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  #1  
Old 2006-08-16, 06:35
Mihara Mihara is offline
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Default Visual novels as a medium

Even though I'm new to this forum, there's going to be no introductions, since people don't really care about those, in my experience. Instead, I'll just try to get on with the topic and make it an interesting discussion.

I doubt there have been serious published studies on the subject of interactive visual novels as a medium, at least, I couldn't find anything offhand. Nevertheless, they are just as much a viable subject for such studies as music (which has trends, genres, styles, all heavily interconnected and independent) or any other kind of art.

I don't think I could get away with doing that sort of thing for various reasons, but it is kind of important for my own project, so I guess I'll try to bring it up, seeing as how this forum has enlightened people who played far more of these games than I ever did, and hacked them.

The history of FPS genre can be easily defined in terms of engine features that push the envelope. First we had Wolfenstein 3D which had, essentially, a 2D world to it. Then, after a few examples exploring this concept and making the most of it came Doom, which had a world which actually had more of a vertical dimension but still was designed in terms of flatness (for example, no two objects could occupy the same X-Y coordinates, regardless of their Z coordinate). Then came Quake, which was fully three-dimensional, etc, etc, with the demands of realism pushing the hardware to where it is now.

As far as I can see, having played a few games released from late 80s to present day, visual novels have evolved little over the years as a medium. It is to be expected, since the medium relies heavily on written word, and books have the advantage of language as their main medium and thus have changed very little over the years -- but still, new ideas form new genres of literature, and new concepts make new books worth reading, or we'd stop with a few thousand good books and stick to them. There must have been similar developments in visual novels as well, and not only in terms of plot, but also in terms of engine features and visual language. (Those who have read 'Understanding Comics' will get what I mean by 'visual language' - those symbols used to convey meaning graphically.)

What were those developments? Does clever use of transition effects enhance the game for you or distract your attention from what really matters about it? What purposes exactly merit the use of animated cutscenes and lip synch? Do voices make the game better or worse and what exactly do they add to it?

What exactly the reason behind the slowed down text display speed - is it the japanese language, or a necessity for the medium itself, regardless of the language used?

Specifically about the features, why modern anime-style art frequently makes use of vectors, and yet, the only visual novel games that actually do are made exclusively with Macromedia Flash? Why exactly most visual novels stop with 800x600 display resolution, when most other kinds of games have long since moved on to 1024x768 as the minimum possible resolution?

Why do the visual novels look the way they do, which of their aspects are defined by necessities of storytelling, and which are technological limitations? Which are defined by the demands of their traditional audience and capabilities of their computers? When and how these technological limitations were first overcome and for what kind of storytelling purposes? What sort of engine features could define a game's entire development cycle?

I do not have enough information to discern the trends and reasons the visual novels developed as they did, but I hope some you can think of something.
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  #2  
Old 2006-08-16, 07:27
AstCd2 AstCd2 is offline
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Default Re: Visual novels as a medium

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
What were those developments?
Insofar as engine developments go, some noteworthy ones have been:
  • Opening/Ending songs and movies
    Flag-based story paths
    Voice
    Animation (both movie and engine-based)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Does clever use of transition effects enhance the game for you or distract your attention from what really matters about it?
I've got no issues with clever effects. Looking nice isn't what makes a game great, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
What purposes exactly merit the use of animated cutscenes and lip synch?
People like seeing animation. It's pretty and it helps the audience envisage the world in which the story takes place.
I don't think anything justifies lip synch. It's weird and creepy when characters can move their mouths but not the rest of their bodies.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Do voices make the game better or worse and what exactly do they add to it?
I don't think there's a universal opinion on this. Some people think voices add to the suspension of disbelief and the persona of the characters, while others think it robs them of the chance to 'fill in the gaps' with their own imagination.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
What exactly the reason behind the slowed down text display speed - is it the japanese language, or a necessity for the medium itself, regardless of the language used?
I guess some people feel it makes for a smoother transition compared to the alternative of having big slabs of text hurled at you one after the other.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Specifically about the features, why modern anime-style art frequently makes use of vectors, and yet, the only visual novel games that actually do are made exclusively with Macromedia Flash?
I'm not sure what you mean by vectors, here - but in any case, there aren't many visual novels written in flash at all (I can think of maybe two, both of which are doujin games).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Why exactly most visual novels stop with 800x600 display resolution, when most other kinds of games have long since moved on to 1024x768 as the minimum possible resolution?
Given that the primary focus on these games isn't the graphics, I'd say that there probably just hasn't been the demand for it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Why do the visual novels look the way they do, which of their aspects are defined by necessities of storytelling, and which are technological limitations?
The only limitation I can really think of is how many pictures the background and character artists are willing to draw. What determines how modern visual novels look is a compromise between what's necessary for storytelling and how lazy the artists are feeling.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Which are defined by the demands of their traditional audience and capabilities of their computers?
The anime art style is probably a legacy of the traditional audience of the visual novel (ie. anime and manga fans).

