On Visual Novel Structure

by eternal on August 19, 2009

Visual Novel Structure (4)

The time it takes to pick up on the structure of the average VN is more or less equal to the time needed to realize that Key will either make you cry or die trying. Whether it’s in the recurring truths of the anime adaptations, where the Little Sister Always Wins and the harem lead is a veritable failure, or in the basic tree trunk/branch analogy that’s used throughout the medium, it goes without saying to visual novel fans that the structure holds little surprise. Such familiarity with the way VNs are written and programmed can help when playing a game for the first time, aiming for the route you want, but the repetition can work against itself. So, how can visual novels maintain a standard branching or linear storyline and not be utterly predictable in terms of structure? At the very least, I’m sure the writers of Brass Restoration know the answer to that question.

If you’ve played BR, then good. If not, I’ll try to avoid major spoilers (though if you’re a gamer, please try to keep in mind that BR now stands for Brass Restoration and not Battle Rifle).

Visual Novel StructureDo yourself a favour and don’t ask.

So, the story of BR centers around a genius percussionist who lost his arm in an “accident”. I feel obligated to put that word in quotations since it was his own careless mistake that led him to get hurt, but at any rate, that isn’t the point of the story. I’d like to continue and talk about what the story is about, but that leads us straight into the heart of the topic: the unique structure of a deceptively straightforward game.

In short, Brass Restoration is about Ryo, the male protagonist. It is not about any of the four girls whom he can go out with, despite the fact that they have their own distinctive personalities and unique problems. They do develop, to some extent, following the same pattern that most VNs follow (comedy-fluff, romance-fluff, tragedy/SRS BSNS, sex, resolution – minus the sex in this case), but when the so-called Serious Business phase begins, the girls leave the picture. Despite how unlikely it sounds, this statement hardly needs any justification: all but one of the game’s routes deal mainly with Ryo’s tragedy, and the main route is more about him than his childhood friend. In traditional Type-Moon fashion, the game’s True End is hopeful, but not entirely happy.

The fact that BR goes against the grain means that the players will eventually have to ask themselves whether or not it was worth it. Subjectively, I think it was 50-50, but most of that is because I took a liking to the main heroine and wanted to proceed through the phases as usual: captured by the fluff, ensnared by the pain, endeared by the desire to protect. BR does this in a basic sense and then promptly ignores it when, as they say, the feces hits the air circulation device, but in exchange for sacrificing its potential for generic VN escapism – something that can be found around the corner, especially if you can read Japanese – it was able to tell a genuine story about the pain of a crushed dream. For every decision Ryo made that I wouldn’t have, I felt distanced by the game, until I ended up reading it third-person: and that was the best thing that could have happened, because I was able to see how the different story arcs contribute to Ryo’s dilemma, rather than his bland personality contributing slightly to the girls’ dilemmas.

Visual Novel Structure (1)

To use another example, this time looking at linear stories, Kana ~imouto~ does a decent job of breaking the mold. I don’t want to get into whether or not the game was good, mostly because I’m not sure how to phrase it without getting off topic, but it was superb in terms of structure. Effectively, the game played out like Kanon would have if Shiori were the only heroine: you play as a relatively bland protagonist who develops feelings for a sickly girl, but no matter what you do, her fate is sealed. Somewhere along the line, happy endings are a given that will sneak in wherever they can, but any story dealing with illness is bound to be depressing enough to make even the happy ends feel bittersweet.

At any rate, the major benefit of the way Kana was written is that your decisions don’t make too much of a difference, but you don’t know what you’re doing until it’s too late. The game uses both invisible stat-based calculations and key “flag raising” points, but when you play the game for the first time, you have no way of knowing which decisions are significant, doubly so because you’ll never guess when the ending begins. The lack of traditional structure means the ending will either sneak up on you or drag on forever, depending on how long you expected the game to be, but it doesn’t change the fact you’re just as blind as the protagonist.

And that’s my favourite aspect of the game: you are the protagonist, in a much more fundamental way than in games like Kanon or Shuffle. You grow up with Kana, spend time with her, learn of her tragic fate, making decisions that will affect your entire life along the way. In the end, there isn’t much you can do to change the outcome of things, but the first playthrough is pure magic in its ability to engross you, because it tosses the standard formulas out the window. The downside is in the lack of re-playability – the alternate endings are similar enough to not make much of an impact – but it gains points where it matters.

Visual Novel Structure (3)She needs a route and you know it.

In summary, the standard approach to visual novel structure can be both good or bad, depending on the more important things like plot and character. However, it goes without saying that going against the players’ expectations can be a wise move if done correctly, and I think both Brass Restoration and Kana ~imouto~ have proven that it’s possible. Other flaws aside, both games do a superb job of catching you off guard, and not unlike Fate/Stay Night, succeed in telling a more deep and moving story thanks to their unwillingness to conform.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

choux August 21, 2009 at 12:05 am

Hmm…I passed on this when it came out because of the art, but you made it sound interesting so I guess I’ll give it a spin. But I still need to finish the line art before that…having multiple outfits is a LOT of work orz


ETERNAL August 22, 2009 at 10:18 pm

@ choux: Haha, sorry about that…just don’t push yourself too hard. I guess everyone’s schedule is going to get messed up in a couple weeks when we go back to school, so I’m expecting the road to be a little…bumpy. You really should try Brass Restoration though, it’s much more interesting than it looks. The art grew on me after a while, but it can’t really compare to commercial VNs.


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