The Importance of the Visual Novel

Playing Three-Fourths Home on XBox One taught me a couple things: 1)  I’m impatient, and 2) visual novels are a critical component of gaming’s growth in storytelling ability. 

Three-Fourths Home is a game that’s been sitting in my Pile of Shame for at least months, so I was a bit excited when I found out the game was going to be coming to consoles. I knew that it had a striking art style, I knew that people talked about the game, but admittedly I didn’t know much else. So when I sat down with Three-Fourths Home: Extended Edition on the XBox One, I didn’t actually realize that I was going to be playing a visual novel. And though there’s something in me that feels inherently conflicted when I play visual novels, I always feel better in the end for having played them.

Visual novels essentially play like video games, but have set storylines, usually with branching narrative paths. Imagine something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but with a narrower focus: generally, visual novels aren’t about your decisions like an action title or sports game would be. They’re a novel in the sense that you’re following the actions of set characters in specific situations, but your input can change the course of the dialog or whether certain plot points are revealed.  They’re a sort of adventure game, like the popular Telltale Games franchises, but with less emphasis on player input on the universe. Like a book, the novel has a particular story to tell, a message to deliver, and the player becomes a part of that message.

Three-Fourths Home takes place on a cell phone in a car in Nebraska. Kelly, at her grandparents’ old barn, sees a storm starting to roll in and gets in her car to go home. While driving, she receives a phone call from her mother. Kelly’s responses are under your control; as she’s questioned by her mom,  she can be polite, humorous, angsty. There’s no context, no backstory, no explanation, just a conversation that you have to learn from as it takes place. To provide too much context here would taint your playthrough if you ever ended up taking the game on; at around an hour-and-something of gameplay, it’s worth the time. Still, the conversation that takes place as Kelly attempts to safely drive home reveals more about yourself than it does Kelly.

Three Fourths Home - Trees

Though Three-Fourths Home is a “game,” it’s only one in a limited sense. You drive home by holding the button for the car’s accelerator, but there’s no steering, no obstacles to avoid, just a shifting landscape and a conversation between Kelly and the other end of the phone. My inherent expectations of what a game was supposed to be created questions that clouded my processing: Am I going to have to press a button to dodge out of the way of an obstacle? Is there an item I’m going to have to stop and pick up? When the hell does this damn intro end? The “intro” ended when the game ended.

I would tend to divide narrative-based games into two camps: interactive dynamic stories, and interactive static stories. Interactive dynamic stories are ones like the Telltale Games, or Square Enix’s Life is Strange. These games heavily depend on story and specified characters, but the large-scale plot points change based on the player’s input. Characters may live or die based on a button press, entire segments of the game may be washed over or revealed based on key choices. Interactive static stories, however, only deviate in minor ways based on player input: there are minimal opportunities to “gamify” the experience, that is, to let the player’s choice or action work as a major influencer in the experience. Many visual novels fall in to this camp, especially shorter ones like Three-Fourths Home or Coming Out Simulator 2014: there’s a conclusion to arrive to, a message to receive, and what happens is not about you.

Books are important because they heavily involving us even though they’re not about us. Music, movies, TV, they all tell us stories that aren’t about us, but they can be passively consumed, absorbed simply by being near the source that creates the image or sound. Games involve us, but even when they’re role-playing games like most of the Final Fantasy series or action games with iconic protagonists like Halo’s Master Chief, those games feel like they’re about us: we’re the ones choosing the spells, we’re the ones taking cover behind the rocks and lobbing the grenades, we’re the ones choosing whether to tell someone that we love them or to jump off a bridge. Books force us to get just as involved in the consumption process by transforming words into stories, but we don’t get to alter them just because we don’t like the result. We have to deal with results, we have to think outside our comfort zones, we have to deal with life in ways that we might not want. Visual novels have that power.

 

999 -Box

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors for the 3DS was the first visual novel that I ever played. In it, 9 people are abducted, placed on a ship while strapped to explosives, and forced to play the “Nonary Game,” a puzzle where only certain people can proceed, while the others must die. Playing as Junpei, I could try to figure out the game’s puzzles, choose which doors he would go through with certain party members, but those decisions weren’t about me: I was infrequently involved, reading through pages and pages of text before getting to choose whether to open a door, solve a puzzle. Because the novel was lightly gamified, giving me occasional puzzles to solve or choices about story paths, I felt conflicted and frustrated throughout the game. Am I reading a book? Am I playing a game? Visual novels in general may be doomed to walk that line, but minimizing gamification and maximizing character and story development helps them escape the frustration factor. Three-Fourths Home pulls this off.

Three-Fourths Home carries much more emotional content than 999 even tried for, and its presentation as a visual novel is key to digesting that information. The game isn’t about getting dialog options or leveling up; it’s about getting to know Kelly, her relationship with her mother, father, and brother. It’s about learning Kelly’s feelings about life, her fears, her family’s influence on her world. By taking the gun/character sheet/quests out of the equation, our minds are freed to process story, character, emotion, empathy. We have time to think, to process, to feel because the world is slowed by our having to propel it forward with each action: if you don’t choose dialog, the progress freezes, just like if you put a book down or refuse to turn the page. The visual novel is important because it provides us the time, space, and freedom of mental resource to really take in the effects of a story in the classical sense.

Three Fourths Home - Driving

Now, when I say that visual novels are important, that certainly doesn’t mean any other games are unimportant. But when it comes to visual novels, people love to talk about whether or not they’re really “games,” with a seeming subtext that if they’re “not really games” they’re not important or somehow second-class to “real games.” First, my take on the issue: it doesn’t matter whether they’re “games” or “not games;” these are all virtual experiences that give depth and meaning to people who play them, and that’s enough for me. That really should be enough for anyone. Second, I think we have this discussion as communities of gamers because our minds and bodies are conditioned to want the gun/character sheets/quests when we’re using a controller or keyboard/mouse or mobile device for a game. This encourages developers to come up with mini games and other pieces-of-shiny to keep our hyperactive gamer minds busy. But the real advantage of visual novels is that they can engage our reader’s mind, the one that doesn’t have lightning quick reflexes, but processes information on a deeper level because it’s not occupied with success/failure conditions or learning new combos: it’s learning about itself and the world around it.

Three-Fourths Home manages to capture a picture of the modern American family in a way I entirely didn’t expect, and to see that portrayal on the screen was a great experience. But a greater experience was the strong drive I felt to call my mother after the game, a drive compelled by feeling the pain and tension in the relationship between Kelly and her mother. I feel lucky to not have that tension with my mother, but I probably don’t call her as often as I should. And I didn’t end up calling her today, either; I got busy and caught up and distracted as people are apt to do. We talked just yesterday, but I see more now the ways that too much neglect can damage even close bonds. If a game can help teach that, I think it’s well worth the time, whether the game is a “real game” or not.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Intelligame. Lover of story-centric games of all kinds, arcade games, and mobile titles. Mac and Cheese connoisseur.

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