I've been intrigued by visual novels ever since I first came across an Electronic Gaming Monthly preview of Silent Hill: Play Novel, a Japan exclusive launch title for the Game Boy Advance. This little blurb about a game destined to never come to North America served as my introduction to the genre.
I had wondered for years just what it meant for a game to be little more than text on a screen. It wasn't until the release of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the Nintendo DS that I finally understood just what I had been missing. Here was a game that relied solely on the strength of its script to make an impression, a facet that is key to the genre. Many games are lucky to have any plot at all, let alone a decent one, and yet the success of the Ace Attorney series hinged on players being enthralled by its tale.
Despite the Ace Attorney series finding an audience in the West, it never seemed large enough to guarantee a localization for future installments. The people enjoying the games was certainly small in size, especially when considering the effort that goes into localization. The North American market had already set itself up as a market where action reigned supreme. How could the visual novel genre carve out a sizeable audience when our hardware generations are defined by the likes of Blast Processing and online multiplayer experiences?
While the genre found itself on platforms like the Super Famicom and PlayStation, its first home was always on Japanese PCs. Even now, in the age of Steam, Japanese developed PC games have trouble in making their way over to North America. While visual novels thrive in their native land, the process of finding a publisher or group willing to localize these works is difficult. With the genre unable to make its presence known in the West through a steady stream of releases, early standouts like Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton weren't enough to prove that visual novels were a bankable property.
Mike Engler, an editor at Aksys Games who recently worked on XBlaze Code: Embryo, explains that the time and resources needed to localize these games played a role in the delay of the genre reaching our shores. Having enjoyed his first taste of the genre with this year's XBlaze Code: Embryo, Engler is quite familiar with just how massive an undertaking these works can be.
Xblaze was "well north of 400 thousand Japanese characters. The final English word count for just the story text? 139,833 words, or roughly 450 pages. Think about a third of War and Peace," says Engler. And that's light for a visual novel.
He adds that Haku?ki and Virtue's Last Reward, a sequel to 999, reached upwards of 850 thousand and one million Japanese characters, respectively. What this means is a lot of work for these editors, and all of it for an admittedly small audience. When the translated text is handed over to the development team, it's not clear sailing either. Such a massive change to the game's source code brings its own problems, and considering how voluminous these games can be, they can be an even bigger headache than the less text-intensive products.
While visual novels have struggled to gain ground in North America, they've always flourished in Japan. Yuji Horii, the creator of the Dragon Quest series, introduced the genre to Japan with the release of The Portopia Serial Murder Case. The game, which saw release across several Japanese PCs and Nintendo's Famicom in the mid-1980s, cast players as a detective sent to investigate a murder. The game went on to spawn several sequels, and inspire the likes of Hideo Kojima to create adventure games of his own with Policenauts and Snatcher. While visual novels have remained most popular on PCs in Japan, nearly every home console and portable have had entries of their own.
It's difficult to pinpoint exact reasons for why the genre failed to find a home in North America through those early years, but considering how fickle Japanese publishers were in regards to what was brought over to the West, it's possible the blame falls on their own hesitance. In an era when publishers made alterations to games based off of perceptions of the North American market (Final Fantasy IV's easier difficulty for example), it's possible that the genre was skipped over for being too difficult or wordy for Western tastes.
Then came the Nintendo DS.
According to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors editor Ben Bateman, Nintendo's handheld was the beginning of video games breaking into the mainstream, which opened up the hobby to new markets. At this time the DS and Sony's PlayStation Portable were selling extraordinarily well in its native Japan, "and along with that popularity came a lot of new content - including visual Novels," Bateman explains. The widespread acceptance of these portables in Japan lead to an onslaught of software, with all genres seeing representation. Games like Steins;Gate, Professor Layton, and Danganronpa met with much success during this period, and brought the genre to new heights.
"So in Japan," Bateman says, "you've got a lot more titles available to pick up, and the internet's inexorable globalization of communication and fandom has exposed a lot of people in the west to VNs—people who might never have heard of them before." With so many people looking for unique experiences, Bateman argues that the mindset of just what a video game could be expanded with the Nintendo DS. With such a large and willing audience, Bateman contends that localization companies felt the time was right to bring over some of Japan's most popular works. Due to the efforts of publishers like Aksys Games and XSeed, North America was finally able to enjoy the genre more than ever, with games like Haku?ki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom and 999.
Tom Lipschultz, who serves as XSEED Games' Localization Specialist, feels that it wasn't just the popularity of those handhelds that brought VNs to our shores. He believes that there was a sea change in the early 2000s, with a wider acceptance of "art house gaming", retro revivals, and indie games. "Though a lot of people still consider games to be primarily the realm of young children, more and more people are beginning to recognize it as a valid artistic medium," Lipschultz explains. "And those people are willing to explore all the possible ways in which that medium can be used for artistic expression."
For Love of the Game
The appreciation for visual novels in North America is undeniable, with those working within Western publishers like XSEED Games possibly the genre's biggest evangelists. It's that focus on story that appeals to them, a chance to flex their writing muscles that sometimes take a back seat to the action on screen.
To have Tom Lipschultz tell it, the work that goes into a visual novel is very rewarding for himself and his peers. "When dealing with games that rely more on the 'tell, don't show' mentality," Lipschultz tells me, "there's a ton of text that serves to set the mood through visceral description of things like a chill in the air, a crumbling wall, etc. It may not sound exciting, but translating stuff like that requires a totally different thought process than translating dialogue." Lipschultz worked on XSEED's Corpse Party games, a series that demands a proper translation to sell its blood-soaked locales to the players. "We kind of have to read the Japanese, visualize what it's describing, then find the right words to reconstruct that image in English." The reward comes from that process, Lipschultz explains, noting he finds his work in the genre incredibly creative and challenging.
