The unrealized potential of western visual novels

One of the things which I find most disappointing about the state of western visual novel development is that with overwhelming frequency, western visual novel developers choose to closely mimic the style of Japanese visual novels in terms of setting and genre conventions, as well as art style.  High school romances (and all of the storytelling tropes associated with them) constitute the visible majority of visual novels in the west just as they do in the east.  Many western developers have even chosen to use a Japanese high school setting (or facsimile thereof), apparently too daunted by the prospect of blazing trails unexplored by Japanese visual novels before them.

To be fair, there are several regards in which western visual novels commonly diverge from their Japanese counterparts.  Western-made visual novels tend to shy away from pornographic content, and oddly enough, also tend to cater to female audiences with greater frequency.  Although female-oriented visual novels do exist in Japan, they are fewer and farther between, while it seems that female-oriented titles almost constitute a majority of western visual novel releases.  The more female-oriented nature of the western visual novel market is, to some extent, the effect of a largely female-dominated development community.  However, the market that these developers have cultivated is one which seems to be equally favor females, as evidenced by the commercial success of many western-made otome games.  Although the unfortunate side of this becomes evident when it drives commercially-successful English novel developers to  use Twilight for market research, it does suggest that western-made visual novels stand to reach an audience beyond the stereotypically male audience associated with Japanese visual novels and most electronic storytelling mediums.  Certainly, the lack of pornographic content broadens the potential audience of western visual novels, and allows them to explore non-romance genres with greater ease.  Yet, despite having the advantages of a much broader potential audience, most western visual novels have failed to break out of the niche genre utilized by the Japanese, continuing to retread the same tried and tested tracks already worn deep by previous visual novels.

In the Japanese market, adherence to genre conventions is understandable.  Japanese visual novels can be high-cost endeavors, with some commanding production costs on the scale of tens of millions of yen (hundreds of thousands of dollars). ((Canned Dogs has a highly informative post which details the costs associated with Japanese eroge production, for those with an interest in the details.))  Games with high development costs command similarly high sticker prices, sometimes exceeding prices as high as ¥9,000 ($112 US). ((For a look at what the most popular visual novels can cost in Japan, take a look at some popular Key releases, such as Little Busters and Clannad.))

Western visual novel developers, conversely, tend to work with much smaller and more limited budgets, sometimes less than a hundredth the size of Japanese productions.  Furthermore, the sale price of western-made visual novels tends to be much lower, generally not exceeding $20.  Rather than relying almost exclusively on an otaku fanbase who are willing to pay inflated prices for products conforming to a specific set of expectations, the lower price point allows commercial western-made visual novels to reach beyond their “usual” audience to those who may have only a passing interest in most visual novel releases.  The cost of visual novel production in Japan and the nature of the otaku market discourages tinkering too much with a proven formula, but western visual novels have no such restriction.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in game development (mostly in the west, though not exclusively), where larger game studios tend to be more conservative in their production choices, resulting in less innovation in many cases, while smaller indie developers have the ability to take more risks and try out new ideas.  Some indie developers even rely on novelty and innovation as a selling point, as it can be difficult to outperform high-budget studios when competing at the same game.  Indie game development has become a more viable business proposition in recent years, in part due to the greater availability of development tools and digital distribution platforms.  Fortunately, visual novel development already enjoys both of these advantages, arguably more so with regard to development due to the lower barrier to entry.

Western visual novels should be more innovative, not less. They have the freedom to experiment and try new and ambitious things that could rock the foundation of the current visual novel community.  Some ambitious flops are bound to result, but the consequences for failure are much less.  Some interesting ventures have already been made in this direction, such as Digital: A Love Story, whose presentation is atypical to be sure.  Although experimental works like this are currently but a small sliver of current western visual novels, I suspect it is western developers who will be blazing new trails and taking the medium in new directions as it matures.

Why you shouldn’t make a game (or, why you should make a visual novel)

I recently stumbled across the following post on a game development forum:

Hey everyone! So I guess I’m looking for advice on how to start assembling a small team of people who want to create an Indie game. I’ve got the writing skills, but I don’t have any artistic or coding skills whatsoever. I have no idea where to start in the process of working on an Indie game. I’m especially worried that I have no money to pay anyone with, so this would be strictly to see if we could cobble together a game and get it sold on a platform.

At one point in time, I found this kind of post almost painful to read, but I’ve gradually become numb due to the frequency with which it repeats itself.  The common train of thought behind this post can be likely be reduced to, “I enjoy video games, and believe myself to be a pretty good judge of what constitutes a good video game.  I should get into game development!”  This makes about as much sense as deciding to become a novel-writer because you enjoy reading fiction, or become a film director because of your love of cinema.  Being an experienced consumer of content does not endow you with the skills required to create that content.

At the same time, there are is a visual interactive medium which many would-be game developers are qualified to create content for: visual novels.  Allow me to briefly explain why you, the person making the type of post described above, shouldn’t create a video game (and should make a visual novel instead):

You have no skill as a programmer

Coding is so foundational to game development that making a video game without any coding ability or experience seems inconceivable.  Trying to make a game without the ability to code is like trying to make a book without the ability to write.  An illiterate person could create a book by dictating the entire contents of their book to a literate person who then transcribed it (or more simply, by hiring a ghostwriter), but this is infeasible for a number of reasons.  First off, no one would be willing to do this for you without the offer of a sizable chunk of cash, which it doesn’t sound like you have.  Time and effort are much more finite than ideas, and your idea isn’t any more enticing than any of the other ideas out there.  Secondly, much of the process of creating a book comes through the process of internalizing your ideas as you transcribe them, and then re-iterating it so that it flows better.  Implementing your game idea through code allows you to understand, internalize, and critique it better in the same way that writing your ideas out on paper allows you to be a more effective writer.  By the finished product is time to publish, it may no longer be yours.  Further, the experience (and skill associated with it) will go to the person who is doing the execution, i.e. not you.

