A few days ago I posted on twitter a brief design idea for a visual novel, and upon some consideration I thought it might not be bad to further elaborate on it, hence why I’m posting it here. It was a fairly simple idea that I’m sure many others have had before: what if someone made a visual novel WITHOUT a manual save function, instead relying on constant auto-saving to make each choice irreversible until the end of the game, like Dark Souls?
Though an interesting concept, it had me asking several questions to myself, one of them being: what would be the point of it all? To make the game more “difficult”? Most visual novels can’t be measured on how difficult they are. Sure, sometimes you may need a walkthrough in order to access a certain route or get that last one missing CG of your gallery, but it’s all trial and error without actual skill: keep making the same choices and you’ll eventually get there. So then, what type of benefit would an auto-save function add to a visual novel? Wouldn’t it just be annoying?
Well, not quite, at least depending on how you implement it.It’s bound to fail if you merely write the script and add it as an extra feature However, if you base your project around this idea, it might lead to a more appealing product. So let’s analyze what elements would make such a visual novel worthwhile, shall we?
First, you’d have to take into account just how drastically such a small change could alter the average VN consumer’s experience. Most visual novels encourage constantly saving your game progress at every choice to avoid skipping through large portions of the game, as you can see by the usually-gigantic number of save slots. This feature is also most commonly used to retrace some steps whenever the player notices he’s locked in a bad end: now he only needs to load one of his save states and make the “right” choice to continue. Altering this system would essentially shift the way the player engages with your product: he’d now be more careful when selecting the actions of his protagonist, he won’t be able to hunt for CGs as freely as he was used to, and most importantly, regardless of whether he’s heading for a good end or a bad end, he’ll HAVE to see it through no matter what.
It sounds good, right? Theoretically, the player will feel more invested in what’s going on and may even come to appreciate stuff he wouldn’t if he had only walked through the “right” path. Things get more difficult when you consider the other end of the spectrum: if they are not at all pleased with the progression of their story, they might be turned off by the prospect of having to play through most of the game again to redo a single “wrong” choice, which might in turn make them drop this hypothetical visual novel after a single playthrough.
To avoid this particular problem, I’d suggest making this visual novel as “interactive” as possible. By this I mean giving the player a multitude of choices, with each having some sort of effect in the outcome of the story. It’d require a lot of planning, and a lot of work, but it’s not an impossible feat to achieve. I don’t see a playthrough of this visual novel lasting for several hours: a VN with such an auto-save function should be as concise as possible so that the player can experiment with many possible paths without having to sit through hours and hours of narration he’s already gone through before. I’d do away with having multiple routes as well, unless the writer is willing to go through the trouble of branching them as well. Basically, a visual novel like this should feel fresh even after several playthroughs; that should be one of its main features, in fact. But get too greedy or too ambitious and you won’t get any of it done, so again, a lot of planning is required to make this work.
What really needs to go away is the concept of immediate bad endings. The most extreme example I can think of is Fate/Stay Night and the several ways you can get Shirou killed, but even with romantic visual novels it’s still common to see a bad ending pop up only a few minutes after making the “wrong” choice. Keeping such a practice around, however, would be detrimental with the idea at hand: not only would it be annoying for the player to start over thanks to the VN equivalent of falling into a pit of spikes, but a weak payoff to a hopefully involving story could leave them with a very bad aftertaste. Personally, I don’t believe in the necessity of bad endings: they are the failure states of visual novels, something you’d rather avoid than experience as a welcome addition to the narrative. Because of this, many writers don’t put a lot of effort into them, making for an uneven product. I believe an idea like this would benefit from not having bad endings or good endings, just… endings. I’m probably going to keep talking about this in the future.
There are probably many other things you can do with this idea, but I believe these are the basics.
To finalize, you probably noticed how I keep talking about “you” instead of “I”. Well, that’s because I’m not the right person to experiment with such an idea. A writer should write what they’d want to read, and this is definitely a VN I’d love to try something, but the amount of planning it’d require strikes directly at my weaknesses. Because I’m not good at that: the more I outline something and the more I know about what’s going to happen, the easier it is for me to lose all motivation. I’m someone who works better writing on the fly, without thinking too much about it, because I want to be surprised by my story to some degree.
That’s why I’m leaving this idea here, for anyone to see and for anyone to try their hand at it. And who knows: maybe, someday in the future, I’ll take on this challenge myself.