"A visual novel lives and dies by its story and characters," says Phoenix Spaulding, the editor of the Danganronpa series for Nippon Ichi Software America, "so as a writer by trade I really enjoy the fact that the writing aspect is so crucial to a player's enjoyment of the game...I definitely enjoy that challenge and pressure to excel."
With so much praise for the genre, it's no wonder that working on a title like Danganronpa makes an impact on its editor, no matter the genre. Spaulding believes that visual novels serve as a great reminder that there's an audience out there that craves a good story, regardless of how much gameplay there is to support it. In his time at XSEED Games, Tom Lipschultz has had his hands in many products, most commonly JRPGs, and since working on visual novels he's noticed the abundance of exposition in those other games. A concern of his is players finding this kind of dialog disingenuous as the game tries to explain its backstory through mountains of unnatural dialogue.
"A visual novel lives and dies by its story and characters, so as a writer by trade I really enjoy the fact that the writing aspect is so crucial to a player's enjoyment of the game...I definitely enjoy that challenge and pressure to excel." - Phoenix Spaulding, NIS America
"I'd like to think that my experience with visual novel sections in our own games has helped me identify scenes like this...and soften them a bit during localization," Lipschultz says.
If you've played 999 or Virtue's Last Reward, you've seen Bateman's handiwork in dealing with long conversations that range from frozen Egyptian princesses to Schrödinger's cat. While he's ecstatic from the characterization and dialog offered from these works, the genre has also taught him the value of brevity.
"Visual novels tend to be extremely wordy," Bateman tells me, "and as a writer it's very easy to get caught up writing and writing and writing, and using all sorts of exciting words." He says there's a lot of importance in the phrase "less is more", and that in working in localization, he's learned that his career is dependent on succinctness.
With so much riding on one's abilities as a writer, the stresses as a result of that pressure are understandable. A concern of Lipschultz's is the text coming across as dry. When it comes to dialogue, knowing the character he's writing for allows him to "give them a little more 'oomph' to correspond with known quirks traits, habits, etc." As for descriptive text, the words that describe the environment or an action, Lipschultz says these come to him as little more than an "info dump." He finds it necessary to be on his toes when it comes to to descriptive text, as it runs the chance of killing the mood.
"And the mood," Lipschultz says, "is everything in a visual novel."
With the genre's focus on story, dialogue, it's interesting to consider the role traditional gameplay plays in visual novels. While games like Haku?ki are example of the genre in their purest form (which is to say there's no gameplay), others like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Virtue's Last Reward frequently make use of traditional player interactions (puzzles to solve, actions to commit). For North American tastes, do publishers find one form of visual novels more important than the other?
"Is a story-only game with no notable gameplay elements going to sell a million copies in the West? Not anytime soon," Spaulding shrugs. "But even now there is a small but growing movement of Western developer doing their own VN work, using things like Twine to create really powerful, well written choose-your-own-adventure style experiences."
If a developer wants to reach a massive audience, Spaulding believes gameplay is necessary, "If you can make a game that has engaging gameplay and an engaging story, you've basically got the best of both worlds."
While Lipschultz agrees that the genre benefits from forms of gameplay the player may be more familiar with, he does see the potential for more "pure" visual novels. "It's just going to be a fairly long and hard road until we get to that point", he admits. "I think people need something familiar to which they can cling in order to justify spending their money on a 'game' that feels more like a book with a soundtrack and some pretty pictures."
Nevertheless, the genre has been fairly successful of late. Earlier this year, NISA's release of Danganronpa for the PlayStation Vita was so well received that the publisher announced the upcoming release of its sequel just two days later. With the genre clearly on the rise, one has to wonder what it will take for visual novels to continue to grow.
"I think it really comes down to the game's content," Spaulding says. "A big reason Danaganronpa did so well for us is that the concept is immediately intriguing, and the art is incredibly striking and memorable." Spaulding says that this kind of game is a great introduction to the genre, and should lead to players being more willing to take a chance on other types of VNs, such as the more romantically driven Haku?ki series, or Sweet Fuse: At Your Side.
To Engler, it's the fans currently enjoying the genre that have a large effect on its future. Through the likes of social media, praise for works like XBlaze is a far better tool to raise awareness than ads "or debatably insane localization editors proselytizing on their Twitter account."
The genre's success here is leading to some interesting approaches to meeting that demand. While publishers like Aksys Games are continuing their support with titles such as next year's Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, Kickstarter is proving to be a new avenue for localization groups. Exogenesis ~Perils of Rebirth~, WORLD END ECONOMiCA -Complete-, and Sunrider are successful examples of fans willing to support smaller studios with the localization of visual novels. In those cases, the financial support for the Kickstarters blew past their expectations, often resulting in the game being brought to more platforms. This kind of effort proves that the market is there, and that its audience is starved for content. The genre is growing, and we're taking it there.
While being a fan of video games is never dull, there's an allure to witnessing the birth of something new. While we are seeing the fruits of the genre later than I would have liked, it also means that the games releasing on our shores come long after any sort of growing pains visual novels have experienced along the way. Despite being relatively new on our shores, I'm playing some of the greatest works the genre has ever had. It's surprising that I can finally commend a game for its story, and should visual novels continue to grow in popularity, the effect they could have on the industry as a whole is undeniable.