An Art of Limited Visuals in Storytelling: The Theatrical Presentation of Visual Novels

On June 1983, many Japanese video game players learned what it was like to solve their very first mystery case, the Portopia Serial Murder Case (ポートピア連続殺人事件). They might have seen cop dramas like the 大都会 (Daitokai) series and read mystery books like 占星術殺人事件 (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders), but they didn’t think they were ready to jot notes and interview people for clues in a real location, Kobe.

Players also saw the people they were interacting for the first time. Yasu, their ever-trusty underling, would do what the players asked him to do. If you asked him to talk to the people in the docks, you briefly saw him disappear and read the text of him going around the streets interviewing people. For the first time, players felt like they were ordering someone in a video game as if they were interacting with artificial intelligence. They could also explore a 3D dungeon filled with traps and secret rooms. The game visuals reflected their actions and that must have been a thrilling experience players had back then.

And there was the famous plot twist too. After much investigation, the player realizes that the murders are committed by two people, possibly a brother and a sister. However, the brother has disappeared and no traces can be found. They feel like they are impelled to murder because these victims are not so much victims but perpetrators of a bigger scandal: a grab of economical power behind closed doors.

These two siblings could not look for any help, let alone police, for they were too young to be taken seriously and thus saw their family go down the drain. They murdered because of vengeance.

After finding the sister, the player has to conclude that the brother is still alive.The only way to know if the person is the brother is through a distinguishable birthmark that is shaped like a butterfly.

The player have to go to the interrogation room with no one called out. And then, they tell Yasu to strip.

And they see the scar on his body.

This is where the meme, ヤスは犯人 (Yasu is the criminal), comes from. The plot twist is on the same level as Darth Vader revealing to Luke Skywalker that he is Luke’s father and Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud is actually his childhood snow sled. And like both plot twists, Yasu has become emblematic of Japanese mystery video game tropes. The criminal is not who you think it is; it could be someone close.

And this blew everyone’s fucking minds back then. Your avatar who follows your every order is the one who killed everyone in the game. You discuss with him the clues that have come up so far, you let him go to the strip club to have some fun, and he is the one who committed the heinous act of murder. You see him with your very own eyes that it is him who did it.

Today, reading about Portopia‘s influence is like learning about the urban legend of the Lumiere Brothers’ legendary short film, L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station); it’s too ridiculous for anyone to believe that people actually ducked under their seats and hoped the train passed by them. But ludicrous as it may be, people were astonished. Something revolutionary had appeared before their eyes and they couldn’t figure what they saw.

Kojima Hideo of Metal Gear Solid fame described his experience with Portopia in a collection of interviews with the “masters of video game storytelling”:

… Experiencing this game [Portopia Serial Murder Case] led to my working in this industry. The player is a detective and tries to solve this murder case with his colleague called Yasu. There’s mystery, a 3D dungeon, humor, and a proper background and explanation of why the murderer committed the crime. That is why there was drama in this game. My encountering this game expanded the potential of video games in my mind.

I believe Portopia encapsulates the history of technology in a nutshell: something we have taken granted today is the same thing that proves to be a catalyst for many brilliant minds. Incorporating storytelling elements found in other mediums, Portopia became the groundbreaking work of that era and it was so innovative that it had instilled a need in so many people to create more works to capture that kind of magic themselves.

But Portopia itself came to existence from the same kind of inspirations Kojima and others felt when they played the game. Horii Yuji who would later be known for creating Dragon Quest and thus JRPGs was mesmerized by the potential of video games to tell more cinematic stories that can’t be done by more traditional mediums like books. Text adventure games like Zork were the craze in the United States and he thought of bringing that joy into Japan. He dabbled with artificial intelligence in the hopes of making the game converse with the player in order to progress through the game. Nonlinearity might also be another way to make stories quite interesting.

However, the technology was too primitive back then. He looked for a compromise and eventually found one: the player can type out (or choose in later ports of the game) the option they are planning to do and they are allowed to have some freedom to do things out of order. He also popularized the idea of huge graphics that showed what was happening in the scene, eliminating most of the textual portions in adventure games. Wordiness became a moot problem once visuals took control. Visuals and text work together to create a more fleshed out, believable setting.

Horii was onto something big. He probably saw this subset of adventure game as something different from the usual text adventure games and the point-and-click adventures to come. Japanese people call this genre a novel game (ノベルゲーム) or a game with an ADV (short-form for adventure) format; everyone else calls it a “visual novel”.

