Still Frames and Moving Words: A Novelistic Look at the Visual Novel as a Medium

This article is a simple list of various aspects within Visual Novels I feel, are, currently, unexplored. I distinguish the Visual Novel from many other forms of Interactive Fiction, by its set template, which tends to be still frames (or frames with slight animation, if you have a budget) overlaid with words. I take Word-Count to be one of the defining important features as what makes a Visual Novel, an actual Visual Novel, and thus I’m keen to count on things like Actual Sunlight and To The Moon as examples too, but, actually, the definition part is not really important, since my goal is to look at certain core aesthetic features.

I begin this essay with an attack on ‘gamification’, and then move on to other aspects.

  1. Criticism of Gamification

What I mean by Gamification refers to viewing the medium solely in game-terms. That means seeing the Visual Novel in terms of choices and win-states or end-states. An example would be those of the Visual Novel’s roots, which is in Dating Sims. The Heroine-Route structure is based on this idea of ‘winning girls’, despite the fact that this tends to be an illusion.

Forgetting that the game still plays as a cohesive experience, rather than an actual system of choices, the actual experience of the game falls like this

Hey I chose this girl -> Makes relevant choices to her path -> Attains ending -> ‘Dead-air’ that occurs between switching routes (ctrling through old routes etc…) -> Hey I chose another girl

Same goes for the idea of Bad-Ends, which suffer from the whole Bioshock issue of “If I can just respawn in a Vita-Chamber, how is the Big Daddy really any scary?” and all the stuff related to other games like that. The difference, of course, is that games have gameplay quality to make up for it, and Dark Souls, for example, makes deaths very very painful.

The idea though, is this, that if you view the experience technically, end-states that aren’t definite don’t really count for much, and, for that matter, neither does choices. Until systems become robust enough to accommodate a plenitude of choices, a true choice-system is damnably hard to pull off, simply because you, a 3-Dimensional being, have to start thinking in terms of the 4th Dimension.

One of the issues of the ‘butterfly effect’ of writing choices is that every swap in character must account for a plethora of other changes within the field itself. People who do not understand the nature of choice as, not actually a choice, but a delineation of an alternate possibility within the text, will commit the mistake of being unable to account for all the changes involved. So the most important point is an End is not actually an End, until there is a definite stop in the narrative altogether. If not, it functions as a very irritating form of ‘breather’. Forest is a game that has a variety of surreal non-endings that exposes exactly how silly the concept is in the first place.

Then again, this is not to lump all the works that make this mistake as bad. The point, as always, is that the core of the Visual Novel exists in the nuts and bolts of the system, which is its content: Pictures, Music, Words.

  1. Still Pictures

There are still a certain type of people who are keen to denounce whole mediums in comparison to other mediums. Claiming that the Visual Novel medium is a lesser extent of Animation is such an act. Yet, the history of pauses and stills has many precedents. The first being comic books, and the second being certain kinds of films. Pausing the frame means capturing detail, as opposed to fast flown animation, which prioritizes slick movement. These aren’t better or worse qualities, but just two different kind of qualities altogether.

Comic books are probably the closest extent medium to Visual Novels, and some have learned how to ‘exceed’ counterparts in film by making full knowledge of the possibility of Art within itself. For example harnessing the quality of the drawing as drawing itself (, or using the frame itself as an aesthetic. All these are techniques that have existed since even before the advent of film by the Avant-Garde, and yet the Avant-Garde hadn’t learned how to apply a narrative quality to these until comics came into the picture. And, now, Webcomics are learning how to use shuffling through slides, with clicking.

An example here would be the comics of Sam Alden. These are drawn in every style, from pencil to ink, but carry a level of movement that imitates, and, sometimes, transcends the movement of film, simply because you can see every wispiness of detail. In The Man that Dances in the Meadow, here, the effect and power of the core scene comes from the ‘image-trail’ that Sam draws into the frame, and this whole comic mixes up the standard narrative style with these moments of intense hallucinogenic and poetic nature.

