I hadn’t really heard the term “visual novel” until about a year ago, and as I was browsing a certain image-posting board I came across a thread discussing Katawa Shoujo. If you haven’t heard of it, then seriously check it out, it’s free (and it’s awesome). It follows the story of a guy who is sent to a school for disabled children after being diagnosed with arrhythmia, and his search for love… n’aww. Once I’d played through all the paths I decided to look up some more visual novels, as the general consensus on the internet was that Katawa Shoujo was “baby’s first VN”, and I felt like branching out.
Yume Miru Kusuri: A Drug That Makes You Dream
Developed by Rúf and released in Japan in 2005, Yume Miru Kusuri puts you in the shoes of Kouhei Kagami, a typical guy attending high school who makes a distinct effort to remain off-the-radar. This was my second visual novel, and only offered three paths as opposed to the five available in Katawa Shoujo. It’s still pretty long though, each route took around six hours to complete (plus there are the alternate endings to unlock afterwards).
Kagami is outwardly very “average”. He attends school regularly, gets good grades, and goes about his life in a very mundane fashion. The strange thing about him is that he suffers from an auditory hallucination, the sound of a train passing by. He begins to wonder if this is because he is unsatisfied with the banality of his existence and as the story progresses he meets three women who change his life dramatically. Each girl represents a different theme which is relevant to high school life.
Aeka is a shy girl who has been bullied throughout her high school years, mostly at the hands of the popular Kyoka. Her story is painful to watch at times due to the sheer lack of care from her classmates and even her teachers, and the severity of the bullying as the plot progresses. I found it especially difficult playing through the other two paths, as it meant ignoring Aeka as she suffered, something very hard for me considering she was the first girl I chose. The ending to this route, quite frankly, shocked me. It was a serious sucker-punch in terms of character development, and just a case of “I can’t believe they put this in”.
Mizuki is the school council president who ropes Kagami into helping her after school with her workload. She appears to be a model student, but it becomes apparent that she is very lazy and disorganized, often leaving others to finish her tasks for her. Her issue is that she is incapable of seeing a future for herself, so she has no problem in living a dangerous lifestyle. She drinks excessively and occasionally experiments with drugs, one such occasion nearly costing her and Kagami their lives. There is another issue that comes to light with Mizuki as the story nears its end, but I won’t tell you that… spoilers and stuff.
Nekoko (or Cat Sidhe Nekoko as she prefers to be known) is… well she’s off her head. Literally. She believes that she is a fairy, and drags Kagami along to help her find the entrance to the Fairy Kingdom. She is incredibly brave (to a fault); Kagami often finds her running from Yakuza bosses and challenging groups of men to fights.
Yume Miru Kusuri really does make Katawa Shoujo seem like a visual novel for kids (sex scenes aside, of course). It may appear just as soft and fluffy on the outside, but as you delve into it… damn. There are moments in each path that are just plain disturbing, and if you get any of the bad endings be prepared to feel seriously depressed.
Saya no Uta
Just warning you, this thing is in a whole different league of fucked-up.
Unlike my previous experiences in visual novels, this one is not a dating simulation. There aren’t multiple girls to choose from. Saya no Uta focuses on you, the protagonist, and how you are willing to mould yourself throughout the story.
The first thing we see as the game loads up is a room made up entirely of grotesque, fleshy organs. It’s a shock to the system, considering I was used to the pretty Japanese landscapes and cute girls wandering down school hallways. NO. YOU WILL LOOK AT ROTTING FLESH AND LIKE IT.
Our protagonist is Fuminori Sakisaka, who lost his parents in a car accident which almost took his life. Fuminori survived due to experimental brain surgery, but it has one hell of a side effect. He suffers an extreme form of agnosia, a condition causing senses to be warped in some way. He now perceives the world as filled with bleeding walls and pulsating flesh, and its once human inhabitants have become terrifying mounds of flesh and cartilage.
He considers suicide in the hospital, until he is visited by a girl named Saya. He is in awe to have found someone so beautiful in the hell his world has become, and he begs her to stay by his side. She seems amused by his reaction to her, and agrees to move in with him. After a while, the two develop a romantic relationship, and Fuminori believes he could no longer live in this world if it weren’t for Saya.
In order to avoid further tests and hospitalisation, Fuminori acts as if there is nothing wrong. He attends class as normal, he goes to his doctors appointments and he learns to live with his condition. Over time, however, he becomes more and more repulsed and resentful of the creatures around him which were once human. He interacts with his friends as little as possible, and they become suspicious, so they begin to delve into his life to try and help him. This is where shit starts going down.
There are three possible endings to Saya no Uta. It all depends on whether the player longs to return to normality, or chooses to accept a life with Saya, even as it becomes apparent that she is not what she seems. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the exploration of Fuminori’s psyche and the explanation of Saya herself are excellent. There were moments I was playing that I felt physically sick, and not because of the gory graphics. The whole experience is very disturbing, and in parts extremely touching. If you have a strong stomach, then I highly recommend it!
What I want to discuss today is whether visual novels can truly be considered video games. It is argued over the internet that titles such as Katawa Shoujo and Yume Miru Kusuri are not games because they don’t involve any actual gameplay aside from clicking to choose an option. According to Wikipedia, a visual novel is defined as “an interactive fiction game”. While the examples I have looked at today are typical examples of visual novels in that they are Japanese and they feature anime-style graphics, there are other titles such as The Walking Dead which could also be seen as in the same genre. While The Walking Dead is presented as an “adventure game”, it is essentially made up of choices in the form of quick-time-events. The only real difference in the gameplay here between this and the titles I have discussed is that the choices are timed, and that there is slightly more room for interactivity. For instance, you can choose which character to speak to at a given time.
The Walking Dead was awarded Game of the Year in 2012, so of course it’s a game, right? In that case, why should other titles not be considered in the same way? I’m not sure how much “gameplay” needs to be involved for something to be truly considered a game, but as an experience of plot and character development, I’m not sure you can get much better than the visual novel format.
I might make a part two of this column as I continue to try other titles, some on my to-do list are Ever17 and Chaos;Head. Until then, feel free to comment with opinions and advice as to some others I can play!