As you may have realised if you read my lengthy series of pieces about Katawa Shoujo (and one about Kana Little Sister, which I really must get around to replaying), I am a big fan of the “visual novel” genre, a style of video game that tends to be big on story and light on interaction.
I came to this genre through the Ace Attorney series, which remains one of my favourite video game franchises of all time. (Hurry up and release those iOS remakes, Capcom!) Phoenix Wright and its sequels combined the strong sense of narrative, puzzle-solving and dialogue choices from adventure games with a style of presenting the story that really allowed you to get in close with the characters, giving you a real sense of what made them “tick”. Audio-visual presentation was very simple, with detailed anime-style characters overlaid over static backdrops, and a large degree of imagination on the part of the player being required.
Ace Attorney is a relatively good entry into the visual novel genre because it’s fairly family-friendly (despite being based around solving a variety of murder cases) and doesn’t delve into the less salubrious side of things that some of the more “niche” titles explore. There’s no fucking in it, basically, despite Franziska von Karma’s clear tendencies towards S&M.
I’ve talked extensively about Katawa Shoujo in the past, so I won’t delve into that too much here, but I did want to mention a new acquisition which showed its face on my doorstep today. School Days HQ from JAST, which is apparently a remake of an earlier title of the same name, and an adaptation of an animé I know nothing about aside from something to do with “nice boat”. Or possibly some other combination of those things. I’m not sure.
School Days is an unusual visual novel in that it’s fully animated. Yes, rather than watching static images and reading mountains of text, the game is essentially an interactive, episodic animé series, where the player watches what unfolds and occasionally makes choices that direct the path of the story — choices that, unusually for the genre, can include remaining silent through inactivity. Structurally, it’s identical to something like Katawa Shoujo — decision points branch the narrative down various “paths” leading to either “good” or “bad” endings, and the game client is set up in such a way as to easily allow players to “rewind” and try other choices — the virtual equivalent of putting your fingers in the possible pages you could turn to in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
I’ve only played the first of the game’s episodes so far, but the setup is intriguing — and, as with most visual novels, pleasingly mundane. Makoto likes Kotonoha. Kotonoha likes Makoto. Both of them are too shy to do anything about it, so in steps Sekai, Makoto’s classmate, who manages to get the two of them together but steals a kiss from Makoto as “payment” for her services. Already there have been a couple of hints about Sekai being dangerously unhinged, so I will be very curious to see how the inevitable love triangle unfolds.
But anyway. I’m not here to talk plot. I’m here to talk about this style of game, and wonder what happened over the course of the last twenty years to make it “okay” to develop a narrative-focused game in which the player’s interaction is largely limited to occasional choices.
You see, I vividly remember back in the late ’90s when the CD-ROM revolution started. The vastly-superior storage capacity of CDs allowed developers to put a whole bunch more content in their games than was previously possible. One of the most common uses of this space was full-motion video — real actors performing scenes in games. And thus, the “interactive movie” was born. The exact implementation of the “interactive movie” genre varied from traditional adventure games which happened to include full-motion video (Sierra’s Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within spring to mind here) to titles which already had designs on movies taking the next step (say hello, Wing Commander III and IV) and, at the far end of the spectrum, games that were quite literally movies that sometimes stopped for — you guessed it — the player to make a choice. (Submarine-themed game Silent Steel is the first game of this type that I remember.)
At the time, the latter option was ridiculed for offering only the most rudimentary of gameplay while flaunting the new technology unnecessarily — and often making it painfully apparent that most game developers didn’t have the same budgets as movie studios. (How times change, huh?) But now, this style of gameplay has become a firmly-established genre, particularly in the Japanese market, with a little spill-over into the West thanks to publishers like JAST and hard-working enthusiasts like Four Leaf Studios, the crowdsourced team behind Katawa Shoujo.
I’m not complaining, really — I must confess that even in the late ’90s I found interactive movies to be something of a guilty pleasure, despite their poor reviews — but I find it interesting that a style of play which many commentators at the time believed would be nothing more than a passing fad is now a firmly-entrenched part of the landscape of gaming. A niche part, sure, but one that certainly doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. School Days is an interactive movie, and unashamedly so — it has rewind and fast-forward buttons at the top of the screen, for heaven’s sake — and there certainly seems to be plenty of people clamouring to play it.
Naturally, the apparently popularity of School Days is nothing to do with the fact that it, unlike Ace Attorney, does have fucking in it. (I also discovered post-install that it supports a USB-connected wanking machine (yes, really, and no, you probably shouldn’t click that link at work), which is a mildly terrifying prospect in and of itself. No I don’t have one.) Actually, it might be, though perhaps not for the reasons you’re doubtless thinking of right now. The visual novel genre represents a sector of gaming that is absolutely unashamed to deal with issues that would be unpalatable to mainstream publishers (and possibly consumers, too). It tackles adult issues — sexuality in its many forms, violence and people acting like people rather than game characters — and does so without patronising the player or being “preachy”, unless of course the story calls for it to do so for whatever reason. While there will undoubtedly be those who come to School Days purely to get their rocks off — and the game caters to those people by allowing the sex scenes to be viewed again once they have been “unlocked” in the story (that and the wanking machine compatibility, of course) — I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people are attracted to titles like School Days and indeed the visual novel genre in general because, for the most part anyway, it treats them like adults.
Which, coincidentally, is something that a lot of interactive movies failed to do. The lack of budget that many of these titles suffered caused them to feel cheap and nasty, and any violent, sexual or otherwise graphic scenes tended to come across as rather laughable rather than an integral part of the story. Phantasmagoria, for example, featured a “rape” scene that was badly handled and clearly put in purely for shock value. Mention of this notorious scene made up a significant proportion of the game’s viral marketing, though when it actually came down to it, it was terribly executed, poorly acted and had the complete opposite effect to what such a scene should have. Instead of being horrifying, traumatic and, most importantly, mature, it was just laughable, embarrassing, dumb. Compare and contrast, meanwhile, with a number of very uncomfortable scenes in, say, Katawa Shoujo (and I’m guessing the later stages of School Days, given the fact that it carries a warning for “violence” as well as “sexual content” on its box), all of which were thought-provoking, respectful of the player’s intelligence and had a strong, real impact.
As I drift further and further away from the “blockbusters” of the games industry to get my entertainment, it pleases me that certain barriers seem to be gradually collapsing. While once the prospect of playing an “eroge” visual novel would be shameful, now people will happily and freely admit to it — thanks, at least in part, to a much better cultural understanding of the difference between “porn” and “containing erotic content”. (That said, people are a lot more open about their porn consumption these days, too.) While I wouldn’t recommend titles like School Days or Katawa Shoujo to someone not mature (or open-minded) enough to be able to handle their content, I’m very happy that they exist, providing true entertainment for adults without any of the associated skeeziness of porn.
(I can’t get away from that wanking machine option in the menus, though. That’s just odd. Does the game prompt you when to get your knob out? And how do you… oh, no. Never mind. Probably best not to think about it too much.)