PC limitations don't really come into it, as visual novels don't tend to be demanding on system resources - though perhaps that's changing, given the increasing number of developers taking advantage of improvements in PCs to make full animation/3d model-based games.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
When and how these technological limitations were first overcome and for what kind of storytelling purposes?
In the last 3-5 years. Storywise, they allow for greater variety in the direction and more interactiveness in some cases.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
What sort of engine features could define a game's entire development cycle?
Voices need recording, animation needs drawing, and flags need debugging. Each has an effect on the development cycle, but I wouldn't say that any of them define it, except perhaps in the case of full animation, in which you'd need to think the production through in a different way to a text novel.
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Old 2006-08-16, 07:55
Mihara Mihara is offline
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Default Re: Visual novels as a medium

Quote:
Originally Posted by AstCd2
Flag-based story paths
What exactly are those? Choices midgame which do not create diverging paths until much later in the game, or something else?

Quote:
Originally Posted by AstCd2
I don't think there's a universal opinion on this. Some people think voices add to the suspension of disbelief and the persona of the characters, while others think it robs them of the chance to 'fill in the gaps' with their own imagination.
Actually, there might be more to it.
A (surprisingly, legal) Russian translation of X-Change 2 came out here, and I picked it up to see what they were up to.
Deinstalled ten minutes later. Never mind the bad translation, the dubbed voices made the game impossible to enjoy in any way other than blindly skipping through to get to the HCG. It's as if the voices were the one thing that kept the game Japanese.
Dubbing it somehow made it worse than renaming all the characters and pretending the story happens somewhere else would.

Quote:
Originally Posted by AstCd2
I'm not sure what you mean by vectors, here - but in any case, there aren't many visual novels written in flash at all (I can think of maybe two, both of which are doujin games).
By vectors I mean 'images which are defined not in terms of pixels but in terms of curves and fills, specified by abstract spatial coordinates'. Flash is a typical example of those, most typography you see in this day and age is impossible without vectors. Vector-based images allow for very cheap scaling and rotation, among other things (it comes out to just fiddling with a few numbers instead of computationally expensive and bad-looking filling in of pixels which weren't there in the first place).
I would expect that using vectors would drastically reduce the workload (quite a few of the artists I know, especially those who are good at using tablets, swear by them and Adobe Illustrator. The rest swear by OpenCanvas...) involved in producing such a game, not to mention making it much less resource-intensive if used right, but I just don't see any examples beyond the doujin games made in Flash. Which don't even really make the wisest uses of the technology.

Quote:
Originally Posted by AstCd2
PC limitations don't really come into it, as visual novels don't tend to be demanding on system resource...
Most PCs you'll find in the West (and here) will be able to do 1024x768, have over 600mhz worth of computrons and over 128 megs of ram. I can't help but wonder how much legacy hardware is still in use in Japan though.

