Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Answering the Question: What is a Visual Novel?

It occurred to me recently that, in spite of my tendency to review pretty much any and everything that catches my eye, a decent number of folks who follow this blog came in because of my YA lit interest and/or my writing and may not know what these strange “visual novel” things I keep going on about actual are.

So here’s a quick primer.

Visual Novels, also known as VNs, are a prevalent form of Japanese interactive fiction game. They’re very popular in Japan, making up 70% of all PC games released in 2006, but have only a small following in the Western world.

For us English-speakers, the most well-known kind of visual is what’s known as a Dating Simulation game. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The player takes the role of a character, usually a young man, in a situation where he’s surrounded by several attractive young women. The player then chooses to pursue one of the non-player characters for a romantic storyline, usually cumulating with a “good ending” of marriage or at least winning a date.

There is also a variation of dating sim known as an otome or “princess” game, which is same situation with a female player character pursuing male NPCs. Interestingly, a majority of the high-quality original English language VNs are otome games. There are some homosexual dating sims out there, but they tend to be a minority.

And, of course, there are the hentai games, which are porn. Most are pretty much the same as a dating sim, except that the goal is to get into the girl’s pants.

A less-prominent but still significant genre of visual novels is the mystery game. These are story-heavy mystery games that lead the player to unravel various secrets, sometimes in a way that’s similar to a puzzle or point-and-click action adventure.

No matter the genre, visual novels are a great storytelling medium that combines text, art, and music to communicate interactive stories with multiple endings.

How to Play

The in-game screens usually look something like this:

There are three basic elements. First is the text box, where the narration and dialogue describes the story. Second is the character, in the form of a static sprite that represent the character you’re talking to at that moment. The third is the background.

Generally, as a scene plays out, the background will stay the same (establishing the location), while the character sprites switch between emotions and text box scrolls through the story. Eventually, in most games, choices will appear, like this:

These choices can be anything from things to say (like in this example) to major actions (ie, choosing which of three characters is the real murderer).

The most basic visual novels act essential like choose-your-own adventure books, which each decision branches off into a new part of the story. More complicated games will utilize stat-raising elements based on decisions, and it can be tricky to tie the mechanics into the storytelling, but if you pull it off as a creator, it can be very rewarding.

Writing Visual Novels

Just a short blip on this subject: all English visual novels, at least those that are originally created in English, are created by independent, small-time organizations and individuals. Thus, it is very easy to make your own game with a little time and effort. I dabble it myself. In fact, those screen shots up there are from a basic Hetalia Axis Powers fan-game I made to teach myself the system.

Some VN creators use Flash to create their games, but I think the most effective way is to utilize the python-based Ren’py visual novel engine, available for free here. Not only is Ren’py fun to learn and pretty easy to use, once you master it you can create really complicated and professional-level games. Plus, they’ve got a growing community of creators and visual novel fans that can be a lot of fun to hang out with.

If you ever happen to be at a con with Ayu Sakata of Sakevisual, definitely go to her visual novel panel, because she does a great job of explaining how to create them. Also, she's funny.

If all this has gotten you interested in playing visual novels, then great! My next post will have a list of my favorite suggestions for VN newbies, including several free games. It's coming up in just a little bit so stay tuned.

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