Here we investigate the overlooked, the underappreciated, the Shameworthy titles of the world. Jump in to an existing mission thread and give your thoughts, or start your own to kick off a discussion.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by RedSwirl » Sat Sep 12, 2015 6:36 am

Another thing to stick in here: Visual novels with real time character control. I know the whole point is kind of moot when there's no really "challenge" to a game, but I still think adding actual traversible worlds to what is otherwise a visual novel justifies it more as a video game and maybe even makes the story work in new ways.

Example: Shadow of Destiny. When you really analyze that game, it's a visual novel. You do nothing but walk from cut scene to cut scene, maybe occasionally use an item, and make choices to divert the path.

Is Danganronpa like this? I've only heard bits about it.

The only other things I can imagine would be pieces of existing games. The social link portion of Persona (which I guess was section off in Cherry Tree High Comedy Club). I guess that would be a life simulation game though. I would totally be down for a visual novel version of Mass Effect, or if there was just a similar game where you fly through space, walk on frozen planets, and get through dialogue.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Sat Sep 12, 2015 10:01 am

This is why a lot of people describe visual novels as a medium separate from "video games", at least when we're talking about a "pure" visual novel like Steins;Gate or The Fruit of Grisaia. While superficially they resemble video games -- they have graphics, sound and interfaces, sometimes even things like achievements to encourage you to explore all the narrative possibilities -- they're a storytelling medium primarily: a means of expressing a narrative without any concern for being "fun" through mechanics. In other words, the "fun" comes from the story itself, much like when you're consuming a more passive piece of entertainment like a book, comic or TV show. The difference -- assuming you're playing a multi-scenario visual novel -- is that little bit of interaction you do get, where you get to push the story in the direction(s) you're interested in seeing it unfolding.

It's an adjustment to make, for sure, if you're unfamiliar with pure visual novels; it would be easy for a traditional game reviewer to write off something like Steins;Gate or Grisaia for having "nothing to do" besides pressing the "continue" button over and over, and it would be absolutely wrong for them to do so, because they're not trying to be fun games with intricate mechanics.

That said, some developers understand that nothing but reading and making an occasional choice can be exhausting or unsatisfying for some people, and so we do get plenty of hybrid games that incorporate visual novel storytelling with more traditional game mechanics. One could argue that most modern JRPGs fall into this category due to their presentation, and games like Ace Attorney, Corpse Party and Danganronpa certainly fit in there, too. (To answer your question, in Danganronpa there is first-person exploration to move between story beats; it's not anything particularly complicated, but it does give a nice sense of "place" to what's going on -- there's also puzzle-style gameplay in the "courtroom" scenes)

Outside of the more well-known games like the aforementioned, there are a number of PC visual novels that take this approach, too. Aselia the Eternal, for example, incorporates a really cool strategy game into the mix, and having the deep context of the narrative and characters as you move little markers around on the map gives it a lot more "meaning" than the usual dryness of the genre. Spiritual successor Yumina the Ethereal features first-person dungeon crawling and combat based on an abstract depiction of arguing. Moero Downhill Night features racing. Even a bunch of nukige -- the outright "porn games" -- incorporate traditional gameplay, too; Demon Master Chris and the Lightning Warrior Raidy series have first-person dungeon crawling (a popular choice, it seems) and the delightfully named Boob Wars (it's exactly what you think it is) has a simple card game.

Ultimately for a lot of visual novel developers the question is whether adding "gameplay" makes the storytelling experience superior. In some cases, it does, in others it's not necessary, or it would be impractical to represent the things that are going on through traditional gameplay. Take Grisaia, for example; with the exception of one fight scene, the story has been pure "slice of life" so far, and so it would gain very little from allowing you to wander around freely and disrupt the flow of the narrative by getting lost, looking for secrets or whatever.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by RedSwirl » Sat Sep 12, 2015 11:23 pm

Well, most conventional RPGs, both western and Japanese, incorporate some adventure game elements.

