I am by no means a bookworm. I do not bury myself in literature and usually if a good book is recommended to me I almost always wait for the movie. Watched "Never Let me Go", "The Hunger Games", "Jurassic Park", "A Scanner Darkly" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" but was never inclined to read the source material for any of them. By contrast, this seems at odds with my affection for writing and enjoying AAA video games. Which is probably why I've been a gamer since Mario and Luigi were plumbers, because even the visual grandeur that is cinema and masterful aesthetics of comics and graphic novels left me yearning for a more interactive, intimate experience that only video and PC games can offer. But now, I have become enamored with an amalgamation that blends my love of literature with visual graphics into an interactive, non-linear storytelling mechanism. I am suddenly breaking for something that is unique, visceral and totally unconventional for a conventional gamer. What is this hybrid-fusion of literature and gaming I speak of?
Japanese Visual Novels for the computer.
These type of games are analogous to the "choose-your-own-adventure" books I read during my childhood, recreated deftly for the digital era in the format of Visual Novels. A passive experience for the first few minutes, eventually you will be lead to make a game-changing decision that can send the story branching off in several completely different paths. More choices will follow, until the path you choose becomes your own. While multiple, branching story arcs are nothing new in video games they are certainly not a requisite for console games and in fact, most popular recently released AAA games are linear ie: The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Journey, Dead Space and Assassins Creed series.
And how did it come to pass that I discovered this sect of niche, Japanese-developed computer games? The question is as compelling as the answer: Persona 3 Portable.
After playing Persona 3 Portable for the PSP and logging over 80+ hours with the addictive RPG, I found myself enjoying playing as a highschool student in contemporary Japanese-influenced locations battling shadows in dark, ambient floors of the tower. It was vastly different than any other RPG I have ever played, and needless to say by the first 6 hours of gameplay I was hooked. The game holds nothing back and even has you boldly place a gun-like object to your head, dubbed an "Evoker", to release each characters persona's in battle. Young adults placing "guns" to their heads to help battle evil by night and navigate the social awkwardness of being a teenager by day? Yeah, Persona 3 was definitely bucking the trend of it's contemporaries.
P3P also added something that, with in the context of it's highschool oriented vernacular, pleasantly surprised me: The Social Link system. By virtue of strengthening your relationships with your peers, you would invariably have access to more diverse persona's to use in battle. A bold and intriguing idea that was implemented so well, it was in perfect harmony with the rest of the game. In Persona 3, the protagonist has the choice to become romantically involved and go out on dates with the female cast of the game. By doing so, your social link with that person would in turn become stronger and so would your persona's. The implementation is so flawlessly executed that you never really notice you're playing a dating-Sim throughout large portions of P3. This feature was so novel to me I found myself enjoying the romantic pursuits by day just as much as fighting the shadows by night.
Clever Atlus, very clever.
For those new to the series, I would certainly recommend that Persona is worth your time, even if RPG's aren't necessarily your bread and butter. Through it's cast of highschool characters dealing with modernized problems juxtaposed to the supernatural story of demon slaying and the intuitive persona-crafting system, it does not try to conform to the status quo set by titles like "Final Fantasy","Tales Of" and "Dragon Quest" franchises of the RPG lexicon. Until now, RPGs have never been so accessible. Dare I say that with each successive release, the Persona series has even begun to dethrone the "you-know-who" institution of the RPG genre, Final Fantasy. Even non-RPG gamers have reverence for the Persona series, with many of them acknowledging the only reason they bought a PS vita is for Persona 4 Golden. Not quite a killer app, but very damn close.
But Persona also did something unexpected, by dealing with everyday relationships in life and pursuing a romance in a video game I was caught by surprise at just how fun navigating the nuances of a virtual relationship could be (in a video game; in reality it's just a bitch). I now had an insatiable appetite for a type of game that I didn't even know existed. There had to be more games placing emphasis on social relationships like Persona, the protagonist in a deep story where the conflicting choices you make vary wildly from which girl you choose to pursue from time-traveling back to the past to prevent certain doom (bear with me here). Where you had the choice of chasing after a dream girl, trying to balance your social life with your peers or save the world. And as I discovered, this so-called faction of games did exist. [u]In abundance[/u].
They are called Visual Novels, and my hard drive is now filled with them.
VN's are nothing new in Japan, but in the west ask a fellow gamer if they've played the latest critically acclaimed VN and all you'll get are a lot of dumbfounded looks and confused questioning asking if VN's are some kind of acronym for a bizarre, new STD-pandemic they should be concerned about. Because of the habitual hyper sexual appearance and shallow character traits that are trademark of the anime female cast members in VN's, people here have critiqued Visual Novel's as perpetually misogynistic and a defamation to the character of women. This is typical of Japanese TV and media, which can appeal to the lowest common denominator. By contrast, many VN's are anything but an exception to the rule of Japanese mass media or follow the same tried-and-true formula for excessive graphic and sexual imagery with no sensible narrative and completely lacking any redeemable, intelligent characters. I confess, I have played the latter VN's and it borderlines on interactive pornography. It's nothing more than silly, dumb fun equivalent to the mindless bloodbath first-person-shooters we have in abundance in the States.
