The Melancholy of Visual Novels

By Ishaan . January 29, 2009 . 1:04pm

image A couple months ago, I found myself tossing e-mails and forth with a certain publisher. The subject of these was Last Bullet, a DS game by Furyu Corporation, which supposedly specializes in cell phone games and print seals. I had mailed in asking if they would be interested in localizing the game for a Western release.

 

Unfortunately, the rep I spoke to – as I suspected he would – mailed back saying that adventure games were a tough sell in the U.S. and that Phoenix Wright was a rare exception because of its unique hook.

 

Well, can’t argue there. The Western market tends to have a rather narrow-minded opinion of what is and isn’t a “real game” and something like Last Bullet certainly wouldn’t appeal to the legions of FPS-loving fans. He went on to say that the game might be worth looking into provided the sniping elements were in realtime and fun. They seem to be in realtime but no one knows about the “fun” part yet, obviously.

 

This isn’t the first time games with such a promising premise have been passed over either. Speaking of Phoenix Wright, I’m sure most of you already know that the Phoenix Wright series has been going strong in Japan since the days of the GBA. We only received it as Ace Attorney much later once it had been ported over to the DS. In fact, some of the best visual novels like Fate/Stay Night, Tsukihime and Higurashi no Naku Koro ni still haven’t seen an official English release, and if it weren’t for the heroic efforts of translation groups such as Mirror Moon, we would never get to play them.

 

Unfortunately, groups like Mirror Moon couldn’t possibly hope to cover every good visual novel in existence, considering they only translate during their spare time and don’t make a single penny off of their translations.

 

How, then, can we expect niche publishers like Atlus and XSEED to spend the time and resources required to localize these titles? Gamers like interactivity. They like being challenged. They like multiplayer and high scores. If they were going to play a game where you read through a bunch of text and look at pretty pictures, they may as well have picked up a good book.

 

phoenixwright It’s hard to change this line of thinking because so many gamers have very rock-solid opinions of what constitutes a game and what doesn’t, and what is worth their time. And it’s unfair to blame publishers for not wanting to touch visual novels or visual novel adventures with a ten-foot-long pole for this sole reason. This is a business after all.

 

Sadly, this means that one of the best genres for storytelling in videogames is being completely overlooked by the majority of the global games market. If we want to push storytelling in games – if we want more developers to create gripping, emotionally impactful, meaningful stories…we need to start making sure they draw inspiration from the right places. Personally, Japanese developers are the best at storytelling because their inspiration comes from an extremely wide variety of genres and media. I’m still amazed by how well Persona 3 managed to approach character development. The game is leaps and bounds ahead of any other RPG that attempts to emphasize relationships between characters and actually make you feel something for your fellow party members.

 

The recent perfect score Famitsu gave 428: Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de would seem to agree with these sentiments (don’t start with me about Famitsu scores now). The average scores for all the Ace Attorney games back up this argument as well. And really, how many games have you played that even came close to that series in terms of telling several compelling self-contained stories and then effectively tying them all together into a single larger mystery at the end? The only game that comes to my mind is Soul Reaver.

 

But the question remains: how do you convince the existing game market that visual novels and visual novel adventures are worth looking into?

 

For the answer to that question, consider this: what if you don’t target the current generation of “gamers” with these products?

 

What if you were to aim them at the DS and Wii’s newfound expanded audience under new brands, similar to Nintendo’s “Touch Generations” and EA Sports’s new “All Play” line of games?

 

This an audience that isn’t as accustomed to specific genres providing specific experiences as we are. They are, however, far more influenced by branding, which is something Peter Moore always emphasized even before he was at EA with regard to Microsoft’s first-party franchises. He was right.

 

higurashiYour average 20-something expanded audience female isn’t going to look at a visual novel and think, “Oh, I’d much rather go cap some fools in Call of Duty!” She might even be interested in buying a budget-priced “digital novel” under some sort of “DS Novel Series” brand off of a shelf at a bookstore.

 

I’m willing to bet that alone makes her more open-minded than a lot of us at this point.

 

Factor in download services like PlayStation Network, DSiWare, and WiiWare, and it’s just a question of making the audience aware that this content is available to them. And what about iTunes? Doesn’t that provide ample opportunity for getting the word out on these games?

