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Choose These Adventures

I’m planning to spend part of the holidays doing some serious reading on the iPad, but not with iBooks, Kindle, Stanza or the like. Let me explain.

Visual Novels are a electronic narrative format from Japan that, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit, are appearing in greater frequency on iOS devices. Visual novels are a first-person narrative with the reader experiencing the story first-hand, and which the text of a story atop digital artwork showing the settings and active characters (who may or may not also have their spoken lines delivered as digital audio). In some cases, the reader makes a limited number of choices, branching the story in a style similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. In the Japanese taxonomy, introduction of any interactive elements makes a story an “adventure game”, but in the West, the term “visual novel” is preferred for these cases with a small number of interactions, to contrast with the tradition Western adventure games that require constant interaction, puzzles, inventory, etc.

The form has never really caught on in the West, initially for lack of access. Unlike game genres like racing and fighting that can be fairly well enjoyed by importers who can’t read the small amount of Japanese text in the menus, visual novels are all about the text, and therefore aren’t import-friendly and instead present a massive localization challenge. Since every possible branch through the story will have different text, the complete text of a visual novel is potentially much longer than a typical book: this thread shows some typical visual novels with a word count exceeding that of The Lord of the Rings, with longer works being several times that. Of course, this means that paying by the word for localization becomes enormously expensive, prohibitively so for a niche genre that few in the West even know about.

Still, a few companies have tried to make a go of it in Western markets. A company called Hirameki International localized several visual novels that were released as standard DVDs, playable/readable on any DVD player. It didn’t pan out and the company ceased releases in 2008. A few other companies translate adults-only erotic titles (“eroge”, a contraction of “erotic game”) for PC; these include Peach Princess and JAST-USA. They at least seem to be doing well enough to continue to put out new titles each year and buy advertising in anime magazines and on websites.

However, the emergence of iOS may open up of new doors for visual novels in the West, as it represents the convergence of several factors vital to the genre’s success. First and foremost is access to an audience: tens of millions of Americans, Europeans, and Australasians own iOS devices, and can easily find new titles through the App Store, more easily than they could through small companies with limited retail distribution (Hirameki) or effectively no retail at all (the eroge companies).

I went looking for visual novels in the App Store and realized I could much more easily find them by searching iTunes’ web pages, rather than using the search field in iTunes or the App Store on my iPad. Use your favorite search engine with a term like site:itunes.apple.com “visual novel” and you seem to be able to perform deeper and more sophisticated searches, and get more interesting “related” links, than is possible with just the search bar in Apple’s apps.

(As an aside, related links in a search for visual novels is what led me to Electro Master, a loving (if not deeply replayable) tribute by a Japanese indie developer to the era of 8-bit gaming, complete with a mimicry of the Namco startup sequence.)

Visual novels are also helped by the nature of iOS devices themselves. In my mind, sitting down at a desk and spinning up the computer is something of a turnoff as a prerequisite for reading a story. The iPad, of course, is exceptionally well-suited to casual reading around the house, while the iPhone and iPod are always-available devices, tucked away in a pocket or purse and easily pulled out for a brief diversion. Japan’s developers embraced mobile devices long ago and readily adapt their work for mobile, and often design it for mobile devices in the first place. Add to this the popularity of iOS in Japan, and you’ve got a fertile environment for this format to grow.

But having discussed the format and the business around visual novels at length, it’s well worth asking whether any of these stories are actually any good, and any different from other kinds of fiction and gaming. Like any genre, there’s plenty of junk mixed in with the good stuff, but the good stuff is truly remarkable. A recent Kotaku article, How Erotic Games Learned To Cry discusses nakige, a sub-genre that developed from eroge and uses the player’s romantic and sexual interaction with the characters to intensify feelings of sadness and melancholy (the term is a clever portmanteau, turning nukige, “games to masturbate to”, into nakige, “games to cry to”).

What’s remarkable about this is that so many of these games are male-oriented stories that involve matters of the heart… a combination that is almost non-existent in the US. The American genre of “romance” is almost exclusively targeted to women, and there simply isn’t a male equivalent. In a Twitter exchange with a Japanese visual novel author, I mentioned this phenomenon, and from what he knew about American media, the closest thing he could think of to male-oriented romantic stories in American media is the “American Pie” movies. And it’s remarkable because he’s kind of right!

