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Visual Novels: Unrecognized Narrative Art

By Alex Mui | November 10, 2011

Alan Moore, regarded as the greatest writer of comics, has proclaimed the age of creative storytelling over.

He noted how storytelling is still clinging to the works of the Victorian Era — with all proceeding stories simply being rehashed ideas of that period. Perhaps Moore is being quite harsh as the 20th century brought forth the creation and use of new narrative forms.

James Joyce's Ulysses ushered in the age of modernist literature. Orson Welles's Citizen Kane defined film's structure, elevating it from simple theatre adaptions. Moore's own Watchmen proved the narrative advantages of comics, bringing forth the medium's recognition as the 9th Art.

However, Moore does make the point that today's media, constricted by corporations and businessmen, is made up of large-budget special effect films, overused sitcom plots, bland airport thrillers and redundant superhero stories.

One could see this as a sign of a static era for the narrative arts.

With the advent of the 21st century, it was assumed a new medium could push the narrative arts towards the next stage. However, devices like computers and tablets have rehashed digitized novels and films instead of creating new form of storytelling.

A new medium has indeed taken shape though, in the form of the visual novel. Among the newest of the narrative arts, visual novels are relatively unknown outside Japan's sphere of influence.

Difficult to explain, its name brings to mind the connotation of graphic novels, while its description leads one to think of video games.

Even in Japan there is scarcely any work written on the art. But the unique medium has a significant place in today's narrative arts.

First observe the film medium. Dubbed the 7th Art in the 1920's, cinema is considered a great achievement for combining the spatial and temporal arts allowing for fluid storytelling. Hearing dialogue and seeing actors allow viewers to connect and invest more with characters, with music triggering expressive responses.

However, at about two hours in length, the time needed to tell a story is greatly shortened. The brief time spent with characters is not always enough to convey the right emotions. Thus, directors hasten the plot and force reactions from viewers.

Another drawback is that viewer imagination is no longer a factor. Despite advanced CGI, the impact is not the same as an image created in the viewer's mind. And, despite the author's theory, films are made up of many overseeing factors, losing personal creativity.

Television has the advantage of time. Time to bond allows the viewer to better feel characters' joys and pains.

The Sopranos is considered groundbreaking work for this medium. Similar to what Citizen Kane and Watchmen did for their respective mediums, The Sopranos shifted television away from sitcoms and soap operas, opening the doors for mature dramas, complex characters and darker plots.

But the episodic narration limits the variety of stories, leading to shows made up of loose, unconnected series of events. Companies controlling the industry become a hindrance, canceling shows before giving them a chance or dragging them out until their use has dried up.

Literature has largely been regarded as the classical narrative art. Its effective nature of conveying stories and use of reader imagination are reasons this ancient form is still employed.

A novel can be as long as the author needs it to be to tell a story, allowing more time to develop plot. Novels allow for the use of the reader's imagination and are easily accessible. A reader can enjoy a novel at their own pace for a more personal experience. However, even with a reader's imagination, if the reader cannot get a visual representation of the characters and their emotional state, they remain detached from the story.

Moore calls the medium of comics the perfect format for storytelling, making use of both visuals and text. Words are regarded as the currency of the left side of the brain and images of the right, allowing comics to accomplish feats that film and literature cannot.

Moore wrote Watchmen "unfilmable" to prove this point, making complete use of the medium to show that there were unique narrative devices comics could convey in a story that film could never do.

However, today's comics companies rehash outdated superheroes instead of allowing creators to create entirely new works.

Comics are normally limited to around 30 pages to tell a story. This size is greatly decreased when one considers that text is limited to word bubbles, which deface the artwork, interfering with the flow of the story. Images in comics show every action, even when not needed, greatly inhibiting imagination as much as film does.

What can the visual novel offer to the narrative art? First this narrative medium is observed through a computer screen interface. The traditional form is made up of a central character image called a sprite, a background scene and a text box in the lower portion of the screen.

The sprite comes into view when that particular character is speaking or in the scene at that moment in the story. Usually a sprite has one pose with numerous facial expressions.

The static image allows the reader to imagine their own scenes based on the text while the changing facial expressions allow the reader to visually connect with the character and their feelings.

