Posted by: Emilie | APR-10-2020
Anyone who knows me personally knows this has been a common whine for me every time a new “ironic”/ “critical” / parody VN becomes a primary object of discussion for a short window: Despite the long history, popularity, and measurable influence of the visual novel genre, when one emerges it is often framed as a novelty, and this framing is usually accepted by the press. They’re just so wacky! Even outlets who are typically more oriented towards, y’know, videogamey-games try to critique or provide context to this tendency, they tend to focus on narrative content and comparison to non-VNs. I’m fascinated with visual novels, not just for their narrative but for their form and structure as software and videogames. I hardly consider myself an expert or hardcore fan, I just regularly seek them out and enjoy them. Even with just my cursory knowledge, I want to add something to this discussion (which may be a few months late at this point… but it always comes up again), about important features of the visual novel form, from a Game Studies perspective.
As Kastel points out in this blog post, the terms “Visual Novel” and “Dating Simulator” are not direct translations of how Japanese people describe a certain type of game, but terms developed specifically to give the English-speaking world some kind of idea of what these games are. Now, they are often used interchangeably to describe games with still character images and plot delivered through text boxes, where the player is occasionally given a choice, usually with the goal of leading to a particular romantic or sexual outcome.
Further, compared to the variety of games available in Japan, very few have been translated to English, much less have gotten an official translation, even fewer have become truly popular or well-known, maybe none at all depending on the level of ubiquity we’re describing. The point Kastel makes is that, in terms of the characters and plotlines presented in “ironic,” “critical” or parody dating sims, they are often only working from a received knowledge of what dating sims are like, rather than actual experience. Whether this knowledge comes from references to dating sims in other media, like anime series, or jokes about “weird,” “retrograde” Japanese media that are still pretty common online, their attempt to parody or critique or subvert conventions is already working from a false or at least incomplete impression of the genre.
But I don’t just think this is limited to issues of plot and character, making high school girls puke and stab each other, or making the player date inanimate objects or fast food mascots or whatever the next wacky and ostensibly “interesting” thing in an attention-grabbing English-language VN is. I think there is also a lot of uninformed chauvinism about how certain English-language VNs are supposedly structurally and conceptually innovative, while Japanese visual novels and dating simulators are produced naively, to formula, without thought, as if the format was simply pre-received.
I think it’s easy to see why the visual novel was seen as a form that needed to be intervened in with very Western Game Studies inflected ideas to become “interesting.” A recent episode of Game Studies Study Buddies spends a lot of time discussing the influential (for better or worse) work Cybertext, by Espen Aarseth. The terminology and concepts Aarseth defines in this work heavily shaped the values of Game Studies, as it attempted to assert its independence from literary and film studies as an academic discipline, and has trickled down into game design “common sense” in many cases.
Despite this outcome, in the original text, Aarseth does spend a lot of time talking about literature. He argues that videogames are potentially examples of ergodic literature, which is differentiated from nonergodic literature because it demands “nontrivial effort” where the reader constructs a path through the text, through manipulating a controller, making choices, and so on. However, texts that are ergodic may not also be “cybertexts,” a term Aarseth reserves for works that involve some form of calculation in how they play out, rather than simply presenting different outcomes, which is a limitation he associates with hypertext and early interactive fiction works.
It’s worth noting that Aarseth is not making a judgement here on whether hypertext, IF, and (by implication) visual novels are or aren’t “real games,” but it’s fairly straightforward to trace how the implicit values of these categories, not classifying the internal work of reading or physically handling a device which conveys narrative, for example, as “effort,” and emphasizing calculation and simulation over branching path formats, goes on to influence further game studies scholarship. A later diagram by Jesper Juul in Half-Real, explicitly excludes things like hypertext, IF and VNs from the category of “games.”
Even if there is not an explicit inclusion or exclusion case being made in a Game Studies text, the values and remit of Game Studies as a starting point which someone is writing from or to is inherently shaped by these, imo, kind of flimsy premises. When someone influenced by these values encounters what they would see as a so-called genre of game, likely originating from another culture, that primarily consists of advancing text and occasionally making choices, this would seem like a scenario which requires the intervention of auteur-y meta and critical gestures that are the bread and butter of “elevated” indie or art games.
The truth is that visual novels and dating sims have always had a structurally innovative and experimental streak, and this is obvious even to a dabbler like myself. The way that a lot of Western devs assume they all have to be is a sort of projection that seems based on problems that are extremely common in Western games as well. Sexist, tropey, with a rudimentary and transactional understanding of subtler topics like sex and romance… Am I talking about the latest AAA game or the imagined model that Doki Doki Literature Club “improves” on? Beyond characters and themes, its core structural tension is that it is a game that remembers, that you can’t just blithely reset and perfect the routes of each girl to “beat.” But is that much of a twist? I have never (never!!) played a Japanese visual novel or dating sim that had that structure.