When Ayatsuji Yukito wrote 十角館の殺人 (The Decagonal House Murders) that sparked a whole movement called the 新本格ミステリー (New Traditional Mysteries) in 1987, video game and visual novel developers were creating mystery games in the same style of Portopia and the mystery books written then. Writers and developers were experimenting with the presentation found in visual novels and what they might be able to do.

Enter この世の果てで恋を唄う少女YU-NO (YU-NO:A girl who chants love at the bound of this world). YU-NO came out in 1996 and, despite its unfinished status, attained a reputation for blending the ambitious genre of science fiction with mystery. It is a marvel even to this day that a game of this stature was released in the year of 1996.

The story is nowhere simple. A father disappears. A teenage boy finds himself time-traveling back and forth alternate timelines. A multidimensional conspiracy is on the horizon. How could anyone try to write that kind of story in a video game?

Maybe a visual novel could do the trick. To give the impression of multiple worlds, the scenario chart becomes a kind of an overworld or a hubzone for the player to navigate through the multiple timelines; we can see branching paths and the such from there. And each alternate timeline or “route” gives the protagonist and the player a little bit more knowledge about the plot and the scale of the setting. Players can also get time orbs to put in certain locations and travel there as a sort of checkpoint; they are also able to keep certain items that were only available to one route for future routes. These “flags” or “event triggers” let the player progress through this rather complicated game.

These basic visual novel mechanics are so seamlessly integrated that it is as if time traveling and alternate worlds are meant to be incorporated into visual novels. As the player uncovers more and more of what they are supposed to do, the mechanics become one with the plot. Visual novels have the upper hand of having visuals that interact with the text, but what YU-NO did was ahead of its time: the presentation of visual novels, not just the graphics, can be part of the plot.

In the second half of the game, YU-NO turns around and becomes a different setting altogether. To reflect that genre shift, the visual novel takes out the time orbs mechanic and the UI changes dramatically to depict the stranger and more fantastical side of the work. The usual storytelling changes a bit and the player becomes overwhelmed by the possibilities of the work has to offer.

It is a bit unfortunate this part of the game is slightly unfinished at the end due to budgetary constraints, but it reveals a strong ambition on the developers’ part on how the little parts can influence the player’s mood. This 1996 work is already thinking big and asking questions that are surprisingly modern for game design in that era: How do you convey the scale of a setting without being too heavy-handed?

The answer to this question is why visual novels are a unique form of storytelling in media. Good presentation (the Japanese call it 演出 or “direction” as in the “direction” of movies or anime episodes) often involves subtle cues of scripting and mechanics to isolate a mood and extrapolate from there. While presentation of this kind are primarily found in visual novels, they can be found in JRPGs too.

When JRPGs moved from 2D to 3D, many directors and scenario writers did not take into account that 3D space adds needless information. Many JRPGs, even Xenoblade 2 that came out a few days ago as of this writing, have the “characters standing and talking to each other” syndrome and there’s a lot of dead space between dialogs. However, an ADV format (the typical format found in visual novels) omits unnecessary visual information by only having character sprites (立ち絵, literally “standing pictures”) and through some script changes these characters can be alive by a kind of limited animation.

The Tales games play with that format through what they call “skits”. Ever since Tales of Eternia (or the bowdlerized version titled Tales of Destiny 2), each Tales game presents scenes — often jokes or little trivia — in an ADV format to complement what is happening on the scene. Most of the Tales games don’t use it well and just use it as a way to recap the story.

However, Berseria is different: it is scripted by visual novel veterans like Hiramatsu Masaki who has worked in Machi where they could only use static pictures of real life people to convey expressions and gestures. The skits in Berseria are necessary and sometimes forced upon the player because they involve crucial plot details and character backstories not found elsewhere. Many important scenes are told only in the skit format because that’s the only way to present that scene. Else, we’ll get the dreaded “characters standing and talking to each other” syndrome.

In order to liven it up, Berseria‘s skits employ scripting cues that make characters move, switch to exaggerated gestures, change the backdrops, and other subtle features that can only be grasped after many rewatchings of the many skits in the game. You can watch any skit and observe how much character the limited animation has to see why that’s the case. And it’s all done just by little scripting cues.

