If you want to know the first thing about me, you should know that I love a good story. More than that, I love me a good story that I can control, manipulate, and interact with directly so I can feel like I truly have a stake in the proceedings. Naturally, this means that a video game’s story is very important to me, perhaps even more so than actual gameplay. When a game has an engrossing and interesting story, it more often than not makes up for any blemishes it may have in its core design. I know I cannot be the only person who feels this way, as more and more game developers are putting a game’s narrative center stage. No genre makes this more evident than the visual novel, a genre that has had very little mainstream success in the West. Despite this, I feel a burning in my joints that tells me that the visual novel’s time in the sun is coming.
It is a bit funny to hear so many gamers nowadays deride some games for having too much story when such a big chunk of gaming history revolves around interactive narrative. Some of the earliest games to ever come out for the PC were text based adventure games that had little to no player-interaction beyond typing a few choice words onto the screen. Games like “Wizard and the Princess,” “Mystery House,” and others from developer Sierra were crafted with the top priority being to experience the story while keeping visceral satisfaction on the player’s part coming a VERY distant second. Many gamers today still hold fond memories of these games and their younger cousins, the point-and-click adventure game. These games, such as “Day of the Tentacle” and “Monkey Island,” were evolutions of the formula Sierra perfected. But what if the core of what made a text-based adventure remained the same while still being updated for today’s world? Well, then you’d end up with the visual novel.
Visual novels, dating sims, and other games of their ilk are keeping the spirit of Sierra’s original games alive while continuing to push the genre forward. If you were to compare a game like “9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors” with “Wizard and the Princess” you’d be hard pressed not to notice how similar the two are in design. There may be more text, prettier graphics, and nicer sounding music, but the core of the experience remains the same. Unlike a point-and-click adventure game, text-based games like “999” keep the player locked in a first person perspective so as to better immerse them in the story. These two games also both allow the player to directly interact with objects in their environment using tricky and occasionally baffling logic in order to solve linear puzzles. The only difference is that “999” is far more forgiving on players who are less-seasoned practitioners of the surreal logic many game developers employ. Perhaps then, it is no wonder the game sold higher than expectations, proving to the entire industry that there is, indeed, a market for games that focus almost exclusively on story.
The gaming industry is becoming more and more diverse, and this means that the market for story-based games is only going to get bigger. One needs to look no further than to games like “The Walking Dead” to see how big an impact a game’s story can have on the player. Millions of gamers have overlooked simplistic gameplay and technically flawed presentation due to the gripping story the game presents and the rich characters that become far more than just background voices in the scenery. Several games that already feature in-depth storytelling are giving the option to soften the difficulty so that players can enjoy the narrative hassle-free. How long before that option becomes to remove the gameplay altogether? And why must this be seen as a bad thing? Despite how vitriolic some gamers can get whenever a game developer mentions the mere thought of story being more important than gameplay, the fact is that there are plenty of people out there who long to experience an interactive story without having to go through the hassle of dying 50 million times against the Supreme Dragon Lord of Malekith in order to move onto the next chapter. Likewise, the only way more action-oriented games are going to get better writers is if those same writers have an outlet for their less explosion-y ideas that do not work as well when you have a dozen menus and HUD displays confusing the player.
The industry will grow more mature thanks to the visual novel and the visual novel will continue to evolve thanks to an ever-evolving industry. As gaming becomes a more integrated aspect of our daily lives, it is only natural for written literature to take a cue from the 21st century’s newest form of art and entertainment. The visual novel is going to attract all of the people who are too intimidated to play the more “hardcore” games gamers are traditionally used and, likewise, the visual novel will attract new writers who can improve the reputation of the industry. Is it only a matter of time before you start seeing your local librarian playing “Phoenix Wright” on her iPad? Chances seem to be looking pretty good.