Quote:
Originally Posted by AstCd2
Voices need recording, animation needs drawing, and flags need debugging. Each has an effect on the development cycle, but I wouldn't say that any of them define it, except perhaps in the case of full animation, in which you'd need to think the production through in a different way to a text novel.
Actually, I meant something else. Suppose you've invented a new cool feature (like, possibly, the 'flag-based branching' mentioned earlier) which changes the engine design little but completely changes the structure of the game. That changes the development cycle rather drastically, reducing the workload in some areas, increasing it in others, and in general turns the story around to produce something new and fresh.
Can you remember any such innovations?
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  #4  
Old 2006-08-16, 09:23
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Haeleth Haeleth is offline
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Default Re: Visual novels as a medium

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Quote:
Originally Posted by AstCd2
Flag-based story paths
What exactly are those? Choices midgame which do not create diverging paths until much later in the game, or something else?
Yes; also choices midgame which adjust a value rather than directly affecting the game's outcome (a common system is to assign various numbers of "points" to certain choices, and open up story paths depending on the number of points received).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Vector-based images allow for very cheap scaling and rotation, among other things (it comes out to just fiddling with a few numbers instead of computationally expensive and bad-looking filling in of pixels which weren't there in the first place).
I would expect that using vectors would drastically reduce the workload (quite a few of the artists I know, especially those who are good at using tablets, swear by them and Adobe Illustrator. The rest swear by OpenCanvas...) involved in producing such a game, not to mention making it much less resource-intensive if used right, but I just don't see any examples beyond the doujin games made in Flash. Which don't even really make the wisest uses of the technology.
It's a question of skills. Most artists (with manga/anime training) are more comfortable working with pen and ink than with bezier curves, and most artists find raster shading far, far simpler than the laborious task of tweaking gradient fills to produce the effect they want. It's easy to find people who can produce decent raster graphics in any style you care to mention; it's harder to find people who can produce decent anime-style vector graphics.

Basically, it's hard to sell vectors when the existing staff and the existing market are more comfortable with raster graphics. :)

BTW, there have been one or two attempts at vector-based romance games, e.g. Tokimeki Memorial 3 (PS2). That game was panned, though the unmemorable character designs and certain unpopular changes to gameplay mechanics probably had more to do with that than the graphics.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Suppose you've invented a new cool feature (like, possibly, the 'flag-based branching' mentioned earlier) which changes the engine design little but completely changes the structure of the game. That changes the development cycle rather drastically, reducing the workload in some areas, increasing it in others, and in general turns the story around to produce something new and fresh.
Can you remember any such innovations?
Most of the innovations I can think of have been very much in the area of engine design, with gameplay changes being relatively minor. Things like scrollback and persistent scrollback (i.e. you can review previously viewed text even after quitting and reloading) improve the game experience, but don't really affect the development process: they're added to the engine, and games benefit automatically.

The only thing I can really think of that matches what you're looking for is the recent trend towards engine customisability. Where formerly game engines would be pretty rigid in what they permitted, offering creators maybe one or two text display styles, built-in menus, and a fixed set of transition effects, recent engines have started to become more general-purpose and to allow games using a third-party engine to look and feel as though they use dedicated custom programming. For example, RealLive's extensibility through DLL plugins permitted Tomoyo After to embed a simple RPG, while Majiro's structure (a general-purpose VM with most game logic implemented within the engine) permitted it to be used to write a Mahjong game, and KiriKiri's similar design allowed a wide variety of minigames to be written for Fate/hollow ataraxia.

To continue your comparison with the FPS genre, this is comparable to the increased reliance on game scripting that first appeared with Quake and permitted a much wider variety of gameplay within the FPS framework. Also similarly to FPS games, the full potential of extensible engines is rarely realised, with most visual novel titles, like most FPS titles, still delivering the tried-and-tested game structure that hardcore fans of the genre demand...
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Old 2006-08-16, 16:47
Carl Carl is offline
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Default Re: Visual novels as a medium

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mihara
Actually, there might be more to it.
A (surprisingly, legal) Russian translation of X-Change 2 came out here, and I picked it up to see what they were up to.
Deinstalled ten minutes later. Never mind the bad translation, the dubbed voices made the game impossible to enjoy in any way other than blindly skipping through to get to the HCG. It's as if the voices were the one thing that kept the game Japanese.
Dubbing it somehow made it worse than renaming all the characters and pretending the story happens somewhere else would.
Sounds like the early days of anime in the West. I guess in an environment where you have little to no knowledge of what works and what doesn't you just have to guess. In Russia, and just about the entire rest of the world but Japan, visual novels are very much in their infancy as a marketable product, and even the compartively more polished examples like Ever17 are still quite a bit rough around the edges. Like anime, that'll change with time (I hope!), but we're not there yet.