A much more common structure is the one depicted in Hato Moa’s Hatoful Boyfriend, which anyone commenting on parody VNs should probably play through. Hatoful Boyfriend’s routes intersect thematically, with hints about other characters and the larger machinations of the settings sprinkled throughout all the initially accessible routes, and are also cumulative, as secret, alternative and true routes only become available after completing other routes.
Tsukihime, another VN that has a bit of a presence in English anime fan communities due to the popularity of Kinoko Nasu’s other work like the Fate series, also conceptualizes its routes into two categories, near side and far side of the moon, setting them up in a schematic of relations to each other and also the main character. Similarly, an eventual concluding arc has to be unlocked and, when the player makes a choice leading to a “bad end” they can be lectured about how to avoid it on their next playthrough. Almost all visual novels are self-aware, on a mechanical level if not declared in the text, that they will be played and replayed, and even systematically disassembled for all of their secrets, so a good VN typically builds on itself over time and tucks away interesting surprises in its far corners.
That a videogame could be so, well, game-able seems like an anxiety that’s unique to the presumption that videogames are doing something particularly unique, generative, even influential, even beneficial, which are checks that Game Studies early on built its reputation on probably being able to cash…. But none of these assertions have really panned out. Even a calculation-based simulation has a set number of states just like a hypertext work or visual novel, they’re just in the hundred-thousand-billions, to the point where player intervention in the represented space and narrative feel fluid and unique (thanks to millions of calculations per second). However, the actual meaningful difference between states can end up being much less than a visual novel with even a few routes, in some ways. When increasingly “serious” and “cinematic” big budget games are justifying their excesses with the argument that they’re providing the player with “meaningful choices,” “real consequences,” “impactful experiences,” they’re not only doing this with voice acting, increasingly photorealistic graphics, and worse crunch. Interfaces have to melt away or be contextualized as a visor or other object within the game, the line between cutscene and gameplay has to be increasingly blurred, and these tendencies are touted as “innovations” “increasing realism,” but functionally they serve to occlude the structure of the game in question, which can be extremely simplistic.
Visual novels, on the other hand, are not concerned with being seamless, and are extremely up-front about their structure. Almost every one has the same set of options in the opening menu, and the same general options that are available during gameplay. You will be able to start a new game, or load one of your existing save slots, and often you have very many of these, encouraging you to save either immediately before or after a decision point to revisit later. There are settings to tweak, like voice acting and music volume (some even let you tweak each character’s volume separately, so you can mute any actors you don’t like), as well as the speed text displays and auto-scrolls, and this menu is always accessible. Sometimes there’s an Extras menu, where you can unlock character profiles, video segments, and bits of the game’s soundtrack, and there’s almost always a gallery, where the CGs (full screen illustrations depicting specific events in the narrative rather than the individual character sprites) you’ve unlocked are kept in a grid, greyed-out squares always calling you back to search for more paths.
While you’re playing, the bulk of the screen is devoted to character sprites, backgrounds, and CG images, and a text box conveys dialog as well as description of what is going on. The tools provided here are already significant evidence that visual novels are a self-aware format. The spacebar, enter key, or mouse click typically advances the text, but you can also access settings on the fly, review the backlog, skip ahead, turn on auto text advancement, and save and load at any time. An individual title may lack one or two of these features but they are all pretty typical. “Skip” fast-forwards through text you have already seen and returns to user-advanced text when you reach a choice point or scene that is new. In Hashihime of the Old Book Town, a visual novel that I have played recently and am ostensibly reviewing in this blog post, this feature is represented with an open eye.
“Skip” is fundamental to the format of visual novels, how they are made and consumed. It’s interesting to me that the Vice article I linked to above cites Hiroki Azuma, a media theorist specializing in examining Japanese popular culture, but doesn’t bring up the point from his book on Otaku that is most pertinent to the discussion of visual novels. Azuma discusses how the format of the database allows once-coherent media objects to be itemized, broken into their parts and organized, and discussed that way. Rather than presenting a continuous single experience, or players taking in the game as such, he argues otaku are just as likely to experience a game as database, to jump around and through, grabbing onto what is of interest.
Azuma uses the example of freeware programs distributed online which extract and sort all of the character, setting and CG images of a visual novel to reveal the variety of ways otaku engage with visual novel games, both experiencing the VN as a total narrative, and a system made up of many different parts. This is similar to how Angela Ndalianis discusses the unintended playstyles of players who discovered ways to directly access the files for cutscenes and assets of FMV games like Phantasmagoria in her study of Neo-Baroque aesthetics. Azuma notes that players who approach games with this “hacker” mindset are explicitly aware of, and perhaps enjoy the fact that videogames (broadly, not just Visual Novels) do not offer true “choice” or “agency” but rather are just a series of recombinations of existing assets. While not quite the level of access the software Azuma mentions creates, the VNs, via the “skip” option, as well as many other common features of the interface, offers the player the tools for its own partial disassembly.
