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September 30, 2023

The visual novel medium proves its worth on the battlefield of narrative arts

By Alex Mui | November 16, 2011

Last week The News-Letter introduced you to the visual novel; this week, Alex Mui continues by covering the history and creation of the medium.

The visual novel traces its roots back to the 1983 detective video game, The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Portopia stood out from other games of that era for its minimal gameplay and well developed storyline. It had the reader read slowly, think through puzzles and collect clues to solve the mystery. Portopia is regarded as an influential work by both the visual novel and video game industries for showing the possibility of creative storytelling these new media could offer. Though video games continued to focus on gameplay, Japanese writers realized the narrative potential.

Unfortunately, it would be a while before the advantages would be recognized. After Portopia, another video game genre was produced known as eroges, bish??jo or the dating sim. Any praise brought by Portopia was tainted by the adult games controlling the industry in the following years. Instead of adapting the medium for storytelling, companies decided to market to an adult audience by hashing out cheap, plotless dating games filled with mature scenes. This still haunts the medium today.

Up until the early ‘90s, the visual novel still used pixel art and remained closely associated with video games. It was when the company Leaf realized that the unique structure of the medium could be applied for storytelling that the industry begin to differentiate itself from games. New work started using high quality, anime-inspired artwork and well-planned stories. With the focus now on visuals and storytelling, the term "visual novel" was coined.

Regardless, Leaf was still creating adult work, though this association may have been the spark that elevated the medium from smut to art. Leaf realized they could make the reader work for the adult scenes by framing them around creative storylines. Allowing the reader to grow with the characters, has a more emotional payoff. In 1997 Leaf released To Heart. While classified as a dating game, it was innovative in that it focused more on making an emotional impact through story rather than adult content. Other writers soon began to realize the medium's potential.

Perhaps the medium's greatest pioneer is Jun Maeda, who grew up with a passion for reading and writing. One of the books that influenced him was Hard-Boiled Wonderland by Japan's great novelist, Haruki Murakami. This book influenced the story structure of Maeda's future work. In college he majored in psychology while writing his stories and composing music. Maeda went on to become the top writer and composer at the media company Tactics.

An idea sparked when Maeda learned of the success of To Heart. Using his knowledge of the human mind, writing and music, Maeda weaved together a new formula for the visual novel. In 1998 his creative team at Tactics created ONE: To the Radiant Season. ONE used beautiful visuals, expressive music, vocals and a reader experience that created a new type of work that focused on story and character interactions. ONE was hailed for its innovative techniques. Due to the industry at that time, the company had Maeda insert optional adult scenes. Maeda and his team soon left Tactics and formed their own company, Key.

With ONE's success, Maeda utilized his formula to create a new piece. He crafted a story which would allow the reader to experience the story though the protagonist. This would make the reader more invested. The soundtracks composed evoked everything from calm nostalgia to heart-wrenching sorrow. The well-timed music combined with the beautiful visual artwork further emotionally moved the reader. In 1999 Key released its first work, Kanon, which sent major shockwaves through the industry. It was praised for its well-developed, emotional story and for making readers break down into tears. Kanon was the first work the public recognized as separating the visual novel medium from the video game, elevating it to a new level of art.

Kanon proved that visual novels could allow for more diverse stories. Afterwards numerous companies produced all-ages work, focused more on story and eliminated adult content. Maeda released Air the following year, which was equally well received. ONE, Kanon and Air created a new genre known as nakige, the crying genre.

In 2004, Maeda's third work shocked the public. It was something never before seen in media. At 740,000 words, it carried the reader through a seemingly normal school plot that shifted between the mysterious setting of the Illusionary World plot. The story started off slow, allowing the reader to bond with the characters, gently setting them in with calming music before hitting them with an unexpected tragic event. Never before had a work reduced its readers to such soul-wrenching sorrow, then lifted their spirits to new heights with a heartwarming ending. This work, Clannad, has become synonymous with works like Ulysses, Citizen Kane and Watchmen. Like what those works did for their respective mediums, Clannad is considered visual novels's magnum opus for showing what the form could achieve, elevating it to the level of other forms of literature. Along with Kanon and Air, these works are regarded as visual novel's Holy Trinity.