Of course, even the Japanese are capable of screwing up their own games without foreign assistance. I love Canvas2, but the PC version is not far off unplayable because of utterly terrible voice acting, such that they completely recast it for the PS2 version and anime adaption.

Quote:
By vectors I mean 'images which are defined not in terms of pixels but in terms of curves and fills, specified by abstract spatial coordinates'. Flash is a typical example of those, most typography you see in this day and age is impossible without vectors. Vector-based images allow for very cheap scaling and rotation, among other things (it comes out to just fiddling with a few numbers instead of computationally expensive and bad-looking filling in of pixels which weren't there in the first place).
I would expect that using vectors would drastically reduce the workload (quite a few of the artists I know, especially those who are good at using tablets, swear by them and Adobe Illustrator. The rest swear by OpenCanvas...) involved in producing such a game, not to mention making it much less resource-intensive if used right, but I just don't see any examples beyond the doujin games made in Flash. Which don't even really make the wisest uses of the technology.
This is simply a matter of the favoured graphical style of Japanese illustrators. There isn't a lot to it, they just prefer doing it the way they do.

Quote:
Most PCs you'll find in the West (and here) will be able to do 1024x768, have over 600mhz worth of computrons and over 128 megs of ram. I can't help but wonder how much legacy hardware is still in use in Japan though.
Japan certainly has a lot of fast computers, but bishoujo games have never tended to push computer limits, unlike the American shooting game industry.

Bishoujo games grew up on a very cheap, mainstream computer system made by NEC called the PC88xx series. They were cheap, they were slow, they could display few colours, they lacked features, they were one of the last off the block with a CD drive, but they still became the most popular computer in Japan. The reason is that they kept themselves affordable and got software that people wanted to use. And because more people used them, more software was developed for it, thus leading to an upward cycle in their useage. Bishoujo games grew up on that feature lacking, not particularly powerful computer system, they didn't grow up on the latest speed machine with brand new top-model graphics cards every year, so the developers focused on making things within the technical limits, not pushing the boundaries. As time went by, and they moved over to Windows based machines and new technology, the culture never really changed.

But as most PC gaming in Japan is religated to the niches (bishoujo games, MMORPGs, and FPSs), due to the mainstream titles all being sold on game consoles, and the fairly high cost of PCs over there relative to the income of young people who make up much of the market, not demanding the state of the art is pretty understandable.

Quote:
Actually, I meant something else. Suppose you've invented a new cool feature (like, possibly, the 'flag-based branching' mentioned earlier) which changes the engine design little but completely changes the structure of the game. That changes the development cycle rather drastically, reducing the workload in some areas, increasing it in others, and in general turns the story around to produce something new and fresh.
Can you remember any such innovations?
There haven't been too many innovations since Leaf began their visual novel series in the late 90s. Voice and RPG elements take quite a bit of programming, but even they are only a moderate change from what went before.

Bishoujo games are really just too niche a market to afford big programming teams and bold ideas.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Haeleth
BTW, there have been one or two attempts at vector-based romance games, e.g. Tokimeki Memorial 3 (PS2). That game was panned, though the unmemorable character designs and certain unpopular changes to gameplay mechanics probably had more to do with that than the graphics.
I actually really like TM3. It's not without its flaws, but much of the criticism seems a bit exaggerated to me.

It tried to do something original, but was a few years and a game system too early for what they were trying to achieve. In spite of that, they did actually get pretty close to what they were trying to do, so they should have been commended for trying something new, rather than pilloried for rocking the boat if you ask me.

Quote:
To continue your comparison with the FPS genre, this is comparable to the increased reliance on game scripting that first appeared with Quake and permitted a much wider variety of gameplay within the FPS framework. Also similarly to FPS games, the full potential of extensible engines is rarely realised, with most visual novel titles, like most FPS titles, still delivering the tried-and-tested game structure that hardcore fans of the genre demand...