 

Visual novels seem very well-suited to all three services. DSiWare because the DS is portable, has a firm grip over majority of the expanded audience, and is actually doing a marvelous job getting non-gamers to pick up more games (anecdotal evidence of this coming soon, hopefully) after they’re done with Sudoku and Nintendogs. Whether you release these games under a new brand established by Nintendo or ask for their help in making the audience aware that this kind of content is available via DSiWare (provided the new portable catches on), both options seem quite lucrative for growing publishers.

 

On the other hand, you have WiiWare with its rather annoying 40 MB restriction that prevents developers from going over the size limit and thus having to limit the scope of their games in some cases. With a little compression and optimization, I’m sure you could fit a visual novel on there and even if that weren’t possible, you could still break the game up into episodic chapters. This has worked for the Strong Bad games. There are ways.

 

Then there’s iTunes and the iPhone, both of which are so popular at this point, I would honestly be surprised if Nintendo didn’t see Apple as its biggest competitor in the handheld space. The only downside to publishing on iTunes at this point in time would be the risk of your game being lost amidst all the shovelware on the service.

 

Let’s hope someone out there reading this decides to give it a shot. Time Hollow and Ace Attorney are amongst my favourite DS games. It would be a real shame to see one of the best genres in videogame storytelling die because no one ever really gave it a chance to shine.



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  • http://www.nisamerica.com NickyD

    Excellent piece, Ishaan, and sentiments I’ve often expressed behind the curtain at the now defunct ps3fanboy and pspfanboy (I say defunct because their individual identities and unique posts have now been mashed together with the rest of Joystiq… and it shows. The site is awful now.).

    What I wonder is how much actual “programming” goes on behind the scenes of a visual novel. I’m not a game designer, just a writer, but… visual novels seem like “choose your own adventure” books in that some have multiple endings, but there’s never anything going on beyond scrolling through text.

    This leads me to my point. If it’s just translation, wouldn’t an actual book publishing company want to take the risk of expanding their own shrinking market of paper-based books and inching into electronic books like these (Clannad and the others you mentioned stand out in my mind). If it’s a company that deals with the English language on a daily basis, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be able to take even the most basic of translations and flower it up into a powerful narrative.

    If Nippon Ichi’s handling of Ar tonelico 2 says anything, it’s that game companies and localization teams are generally not the best at localizing and putting together grammatically sound sentences.

    Sorry to rant, but like I said, this is something I’ve wondered about a lot as well.

  • http://www.twitter.com/Celedin Celedin

    Great article Ishaan; I’m susprised you didn’t mention Hirameki’s attempts at bringing the genre overseas.

    • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

      *cries*

      You just had to dig up those old memories, didn’t you…

  • http://www.siliconera.com Jenni

    You make some great points Ishaan, and I totally agree. I’d love to see publishers giving more adventure or visual novel style games like Phoenix Wright or Time Hollow a chance.

  • Traveler

    Narrow-minded? Hardly. It’s just that the typical gamer would not be very interested in a visual novel like game. There is so many cases like that for all sorts of genres in every other part of the world especially Japan. It’s far from being narrow minded.

    • http://several-hours-into-the-game.blogspot.com/ Nika

      Isn’t that being narrow minded? not giving a new gerne a chance?

  • Tin Man

    Great article. I can’t say anything particularly insightful because I’m fairly new to the genre (played Phoenix Wright and a scant few others), but I’ll at least mention that there’s a little possibility of Last Bullet being localized by someone. I actually included it in a suggestion list I sent to XSEED two months ago, and it was the only one of the visual novels I mentioned that Ken, who is very frank about a game’s chances with XSEED, didn’t immediately shoot down (I quote: “Looks like an interesting title, we’ll keep our eye on it and see how it turns out when it releases.”)

    I guess that means that the sniping portions are a potential way to attract buyers. Of course, this can border on bait-and-switch if sniping isn’t the focus of the game (I should know, I bought Lifesigns thinking it was a surgery sim), but whatever little gimmick/hook/etc can get a visual novel game out of Japan is fine with me. I don’t know whether or not most VNs in Japan fit the following description, but what I do know is that most VNs (at least for the DS) that have made it outside of Japan have had some interactive element outside character interaction–think about Phoenix Wright, Time Hollow, Hotel Dusk, Lifesigns, Princess Debut, and upcoming titles like Flower, Sun, and Rain and Lux-Pain. There’s an element of investigation or some otherwise fun non-dialogue-centric activity in each, and it seems to me that the various companies that have been responsible for localizing these titles see something attractive in this.