And I think the confusion with visual novels comes almost purely because they're printed on game discs and run on devices built specifically for gaming.

This actually brings me to one of the things I think sets the Japanese console industry apart: it's not primarily focused on action games. The western console space, particularly North America, tends to view most things in the lens of the tactile feedback of moving an individual character with a controller. That's why things like turn-based RPGs, strategy games, pure adventure games, and other more cerebral experiences are less common on consoles than on PC or even portable and mobile systems. The exception I see is Japan, where visual novels, strategy games, and simulation games thrive relatively speaking. The spread of genres on consoles in Japan to me looks a lot more similar to the spread of genres that exists on PC in the west, as if Japanese consumers have never viewed consoles as gaming-only machines, but almost like TV computers (the NES is the FamiCom in Japan after all). Maybe it's why you started to get a lot of "non-games" on the original DS when it got insanely popular in Japan.

Anyway, I guess visual novels were sort of forced onto gaming machines (including PCs) because in the 80's and 90's nothing else could run that software. This is why I wonder if they could ever make a big transition to phones and tablets. Today we have an everyday device palatable to general consumers that can run these things. Imagine if someone packaged a visual novel that ran on a Kindle or iPad with a visual and writing style that appealed to the same people buying all these YA novels.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Sun Sep 13, 2015 9:10 pm

There's already a bunch of visual novels available on tablets and phones. Idea Factory International's latest release Amnesia is getting an iOS and Android release, for example, plus a bunch of smaller indie VN developers release their stuff on phone and tablet. There was even a pure VN version of 999 for iOS that inexplicably stripped out all the puzzles and made it nothing but story.

PC has been their spiritual home for... well, eternity, really, though, because there's no curated marketplace to worry about. There is Steam, of course, but unlike the console platforms, Steam isn't the only means of acquiring new software. The true openness of the PC platform means that developers and publishers can sell their work directly, and this also means that they're not accountable to or obliged to follow the rules of organisations like the ESRB and suchlike. Given the fact that visual novel authors like to tackle "adult" subject matter -- not just sexual material, but also very violent or horrific imagery, or perhaps just challenging narrative themes -- PC remains the ideal platform for them for now, at least so far as creators being free to create what they want to create.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Beige » Mon Sep 14, 2015 2:34 pm

Until Dawn / Telltale games / David Cage games are basically visual novels done with movable characters. I’d throw Persona in there as well as Danganrompa. Sure, why not. It’s a fuzzy line.

Games like Danganrompa and 999 are basically 50% “walkin’ around visual novels” and 50% courtroom dramas or room escapes. I think we all understand that “Lucasarts style” adventure games are NOT visual novels despite mostly being a narrative vector. With the Sierra / Lucasarts games, I don’t think it’s necessarily the walking around part so much as it’s the part where you can get stuck on puzzles and fail to progress because you don’t realize you have to shoot the banjo or whatever which disqualifies these titles from visual novel-dom. In the VN, it is not possible to stop the flow of the story.

Perhaps we need a stronger dividing line between the two. We all understand the classic form of the VN being one or two talking anime heads with a lot of text boxes and pressing X in the margins.

I would suggest that we adopt some kind of convention where a VN IS:
- Games where “making decisions” represents the a critical gameplay component of the experience
- Branching paths are present, and often the player is incentivized to play through again and again to see the “true ending”, which is canon.
- It is NOT expected that “finishing” the game means finishing all branches and “unlocking CGs” (which are never really CG, but who cares) but many trufans do it anyway.
- There is no “failure state”. The story progresses in a line regardless of your choices.
- Light action sequences can occur as long as they don’t halt the story. If you continue to “press X” you will ultimately succeed.
- I would say that the talking heads, anime style presentation and pressing X to read reams and reams of text – while near universal in Asian VNs – is not necessarily required. By the above definition Walking Dead and David Cage count as a visual novel as does Until Dawn.