So after around 2000 words I finally have the context for explaining what is so structurally compelling to me about Hashihime. The protagonist, Tamamori, is stuck in a time loop, a common visual novel plot device that presents a sort of self-awareness of the time hopping, choice-redoing capabilities of the player. The first route, putting Tamamori through the same three days ten times, does not present the player any choices. This style of visual novel is sometimes also called a “kinetic novel,” and the Higurashi games as well as some works by VN dev Ebi-Hime are examples of this format. In this case, the player just controls the pace at which the text and visuals progress.
Hashihime is a text of repetition. In 1920s Japan, Tamamori has not just failed the entrance exam to the Imperial University once, but he spun his wheels in the capital for an entire year only to try and fail again. He repeatedly tries to finish writing the same stories, and bring closure to the same characters that make up his vivid hallucinations. He’s so in the thrall of his boring day to day life and internal fantasies that it takes him a while to realize he’s in a time loop, and even then he repeatedly messes up trying to avert the death of his friend Minakami, and avoid getting killed by a mysterious masked giant. When he finally manages to convince Minakami to return to the country with him by train, to get away from all the disasters that await if they stay in the city, the first route draws to a bittersweet conclusion, with the destinies of all the other characters left in the city implied to remain… not great.
Then you start over, fresh, a Tamamori completely unaware of being stuck in a time loop again. Across playthroughs, Tamamori encounters an older version of himself in various guises, who has lived to see not only the Great Earthquake of 1923, which decimates the capital a year from the events of the game, but also the eventual use of the atomic bomb against Japan in World War II. This loop between the loops of older Tamamori’s experience and the player-character Tamamori’s experience is another scale of time loop that exists in the game. And this is also where the Skip button begins to come in handy. Now, in each subsequent route, Tamamori will be offered one inflection point, where he can make a different choice. If you select the choice that leads to the same outcome as before, the game will play through the ending of the first route. Each of the alternatives have to be reached in a set order, so the routes are accumulative, rather than truly separate “choices.”
In form, the stories place the infinite inexhaustibility of the digital (and of the portion of Tamamori’s life that can simply be reloaded and reloaded and reloaded) against change over time, the inescapable actual fact of embodied existence. The subsequent routes progress, from a straightforward childhood friend romance, a typical “true” route scenario in many romance VNs, with some supernatural intrigue in the form of a simple time loop and the spirits which enable it, to a variety of alternatives.
Breaking with this story takes Tamamori down paths towards crueller, stranger, and more outré forms of romance, as multiple characters gain time looping powers, and they overlap in increasingly complex ways. By the end of the final route Tamamori has essentially become the older, wiser version of himself who enigmatically appears in previous routes, and has established an unconventional partnership with the masked giant figure, so only by playing through the increasingly unconventional alternative romances are the scenarios which lead to elements of the most conventional romance created.
A common scene across several routes is Tamamori pleading or wishing that all of the characters could go back to their innocent friendships and daily lives, despite it being an increasingly unrealistic dream. Rather than a consequence-free regeneration at the beginning of each route, character relationships and political and supernatural intrigue irreversibly shift, colouring the player’s interpretation of events they already experienced several routes ago. In this sense, Hashihime is constantly winkingly drawing attention to its structure as a BL romance VN, and thematically commenting on it, but without seeing the format of the Visual Novel as a sign of technical or conceptual immaturity or a hurdle to overcome. It tells us which choices matter, the points where you must do something different than before. It encourages skipping, and a completionist mindset to experience the routes as necessarily cumulative into the entire story.
And then, all of this without even mentioning that this is, also, a porn game, that each route ends with an uncensored and fully voiced gay sex scene. This isn’t a typical review, in that I’m not particularly recommending everyone go out and play this game immediately, obviously. It’s specific to a particular subset of interests within the already particular group of people who play Visual Novels. And I’m not really talking about the quality of the art, or the writing, or the voice acting for an evaluative judgement either, though I found these things mostly “good.” It was a visual novel that I found engaging, formally inventive, and interesting to play, though this is how I feel about many of them.
Wanting to write about Hashihime as a videogame despite its structure made me think of how even positive discussions of visual novels tend to apologetically preface that these games are “mostly reading,” don’t have much “gameplay,” or “are mostly bad, except—.“ Game Studies also seems to struggle or outright reject the idea that many people play visual novels, see the activity as “playing a game,” and that these works have their own mature appraoches to form, gameplay and interface. It kind of brings into question even calling it “Game Studies” in the first place, if it is so ill equipped to deal with a number of not insignificant genres and subcultures within gaming.