Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What visual novels should learn from sequential art

Recently I've played a few visual novels, or games with visual novel elements (999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Katawa Shoujo, Re Alistair++, and Trace Memory). I understand the focus on story and having lots of text is from the visual novel tradition. I just don't understand why it isn't better.

I think visual novels qualify as sequential art, and should start acting like it. Here's some things visual novels need to work on (I had ambitious visions of side-by-side manga and visual novel screenshots, but please do some imagining in your head):

-Visual and textual information should be complimentary, not redundant. 999 drove me crazy when a character would appear on-screen looking surprised, and the text itself would tell me this character was speaking and felt surprised. We're familiar with the convention that the person on screen is talking, or if there are multiple people on screen that their speech bubbles have their name on them. Even picture books can get this right--little tidbits of additional information should be contained in the accompanying illustrations.
can we please just show all the refinement and dignity in the artwork?
-Replace redundant visual information with relevant. Most visual novels are pretty good with showing people in a flashback. But how about more closeups of salient details (people were always eating in Katawa Shoujo and I almost never got to see the food)? I also like seeing what character I'm playing and how they react to conversations (Touch Detective uses the entire top screen for this, and it is darling). I like it when my character has his own ideas about choices I make, though granted many visual novels have limited options. I don't like seeing the same artwork over and over.
maybe a whole screen is a little much to dedicate to your character's reactions... but it's soo cute!
-Pace text faster than a novel. I know it's called a visual novel, but if I'm going to the trouble of reading on a bright screen, I want a polished, fast-moving story. Conversations and plot/action should alternate--my least favorite comic books are the ones with talking heads (and sometimes just one head, for those inner monologues that seem to be endless). Trace Memory did an excellent job of steadily revealing more and more information about the game's mysteries and alternating with action--a puzzle, or discovery of a person or secret passage (the best part was when a puzzle revealed something about the plot). If you don't read manga, think of Calvin & Hobbes--even if the entire comic strip is just a dialogue, at least they're sledding down a gigantic hill.

-Use animations resourcefully. If we classify animation as many static images linked together, it can still technically qualify as sequential art, and I think that qualification makes sense in the context of visual novels, which sometimes include small animations like head nods and toe-tapping. Animations in a character, when reused in the same contexts, make mannerisms. Mannerisms can be part of an interesting and dynamic character.

I know that many of my complaints are because of budget/time constraints on visual novels. But not all of them are! I like the idea of the visual novel and I think it is a genre that is a little neglected. It's possible that I should give up on visual novels and concentrate on finding a really good simulation game--do we have a modern Princess Maker 2, and is it something other than The Sims? I like my simulation games to have some story to them (edit: maybe Cherry Tree High Comedy has what I'm looking for? I'm stoked!)!

Let me know in the comments if you agree that visual novels need to reformed, or if I'm completely misunderstanding the genre! I love having conversations about this kind of stuff.