While Clannad is a love story, it's an all-ages work not containing a single kiss, let alone the obligatory sex scene accustomed to most visual novels and Hollywood films. Yet it proved more emotionally powerful than works like Titanic, for successfully moving the reader without the forcing a reaction upon them. Clannad was adapted into an equally acclaimed anime series which has been called by critics a triumph of storytelling and among the greatest works ever told across all media.

Among the new works influenced by Key's Holy Trinity was Ever 17: Out of Infinity, one of the few visual novels released in America. It was well received for its complex storyline. The suspenseful mystery played with the reader's perceptive; what the reader thought was a singular story is revealed to be two separate timelines. It helped prove the medium's worth in uniquely conveying narration.

One pioneer influenced by Key is Romeo Tanaka. He used the nakige formula to psychologically shock the reader with mind-bending plots, causing them to actively think while reading. One of Tanaka's famous works, Cross Channel, follows the protagonist and his friends into a world where they find themselves the only living beings. They construct a radio tower at school to contact others, but before completion one of the characters cracks and murders the rest. The protagonist then wakes from bed one week before the incident realizing the week is in a repeating loop. Having to relive the week and the murders, the reader is just as psychology affected as the protagonist. Each week plays out in a different perspective, allowing the reader to slowly solve the mystery.

Another figure influenced by Key goes by the penname Ryukishi, who had an idea for a murder mystery but found no suitable media that would evoke the reactions he wanted. He finally wrote it as a visual novel when he learned of Key's emotion-driven stories. With no company backing him, Ryukishi alone wrote and self-published Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry). Due to his crude art, potential publishers were not interested, so he sold it to local game shops and at comic conventions. To his surprise it sold out fast. It was popular for taking the nakige formula and replacing the emotional accept with elements of horror. Sounds like cicada cries created an eerie atmosphere, coining the new subgenre, the sound novel. Higurashi was later adapted into mangas, video games, a popular anime series and two live action films. Ryukishi's success despite the unattractive artwork proved that innovative storylines matter most.

His next work, Umineko, was released in eight parts from 2007 to 2011. Umineko is an island murder mystery inspired by Then There Were None. After the first murders a witch appears, revealing she committed them with magic. The protagonist refuses to believe in magic, resulting in a contest between the two. Each of the eight stories resets the events of the day with the witch committing the murders in a different fashion, taunting the protagonist to explain them with human means. The story is a deconstruction of the mystery genre with characters representing different detective tropes and rules, much like what Watchmen did for superheroes. The story is metafictional with the protagonist representing the reader and the witch the author. This builds on Ryukishi's previous work, in which he sees the story as a game between the reader and author, both taking part in the narrative process. Umineko's answer is never given, forcing readers to figure out the solution alone.

These works allowed other genres to use the visual novel structure. A famous horror example is the Lovecraft-inspired Saya no Uta. Saya no Uta uses the nakige structure but rather than make the reader cry the revolting music and grotesque artwork to creates a sick and queasy feeling. The story is considered among the scariest, most twisted works of horror.

In 2011 Key released Rewrite, created by the pioneers Maeda, Ryukishi and Tanaka. The visual novel's great pioneers together for the first time; a fitting way to celebrate the decade following Kanon's creation. The visual novel has proven itself to be a successful narrative art form. Use of visual artwork, music, character-driven plots and innovative storylines make it uniquely successful at using emotions as an element of storytelling. Despite its accomplishments, it still remains relatively unknown in the West. This may be caused by its negative association with adult dating sims, its confusion with video games and graphic novels and the difficulty to buy them outside Japan. New experimental works like Narcissu are making them accessible online to Western audiences, while visual novel fans are also creating original English works like Katawa Shoujo. And the rise of e-books, tablets and iPads may present a new path of introducing the world to this narrative art.

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