This medium has the advantage of influence from Japanese anime which makes great use of different facial expressions to convey certain emotions.

The subtle changes in facial expressions from the character combined with the text allow for more expressivity in narration. Vocal dialogue from voice actors are normally added, allowing for a greater experience.

This medium is not inhibited by an overly wordy text or certain time limit, allowing the writer to create a story as long as necessary. And because the reader has a better connection with the characters, a story can be much longer than a traditional novel without boring the reader.

Most visual novels overtake traditional restrictions in word count. Umineko for example, contains the wordcounts of Atlas Shrugged and Les Misérables.

However, length means nothing without substance. One of the tools writers use in the visual novel form is building personal connections with the characters.

Almost all stories told in this medium are told from the first person perceptive, allowing the reader to see from the protagonist's point of view. Visual novel stories are experienced by the reader.

A majority are slice-of-life based, starting out with very little conflict to allow the reader to better know the characters.

This achieves the same personal and emotional connection a viewer feels with their favorite television sitcom characters. These stories usually take place in seemingly normal worlds that actually have a mysterious factor underneath, drawing in the reader.

Once the reader has become situated with the characters and pace of the story, the plot suddenly turns and hits the reader with an unexpected event, for example, a tragic one involving one of the main characters.

By this point the reader has become so invested in the character that the emotional impact of the event experienced by the protagonist resonates.

Another powerful attribute is the music score that plays in the background of the visual novel. Visual novel soundtracks effectively cue emotional responses from the reader at particular scenes.

They can convey feelings of nostalgia, happiness or tear-jerking sadness. One of the pioneers in this field is Jun Maeda, a story writer, music composer and psychology major who utilizes his knowledge of the human mind to craft emotional stories that are supported by his timed musical compositions that ease the reader into feeling certain emotions without force.

This combination of visuals, dialogue, music and timing flow together in a beautiful manner, gradually carrying the reader through the story.

One of the main features attributed to the visual novel is the emotional context. The medium is dominated by nakige, the crying genre, much like how superheroes dominate comics and sitcoms television.

Nakige are stories intended to create a tear-jerk reaction from readers. Jun Maeda's company Key is famous for being pioneers in this field. The medium's magnum opus, Clannad, so successfully accomplished this task that its formula has been used as the basis of all following nakige works.

This formula has also been adapted for numerous other genres, including horror and mystery. It can be fair to say that visual novels are among the only arts to use emotions as a feature in the context of framing a majority of its stories.

Another major feature is the immense psychological access of the medium. Most visual novel stories are divided up into several days, with the reader following the protagonist from bed in the morning throughout the day, waking up in the same bed the next.

Common tropes used in these stories are time loops, in which the reader experiences repeating events.

This is put to great use in works like Umineko, a deconstruction of the detective genre that presents murder mysteries done in a different fashion each loop, or Cross Channel, which psychologically shocks the reader by reliving a repeating week filled with eerie suspense and homicides.

This structure can play with the reader's point of view. Works like Kanon and Air play with time by shifting the reader from the present to the past and allow for a unique narrative experience that cannot be accomplished in other media.

Works like Clannad shift from accustomed worlds to unfamiliar realities, adding a sense a mystery beneath a seemingly normal main plot.

One famous work, Ever 17, makes use of this technique and succesfully tricks the reader into seeing one story when in reality there are two timelines that are intertwined to appear as one.

Because of the setup of this medium, visual novels can contain several branching points to allow for different conclusions,  much like in a video game.

However, visual novels can be written at a higher level of depth and are regarded as an equivalent to other forms of literature in terms of the purpose of storytelling; video games are usually merely products whose sole purpose is game play.

In contrast with other media, visual novels are works made up of both reader experienced and story.

Today, in place of an imaginative narrative, film usually hides under big-budget special effects while literature under stylistic prose.

Visual novels are much easier for a creator to break into compared with the other industries, allowing for further diverse and creative storytelling techniques.

Ryukishi, the creator of Higurashi and Umineko, independently crafted the stories and sold them on his own without aid from an outside company.

Even with his crude artwork, both works are now regarded as the best in the industry for their unique methods of storytelling, proving that all that is needed to create a great work is, really, a good story.

Next week: The history of the visual novel and how it has been defined and shaped its medium.

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