Then you have your “Hybrid VN” titles, where you have extra gameplay elements like shooting or whatever bleeding through into the mix of what is essentially a VN presentation. Danganrompa and 999 are in here, as it is totally possible (though difficult) to fail to complete either by virtue of not being smart enough or not being able to figure out something. 999 sits right on the border between pure VN and regular VN as it heavily weights the concept of “repeat it to see different stuff”

Farther down the list are games which draw in VN DNA in the same way that Call of Duty appropriates RPG DNA. Sounds like Agarest is in here as well, as is Persona. Just having a rich story doesn’t make you a VN. Neptunia is in here. 50% RPG game, 50% pressing X to watch talking heads talk.

As Pete said, it’s debatable whether a VN is even a “game”, though it’s definitely electronic entertainment. The VN is kind of its own form of media: “Book which has music and voice acting.” To be pedantic about it, as long as it has at least 1 choice in it (Saya has a whopping 3) then I think it qualifies as a game.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Beige » Mon Sep 14, 2015 3:37 pm

Image

I wanted to chime in here just to reiterate that Stein’s; Gate is fantastic.

Since finishing Until Dawn (and since my copy of Metal Gear HD Collection is STILL not here) Lynette and I have been (re)playing S;G in the evenings all week, attempting to reach the “true” ending and flag this whole thing as over and done with. Although I remember it as being strongly written, I had forgotten just HOW strong it actually is.

Stein’s gate is a weird beast. On the surface it seems very much like your standard Anime seen-it-done-it VN, of the kind which is now habitually served up to my wife on Steam each time she logs in. The obligatory intro where they do the character spread contains the requisite catgirls and weird characters and engrish. Looks identical to the Sakura Swim Team exploitation experience we saw advertised on steam before flipping channels.

The difference is in the details. Stein’s; Gate benefits tremendously by being set in contemporary Japan and being very up front about its contemporary Japan-ness. I appreciate that if there’s going to be otaku elements in my game that you also throw in a legitimate otaku front and center. Stein’s gate is… well, not critical of these elements exactly… this is the wrong word… but it casts a sociological eye over the entire fabric of Japanese culture. Stuff isn’t presented out of context. The online glossary letting you cross reference internet memes, chuunibyo terminology and technical hard science information such as kerr black holes and CERN gives it a really grounded, really well-researched feel that rings true despite its obvious crazy batshit premise.

Stein’s Gate presents both the good and the bad and the weird of Japanese culture in a very matter of fact way. The game straddles the line very neatly between the creator’s desire to show much love for the otaku/gamer roots of the visual novel medium as a whole while also wanting to be a legitimate force of creative storytelling that can be a cultural ambassador and transcend the weaksauce “not-trying-very-hard” aspect endemic to more fanservicey or pandering “dimestore” visual novels.

Stein’s; Gate is concerned with being good anime and good art. Not AAAAARRRT – just strong contemporary science fiction and strong storytelling. Its audience aim feels… broader… or maybe more universal than most VNs (I have not played many so perhaps I am wrong about this). Something closer to what I’d consider a “prime time” show like True Detective or Breaking Bad than something like Farscape or Neptunia which has no problems reveling in the nerd house. Think Adventure Time. Perhaps tellingly,one of my coworkers (who I would not classify as any kind of weeaboo in the slightest) came to me the other day and said that in his opinion the Stein's Gate anime was probably the best anime he's ever watched. In the same way that The Wire is not a cop show despite being ABOUT cops and drug dealers, Stein’s; Gate is not an otaku show despite being about nerds. Something closer to Welcome to the NHK in that respect. The conversation about how the anime adaptation handled the replay-ability and branching paths aspect of S;G was quite interesting. There is every chance I will watch the show when this is all over and done, just to compare.

