true unique medium for storytelling, rather than a completely niche branch of video-gaming with an overwhelming tendency to possess gratuitous sexual content. 

 

At the same time, I'll probably be one of those resisting change until I get swept away by a particularly awesome epic story, lol. 

 

I want to see VNs evolve, but I am particularly unsuited to helping them do so, due to my long experience with the medium.  In other words, I'm too deep into the medium to see it properly from a near-outsider's perspective, except hypothetically. 

 

This is more of a message to those would write OELVNs than anything else.  I want to encourage yall to break the boundaries created by the Japanese example, while keeping the elements that made the medium so attractive for us.  There are things that the Japanese just don't do as well as Westerners, and I'd like to see those concepts, themes, and ideas creeping into this medium to make it of an even greater scale here than it is in Japan someday.

 

Sincerely,

Clephas

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It's true VNs don't formally have to have their stories told in a first-person perspective. Indeed, we could have multiple points of view and even stories with no definite narrator (authors inclined to poetry might pull something extravagant off in this regard). The possibilities are endless, just like with books, games and any other medium really.

 

However, I don't think the "Japanese example" came out of the blue. There's something about how we play VNs that naturally led to the first person to dominate. Visual novels are a lonely experience, just like any other (single-player) game. Watching a show nowadays is a little more on the collective side, as one is constantly debating with a given community about what is going to happen next. This tendency was established by Lost and the whole fuss about spoiling is a sign of that. VNs right now have this quirk of a strong connection between the player and the protagonist, more than any medium. I honestly believe this is the main charm that attracted us all and shaped the medium as a whole and will continue to do so simply because it yields better results, considering the way we play/read them nowadays.

 

Also, I'm not so sure the tendency on contemporary literature is to present a story in many point of views. Young adult novels (not the highest form of literature, one might argue, but a successful genre at least) are closer to VNs than anything else in the world, first person narrative in the present tense and all. There are (always) many competing tendencies in literature as well as in gaming and movies.

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As somebody who writes fiction during their free time (although admittedly I rarely do have much free-time), I dream of the day I can assemble a team and create an OELVN. Something almost avant garde in the medium. 

 

The mixture of music, art, and writing allows for limitless expressions of emotion and the imagination. Yet this near limitless medium is trapped mostly due to commercial reasons. I agree, OELVNs are the future for quality visual novels, because unlike in Japan there is no real market for VNs in the west. Thus there are no creative restraints on OELVN creators. Hell, most of the constraints in OELVNs are things the creators put on themselves. For some unknown reason OELVN creators keep copying all the bad things about Japanese VNs. Such as poorly using Japanese archetypes, by using school settings, etc. A visual novel story does not have to be confined to a school in Japan! OELVN creators need to get that through their heads.  

 

Clephas, I think seeing change will be hard for you because you are so invested in how Japanese most Visual novels are. From what I understand you refined you're reading of Japanese because of Visual Novels. As visual novels change and make a shift to OELVNs, new fans will be increasingly divorced from the Japanese market I think. Which will isolate new VN fans from old ones. This is all speculation though that won't happen for years to come. For now (for better and for worse) we are stuck with Japanese visual novels.      

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It was just one example.  To be blunt, the current format is pretty much set in stone in Japan, with only rare exceptions popping up (sometimes only one every few years).  It didn't spring out of nowhere, no... but the evolution of VNs in Japan has hit a dead-end, more or less.   Good ones in exactly the same format and style as four years ago are the most common, with only occasional works of genius breaking the mold and making small additions to the medium's conventions.  Dies Irae is a classic example of a work that completely blew away the medium's conventions (while ironically using many conventions of classic epic storytelling) then found its concepts assimilated and reused piecemeal in numerous other works.  The same goes for the series Ever17 came from.  It burst upon the scene over a decade ago, introduced a unique set of ideas... that were then assimilated.  That's how the genre 'evolves'.  Unfortunately, there haven't been any revolutionary 'evolutions' of the genre in several years, though there have been kamige that utilized what was already there extremely well. 

 

The problem is that this kind of slow 'evolution' is pretty much the standard for all Japanese entertainment.  Once a medium matures, it stultifies.  The same thing happens here, as well... but not to the same extent.  What bothers me is that people who write OELVNs seem to have either an excessive bent to the Japanese side without adding their own unique 'colors' to it, or, even worse, they decide to go for absurdity or extremity of expression and alienate people like me who want a good story to experience.  That would be fine if the medium was a 'mature' one here, because that would simply be a symptom of 'breaking free', a type of event that is common to all art and entertainment mediums after a time of stagnation and stultification in the West.  However, we haven't even had time to reach that point, lol. 