    Again, I don’t know if these little side-activities are normal for PC and other DS/PSP VNs in Japan, but in my ignorance of the genre I’m just trying to find a pattern that can explain how some get localized, so forgive me if I’m inadvertently making an idiot of myself.

  • http://ninjeff.blogspot.com Ninjeff

    I really like your idea to bring out these type of games under a new label and marketing them to the expanded audience.DS or WiiWare seem the best fit IMO, but there are certain issues (which you’ve already pointed out).

    I for one would really love to see Visual Novels have a larger presence outside of Japan. It’s a shame that few publishers are willing to take the risk on something like Fate/Stay Night.

  • Edward Smith

    Props!

    A very thought provoking article: and I completely agree with the points you made.

    yet another reason why Sililconera is the best video gaming blog out there!

  • lostinblue

    Wow, excelent article, a blast to read and I can’t say I disagree with nothing. Great ideas to solve the problem, outside of the conventional thinking too, we can’t solve the problems with the same thinking we’ve created them and you’ve gone the extra mind to get alternatives; props to you.

    Thing is, I’m afraid this will fall into deaf ears, as much as we ask for it, as much as we get ways to get around it, the fact is that these are niche and aren’t something consumers and retailers are asking for (if anything because they don’t know them at all, too) and to make things worse… they have tons of text which makes translation hard. So basically it is a risk, it’s unsailed waters and publishers want nothing to do with that… All the more now with the economical crisis and with the daily layoff news I’m afraid.

  • ToruHideo

    I actually think the major problem in getting these games out of Japan isn’t just because the gamer market isn’t interested, but because the majority of them are porn games.

    These kind of games usually get more attention from anime fans, rather than gamers, mainly because they are made with the otakudom in mind, but while the anime fans in Japan don’t seem to be against the porn, the American ones don’t really like the thought of playing porn games (even though they may like the anime versions of certain games).

    It’s a pity, but the market in Japan isn’t really that huge (only the really big titles can manage to reach 100k sales) and I don’t see it getting any better outside of Japan, especially when companies like MangaGamer (which is mainly run by Japanese from what I hear) talk about their games like only the porn matters, although that is true for almost all of their games.

    I still think that non-porn VNs like Higurashi no Naku Koro ni could be a success like Phoenix Wright was if they were well marketed, but it wouldn’t be easy getting scripts that huge translated for a game that could easily turn out to be a flop.

    • Aoshi00

      Ishaan you definitely wrote a thoughtful piece there, but as stated in the above comment, I think you left out the porn element factor since most visual novel games originated from adult PC games. The reward for scrolling thru walls of text was to, so to speak, get to the delicious nudie scenes. Ask a guy if he played Tsukihime for the story or lust for some Hisui x Kohaku twin action :)

      Type Moon’s games like Tsukihime and Fate Stay Night gained mainstream recognition because they had exceptionally deep story despite them being primarily H games, and were ported to PS2, watered down w/ all the naughty scenes removed. Due to this reason, I assume the primary audience for this type of games, in Japan at least, is teenagers or otaku who prefer 2-D girls.

      I used to love all the dating sim games on the Saturn and Dreamcast, there were visual novels as well w/ the objective of getting the girl, most were harmless because there were watered down from their PC counterparts.

      I think Phoenix Wright is indeed a rarity because the courtroom drama in addition to murder investigation made the gameplay very imaginative, plus your over the top interesting character design. Stock Trader Shun kind of failed at that because selling stock on the DS was not as fun as it sounds.. I haven’t finished Time Hollow yet and think it’s only average (maybe the movie butterfly effect left such a huge impression on me).

      I suppose it takes a certain kind of visual novel to be interesting to play, mainly murder cases, or dating sims which would never catch on in the US, throwing it in Persona 3 & 4 as a side thing is fine.

    • http://several-hours-into-the-game.blogspot.com/ Nika

      I wouldn’t say majority, but that aside:

      It is true that a lot of them are dating-sim (Hgame or not) but outside that there are a good amount of other visual novels too. And a lot of dating-sims aimed at girls (otome games) are so pure they hardly even feature a kiss. I think these kinds of games might have potential actually.

      • ToruHideo

        http://zepy.momotato.com/2008/04/16/number-of-eroge-released-per-year-1983-2007/

        ^Considering that nowadays it seems there are more eroges being released each year than normal games in Japan, I don’t think it’s wrong to say the majority of them are really porn games.