A comic of Sam’s that makes use of the filmic effect more is Hawaii 1997, here, done entirely in pencil, but putting a fairy-tale like quality to a normal ‘first-love’ story (or, as Sarah Horrocks denounces the genre, the ‘Male-POV Romance’)

A comic that uses the click-frame effect, you can see, is Ava’s Demon, here.

In film, on the other hand, you have La Jetee, the famous short film of Chris Marker done entirely in photo stills, proving that artistic sense and narrative excellence trumps any imagined ‘drawback’ of a certain medium. As critic Dan Schneider claims:

“But, why it works is that it is a film based solely on still photographs admixed with voiceover narration- save for one several second scene of the main female character blinking. What is so good about the film is that it shows how superfluous much of the ‘motion’ in motion pictures is. Film, after all, is a medium founded and nurtured by the written word. Without a good screenplay, a film is just shadows on a wall.”

An example film that mixes in stills with normal cinematography is the opening of John Boorman’s 1967 Point Blank.

Yet, in Visual Novel CG, even with the CG layered on top of one another, you rarely see this sort of filmic movement done without a humongous budget full of animation and special effects. Thankfully there are a few examples I can give, though. The first is Kusarihime: Euthanasia, where the CG makes use of smaller sketched out figures within the CG sometimes, or simpler and beautifully sketched drawings. There is the example of the stills overlaid with music in the prologue, for one. The second is some scenes in Subarashiki Hibi where silhouette is used (like the falling dolls) to create movement.

  1. Photographs and Alternative Art

As an extension to the above point, the other aspect is usage of Avant-Garde Art, Alternative Art styles, or even Photography. This, though, is a more common-sense example, and there are several people already doing this.

But I specifically want to mention Avant-Garde Art because people miss out on the fact that by rooting such Art in heavy text, you no longer have to worry about the fact that people won’t understand your Pollocks or Rothkos anymore. Avant-Garde Art by itself tends to disappear into a stream of divergent meanings and theories. Avant-Garde Art, given narrative purpose, serves a greater goal than all those explications on ‘pure form’ that gets old after a while.

While Subarashiki Hibi is probably the best proponent of using Avant-Garde or Alternative Art for a lot a lot of things, especially to generate the sense of unease throughout, there’s also the example in Rewrite during the ‘climbing the stair of intelligence scene’ in the Moon route.

For that matter, looking at Blaise Larmee’s US ART tumblr, also got me thinking about the use of photography. Normally you see this as a cost cutting measure for some indie Visual Novels, like Katawa Shoujo (lightly painted over), but there are other uses for it as well, if you have the right photographic eye.

Larmee’s tumblr uses the effect here probably in the same sense that the Situationists put together various clutter as a form of ‘detournement’. He has his characters inhabit the real world to infuse these otherwise banal galleries with playful movement.

I think the ‘Amusement Park Tunnel’ scene in DH1 of Subarashiki Hibi uses monochrome blue photographs painted over, or someone took a photo reference to paint it that way.

But drawn Art interspersed with real-life has been used in a lot of places before. You have some animated films by Bakshi, the infamous part from End of Evangelion, Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day.

Actually Don Hertzfeldt’s films (together with Shaft Anime, probably) should be the best research material for people who want to make use of both photography and avant-garde art with narrative pictures. He uses a screaming clash of colors, much like Brakhage films, to portray madness. For photography he combines his stick figures with live film to create a nostalgic recollective quality, much like old home videos, for the most important scenes and poignant scenes at the end of It’s Such a Beautiful Day. He also uses abstract and alien architectures in his World of Tomorrow. All this would not be unified so well, though, without the plot and his deadpan narrative style used to commentate on alienation and loneliness.

  1. Frame within Frame

A quality that is actually used quite a lot. It’s also done a lot in stuff like Television, most popularized by the live-action multi-framing of 24.

And yet it was the comics criticism of Sarah Horrocks that taught me how differently the frame can be used, sometimes even appearing, for example, in the comics of Crepax or Suehiro Maruo, as a part of the art-style itself. You can see it being used here. The frame isn’t really used to split apart one time frame for another, but, it’s a part of the picture itself.

