Soundscapes – Back to Basics with Visual Novels
Like indie games, visual novels are a frontier where experiments in story telling can be done in ways a AAA title wouldn’t dare or have the resources to do. The Witcher 2 for example might have been a breakthrough in non-linear storytelling compared to the rest of the RPGs out there, but compared to visual novels it just scratched the surface of the power of a non-linear narrative. “Meaningful choice” is something gamers are increasingly interested in, and visual novels have the ability to deliver it easily as their focus is entirely on narrative and not on gameplay. Personally I’ve found myself lose more sleep playing visual novels than any high profile game in the past 5 years. In a world where player engagement and “stickiness” is considered most important in games, there are clearly some lessons to be learned by game developers from visual novels, even if it might just turn out to be a reminder of how important it is to get the basics right.
Visual novels are stripped down experiences. In a modern AAA game a developer might ask themselves how important smooth character drop shadows are for their game, while a visual novel creator asks themselves whether they need animation at all, or how many scenes they can get away with not using any sound. In the end they’re both trying to tell a story that will entertain the audience on some level.
In a visual novel the opportunities for player interaction is often minimal. The graphics consist mostly of still images with little to no animation. This means that the audio gets to take center stage in the experience, in a way that sound usually can’t do in something with more elaborate presentation elements. By using ambient sound the world expands beyond the frame of still images and becomes more than the component parts. The rudimentary game engines used by visual novels don’t allow for more elaborate audio than what games had in the 90s. But because of their stripped down nature the sound becomes a more powerful element of the experience than in any other medium, except for radio plays.
While the visual novel medium has a typical look that identifies it, a still image background with a character portrait laid over it and a text box underneath, there is huge variation among titles as to the amount of effort put into animation and sound by the authors. Almost every step on the way from a bare bones title with a wall of text, to a full on animated TV show or game, exists out there.
In a book the text has to describe everything in a scene. In a visual novel some elements can be taken out of the text or changed to work together with how the presentation has been done. Visual novel writers don’t have to describe what a scene looks like, how it sounds or how any of the characters look or sound like. Unlike a book the pace of the text is controlled and delivered in either single lines or paragraphs at a time. It’s a different kind of writing that results in a different kind of experience for the reader. The reader is getting an experience more in control by the author and less is left to the readers imagination.
It also means that you don’t have to be as good of a writer to make something of acceptable quality, as the text is just a single element of the presentation. Writers in Japan are paid by the kilobyte size of the text script size. This has resulted in many visual novels that can take 30-50 hours or more to finish with scripts as large as several Harry Potter books in a single title. The size of the titles means that the visuals and audio have to be done in a relatively simple and bare bones manner as anything too elaborate would be cost prohibitive. This hasn’t stopped some visual novel makers from being ambitious with their sound design though.
Depending on which filmmaker you ask they will tell you that the audio in a movie is either half, or more than half of the movie experience. In a visual novel the audio component has the potential to be at least that significant for the experience as well, should the developer put in the effort to make it so. Due to the low budget of all visual novel projects there are more titles with poor audio design than there are good. This makes it easy to show and contrast just what is gained in a game from even basic sound, compared to having no sound at all and only using music to set the mood.
During the opening scenes of a game, it’s especially important to establish the world and suck the player in. It’s very hard to hook the player on the story in a few seconds, so making everything around it intriguing helps in making the player want to stay and find out more.
Cinders (Moa Cube, 2012) has some of the most technically impressive visuals I’ve seen in any visual novel, but no sound of any kind for ambiance. When I look at the animated background elements of Cinders I feel the lack of ambient sound is especially harmful for the presentation as it’s immediately obvious which objects in the world would be making noise and the kind of effects that would be appropriate for the scene.
In contrast the unfortunately named Muv-Luv Alternative (Age, 2006) has no animated backgrounds, but does use ambient sounds which breathe life into the still images. The sound tells me what the scene would look like if there had been animation, and so I automatically fill in the blanks in my mind and the end result is that the still image feels more alive than the animated backgrounds of Cinders did without sound. It also plays a part in telling the story. The script is bare bones compared to a book, hardly describing the scene at all, only focusing on the thoughts of the character. It doesn’t need to either as the simple visuals and sound effectively establish the post-apocalyptic scene and how whatever is left is crumbling into dust.
There are many other examples of visual novels where sound is used for great effect in service of the story. One of the most popular visual novels of all time is Fate/Stay Night (Type-Moon, 2004). It has been adapted into just about every other medium available and has numerous spin off sequels.
The visual novel original is the most interesting to me as it uses some clever narrative tricks. In a late part of the game the protagonist has to use a weapon that gradually destroys his memories. To convey the effects the game makes sharp cuts with static noise to indicate where the gaps in his memory exist. Once the player is familiar with the static as a plot device, it is used without any additional explanation in the text. If there is static and the scenery has suddenly changed location and time you know that parts of his memory were entirely lost without the need for any additional explanation. Gaps in the script start appearing where names of characters and locations should be which also indicate how far the decay of memories has gone.
Another title with neat sound is Chaos;Head (5pb, 2008). In the video the main character is sitting in front of his computer with the constant ambient noise of fans and crackling hard discs familiar to us all. When the camera moves in a smooth motion you hear the noise of the chair which tells us that he is spinning in his chair to look at the other monitor. Simple sound effects like that make the world believable.
The other game showed in the video is Quartett (Littlewitch, 2004) which uses a visual style reminiscent of comic books, and it is of note because it cuts quickly between several different characters in different locations. It relies on the ambient sound to establish the story of the locations. The city is clearly in the middle of Christmas celebrations, outside the church you don’t see the crowds, but you can hear them gathering. Then inside the church the art doesn’t show a crowd of people, but you hear their low murmurs.
I enjoy spectacle, but a great story stays with me longer. AAA games grab your attention with spectacular graphics and try to keep you in their world by exploiting addictive tendencies such as collecting achievements and other meaningless awards. To me these games make me feel like I’m overdosing on candy and it’s a trick that’s starting to wear me out. In order for any game to keep my attention for extended periods they have to either have tight game mechanics and/or an engaging story. Games are moving in a positive direction as more and more developers are waking up to just how important story is. Elements of visual novels have even started showing up in games such as the recently released Persona 4 Arena which combines a fighting game with a lengthy visual novel style narrative. More developers though than just the Japanese need to take a look at what visual novels have done with story telling. Otherwise I fear we will have a lot of misguided failed attempts at non-linear stories before the game medium consistently starts getting it right.