The characters of Stein's; Gate are both intelligently and hilariously written, which is no mean feat considering that the entire work was initially penned in Japanese and was only naturalized later. Like the guy who is translating Sapkowski for the Witcher novels, the foreign-ness of the text is evident right up front but the text’s meaning and themes shine through universally despite the honorifics and the obvious Japaneseness of everything. It’s much like Persona in this regard, in being a game that doesn’t shy away from its J-origins (the story is arguably impossible to split from Akihabara anyway) but something that uses its sense of place to its advantage, as a central conceit. Imagining Stein’s; Gate without Japan is like Downton Abbey without England. Universal appeal but specific setting.

Comedy is one of the most difficult forms of writing to get right, and Stein’s; Gate excels at it. I am definitely the kind of audience for whom the typical “ha ha, look I just fell awkwardly forward into someone’s tits” style of VN humor is not going to wash, and while SG is not above the odd ecchi moment, it all works in the end thanks to the title’s intelligence. The game manages to keep me consistently laughing out loud with both anime pratfalls and a sharp wit, and is obviously written by very intelligent people. Tonal shifts are particularly well handled - the quality of the craft on display is evident each time our characters pivot between whoop whoop wacky antics to deadly serious in the space of a single scene. It’s an experienced writer who understands that for an audience to feel for these characters in their darkest times, we have to experience them at their most human in the meantimes so we can identify.

Anyway, it’s a piece of work as I said. I’m enjoying playthrough #2, which is not something you can say about every game on the shelf. As a cultural ambassador for the VN genre, Stein’s Gate definitely earns its place on the top 10. I’m curious as to whether the other 8 can bring a similarly legit vibe – time will tell, I guess.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Mon Sep 14, 2015 3:42 pm

[You posted that Steins;Gate blurb at the exact second I posted the below comment, Beige, and the board software got terribly confused! I have to go out and teach a piano lesson now; I'll post some Steins;Gate thoughts when I get back in an hour and a half or so, in the meantime, this is a response to your previous post...]

This is why it's worth making the distinction between a games with visual novel elements such as those mentioned above, and "pure" visual novels, which are nothing but story, either with or without choices; if it has choices, it's a multi-scenario visual novel, if it doesn't, it's a kinetic novel. If it's something like Danganronpa (one day Beige will spell that correctly) or Ace Attorney, the Japanese regard that as an "adventure game" despite it having more in common with a visual novel than what you might expect from a Sierra or LucasArts type affair.

I'd also lightly dispute the statement that "it is not expected that 'finishing' the game means finishing all branches" because many multi-scenario visual novels are set up in such a way that in order to have a full understanding of the narrative and the characters involved, you'll need to see each of their paths. In most cases -- well-written VNs, anyway -- even if you're not on a particular character's specific path, you'll get some further insight into them, as well as some story context. Some VNs do a great job of putting seemingly innocuous scenes in different contexts according to what you've seen before; School Days HQ was particularly good for this, given that each of the main story beats tended to have at least two or three different ways to get to it. In other cases, the "true" or canonical ending is locked behind the prerequisite that you've seen some or all of the other endings beforehand.

Of course, this isn't to say that you can't have a satisfying experience from a visual novel if you only choose to read one of the narrative paths; just be aware that you're potentially missing out on some cool stuff and additional context. It's like reading part of a series of books, I guess; the individual stories might stand by themselves, but they're probably more satisfying as part of a whole.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Alex Connolly » Mon Sep 14, 2015 4:20 pm

I'm thinking of treating myself to Steins:Gate for my birthday on Vita. Seems like a good fit, plus I'm a sucker for interwoven conspiracies like folding Titor into CERN etc. It'll be interesting to see the more...normal/hilarious stuff, to see if it floats a boat or two.

I'm in the glacial process of putting together some sort of VN variant, nothing hugely branching and ultimately won't get done for a year or two on account of it being very low-priority. About a Belgian pilot of all things, set in the early 90s, harvesting up some of the very best UFO encounter conspiracies and inventing a few of my own. It's fun. Roughed out scene art, a few minor character portraits etc.

