The Melancholy of Visual Novels

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.

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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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Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.