What constitutes as good writing? I know that’s a pretty difficult question to kick us off from, and I’m not about to attempt to find an answer. Though there are some vaguely defined outlines of what makes a good text, a lot of it rests on our own subjectivity, our individual experiences with other works and the knowledge each of us has regarding the subject matter. There are different ways to look at it, certainly. When I say ‘good writing’ to a geek crowd, they immediately take it in terms of plot structure, character arcs, and all the elements that shape the story of a piece of fiction. I can definitely see why it’s so important: if a reader gets invested in your characters and keeps wondering just what is going to happen next, then you’re free to keep writing until someone finally says ‘stop’.
‘But what about the other side of writing?’ I ask. ‘What other side?’ they respond. ‘You know, the aesthetic part, the use of language, the ability to say a lot with only a few words, that sort of thing’. ‘Who the fuck cares about that?’
And ‘who the fuck cares’ indeed. Believe what you will, but I don’t hop into a videogame to appreciate just how well constructed a piece of dialogue is. Any aesthetic choices present in a game, if any, are usually left up to the director, and they involve camera angles, lighting, color scheme, elements that you can’t describe in detail on script (but nevertheless elements that I love), and if you do, then that’s going to get you a terrible writer certificate pretty soon. I like to think of a novelist (and any derivative titles) as someone who takes upon himself both the role of a script writer and director, one who has the ability to describe scenes in a meaningful way only through language. A decent novel would be one with interesting plot but uninspired direction; a beautiful one juggles both on equal levels.
But then, as I was thinking about this, a thought struck me: aren’t visual novels also a prose-driven medium? Then why is it that I rarely ever see anything interesting going on with the prose? I’ve found stories that’ve moved me, stories that’ve resonated with me, but almost never have I thought of the actual prose of a visual novel as even mildly interesting. And that bothers me. It bothers me a lot.
Writing in visual novels is usually pretty standard: narrator sets the scene, characters talk, stuff happens; then we reach the climax, and swiftly proceed to the next scene. The ‘narration’ itself tends to be pretty minimal. Visual novels written on 1st person view focus mostly on the protagonist’s inner thoughts and they never deviate substantially from the usual ‘I thought this, I felt that’ pattern. It’s not that much different with those on 3rd person view: maybe there are a higher number of words dedicated to describing the setting (which I find utterly ridiculous if it’s not a psychological description. You have those pretty BGs for a reason friend!), but otherwise they just share the ‘I thought this, I felt that’ thing among multiple characters, and that’s it. I suppose full-screen text boxes do spice it up a little, but only marginally, and having more space to write can give a developer the horrible idea of adding details until we no longer wish to keep playing (I’m looking at you, Fate/Stay Night). Visual novels often have ‘solid’ writing, but never ‘beautiful’ writing, and as an avid reader, I suppose that’s what I’m secretly searching for whenever I try one of these games.
To further explain, there’s an analogy someone used to compare two writers, and I think I can make it apply here. Solid writing is like a house built on stable ground, with sturdy materials and a standard architectural design; it may not be the prettiest house on the block, you’re lacking many things and the furniture might not be to your guests’ liking, but it’s damn sure going to be there once you return after the next hurricane. Beautiful writing, on the other hand, is a solid house PLUS the fantastic architecture, the integrated heating system, the comfortable beds, internet connection; fancy stuff all over the damn place. Both are good houses, but you won’t even need to give an answer if you’re ever asked in which one you’d like to live.
To me, Visual Novel Town is full of these sturdily built but not necessarily appealing houses, and I’d be happy if that changed, if developers decided to take more aesthetic risks, and hell, not even just with the writing, but with the art and the music as well. You don’t even need to deviate too much from the standard: just a little is enough to set your game apart.
‘But Via, you just said that in games aesthetic choices are left up to the director, and aren’t visual novels technically games?’ That’s a good question, hypothetical reader. It is a fact that VNs, at least in Japan, tend to have project directors on the team, but just how influential are they? According to the following article (translated from Yaraon), game directors have the highest dropout rate on the (adult) visual novel industry, which is because they apparently overestimate the amount of control they have over the creative staff (something that I relate to having barely any control at all). In sites in vndb, directors are rarely ever mentioned, and when they are there’s usually someone from the writing staff listed in that position. My adequate guess is that a project director, while a necessary position to fill, is not too influential in the aesthetic choices of a VN (though I’d love it if someone proved me wrong).
Now, I’ve been talking for a while about aesthetic choices in writing, but what exactly does that mean? Well, not much, really. If you’re a writer, you could easily play around with the placement of sentences inside the text box. Maybe you could switch your narrative style for important scenes. Maybe add a few more figures of speech to spice up the writing. Maybe have a segment where the conversation between two characters is described inside the narration instead of dialogue bubbles. The possibilities are many, and it’s all within the realm of ‘playing around’ with your writing.
The best thing is that it doesn’t need to be a frequent thing: just some splashes of creativity here and there can easily set apart your work. What I want is to look at someone else’s game and say ‘yup, this is definitely that person’s writing’. Of course, I keep talking about beautiful writing, but ‘beautiful’ is a rather subjective term, and it’s pretty possible that, if the VN I’m searching for is ever published, I won’t recognize it as such because it’s not ‘beautiful’ in my eyes. But that comes with the territory of criticizing a subjective medium.
Sekien no Ignanock is a pretty good example of what I’m searching for. Written by Sakurai Hikaru (hey, it was also directed by her. What are the odds?), and part of her Steampunk Series, this VN is known for being well-written but also for having interesting bits of prose (I’ll probably talk more about Sakurai’s writing in the future). As you can see here, she makes good use of a repetition by encapsulating two short sentences inside the text box; it’s strengthened by the fact that this is the only thing you can read. Same thing happens on this screen. It’s a good figure of speech to use in Visual Novels overall if you want to add a poetic edge to your scenes. It’s used mildly to give a character different names that by themselves hint at his role in the story. There’s also a tendency to place 2 or more short sentences in the same box, but separated in a way that makes it feel like they are not part of the same paragraph, creating the sensation that each stands on its own. I personally like how the act of Gii holding his right hand out is used as a metaphor to represent both his desire to help people AND the possibility that he might end up hurting them in the end. And as a final example, there’s the unnatural positioning of words/sentences that I mentioned before. The best thing is that Sakurai writes these lines in such a way that they are never tedious to read; the text is agile, despite the constant stopping signs (of course, the repeated use of these same scenes throughout the game, without any alteration, might be a deal breaker to some).
These are all interesting details, but I won’t blame you if you think they don’t amount to anything more than embelishments on the story, to make it sound more ‘poetic’, more ‘pretentious’ if you will (as much as I dislike that word), but if you sprinkle the text with these creative uses of language and combine them with some solid (story) writing, then you’ll have something really special in your hands.
…and that’s it really. It all boils down to ‘I’d like writers to be more creative with the way they use language’. But I’ll always stick by these words: this is a prose-driven medium, and we should use that to our outmost advantage in order to create something memorable. Don’t stop with the pictures, try to tell us more, much more with your words. The japanese VN market is filled with a lot of disposable garbage that just repeats the same patterns over and over again, but the EVN community has a lot of potential to expand on the groundwork set by our friends from the East. Many are already showing us some quite remarkable products by the strength of their prose alone! Because why stop there? Why try to imitate the japanese when we can enhance on the foundation they set, when we can try out stuff that only we can do? I’d prefer to see people experiment with the medium, even if they fail most of the time, over seeing it get stagnant with the same type of uninspired prose. That is my greatest fear for this market right now.