As discussed in Part 1, VNs aren’t as popular as other mediums because they exist as a niche of a niche. How then do we make them more popular? Keep in mind that this seeks to answer a long-term problem, not give short-term solutions.
While I list the main changes we should make if we want to expand appeal, I’ll also chime in with my opinion on what it means for VNs as a whole.
The first and most obvious way is this:
To move away from anime and Japan.
Understand that while anime is nearly intrinsic to VNs, if we truly want to popularize the medium, this is the first step we must take. It’s not an easy step, artistically or financially. Every person in the development and publication of VNs were practically raised on anime and continue to show our passion through our work. Yet, we need to show the world that VNs can exist independently. Just like contemporary novels, plays, or movies; VNs are a form of writing, not a statement of the content therein.
Such a change will take years if developers even attempt going down this path. I’d be blown away if I saw it within the next three decades. The longer I contemplate this situation though, the more I realize that such a departure isn’t as precarious as we assume. Let me put it simply; western VNs don’t need to abandon their origin completely. In fact, I hope numerous creators continue to explore how they can put their own twist on anime narratives. Instead, we need to hold up VNs that are presentably more western equally (Given they are of sufficient quality of course. Promoting to push a style without it being halfway decent will cave in any future said style has). Both the developers and community then must learn to have faith in each other. As developers, we mustn’t get stuck in the mindset that VNs need to be anime inspired. If that’s the aesthetic which fits, then so be it, but keep an open mind. The community must be willing to disregard the notions of art style in order to embrace new narratives too.
For a visual novel that perfectly rode the line, see Fare Thee Well by Watercress Studios.
In short, the hardest part of this could very well be finding inspiration from the West. Keep in mind, the final product can and most likely should be a grand amalgamation of both East and West. Indeed, we must combine rather than regurgitate an intimation of JP VNs. While I do single out East and West, I do it for flair and general direction; not as an exclusion of any culture.
The second step we must take is this:
Evolving the genre artistically.
During the year, I was given a key from the developer crew Pseudome for their game Errant Heart. Before I play a game, I like to do my research. I’m not talking about the themes or reviews, those are things people should figure out themselves. Instead, I’m referring to the development history of the game as well as the bio of the creators themselves. When reading upon Pseudome and their thoughts when venturing into VN development, I was amazed. I recommend you read about it, even if you aren’t interested in Errant Heart itself. Find the link here.
However, the key components which I’ll extract are these:
- Before reading Tsukihime, they believed VNs to be synonymous with dating simulators.
- They disliked the static artwork of VNs.
- “Now scrub the search bar and watch the little preview window. Does it take minutes-on-end for the imagery to change? I’ll bet it does.”
- Utilizing their background in comics and animation, they made it play more like an animatic than a slide show.
- “To that end we have implemented myriad techniques to help keep up visual interest, such as multiple character poses, outfits, hair styles, lighting effects, zoom levels, set props, camera panning and other special effects.”
While some of their implementations have been done before, they’re generally rare amongst VNs. Going forward, those who are able to should strive to make VNs more than their minimum.
Even small mechanical systems such as Root Double’s Senses Sympathy System (SSS) provide an illusion of complexity and are thus welcome. At points along the story, the player is given the ability to assess the actions of characters in the game emotionally. These determine how characters are most likely to act, also affecting relationships. Functionally, they do the same thing that regular choices achieve. However, the presentation does the trick in giving, what would otherwise be a well written VN more weight.
Arcade Spirit’s choices also have a clever trick to them. By corresponding its choices to a personality, the player makes slowly molds the insert character. Eventually, choices are barred to only what personality the character most prominently associates with. There is also a chart which constantly ranks what emotions and types of action are typically chosen. Once again, these are functionally identical to regular choices but are presented well so as to give them presence. Their blending into the arcade and neon style also help drastically so they don’t feel completely out of place.
All that said, both games have gotten criticism for their mechanics being too “gamey” or gimmicky. If these two games failed in their presentation or didn’t have a charm to them, they would fail as features and I would be inclined to agree. However, I would argue that such systems still retain the fundamental structure of VNs without adding the undisputed gimmick of mini-games. For the most relevant, please refer back to Errant Heart whose additions weren’t in player choice but instead perspective and design.
In this step, we should be wary of adding things which stray too much from the formula. A VN is, after all, a visual novel. While full blown interactive games are nice, perhaps then we should consider VNs better fitting as a subgenre.
Lastly then, let’s consider this step:
Taking VNs into the future as a subgenre.
Once more, I’ll say again that I’m not even considering relegating VNs to solely a subgenre. However, pushing their expansion as a subgenre may see more popularity than pure VNs do at current. Take a look at games like Persona or Valkyria Chronicles. Few people would say that they are visual novels. However, they undoubtedly contain VN elements. If more games take this approach, perhaps it’s possible to ease new players into pure VNs. Instead of subjecting them to a slow payout, they have a nice mix of gameplay and story which are segmented for digestible experiences. On this front, I have little experience in development or directing. I only am able to speak professionally on pure VNs. Thus, I can only comment as part of the audience playing these games. Nevertheless, the cons of this are the increased requirements from solo developers. After all, for as intellectually challenging as VNs are to make, they are relatively simple to code. Still, we should be open to its implementation.
Everything is easy to say and infinitely harder to implement. However, from what I see, these three things will propel VNs forward, all in terms of mass popularity and most in general quality. While they don’t necessarily need a push at current, take what I’ve said as a bit of a prediction as well as a small tip. Never treat what I say as a guideline. I leave the decision to you, a valued member of the community.