This doesn’t mean that Berseria relies on skits entirely. When story requires fighting scenes or anything that needs more visual information than a skit could provide, they are in beautifully animated 3D cutscenes. The developers can allocate their time and recourses to making those cutscenes look great and have a lot of meaning in the story. The staff understands what needs to be a skit and what needs to be a 3D cutscene.

Skits or ADV formatted scenes can only work because we like to fill in the gaps in our mind. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics calls the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” as closure and he uses it to describe the way we interpret the empty gaps between comic panels. We do something similar to that when we see skits or visual novels present characters in these ways. This “limited animation” is also what makes Japanese animation special because it is the exaggerated yet characteristic gestures that differentiates characters’ actions on the screen.

Berseria‘s skits and visual novels are also working on the same principles derived from contemporary theater. Theater theorists like Antonin Artaud in The Theater and Its Double struggle to explain what makes theater so challenging. He describes the theater stage as “a concrete physical place which asks to be filled, and to be given its own concrete language to speak.” Yet, spoken language is anything but concrete. The “poetry of the senses” is often neglected, despite being as important as the “poetry of language”. In theater, there are “thoughts” or ideas that can’t be described in words but can only “find their ideal expression in the concrete physical language of the stage.”

Instead of relying everything on words, Artaud argues that a combination of words and body language can create “beneath language a subterranean current of impressions, correspondences, and analogies” and appeal to both the mind and the senses. What makes theater different from most “fixed forms of art” is that the “physical possibilities” of theater can create a sort of new reality through “living and intimidating forms”. Forms like “music, dance, plastic art, pantomime, mimicry, gesticulation, intonation, architecture, lighting, and scenery”. These forms — or these “means of expression” — are its own “intrinsic poetry” and together can create something magical.

But theater is also limited by other types of constraints. There are no Adobe After Effects to add explosions or anything fancy, each gesture performed is unique in every iteration of the play, and everything is circumstantial based on what happens on the stage. The expressions are thus limited to what the human body can do. So theater directors and playwrights find ways to make a scene out of nothing.

That’s the magic of theater. As Peter Brooks, a famous theater director, once said:

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all is for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

The presentation found in theater and visual novels is nothing special. It is an empty space as far as people are concerned. But it can develop its own story and create a new type of reality once the people behind the curtain bring in props and costumes to make the world inside the theater believable. The rest of the work is onto the watcher who fills in the leftover gaps and sees the work as a kind of spectacular fiction that can’t be found anywhere else. Even if you don’t understand the language in Theater Koma’s production of Sin Jie Kwie, you can see the world it is trying to portray. Everything screams fictive and cheap in reality, but we believe in the supernatural Chinese world of generals and gods because we’re adding closure in our minds.

We like to think of video games as “interactive movies” or somewhere around the sort, but it might be more productive to think of scenes as play productions. Visual novels and games influenced by them can portray much more because of its minimalistic interactivity and presentation.

Once we forgo the “crude” aesthetic, screenshots like the one above in 終末少女幻想アリスマチック (Alicematic – World’s End Fairytale) reveal a lot of sophistication in how the game is presented. Two character sprites face off each other, there is a bit of scaling going on to trick the eye that there is some perspective in the scene, and the textboxes have rose motifs thanks to the heavy influence Revolutionary Girl Utena had on this game. There is even a TIPS box on the middle right where the game explains certain vocabulary and it adds to the experience of detail in the game.

There are many examples of this kind found in works like Muv-Luv Alternative and 天ツ風 ~傀儡陣風帖~ (Amatsukaze ~Kugutsu Jinpuu-chou~). They all feature impressive scripting that could amount to animation to the untrained eye. However, they’re just coding that trigger at the right time to make something magical happen.

I don’t believe visual novel storytelling is the cinematic storytelling Horii was looking for, but he has found something better. Like how all the world is a stage, the characters in video games and visual novels are all merely players who have their entrances and exits when the time has come. But it is beautiful because it is obviously an illusion like theater and the way it can grasp our attention with the few tricks it has is something worth praising about.

This is the second post for the 12 Days of Anime project where anime bloggers try to write 12 posts in a row for Christmas. I have decided to write a post a day from scratch if possible and as such, this may have more grammatical errors than the usual post. But I’d like to be as thorough as the other posts I have written before, so it should be quite interesting to write 10 more posts like this in a row. I may fail, but it is worth a try.

If you like my post and others, consider donating to my Patreon, retweeting, or commenting on the post. I am always happy to reply to any questions and comments.

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