Grabbed TyranoBuilder VN Studio when it hit Steam last year, but plans and writing have been done across two small open-source programs - ThoughtStack and CherryTree - for working to narrative flow/conversations. Don't know if it's counter-productive, but it's quicker to scratch these things out in more utilitarian programs on the train, rather than hammer them into the guts of a VN scaffold so soon.

More than anything, it should be rewarding to see a couple of hand-made portraits yammering away. We'll see.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Mon Sep 14, 2015 5:32 pm

Okay, Steins;Gate.

The most interesting thing I found about Steins;Gate is how accessible it is to non-otaku. The glossary you mention (or "hints", as they call it) is a godsend; I like to describe it as being a "guidebook to another culture" in the same way that stuff like Persona and Shenmue have been in the past; through immersing yourself in a culture that is not your own -- or, in the case of Steins;Gate, several cultures and subcultures, including Japanese culture at large, plus the scientific, chuunibyou and otaku subcultures -- you learn one hell of a lot about it, even if you don't necessarily find yourself wanting to be a part of it after the fact.

The point about Steins;Gate acknowledging both the good and bad of things like Akiba as a whole and otaku culture is a key aspect of what elevates Steins;Gate from good to great. In the same way as anime like Welcome to the NHK and Oreimo present a matter-of-fact, non-judgemental look at certain aspects of society, so too does Steins;Gate. While the protagonist has his own opinions on certain things, he's a strong character that is unreliable and unpredictable enough to make it clear that he's not supposed to be "you"; you're just riding along inside his head, effectively, and consequently you can make your own mind up about the various things you witness. You're under no obligation to approve of any of it, in other words, or you can think it's the most awesome thing in the world; the game never once preaches to you about the evils of society, and God knows I appreciate that in this day and age.

Structurally, Steins;Gate is fairly typical for a visual novel. Its first half feels long, ponderous and may even feel a little directionless if you're used to the snappier pacing of your typical game plot. But Steins;Gate is a visual novel, not a game, and consequently it takes full advantage of the attention span of someone willing to engage with it by spending a ton of time establishing time, place and characterisation; the early hours are very much about familiarising yourself with the protagonist and the other members of the main cast as well as introducing you to the central mysteries at the core of the narrative. Once the more exciting parts of the plot start happening, the pace picks up as you gradually take aim for one of the endings. This is, as I say, fairly typical; Grisaia does it too, but I'll talk more about that in its own thread.

I think Beige's note that "it’s an experienced writer who understands that for an audience to feel for these characters in their darkest times, we have to experience them at their most human in the meantime so we can identify" is absolutely key here, and it's something that good (emphasis good) visual novel authors -- and game scenario writers in general, for that matter -- will take time, care and attention over. You should walk away from a visual novel -- or visual novel-inspired game -- feeling like you've made friends with the characters, and that you want to spend more time with them. Those of you who played Persona will be familiar with the feeling!
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Alex Connolly » Mon Sep 14, 2015 11:24 pm

Where do the Kojima duo of Snatcher and Policenauts fit within the pantheon? Cracking worlds and fun, pulpy characters put them firmly in what I want from VN-esque games.

It's a medium that appeals because it seems like it's ripe for massive artistic variety. As it stands, like Red, I'd love to see character designs that channel Otomo or Oshii. It's what made the aforementioned two games stand out. Both felt like glorious interactive 80s anime. I've browsed a few image galleries of old PC eroge/H-VNs, and that scanline/dithered, highly detailed stuff like Power Slave, Possessioner etc., and just love the worlds/cities and, hell, the Space Adventure Cobra-level character designs. A lot of what makes me pine for an explosion of the VN is to bring a creative Renaissance to the backgrounds especially. The old games appear to have this level of exuberance and I'd love to see background art beyond filtered shots of suburban architecture and classrooms. It's certainly dictated by the writing, but the heritage is just so damn rich.

Adult VNs from yesteryear have gaming's best cityscapes, hands down.

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