When considering the genre of Visual Novels (VNs), many people tend to think of them as “games without gameplay.” As the genre is composed of titles focused on text, visuals, and sound, player interaction may feel limited, constrained to, at most, picking your own choices, if we don’t include adventures with point-and-click and puzzle mechanics like the Zero Escape series or Ace Attorney. Some people even fit those games in a broader “Adventure” genre rather than VNs.
However, even avoiding that controversy and restricting ourselves to games that rely solely on text and audiovisual elements, there are multiple game design perspectives. Text-based games can offer myriad narrative design options that sometimes readers can't perceive because it all looks similar on the surface.
When looking at the genre from a narrative and game design perspective, one classic series is very helpful in thinking about what the medium has to offer: the Infinity series. With just the first three games (Never7, Ever17, and Remember11), it’s easy to notice three significantly different patterns that we can see in other titles in the genre as well.
KID and Infinity
When it comes to visual novel history, KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) was a legendary developer. It fostered some of the biggest names we have today in the industry, such as Kotaro Uchikoshi (Zero Escape), Chiyomaru Shikura (STEINS;GATE), Naotaka Hayashi (STEINS;GATE), Takumi Nakazawa (Root Double) and many others. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt in 2006, but the intellectual properties are owned by Mages and many of its capable staff members are still active.
One of KID’s biggest successes was the Memories Off series, which offered a bittersweet take to the typical romance stories. However, its other big IP, the Infinity series, would go on to ignore some of the trappings of the so-called bishoujo games (titles revolving around dating pretty girls) and establish a unique science fiction concept with mind-blowing plot twists. These would later be associated with Kotaro Uchikoshi’s writing style but can similarly be seen in other works of ex-KID staff.
The PC edition of the second game in the series, Ever17, was published in English by the now-defunct Hirameki International in 2005, while the other titles received only fan translations. With each game offering a unique take on a shared universe, they show an intriguing view of VN design and what sort of experience they want to offer players.
When playing these games, I thought of how unique they are and summarized their styles in three design options. While there are also other possibilities, such as the kinetic novels (a term popularized by Visual Arts/Key for their choiceless VNs), these may offer a path to think of text-based game design as more than simply adding choices to text.
Never7 and the Prismatic Visual Novel Design
Originally released in 2000 on the original PlayStation as Infinity with a Neo Geo Pocket fandisk called Infinity Cure, Never7: The End of Infinity was the first game in the Infinity series. It tells the story of college student Makoto, who ends up in a Seminar Camp that would help him graduate from his Psychology major.
However, things there start getting odd: a girl is found dead on April 6th, and Makoto finds himself back on the first day of the seminar (April 1st) right afterward. What was supposed to be a relaxed experience transforms into a thriller mystery with the player running around trying to figure out the strange phenomena and avoid the tragedy he once saw.
When it comes to game design, Never7 has the traditional route system, which has the story branch out to a specific future according to player choice. Just like other bishoujo games, this means the protagonist gets closer to one specific girl, developing her personal story further and allowing players to understand her much better.
The first thing to consider is that no ending is actually explicitly true or canonical. Each of them has an alternate retelling of events, offering details and interpretations that don't fit together to make a single whole. This derivation makes it what I like to call “prismatic” or “rhizomatic,” as a way to think of the branches as gaining life by themselves. Players here may choose one specific ending as their best/favorite/canon pick, and all of them are equally valid from a game design perspective.
Ever17 and the Tributary Visual Novel Design
Ever17: The Out of Infinity is the second game in the series, getting a 2002 release on Dreamcast and PS2. It told the story of a group of young people trapped in an underwater theme park called LeMu. Through the perspective of two boys, players can get closer to the girls stuck there with them while trying to look for a way to survive and go back to the surface.
Though its route system is still influenced by the bishoujo formula, as the player choices impact which girl they will grow closer to, the mystery and unique sci-fi theories are at the forefront of the experience. Romance is secondary and more of a tool to add perspective on the character’s traits and personalities.
As a result of the focus on the mystery, the game opts for a True Ending unlocked by seeing every other route first. Each possible outcome feeds into the intended story conclusion like a tributary river. The routes are parts of a big puzzle that only an engaged player going through everything will be able to witness.
Thus, this derivation of the route formula is what I call “tributary,” regarding each end as part of a whole. No single route is enough to satisfy the player, as they should not stand alone from a game design perspective.
Remember11: The Age of Infinity and Labrynthic Visual Novel Design
Remember11: The Age of Infinity was the third game in the series. It was released on PS2 in 2004, and it was the last Infinity game developed and published by KID. After this, the series would continue with 12Riven under CyberFront, a company that would go on to share KID's bankruptcy fate in 2014.
Remember11 tells the story of a young woman called Kokoro and a young man known as Satoru. After an airplane accident, Kokoro sees herself trapped on a snowy mountain with other survivors. Meanwhile, Satoru has lost his memories and can't leave a research facility called SPHIA. To make matters worse, someone is targeting him for death.
At a certain point in the story, Kokoro and Satoru notice they have started exchanging bodies. The player gets to see their perspectives with the story divided between Kokoro’s Chapter (the first route) and Satoru’s (the second one, which can only be unlocked by finishing Kokoro’s).
While the story progression is limited by this design, the game offers various choices over time. Instead of opening up alternate stories, Remember11’s branches create a maze of poor decisions. Like a dangerous labyrinth, the story has odd turns only meant to confuse the player and lead them to a premature death without finding out the truth behind the mystery.
This design, which can also be seen in works such as Type-Moon’s Fate/Stay Night, is what I call “labyrinthic.” Instead of giving players more opportunities, it checks their reasoning and offers a sense of challenge in the text design. Keeping multiple saves to avoid being trapped or cheating with an answer sheet are some techniques players may employ to reach the true ending.
Rethinking text-based game designs
With only these three titles from the same series, we can see how visual novels can employ different game designs to offer varied experiences for players. When thinking about what this text-based genre can offer, we must evaluate how the text structure may significantly impact the experience.
Thinking of the whole genre as if a text-based experience didn’t allow for significant game design differences is a shallow perspective. Though the Infinity series is composed of highly-regarded titles, this is only a sample of what VNs have to offer and a small step in diving deeply into the genre’s possibilities.
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