The ways in which Japanese visual novels and adventure games involve the reader/player are strikingly different than their Western equivalents. Consider the adventure game: with the Western version, in the tradition of, say, LucasArts and Telltale games, the appeal and the interaction is almost entirely intellectual. You solve puzzles to move the game along, and the left brain is often further tickled with smart humor, a crackling wit best exemplified by games like Sam & Max or Monkey Island. In the Japanese games, much of the interaction is emotional: instead of puzzling over how to open a door, you’re tasked with choosing the right girl, not breaking someone’s heart, enduring a personal tragedy, and so on. Personally, this is why I’ve long gravitated towards the Japanese styles of storytelling in anime, manga, and games: the mixture of charm, bittersweetness, and melancholy is moving in ways that Western games and genre works (sci-fi, fantasy) rarely even attempt (the relaunched Doctor Who being a much-appreciated exception). Put simply, if you’re not in tears when the end credits song of Final Fantasy X rolls, you’re doing it wrong.

I think visual novels are also helped by the fact that they can be created by fairly small teams. Once you start putting a lot of people and money into something creative, it gets harder and harder to have a point or say anything controversial: the process naturally erases the distinctive voice of any of its creators. Visual novels require fairly straightforward programming skills (and there are toolkits that reduce it to very simple scripting), along with writing and drawing. A multi-talented individual could create a visual novel, though it’s more common to have small teams with assigned roles: writer, artist, etc. Still, for the development cost of a single blockbuster title, you could have many visual novels, each with its own unique voice and point of view. The low development costs are also likely to be a asset in the App Store era of ever collapsing prices, where $1.99 is too dear for some shoppers.

So where to begin with iOS visual novels? The trick right now is finding competent localizations. A few games have apparently been localized into English with machine translation, and the results are predictably hideous. Gift was a fairly successful visual novel in its Japanese release, but it won’t pick up many Western fans when its characters talk like this:

(Update: I can’t find “Gift(EN)Lite” in the App Store anymore… perhaps it was pulled?)

Much better are the titles where creators have cared enough to work on a genuine English translation. My favorite iOS visual novel so far is Kisaragi (Eng) Lite, a free sample from the paid game Kisaragi no Hogyoku. The story involves a high school with some strange traditions — such as the compulsory pairings of senior and junior classmates as couples — which relate to a mysterious artifact (the “kisaragi” of the title). It’s hard to tell from the first chapter if the story is headed towards fantasy, horror, romance, some combination thereof, or something else entirely. I’m mostly in at this point just because of the competent translation. It’s surprisingly nuanced, such as introducing a foreign character who stands out by her slightly-too-direct speaking style (what, she’s using dictionary form instead of -masu?)

In an interesting note, a crowd-sourced translation project of Kisaragi is underway, with the developers’ blessings. I’m hopeful this will eventually result in a release of the full game to the App Store.

I’m also reading the lite (free) version Kira☆Kira(eng), which has yet to win me over, but is well-reviewed and has a far more competent translation that its App Store description would suggest. Note, by the way, this is completely unrelated to Kira*Kira, which uses an asterisk in its name rather than the Unicode white star character.

Ripples is also worth mentioning. This short (10 minute) story is probably too insubstantial to deserve its change-of-heart ending — usually in visual novels you typically have to earn your love against the backdrop of a critical illness/injury or a centuries-old curse — but it’s noteworthy as it seems to be a Western creation in the style of the Japanese novels, using the same development tools as the big ones. It’s certainly a good start.

I’ll wrap up with a couple links to other visual novels I’ve found for iOS, and a few sites with more news and information about the format.

It’s a start. As the iOS platform grows, we’ve got a good chance of seeing the top-tier visual novels: Key’s Air, Clannad, and Kanon, âge’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien (aka, Rumbling Hearts), and Type-Moon’s Fate/Stay Night. Researching this blog, I discovered that the best-seller HIGURASHI When They Cry has been ported to iOS with an English translation, so it’s not unreasonable to hope that other top-tier visual novels may make it all the way to Western iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do.

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Comments (2)

  1. […] You want to know something else that’s rare in American pop culture? Any kind of a romance genre targeted at men. Romance is a trait found in other genres, but as a genre unto itself, it’s completely and (arguably) exclusively aimed at women here. This is something I’ve written about before, in that visual novels fill this gap. […]

  2. […] blogged about VNs a while back, pointing a few that are available on iOS (though its easier to just run a search on vndb to pick […]

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