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The future of narrative, one choice at a time

05 August on Blogs, Editorial  

It's not news that I believe storytelling has the potential to evolve through videogames - with games such as Mother 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2 rewriting rules as to how fiction can work in the 21st century - but recently I have been thinking a lot about Interactive Novel as a viable alternative to non-gaming electronic entertainment product... which came about with Katawa Shoujo.

Developed by an independent group comprised of 4chan users, this game is a Visual Novel according to Japanese standards - but most will think of it simply as a Dating Sim. Not that this definition is wrong, but in a surprising turn of events, the writing here is surprisingly good. When you take into consideration the plot revolves around a protagonist with heart disease moving into a school for kids with disabilities (with potential romance with a deaf girl, a blind girl, an armless thalidomide girl, a double leg amputee girl and a girl with a scarred face), one quickly assumes that the game will quickly descend into serious fetishism... but that is not the case. The tale is woven with a surprising sensibility, which even spurred some interesting discussions.

The Visual Novel is apparently responsible for 70% of all PC games in Japan, and also are present on most consoles and handhelds over there. The genre is incredibly under-represented abroad, though, with only more complex titles such as Ace Attorney and the rare one-shot such as Time Hollow making it across the Pacific. While I have no hard data, I assume the vast majority of the titles in Japan are the very basic "lots of text, pick a choice, rinse, repeat" with static images and dating themes. Now, I do not have any problems with the first aspect, but Katawa Shoujo made me realize the enormous potential of this model - with or without romantic themes (pornographic or otherwise).

First and foremost, this plain "read a lot and pick an option" is roughly the equivalent of the current casual craze. Just about any potential customer can read and pick options - and we know the fiction publishing market is real - I mean, how much money was made by Harry Potter and Twilight lately? And I think it's pretty clear that both these cases resulted in tons of merchandising because people want to be part of these universes. Visual Novels and Interactive Fiction seem like a very reasonable way to tap into this demand. Which is not to say that there isn't a few hurdles here: reading on a computer screen is not always the most pleasant of experiences, as most heavy readers will tell you. But with devices such as the Kindle and the iPhone/iPod Touch becoming mainstream, this could quickly become less of a problem.

In fact, this Interactive Fiction model has even more going for it. Not only does it adhere to the Casual Craze and New Portable Devices Fad, but it also fits into the Episodic/App Store model with incredible grace. I believe the biggest challenge here is to kickstart the habit - find a way to "teach" people the value of such a product. The best way, obviously, would be to tap licenses such as the ones mentioned above: Twilight or Harry Potter, and why not works by authors such as Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, or even shows like Lost?

And the best thing is that this genre is truly at its infancy. This is a medium with incredible potential. At first you'd probably stick to the basics - but why not fly higher? You could work elements that are influenced by how many people picked a certain response, or weave trends in future episodes... and those are just some quick ideas. In this world full of ARGs, these interactive pieces could be yet another part of the larger puzzle.

And yet... the genre is all but dead outside of Japan. After the slow, painful death of Adventure games (such as Monkey Island and King's Quest), it seems like any hope Visual Novels had in the West was lost. But I want to believe this will change. Maybe after people get over those "object hunt" casual games I despise with a passion, someone will remember that a good story that casts YOU as the main character is a Holy Grail waiting to be found. And you know what the best part is? There is a bunch of free tools to make them available on the net.

But you know what? Don't take my word for it. Download the Katawa Shoujo demo, try it for yourself (I recommend playing it through a couple times and trying to get at least 2 different endings) and tell me you would not pay for a good written Visual Novel as you would for a good book.

P.S.: Yes, I miss my GameBooks.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.