 

The East has a lot more trouble breaking out of cycles of stagnation than we do, so I was more or less expressing a hope that the West would develop a strong tradition of its own that would give some return influence to the Japanese in turn.  To be blunt, left to themselves, the Japanese media companies have a bad habit of becoming reliant on outright mimicry over time that comes close to plagiarism by our standards.  At the same time, the West has a bad habit of thinking that originality is an absolute virtue in and of itself, while failing - whether consciously or unconsciously - to recognize where that 'originality' was born.  Moreover, the art of 'telling a story' is dying in visual media here, as the focus of gaming turns more and more to a multiplayer experience and there is nothing to replace that niche gaming is leaving behind gradually over time.   How many TV shows or game series over here say they 'tell a story' when all they are really doing is making an excuse for more sequels?  It would be one thing if it were just a slight majority, but...

 

VNs are a medium that is still in its formative stages here.  Right now, most of the people writing OELVNs are heavily Japanese-influenced or 'artists' who are testing the boundaries of their own talents (wherever those happen to be).  People who are getting down to business and trying to tell a story are just outright rare here... and that is a waste.  As I've stated before, I believe that VNs hold a potential as a storytelling medium that surpasses even what the Japanese have used it for... and I honestly want to see us be the one that surpasses the boundaries they have set out.  My challenge to OELVN writers is this:  blow me away, make me take as much of an interest in OELVNs as I do in the Japanese industry.  Hell, make me add OELVNs to my VN of the Month thread.  I would like nothing better than to be blown away by a western-written, western-influenced VN story.

 

Edit: @Zalor:  I read a lot of Western literature... and that is the problem when I try to read OELVNs.  There are plenty of Japanese VNs whose literary level is equivalent to Japanese novels, but most OELVNs I've tried to read have sounded like rehashing of moege (Japanese-influenced), 'artist' driven disasters, or attempts to tell a story that reminded me of the mass-produced serial novels I read in my early days as a bibliophile (Hardy Boys-level literary quality... which is fine for a juvenile but causes yawns for someone used to epics like Honor Harrington, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, etc).

 

Edit2:  A lot of it is that the most of the really talented writers attracted to VNs so far are more interested in reading the Japanese ones and writing regular novels, as opposed to actually putting together a novel project of their own.  This is in large part because it is far easier to write a novel alone than to gather a team to make a VN.

 

Edit3:  I should make it clear that anything I write, VN-wise, will inevitably be Japanese-influenced and most likely chuuni as well (though I like my characters a bit more mature than people in their teens, lol).  For that reason I'm not suited to being an 'OELVN-pioneer'.

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Some very good thoughts on this whole topic, gotta say.

 

I hope as well that VNs, through becoming popular in the West can be exploited to their full narrative potential. I once saw a video describing why Western comedy films are failing in the past decade. It explained how many comedies released today rely almost completely on narrative. Relying only on narrative is poor, unimaginative film making, using only the audio aspect of film while the director still has the full spectrum of video he is not using. What I get from what you're reading is that VNs are beginning to suffer in the same way.

 

The main hurdle is the fact that VNs are marketed as video games. People over here see VNs as jokes of video games. They are kinda right, as they are indeed not video games and are being marketed wrong. If they were to be marketed as a new storytelling medium, like e-books for example, VNs would be much more likely to catch a wave of popularity than they are now. To get creative here, (this would be really nice) selling a Kindle equivalent would make this medium much more appealing to the western public.

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I see nothing wrong with VNs being marketed as games. In fact, I do treat even kinetic novels as games, for they have an alluring power of creating the right atmosphere for a make believe scenario. But let's not go there right now. "Are visual novels games?" is the one million dollar question, really.

 

Being games or not, I firmly believe the play-factor inherent to any digital interface is what will drive VNs forward, more than other styles of storytelling, innovations in presentation etc. Take Hate Plus' unobtainable achievement episode and how much repercussion it had; take Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi; take how Fate/Stay Night juggles with its own structure, especially when approaching game over scenarios. Notice how I didn't mention any VN with gameplay, but rather how VNs can use the way they are built with play factors. This, I believe, would make OELVNs stand out among VNs and games alike.

 

But I don't think you'll have to wait much, Clephas. A whole new generation of artists of all kinds is interested in visual novels, or atleast the so-called "story-driven games". People like us, who enjoy the Japanese format, are but a part of this movement.

