One of the tricky things about writing playtests is when I know that parts of the audience are going to know more than me about the genre, series, or creators. Now, nobody can be an expert on everything and most people understand that so it’s not the end of the world when I get something wrong, but nobody likes making mistakes. I feel like my coverage of visual novels so far for this site has been mistake riddled.
Every genre of video game has certain tendencies, and people learn which genres they tend to prefer. What this means is that it makes no sense for a writer to knock a game for traits that are shared by every entry in the genre because those complaints aren’t going to be relevant to the audience the game is targeting. It doesn’t make sense to complain about wanton killing in a shooter, needing to invest 60+ hours to finish an RPG, or bizarre and unintuitive controls in a fighting game. Each of these traits is a turn off for some and appealing to others, but they’re universal within their spheres and to write about those traits is to ignore the game in question and instead review the genre.
The first visual novel I playtested for this site was the first episode of World End ECONOMiCA and I was pretty hard on it. I didn’t like how frequently the game cut to black and just listed text—it seemed like a betrayal of the “visual” novel premise. I thought that the lack of variety in background art left too much of the illustration of the unique setting to the text. The fact that so many characters would use three sentences or more to make a point that could be better made in one drove me batty.
Over this first full year of writing for Siliconera, though, I’ve been exposed to more visual novels and realize that those are universal traits. All visual novels cut to black sometimes, the budget for background art always leaves stories recycling settings whenever they can get away with it, and I don’t know if this is a peculiarity of the Japanese language or what but they all inflate their length with unnecessary wordiness and extended explanations of unimportant details.
Now I can’t go back and change that World End ECONOMiCA playtest. It’s in the archives forever. But I can take what I learned from it and Fate/Stay Night that I played on my own time to make sure that Fault Milestone One, available on Steam, gets a fair break. I’m happy to report that, setting aside those common traits, the first episode of Fault Milestone One is pretty great. Not perfect, but definitely worth the time of anyone into visual novels.
The premise: two girls are forced into an unexpected bit of travelling, take a wrong turn, and make a new friend. When their new friend lands in a spot of trouble they can’t resist getting involved which leads them down a rabbit hole of corporate boardroom politics, their new friend’s secret identity, and one extremely unfortunate family history.
The story doesn’t exactly begin on a strong note, the conflict that inspires the road trip isn’t explained and what little is revealed doesn’t excite me. That all gets set aside a chapter or two into the game, though, and once the main arc revolving around the mysterious friend Rune starts to unravel it gets quite good. I marathoned through about the back 80% of this episode. I didn’t mean to, but it hooked me something fierce.
I also appreciate how this episode is structured. World End ECONOMiCA episode 1 didn’t really offer a satisfactory arc, too much in terms of plot and character development was left hanging for the next episode. Fault Milestone One episode 1 on the other hand contains a full narrative that neatly ties up at the end, and the hook that sets up episode 2 is a callback to the very beginning. The entire meat of the episode is self-contained.
Oh, and can I mention how nice it is that there’s no sexual content in this? I don’t have a problem with sexual content existing, but visual novels get such a bad rap for that stuff and I feel like often they really don’t need it. Even World End ECONOMiCA, which was a story that revolved around the mathematical revolutions of a stock market, couldn’t resist slipping in a teenage girl wearing naught but panties. Fault Milestone One similarly doesn’t need any sexual content, and rather than shoehorn some in they have the restraint to just… not have any. I see it as a sign of confidence from the creative team that they don’t feel the need to pander (and with the premise “two teenage girls traveling together” you know they could have).
I’m certainly no visual novel expert yet, but I’m learning. I’m glad this is my last playtest of my first full year writing for Siliconera, not just because I’m glad to end the year on a high note but because I’m glad to be getting better at this and that I’m able to give a more meaningful perspective on more games than in January.
Food for thought:
1. There are a few logic holes that bugged me, but none more than this: Our main characters are in a new country and realize that their medieval finery stands out in this largely proletarian land. Wanting to keep a low profile they go to a tailor and order… slightly darker colored frilly skirts and cloaks. I don’t know if these girls were looking at the same character art that I was, but it was MY observation that everyone in this city wears a shirt and pants. Come on now.
2. I had no clue that this was a Kickstarter project until the credits rolled. Good on the team at Sekai Project for putting together such a professional package for the English release.