Visual novels, on the other hand, require little to no programming.  Ren’Py allows you to create visual novels with scripting so simple that I can’t think of a metaphor to adequately describe how simple it is.  At the same time, Ren’Py is powerful enough that, if you’re feeling ambitious enough, you can inject traditional game elements into it.  Simulation games and RPGs have been built using Ren’Py.

As an added bonus, after creating a visual novel in Ren’Py, you might just find that the process has taught you enough Python that you can begin coding an actual video game using Pygame or the like.  If even that is too much for you, NovelStream allows you to create visual novels using a graphical user interface with zero scripting.

You’re a writer, not an artist

It’s hard for a game, particularly one with low production value, to stand on its writing rather than its art direction or game design.  Studios like BioWare are lauded for their storytelling ability, but the effectiveness of the narratives woven within modern games like Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age is also in part due to their production value.  There’s more to BioWare’s storytelling than just writing.

Further, there are many examples of games, especially indie titles, which are virtually devoid of writing.  Games like Super Meat Boy demonstrate that writing can be an entirely dispensable element.  Even narrative-heavy examples like Bastion depend at least as much on good art direction and presentation as they do on writing.  In light of that, demand for writers among indie game developers tends to be lower than the demand for a programmer or a good art designer.  Thus, when attempting to join game development projects, you will likely find yourself at a disadvantage.  Writers will, at most, be one required part of the team, along side those who produce code and assets.  It’s hard to make yourself valuable as a writer.

There are a few scant examples of games whose existence is justified solely by their writing, but these are few and far between.  And interestingly, many of these titles (Planescape being the most notable), often crop up in discussions among the visual novel community with frequency that suggests that if your aim is to recreate Planescape, the medium to do so might be a visual novel, rather than a conventional video game.

Despite what the “visual” in “visual novel” might suggest, visual novels are actually quite capable of standing on writing alone.  Take, for example, Umineko no Naku Koro ni.  Umineko’s art assets and writing were all done by one man.  The finished product looks like this:

The the first episode of Umineko sold out within 30 minutes of its debut at Comiket 72, and the series has since spawned a manga series and drama CDs, as well as a 26-episode TV series.  To call Umineko “successful” would be putting it lightly.  One would presume that the success of Umineko is due to the writing, as the quality of the assets and other aspects of its presentation certainly didn’t do it any favors.

Your game idea isn’t actually a game idea

Jeff Wofford has written a very astute post on the subject of turning your idea into a game, and makes the following observation:

When people tell me their game ideas, usually their idea is 99% setting and story and only 1% gameplay. I have to tell them that they don’t have a game idea—they have a story idea. A game design is not a story design.  If you want your idea made into a game, you’ll have to fill out the details about how the game actually plays—what the player actually does, how he moves his character, how he interacts with the world.

Looking at games that are lauded for having immersive universes, such as Half-Life and Skyrim, the most interesting thing about these universes isn’t their content so much as how you are able to interact with it.  Take away the interactivity, and you no longer have a game.

The significant thing here is that the interactivity is the main draw for games, and the interactivity is not writing.  Writing often wrests control out of the hands of the players to tell its story, as is often seen in the case of cutscenes.  Some games try to disguise or hide this fact by offering nominal (fake) interactivity in the form of quick-time events.  And players hate them for it.

The point is that in order to make an effective game, your idea should be optimized for interactivity.  And odds are that if your main concern is effective story, you will wind up with ideas that optimizes for that instead.

Visual novels, much unlike games, often offer very little interactivity.  As an extreme example, Saya no Uta, despite being several hours in duration, offers the player only two decision points during the entire course of the narrative, a stark contrast from a game like Civilization where I expect to interact with the game hundreds of times per hour.  Some visual novels offer no interactivity and are completely linear, one Key example being Planetarian.

Recruiting people is hard (and you have no money)

So, you’ve decided that in spite of your lack of ability to program or produce assets, you’re going to create a game development team.  The question then becomes: who can you get to join your team?

Answer: probably not good game developers willing to work for free.  “Developer” tends to be a profession with relatively high demand, and a correspondingly high market value.  $50 per hour is on the low end of what you can expect to pay a freelance developer.  Similarly, good artists expect to be paid for their work.  When it comes to art, there’s a wider spectrum “acceptable” qualities (and prices to go with them), to get a good idea of what’s available, browse around the Deviant Art jobs forum.

Perhaps the most distressing part of this process is that, as discussed above, while writers can be dispensable parts of game creation, developers are not.  Without someone to code your game, you will, at most, be developing the idea for a game.  Your involvement in the process is contingent entirely upon the participation of others.

Creating a good visual novel still requires a sizable chunk of time and effort, not to mention skill in storycrafting.  However, unlike game development, visual novel development is something that is achievable for many people with the resources immediately available to them.  In a visual novel development, the most essential participant in the development process (and oftentimes, the person who invests the greatest amount of time) is the writer.  You may choose to recruit an artist or a general engineer along the way, but recruiting other people for your project is non-essential.  You can do it alone.  And you can do it now.