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Being games or not, I firmly believe the play-factor inherent to any digital interface is what will drive VNs forward, more than other styles of storytelling, innovations in presentation etc. Take Hate Plus' unobtainable achievement episode and how much repercussion it had; take Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi; take how Fate/Stay Night juggles with its own structure, especially when approaching game over scenarios. Notice how I didn't mention any VN with gameplay, but rather how VNs can use the way they are built with play factors. This, I believe, would make OELVNs stand out among VNs and games alike.

 

I'm not sure I understand. What do you mean by "play-factors"? Do you mean additional features to the game ontop of the story itself?

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Are VNs games...?  The answer is too uncertain to be completely clear on.  I know a lot of people prefer clear, uncut answers, but this is a question that doesn't have such an answer.  In terms of requiring interaction from the player and producing a result based on that action, the answer is yes.  In terms of actual value of such interactions relative to results... the answer could be said to be no (I'm leaving out hybrids like Aselia on purpose).

 

My conclusion is that 'pure' VNs are a storytelling medium... that can also be combined with 'games'.  For ease of conversation, I myself frequently refer to them as games.  However, looking at them as objectively as possible, my conclusion was that they were a storytelling medium, first and foremost.  Of course, that 'storytelling' is frequently puerile or downright disgusting (nukige, rapegames, etc.) but the ultimate reality is that they are, in the end, telling a story, albeit one that isn't necessarily well-told.  However, the degree of interaction seems to me to be in many ways an evolution of the concept of the 'choose your own adventure' novels that were briefly popular in the 1980's, before they were cast aside for lack of popularity (classic example of 'good concept, impossibly bad execution'). 

 

That said, being a result of programming, it is possible (and relatively common) to combine VN storytelling with actual games (though it varies which is the addition to the other).  Record of Agarest War, for instance, utilizes a VN-style methodology for storytelling in many event sequences, as does the Disgaea series (though this is mostly without non-dialogue narration, which is a defining element of VNs as a whole).  On the other side of things, you have games like Kamidori and Yumina, which tack a gameplay system onto the VN-type story. 

 

These divisions are apparent for an experienced gamer... but they are ultimately academic, save for people like me who spend all their time gaming and reading VNs.

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I'm not sure I understand. What do you mean by "play-factors"? Do you mean additional features to the game ontop of the story itself?

 

This is not a concept I know how to explain well, even though it's fairly simple. It's the play-factor we see in Homo Ludens and can be defined as "the playful way to interact with something". Sounds pretentious or perhaps even silly?

 

A book in which turning a page serves the only function of revealing more text has no play factor; a book in which the very act of turning a page helps to tell the story does. See what I mean? In Fate/Stay Night, reading a route unlocks the next one. It's not reading for the content's own sake but enriching the formal act of reading with a play factor, perhaps something to achieve or keep up with. To be as simplistic as possible, the medium responds to the fact that you are there.

 

It's not about additional features on top of the story. It's about how the story is told. In Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi, which I won't spoil but you can ask Vokoca here on Fuwa about the details if you want, game and story are the same thing. If you take gameplay to its broader sense, you may reach the conclusion that just like relying only on the script to make movies is lazy, not taking advantage of the complex digital interface you'll have to make anyway to tell a story with a VN is a waste.

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It's a really interesting discussion. Successful VN's do seem be increasingly formulaic. However I wouldn't get too disheartened as they are gaining in popularity worldwide, increasingly inexpensive to produce and are clearly the best (likely only) way to tell certain types of story. 

 

I think it's hard to separate which stale conventions are due to Japanese culture from those that are inherent in the medium as we know it. Much harder still to know how we can advance the medium work for literary wonders yet unknown. If I had a clue I'd be writing that and not this!

 

I do think we need to celebrate what the medium currently does well to make progress, as well as challenging the typical structure of a VN. Flow of dialog, emphasis on characterization, reader agency, etc; these are strengths of VN's in a mechanical sense. Looking back it's no wonder that VN's do paranoia, delusion, romance and, yes, filthy sex very successfully. Broad cookie-cutter settings wind me up as much as any VN reader (out with the school romances!) and the more innovation the better. Yet as long as we're still getting the odd, thoughtful, quality and profitable VN to keep the media alive, I hold hope that the genre busting masterpieces will come. It's slow sometimes, but I'm sure there are highly motivated geniuses among the more conventional developers out there.

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