Incidentally, you can use this in Visual Novels, given that the difference is that now you have a slowly ‘unfolding’ frame that changes over time. You can have only one part of the picture revealed, and then have the next part revealed on the next click, and these two frames don’t have to be separated entities, and, intermixed with narration, it adds a level of meaning to the whole shift.

e.g. Frame the face, then describe the face. On next click, put a smaller frame for an item on him, like, for example, a watch, and then describe that in the narration.

Technically, you can also have a section that entirely ‘evolves’ by shifting one frame within the picture each time, so that the movement feels constant. You can also have one part stay the same while the other frames around it changes. Once again, these have precedents in comic books. In Asterios Polyp, you have a scene where Asterios is remembering a precious memory of his girlfriend, and the whole scene expands into two to three pages of various bits and pieces of other cluttered memories, of various bits and pieces of their life together, while, at the center of the pages, you have a sequential narrative of the memory itself, gradually unfolding in time. It’s quite a feat to behold.

For that matter, this moves on to my next aspect which is…

  1. Framed-Text and Decorative Framing

One of the things I don’t understand is why people still rely on a textbox that gets in the way of the CG. To me, what Elf did in YU-NO was much more preferable, when you’d have a beautifully decorated frame, to fit the CG inside. Then again, I know that it’s probably due to cost-cutting measures that everyone uses the same engine, or something like that.

But, Scott McCloud also outlines how the text itself can fit into the picture. Quartett! uses this (and, for that matter, it also uses the frame-within-frame that I outlined above), but it uses it in ‘comic-style’ text boxes. Subarashiki Hibi, I think, although it uses the normal frame for the most part, is the only one I’ve seen that actually uses text as image, in the form of crosses, or mad cascades of text, with the grandiose manic ending of DH2, and a lot of other ‘crazy moments’.

Decorative framing, as a small addition, links up to the above point about frame-within-frame, which is where you decorate the various frames. I’m sure this has been done a lot of comics, or video games, but more or ornamentation. There’s probably a way to give something like that narrative significance, but I haven’t thought of it yet.

  1. Fitting the Text Box, or, the Rate of Text-Release

Interestingly, the enclosed space of the textbox itself provides an interesting quandary about how to balance text within NVL (full screen textboxes) or ADV (lower part of the screen textboxes).

Although some people think that it doesn’t really matter as long as the text is on the screen, I can sense a different rhythm altogether with both cases. Actually it’s less of the text box, and more of the Rate-of-Text Release, but the size does play a role in the whole rhythm.

A style I’m trying to experiment with right now, which I call Tanaka-Plath, involves a maximum of three short lines per ‘click-unit’, and eschews normal subject-verb-object format whenever necessary.

For that matter I’ve also seen some games where the audio of a continuous long paragraph was broken in two because the textbox was too small to accommodate it.

It’s an issue, but I guess it’s not that big of one.

  1. Text-Audio

Somehow, the Visual Novel introduced a completely new aesthetic that no one really ever thought of before, and rarely, ever, do people notice that this is important. It has its roots in movie subtitles, but nowhere else have people really understood what it means to combine text and audio, or the joy of hearing someone read to you what you’ve just read.

The first Visual Novel I can think of to abuse this fully is Forest. It’s one of the only Visual Novels I can think of that introduces audio that is completely separate from the text itself, while also including audio that is the same as the text being displayed. One of the most hallucinogenic qualities of that VN is solely because of this. You have shifting words, shifting audio messages, sound effects, and quirky scattered fairytale character designs. At the start of the Midsummer’s Night Dream chapter, a poem is read out, while different poetic descriptions is displayed in the text box. All of it comes together as way greater than the sum of its parts.

While text does define meaning, it has a lesser say in the emotions that are attached to it. On the other hand, Dies Irae’s incantations made full use of this as well when it combined Foreign Words with Japanese Audio to create grandiosity. Orestuba’s prologue also has this when it has a long poem with every line being read out by a different character, each one with a different tone of voice or accent. Sometimes text is enhanced when you ground it with dialogue. Sometimes text fares better by itself. How it comes together is dependent solely on the narrative instinct of the director.