Not all VN's share this M.O., however. As many sexually-themed stories that are available to play out, (or "eroge", a term dubbed specifically for Japanese erotic games) there are just as many that focus on fantasy/RPG type of adventures, dating-Sims that are more comedic and wholesome and science-fiction VN's that will indulge you in some awesome, mind-bending story telling (a la Bioshock Infinite). One such example that has garnered critical acclaim for it's character development, art direction and deeply compelling story is the science-fiction adventure Steins;Gate. Steins;Gate VN was released in 2009 and has since spawned a parade of manga, TV-based anime and a full-feature movie anime. Another immensely popular Japanese VN entitled "School Days", portrays a highschool relationship drama, has also been serialized into a 12-part TV-run anime along with manga and oh yes, several VN sequels to the original game itself. Due to their overwhelming popularity, Steins;Gate and School Days HQ have been localized and released in the West.
I have recently just completed "School Days HQ", developed by team 0verflow and released originally in Japan around 2010. School Days HQ is an emotional roller coaster that involves a male teenage student drawn into an unintentional love triangle. Because of the games success in the East and the interest it developed here, it was localized for the US by the Sekai Project and published by JAST USA for release in 2012. School Days HQ has become somewhat of a cult hit in the West, explicitly for it's notoriously "bad" endings. The outcomes can vary wildly from sharing an impassioned embrace with your girlfriend to bearing witness to the demise of the female heroines. Here's the trailer to the original School Days VN to entice (or deter) you:
To say that School Days was an eye-opening experience of how deep a story a VN could convey is an understatement. School Days has received much adulation from Japanese gamers because unlike most traditional VN's, School Days HQ is completely animated with over 20 different conclusions to the story. Until School Days, most VN's played out via static images, albeit beautifully drawn, with scrolling text dubbed with Japanese voice-overs. The player eventually comes to an impasse, until you make a choice via an in-game prompt that branches the story arc in different directions. There's a wealth of anime sequences, new characters and additional chapters to be unlocked in School Days, depending on the choices that you do or don't make throughout the game, including some strong sexual scenes, which I didn't find gratuitous within the context of the story. School Days will warrant subsequent playthrus to see all the story arcs, extra characters and finales that range from happy, indifferent and downright brutal. After all, the central theme is about conflicting love interests, all whom have raging high school hormones, especially the protagonist. Will you choose lust or love, friendship or intimacy? Deciding what choice to make at the many intervals in School Days allows you to dictate how the story develops, roping you into an unraveling love triangle that sinks it's hooks into you and doesn't let go until you finish the 3-6 hour campaign.
If you want a good place to start with VN's, "Steins;Gate"has just finished localization for North America by publisher JAST USA and they are currently taking pre-orders for a special physical collectors edition until February when the game ships. Steins;Gate is not a romance or dating-Sim, but includes all the characteristics that make a VN great while separating itself from most typical VN conventions by including an unusual cast, beautifully drawn imagery that is a unique hybrid of steam punk sci-fi and a concise, awesome story based on sending simple text messages back in time to alter the present and the future. There are also some older VN's such as "Divi-Dead" that fall into the horror genre, yet still taking place in a school environment with disturbing imagery. For more information on Visual Novels and finding one that may pique your interest check out the following links:
Last but not least, for more info or to purchase any of the aforementioned VN's such as School Days HQ and Steins;Gate plus many other great titles from all genres, check out JAST USA's online catalog as your one-stop shop for official translated Japanese Visual Novels: http://www.jastusa.com
While VN's have slowly engulfed my gaming lifestyle, I still am a console gamer at heart. RPGs such as Persona and the recently announced Tales of Xillia 2 and Tales of Zestiria will always dominate my game rotation. The advent of Persona 5 coming next year (to Japan) and the highschool flavor of characters and locations returning, it's safe to say that Persona's Social Link system will be making a welcome return, and maybe even play more intricately into the story. I certainly hope so, because I couldn't imagine a Persona game any other way. And if you still can't get enough Persona, know that a full-length theatrical anime movie entitled "P3: Spring of Birth" based on the initial first few hours of story from the game was just released in Japan on November 23rd, 2013. Considering the numerous accolades the film has received, I suspect it's just a matter of time before "Spring of Birth" makes it's veritable debut to American audiences. To cement just how awesome the P3 movie is, I'll leave you with the movie's trailer: