Style and Aesthetics in ef – a fairy tale of the two

by eternal on November 24, 2010

Sorry, this was the best screencap I could find.

Aside from its infamous anime adaptations by Shaft, ef – a fairly tale of the two is known primarily for one thing: aesthetic appeal. As NNL’s staff have joked, the game is indeed very pretty and shiny. It’s visually stunning in every possible way, surpassing even Wind – a breath of heart, which was astounding compared to other 2002 eroge releases (take a look at this vs Da Capo or even Utawarerumono). With designs by Naru Nanao and backgrounds by someone who apparently knows how Makoto Shinkai does his thing, it’s no wonder that the game is a beauty.

However, as video games have taught me, it’s important to remember that the aesthetics of ef aren’t just the icing on the cake. In addition to its high-quality art is a unique stylistic approach to the visual novel medium that has a notable impact on the presentation of the narrative.

As you may already know, the story of ef is told primarily through CGs. Paper dolls are used for some scenes – and they’re very attractive whenever they appear – but more often than not, the story will unfold through a series of CGs. Take a look at this example:

Ignore the dialogue, the caps weren’t taken with story in mind.

As you can see, the scene begins when Miyako walks in on a conversation between Hiro and Kei. The game then shows a CG framing her face as she speaks. When she finishes, it cuts back to the first image as Hiro turns his head to Kei, and then she begins speaking, transitioning to the third shot (incidentally, note the shot-reverse shot pattern that shows the two girls talking rather than a still CG showing them both in the same image). Does this look familiar? It should. It should look like every anime and film you’ve ever watched.

In short, ef breaks the boundaries of the presentation of narrative in visual novels by treating the player’s eyes as a camera rather than the first-person perspective of the protagonist. This begs the question: why spend this much effort to create an anime-like effect when one could simply fund an anime? For one, game CGs are naturally more detailed than anime frames since anime requires simpler character designs that can actually move. Don’t quote me on this, but I also recall reading that there’s a limit to the amount of detail you can put on a cel, so even non-character objects that move have to be toned down. As nearly every eroge adaptation has proven, it’s in the nature of the mediums for the visual novel to simply look more attractive because of the static images. As for the amount of time and money a game like ef would cost, I can only speculate. Being treated to several CGs per scene in the same way that anime treats us to several shots per scene feels almost as impossible as seeing a TV anime with action scenes that are as well-animated as the ones in Kara no Kyoukai.

Moving on: even when the game uses one CG, it upholds the goal of making the player witness the world through a movie camera rather than through a character’s eyes by utilizing pans and zooms. See here:

This CG only undergoes a subtle change during the scene – Kei opening her eyes and looking straight ahead – but it’s several times more effective than a plain CG would have been, no matter how well illustrated. As you can see, her fists remain clenched for the entire duration of the scene, but how obvious is it during the first shot? The point isn’t driven home until the camera zooms in on it. Additionally, just like in an anime, the camera moves away from the character’s face to build tension – we don’t know what kind of expression she’s making, if she’s blinking back tears. All we can see is her clenched fist, implying her internal struggle. The camera returns to the original shot a moment later and shows us her resolve.

It would be a simple and arguably pointless scene to take apart in an anime or film, but direction of this sort is rarely seen in eroge, most likely due to practical limitations. Despite being static images, the camera work can add intensity to a scene that dissolves and blur effects simply can’t – and because they’re static images, each shot feels like a screencap out of a Makoto Shinkai film or the Haruhi movie.

On a related note, some CGs even change their focus from foreground to background. I admit that I don’t keep up with the latest eroge thanks to the language barrier, but I have never seen something like that in my life. Clearly, the chief staff of the game wanted the visuals to emulate a real camera recording a real anime or film. Luckily for us, the stylistic elements only serve to heighten the atmosphere of each scene, and they aid the narrative by presenting information in a more appealing way than boring us to death with cut-and-paste – albeit attractive – sprites.

What does this mean for the rest of the medium? I don’t have the knowledge to say that minori is ahead of the pack, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were; ef – the first tale was released back in 2006, after all. Either way, I hope to see more big-name companies attempting a similar stylistic approach in the future – and as a matter of fact, I’d rather see companies blow money on this than the gameplay elements that many sci-fi/fantasy fans crave. Like the JRPG text boxes and poorly paced cinematic/dungeon ratio of yore, the last thing you want getting in the way of a superb story is bland presentation.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Aorii November 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Unfortunately, not every studio can put forth as ridiculous a budget as Minori could on an individual work. Besides, you do have other focuses— from 0verflow’s near complete animation VNs to leaf’s 3D graphics TRPG engine that’s used to create full CG animation scenes…

But nevertheless, transitions and highlights on event CGs seem to be getting more and more prominent even for the lower-budget visnovs. The days of just displaying an event CG without panning/focusing/shifting the camera time and again during the scene itself seems to be long over— for any studio that cares about good presentation styles anyhow…

I think we’re just noticing it late because english translations lag behind by too many years. Although some improvements like the blinking eyes I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.


ETERNAL November 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Is that really the case for newer low-budget games? I’m not sure, but I hope so – it makes me realize how ineffective simply fading into and out of CGs can be. And yes, I’m a little hesitant to say that the blinking thing is good… it doesn’t bother me but I still find it odd at times.


choux November 24, 2010 at 11:32 pm

I never really noticed Minori’s effort until I played Eden*. For some reason, the art of the first and last tales didn’t really click with me, especially the first. For instance, that CG with Kei’s clenched fist looks completely off. Don’t ask me why, but her face reminds me of popeye. I also remembered it as a bit overboard, because there were CGs in places that didn’t need CGs, where the extra graphics budget didn’t really amount to anything. There was also the fact that Naru Nanao was losing her appeal, and that I don’t like this “cold” style of coloring. Then, Eden* came along, and the fandisc impressed me completely. Now I feel a bit spoiled. Games with a lot of movement like Tenshin Ranman (which has very, very, very few CGs and many, many, many scenes where pretty much nothing happens) and Flyable heart are still ok, but when I opened Canvas 2 and was treated to an entire scene with a single event cg without any effects or even expression changes…… I sighed and deleted the game.
Also, is it just me, or is the coloring style of Wind similar to Fate/Stay night?


ETERNAL November 25, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Putting CGs in places that don’t need it is an interesting point to raise. In some ways it can be a waste of money, but I don’t think it hurts the game. That said, for every unnecessary CG there might be a scene that could have done with a couple extra ones, but I haven’t found any specific cases of that yet. I’m impressed that they managed to improve upon this in Eden* too.

Mm, I don’t think I know enough about art to comment on whether the colouring is similar. It’s probably just a coincidence anyway since I think F/SN was coloured by that other guy (the one doing the art for MahoYoru) who no one really knew before now. Doesn’t look like they were going for a specific style.


Martin November 25, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Those screenshots look absolutely lovely and after watching the anime of this I know the story’s good, sooo…I’m looking forward to being able to play the English language version legally (Manga Gamer are currently working on the translation, but that’s all I know).

Apart from Narcissu the only VNs I’ve played so far are the Type Moon ones…which does at least offer a contrast in how simple and how polished they can be visually. Tsukihime struck me as really rough round the edges (at least the characters and story were excellent) but F/S N was mindblowing on every level. Looking at that, and this, I wonder whether VNs will start to resemble animated films in their own right rather than being light novels in an E-book-style format.

I’m not an expert on the software engines that power these things, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the artwork and animation took advantage of the evolving technology – VNs may become increasingly ‘animated’ and cinematic, and less like illustrated light novels. I look forward to how it goes…hell, I look forward to reading more in English, full stop. There really aren’t very many that have made the leap yet, when you look at how many translated anime, manga and prose novels are widely available.


ETERNAL November 25, 2010 at 4:56 pm

The Tsukihime/Fate comparison works really well because the former is less polished than average, being a doujin product, and the latter is really well polished with fight scenes and everything. That’s pretty much the difference I’m talking about; F/SN’s presentation makes the most of the writing and art and forces you to feel the battles, to the point that you wouldn’t finish it and think “this really needs an anime adaptation”. A high-budget animated version of the battles would help but it certainly isn’t necessary. As for Tsukihime, I don’t think I’d feel nearly as engrossed in the characters’ styles and abilities if it weren’t for Melty Blood and the other multimedia releases.


Yi December 10, 2010 at 7:46 am

Interesting… Never really noticed the kind of things that go into “animating” visual novels. The zooms and pans of a still image really does create a sort of motion in the CGs. Kind of reminds me of those history documentaries where old paintings appear to move.


MkMiku January 26, 2011 at 3:11 am

I really love Ef’s art style. It’s still one of my favorites after all these years.


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