Visual Novels and co-authoring

The idea of gathering a number of people with possibly very different styles in order to write for the same story is one I’ve grown to distrust over the years. I can understand it if we’re talking about movie scripts, as most of the time the narrative individuality of a writer is not as important as their ability to produce an interesting plot and convincing dialogue (with the rest of the aesthetic choices being left up to the director), but when it comes to other forms of narrative, particularly those centered heavily around prose, such as a novel, it’s hard for me to believe it’s ever going to turn out alright. It might be a personal thing: I’m not a writer that feels comfortable when there’s another person in charge, one that could potentially alter and completely ruin the way I want my story to be. Suffice to say this fear has led me to stay away from my friends’ jolly D&D sessions.

Movie scripts can definitely benefit in a lot of ways from having more than one writer on board, and I’ve heard that some book series, such as The Expanse (written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under a pseudonym), make use of the multiple writers scenario by keeping the narrator in 1st person and dividing the character-centric chapters between the two. For example, ‘Writer 1’ writes from A’s, B’s and C’s perspective, while ‘Writer 2’ does so from D’s, E’s and F’s perspective. This allows writers to retain their own individual styles without disrupting the reader’s immersion with unexplained changes in the prose’s overall flow and quality.

Being the medium it is, one would assume having multiple writers would also benefit traditional visual novels: different routes focus on different characters, all with their own unique backgrounds and personality quirks. In fact, some people tend to think of visual novels not as a single product, but as a compilation of short stories based on a single premise. Under this trail of thought, having as many writers as routes would ensure that each has its own “flavor”, turning the game into a varied and rich experience while also lessening the chances of developers getting burned out or running out of ideas.

That’s how it should be, ideally. But looking back on the narrative games I’ve played over the years (and my own personal experiences trying to write them) I realized that getting this system to work is trickier than it seems and many have failed in the process: both in the East and the West, both amateurs and professionals, and I’m going to try to explain why in a few paragraphs, so bear with me.

When we talk about a ‘flawed’ visual novel we usually refer to a number of things, such as failings in the plot, the pacing and the overabundance of clichés, among others. The type of flaw I want to talk about is that which derives from a work that fails at properly integrating the voice of several writers into its narrative, making it feel like a pool of disjointed parts instead of a single, working piece of machinery. I’m talking about a profound lack of cohesion, which is by far the biggest problem that arises from the multiple writers scenario. A cohesive story is one where each part works with the other around a general idea, where they all feel as part of the same ‘whole’, without heading into wild tangents that, in the end, might as well be part of a completely different story. And taking this definition in mind, it’s easy to realize that visual novels are not a cohesion-friendly genre: as they tend to be segmented into character-centric routes, the discourse around them naturally focuses more on the parts than in the whole. “X’s route is better than Y’s route” is typically the type of statement you can find online. Regardless of whether I believe this is the right or wrong way to engage with a visual novel,it’s clear that visual novels are susceptible to mistakes made on these grounds more so than any other medium.

Having different narrative voices can lead to disastrous results if the writers aren’t careful enough. A group should do everything in their power to always be on the same page, and that entails frequent meetings to discuss their individual progress, a willingness to check your ideas with others, to make changes that you might dislike, to learn about what the other is doing to the point that you’d be able to complete that route even if the writer suddenly quits; in other words, a constant, almost obsessive level of communication. Sadly, many studios either don’t go to these lengths or simply don’t do it well enough to maintain a respectable level of consistency.

I’ve seen many indie EVN studios fall into the former category. It was a prominent attitude during the few months after Katawa Shoujo’s release, when a lot of people started working in hopes of replicating Four Leaf Studios’ success: they gathered a bunch of writers, decided on a setting, and then everyone just did their own thing under the impression that simply adding a range of wildly different plot threads to a central story would somehow make their game ‘unique’ (and unique was, and still is, an annoyingly prominent word).  This “just go and do your own thing” ideology was what, in my opinion, broke apart many studios before they could make any substantial progress on their projects. Hell, that happened to me TWICE (and that’s only as far as I can remember). It was a real problem that caused me and my buddies to waste a lot of our time, leaving behind nothing of worth to show. On a smaller scale, this also transcended to the art department, with studios assigning artists with styles that just didn’t mesh together to work with a single writer each, a decision that obviously turned the mere sight of a screen into a mess, with sprites that had been clearly drawn by different people standing by each other’s side, faking that they belonged to the same world.

To use a recognizable name, Rewrite, by Visual Art’s Key, is a very good example of this. Many were excited at the prospect of having both Ryukishi07 and Romeo Tanaka working with one of Key’s writers to produce one of the best visual novels of all time. The end result, while in my opinion pretty enjoyable, was an incohesive mess: some routes relied on romance, some on horror, and some even in over the top action surpassing the likes of Fate/Stay Night and even well-known shonen manga in how out of hand the conflict could get. Yeah, there are plot reasons to explain these scenarios, but they all just seem like excuses to cover the “just do your own thing” attitude I mentioned before. And it’s just that each writer is so different: Ryukishi07 excels in horror and silly/stupid comedy, Yuuto Tonokawa on romantic and melodramatic stuff (Key’s usual fare), and Romeo Tanaka is just all over the place in what he tries to accomplish, but in Rewrite’s case it boils down to a grander-than-life theme that I’m not sure the other writers could follow. I can understand the reasoning behind it all: if you have all these big names then you better let them show their strengths, but with writing, strength + strength = a damn big weakness if you’re not careful enough. And to name a title from the western side of things, No One But You comes to mind: though the overall quality of the writing wasn’t too bad, it was nevertheless a game where the content of a route could either be pretty down-to-earth or just batshit insane, such as the one route with the yakuza gang; we’re told these elements all exist within the same world, but it’s never convincing enough for us to believe that’s true. Again, the writers involved clearly had different styles and interests, and no one tried hard enough to make them match, which led to a highly uneven final product.

Now, I’m not saying no one should ever try this approach ever again, because it CAN be done well. Key is a surprisingly good example of this. Kanon, Clannad and Little Busters may cover a wide range of individual stories, but they are all tonally consistent, and the quality of the writing remains more-or-less the same regardless of the number of scenario writers involved. Of course, whether that is a good or bad thing depends heavily on your opinion of this studio, but at the very least Key manages to pretty consistently pull off games that feel like a single product instead of a collection of short stories, and that I can respect.

In the end, a lack of cohesion in your narrative can seriously damage people’s perception of your game. If two routes are different in just too many aspects, a player’s opinion can easily go from “this is a step down” to “this is like falling down the stairs and breaking my own neck-type of bad”, and sadly, there’s no clear-cut solution to this problem. That’s why I stopped trying and decided to just write on my own. And this might just be my personal view of things, but I feel like a lot of my favorite visual novels work PRECISELY because there’s a single voice in charge of the scenario writing. Of course, that brings its own share of problems to the table, but I feel those are far easier to solve (and it’s even easier to blame someone if all goes to hell). But who knows: maybe I just don’t like to rely on others to write for me. Maybe I’m just a self-centered and narcissistic bastard who believes he can produce the best results if he’s on his own. Who knows, and frankly, who cares.

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One thought on “Visual Novels and co-authoring

  1. Pingback: So, about Lucid9… | Visceral Novels

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