        Of course I don’t know how accurate those numbers actually are, but they don’t seem to be wrong seeing there are always a lot of eroges being released each month, as you can see here:
        http://erogamescape.dyndns.org/~ap2/ero/toukei_kaiseki/before_hatubai_yotei.php

        • http://several-hours-into-the-game.blogspot.com/ Nika

          First thing I see when opening the site: Vampire knight. Completely forgot that I wanted to play that. And this looks interesting, and that, and… Damn you, I should have never followed that link.

          Well ok, Majority of them are eroge. there ^^

  • Trickless

    Regarding iTunes and iPhone, recently Aksys have started to port some of the Jake Hunter cases from the DS game. As of writing, ‘Seaside City Conspiracy’ and ‘Crash and Burn’ are available to download. ($2.99 each). Bizarrely it doesn’t seem to be mentioned on the official Aksys site. And with iTunes as it is now, it’s next to impossible to have known about it if you weren’t following news/blog sites.

    The DS is really the only system that will get these games in English. Sure, you can say it’s only Ace Attorney that’s selling well, but atleast the game’s popularity has raised an eyebrow or two for other publishers. We’ve already got upcoming adventure games like ‘Lux-Pain’ and ‘Again:Eye of Providence’. And maybe even ‘Silver Case’ once that gets out of development hell.

    Personally I would love to see ‘Anata Wo Yurusanai’ (psp) in English. And also a whole bunch of other games :p

    • Aoshi00

      Anata wo Yurusanai was very stylish, and the story is interesting in a more mature kind of way, definitely not for kids. The first two chapters are related to the subject of adultery. I don’t think I would play it again in English though because it features no voices. Definitely very memorable among recent games, you hold the PSP vertically for one thing. The soundtrack collaborated by Uematsu and various artists is amazing. Personally Lux Pain failed to grab my attention for some reason, maybe I was getting sick of Miyano Mamoru’s voice (Light).

  • http://www.midnightgaming.blogspot.com MidnightScott

    The DS has gotten me into Visual Novel like games

    Trace Memory
    Hotel Dusk: Room 215
    Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
    Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All
    Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials & Tribulations
    Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
    Time Hollow
    LifeSigns: Surgical Unit

    I hope Trace Memory R comes to the US, and I hope for another Hotel Dusk like game, as well as Perfect Prosecutor to come to the US. I’m looking forward to Lux-Pain though!

  • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

    Thanks for all the great comments guys.

    @NickyD: I agree, publishers outside of those in the games industry should start taking a look at visual novels as part of an effort to expand. Really, how far is a visual novel from those old Disney cassettes where you’d listen to the story on your stereo while reading the book that came with it?

    As for programming…I’m not entirely certain, but based on my tinkering with some visual novel engines (Renpy, Novelty etc.) there is a fair amount of scripting required if you’re creating something from scratch. And a great deal of asset management.

    @Tin_Man, Aoshi00 & ToruHideo: You guys touched upon a great point there. There’s always some incentive outside of scrolling through pages upon pages of text for people to play through visual novels. Whether it’s court drama or investigation or ecchi scenes, it does seem like the games with that extra bit of variety have better chances of being localized. Unfortunately, the console companies will never allow h-games to be published on their system, and I doubt that Valve would allow them on Steam either. I do think that h-games will eventually start to become more acceptable in the eyes of people as the industry matures though.

    Perhaps we can use this “variety” theory to make some educated guesses as to which titles publishers would be interested in and which they wouldn’t?

    @Trickless: Yea, there is a LOT of shovelware on iPhone. I’m sure that as a platform is going to go through the exact same thing Wii did when it first launched. Loads of shovelware, with the platform eventually becoming more stable in terms of quality and variety as developers learn not to shoot themselves in the foot.

    Another point we need to keep in mind is that retailers are a big part of the problem. In a lot of cases, games like Anata wo Yurusanai can’t be picked up because retailers outright refuse to give them any shelf space. This is why it’s so important to look to other outlets for distribution.

  • Novina

    You have it wrong, visual novels aren’t aimed at gamers in Japan, but at otakus in general. Just because they’re published on a game console doesn’t mean the same type of gamer who play street fighter would pick up Air, just because gamers are Japanese gamers there. Let’s established a few facts:

    1. Visual novels are mostly dating-sim games and often with erotic graphics (this include the most popular ones that are turned into anime).

    2. visual novels involve few user interaction, where you get to pick options of certain routes. the story changes based on the decision you make.