As an even greater boon, Text-to-Music is also one of the qualities that breathes life into the medium, far beyond any other medium out there. Animation or Movies are structured strictly by time, and yet, Visual Novels can combine these other sensations of Visuals and Sound with the full poetic and psychological detail, and the looseness to be able to read and absorb all of these things freely (or, at least, as free as you can be until you start to get really sick of the looping soundtrack). This is the definable standpoint of the medium that pushes it into its own realm beyond many other mediums, and yet, not many people will ever think about this kind of possibility.

  1. Mish-Mash and Clickables

There is a small realm of ‘extra-stuff’ that can be added on to a Visual Novel. This includes clickable objects, like the Crime-Scene investigations in Kara no Shoujo, encyclopedia articles, like the ridiculous amount of side-entries in Saihate no Ima, and stuff like email or technologies depicted within the game, like the many possibilities popularized by Christine Love’s games.

I call all this ‘Mish-Mash’, and yet I don’t want to downplay these items at all, because, if done well, can serve an important purpose within the narrative. Actual Sunlight, for example, has some of its best writing come out from the character’s interaction with objects, as opposed to when the actual plot comes in, which is where the writing totally falters (incidentally I only played the pre-finalized version when it was released for free, so I don’t know how well the end result is now).

Christine Love’s “Don’t take it personally babe it just ain’t your story” taught me, along with Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the sheer joy of voyeurism, by it’s ingenious ‘hijacking of message logs’, which was such a great bummer when the ending failed to integrate all these things together and just petered out. Kind of the point of the story, given the title, but still it suffered from the fact that, as I pointed out above, the choices didn’t feel like they mattered, and, even given the thematic message it was trying to thrust at us, felt more like a cop-out.

When one has the need to integrate Mish-Mash into the game, one must be willing to give every single small aspect narrative significance. Saihate no Ima, in its willingness to go into whole sprawling side-stories at the click of a small button, is the exemplar here. You can conceive of an entire game just made of narratives opening up into mini-narratives, mixing into even more narratives. Then again, this type of thing was also being experimented with by Interactive Fiction creators, and even way back with stuff like the Arabian Nights, or Proust.

I can also theorize a game where a story is given, and a counter-story, is provided solely by clicking on mish-mash, like being able to explore Humbert Humbert’s room while he goes on narrating about Lolita.

Epilogue – Moving Forward

He who does not understand the full tools of the medium, beyond what seems obvious and important (e.g. choice systems and heroines) will be straight-jacketed into the same holes. On the opposite side, technically, if you had a person who understood the marriage of text, sound, and image, even if he did not have the most polished of art styles or greatest voice actors or best musicians, theoretically even an indie work can show a significant excellence well above the normal span of things out there.

For that matter, everything I view, for now, to be ideal, is to tell a robust narrative. For now I find, before introducing all the other elements, that, it is best to strip these things down to their core foundations (text-audio-image) as the building blocks of creating such a narrative. I find the above aspects more important in creating that immersive rhythm that Visual Novels are so good at, and that’s why understanding how these come together and what really can be done within a work, is so much more important.

One of the unfortunate results of this is stitching together multiple writers who don’t sync together well in the style, which is due to the preconception that every Visual Novel requires heroine routes, even if it doesn’t really fit into the framework, though, this is probably more of a brought-over problem with the structure of Japanese companies keen on cost-cutting and profit-maxxing than anything else.

For that matter I find that the entry of any indie work into an industry is not a problem restricted to this medium, but a problem that has existed since long ago, for everyone, from the French New Wave to the current span of Comic Artists trying to beat the mainstream Superhero-Tide. The strength of any medium lies on this propensity of individuals willing to journey outwards into the wilderness, facing certain self-defeat and despair, towards something grander.

This, I don’t quite see now, because many people are still thinking from the current aspects which they themselves know, rather than rebuilding what is possible, and, what is best, sui generis, from what they can see of the medium in its purest form.

So, if anything else, at the least, I hope this essay has taught someone how to see, that, for the better.