    3. visual novels are mostly dialogues (and in recent years, completely voiced), but with limited amount of graphics. (whereas in a real book, the actual writing would be 3-10x of the dialogues or in a movies/anime… the ‘pictures’ also exceed the dialogue by a lot in ratio).

    So then, with 3, we’re established that there is a gap in visual novel that does not few in the narrative element a user necessarily want… though, visual novel is still major in Japan because it is targeted to one-kind of audience — the otaku. The thinking of otaku is assumed to be that of the protagonist of the visual novel/eroge. And 2, The few selection of path-choice is usually determined by the protagonist characteristic (though mostly, the options the audience will want to choose at those moment). And 1, well.. .the dating-sim element makes selection more narrow for easier audience-targeting.

    There are games that tried to stretch the limitation of visual novel that i listed. One of which that I could immediately think of on the spot is School Days. Being a traditional dating-sim game, the game is not only fully voiced, but fully animated. In this case, the game strays itself from being a visual novel a lot but more to an actual anime (whereas if it were the reverse, it’d be more like a book). But visual novels in majority are in-between the two and require the “right” audience to fill in and connect with the protagonist.

    I forgot my point. Ok, this being japanese novels, being aimed to a specific market that doesn’t quiet exist in large outside of Japan, it is no wonder it doesn’t get translated much. Also, it takes really good translators to translate literature well (though, i wouldn’t call visual novels literature anyways, but still, you know what i mean).

    • http://several-hours-into-the-game.blogspot.com/ Nika

      1. True, but there are a huge amount without any erotic scenes as well.

      2. There are various games that border on the line of visual novel and something much more interactive. Developers are trying to add elements of other gernes as well. Many incorporate RPG elements, and recent examples like Hotel Dusk, Time Hollow, Lux Pain and now Last Bullet show that there can be more to them than just clicking away text.

      3. Can’t argue here actually.

      Visual novels aren’t just targeted at otaku’s though. Anata wo Yurusanai is an example of a game being targeted at young women, and Akai Ito was aimed at normal teens I think? (and looking at it’s sale numbers, did quite good). I fact, I think that most visual novels that aren’t dating sims do not target otaku.

      • Aoshi00

        Speaking of “Anata wo Yurusanai”, it really has the least interaction among the above games, so that part could be boring because it really feels like you’re mostly reading, and the very few choices you make don’t make much of a impact, unless you choose a wrong one and bring to a game over.

        The look is special enough because the design was done by an artist who illustrates for a fashion magazine, instead of an anime character designer.

        I suppose the above factors make the game even more niche than the other regular visual novel / adventure games for it to be localized here.

  • MadMirko

    I don’t believe size limits imposed per title on the respective download platforms would always limit visual novel games. After all they are perfectly suited to an episodic form, just like point and click adventures (Sam & Max, Strongbad, etc).

    That said, I’m a fan of the genre, despite being mostly what people nowadays call a “core gamer”, and I don’t see why the genre could not succeed outside of Japan. It’s just a matter of cultivating the market, making more people aware that its even there.

  • http://several-hours-into-the-game.blogspot.com/ Nika

    I have to agree that the DS would be the best platform to bring visual novels into the western world. I like your line of thinking when you talk about that “DS Novel Series”. Something like that might actually work.

    And games like Time Hollow, Lux Pain and Ace Attorny show that, at least as long as there is some sort of interaction besides reading text, there is a chance for visual novels here too.

  • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

    Keep in mind that there’s already manga being published on WiiWare.

    Princess Ai is out in Japan, and if I’m not mistaken, there has been talk of making these downloads available in the U.S. Nintendo Shop Channel. That could result in some very interesting synergy among the “otaku” installbase.

  • Nekobo

    I’d love to play the Higurashi DS game. It’d be cool if someone translated it. There are Tsukihime ports for the PSP and DS. But yeah, I agree…digital distribution is the way to go for visual novels.

    I’d definitely buy visual novels if they get localized. Preferably on portable systems, so I can play them while lying on my couch or bed, just like how I usually read books.

  • Joanna

    “Your average 20-something expanded audience female”
    ouch. stereotype much? I’ve been a proud gamer since childhood and now i’m a twenty-something female. Your statement stings a little. But I get it, girls don’t game as much as guys.

    I’m a fan of point-and-click adventure and visual novel games, so I’m really enjoying the influx on the DS right now :D
    I bought LifeSigns thinking it’s a doctor sim too. But it does have operations so I didn’t feel too cheated. It’s “visual novel” aspects were a little weak a have to say.

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