Video game genres are numerous and multi-faceted. There are a staggering number of them, and so many of them share characteristics and can be mixed and matched to make truly unique experiences. Recently, I watched a video by Barry Kramer of Game Grumps explaining, as a smaller part of the video (which you should totally watch anyways), how video games are different from other forms of media because there is an advanced vocabulary used to categorize them. Gamers can understand a bit about a game without even playing it or researching it simply by knowing a few terms like “platformer” or “roguelike.”
In the last year, I’ve spent a good amount of time being enthralled in visual novels. I always enjoyed a great story in a game, and puzzle games are some of my favorite games to play, so it seemed only natural to be drawn in. However, as I played more and more, I begin to see a lot of similarities with a genre I was not as fond of: adventure games. I became curious as to why I enjoyed one type of game over the other, but it soon became clear that visual novels are simply the adventure games of a new generation.
When I refer to what adventure games used to be, I think of games like Day of the Tentacle where the three components that make it up are an interesting story and accompanying characters, exploration, and puzzles. Players are usually given pieces of a decently involved story as they move forward, and progress is tied to exploring new areas and overcoming puzzles. The puzzles are usually solved by using logic to put the right information or items found during exploration in the right place. The trope is that solutions to puzzles in these games were ridiculous and unreasonable, and some games did follow that idea, but for the most part, you simply had to think critically to get through the game. The adventure games genre of the modern day, on the other hand, have almost completely forgotten the third piece of the equation, and focus has been directed away from the second. This new style stems from the success of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Telltale’s previous games like Sam and Max had followed a mostly normal adventure game style of item collection and problem solving. However, The Walking Dead put most of that as filler for the main event, which was the fact that the branching decisions you make in conversations and situations have effects on the story later on. After that game released to critical and commercial success and Telltale started getting more and more properties, the adventure game ideas of items and puzzles fell to the wayside in order to take on a more choose-your-own-adventure style. Dialogue choices made up almost the entirety of the gameplay. Soon, other developers tried their hand at this style, and games like Life is Strange and Oxenfree pushed this new wave forward. However, these games are often seen as interactive TV shows because, aside from the branching decisions, the player is only there for the ride and very few choices actually drastically change the plotline of these games. It makes them more personal, sure, but you almost always get to the same conclusion as your friends. Nowadays, you will very rarely see an adventure game in the “old” style as favorites like Grim Fandango and Broken Sword.
The relationship between these older adventure games and visual novels is easy to understand. Both deliver the player from point A to point B with a focus on an engaging story and puzzles. However, modern adventure games are often more widely played due to their focus on spectacle and how they require players to always be paying attention so they understand what’s happening and can make decisions on the fly, whereas visual novels are meant to be taken at a player’s own pace, line of dialogue by line of dialogue. If a modern adventure game is a TV show, visual novels are, well, books. It’s pretty obvious that society leans more towards watching TV shows than reading books, so this correlation makes sense. But while adventure games have strayed from their roots as puzzle pioneers, visual novels have taken the reins and brought this gameplay style to a modern audience in a different way. They’ve become the natural evolution of point-and-click adventure games, and fans of that genre should not be overlooking these games just because of differences in gameplay at first glance.
The three visual novel series that I’ve fallen into also seem to be the three most popular ones out there right now, so let’s stick to those. The Ace Attorney games have really been pushing visual novels into the mainstream for years, and are still fondly seen as some of the DS’s and 3DS’s best games, while in recent years, the Zero Escape and Danganronpa series have become hits in their own right. The three series all share the basic visual novel structure to them, being that there is a straightforward plotline that the player has no say in and must follow through lines of dialogue from various characters. The interesting concepts of the games, the colorful cast of characters they present, and the stories they tell are all the major reasons people enjoy these games so much. However, they are very independent when it comes to how they involve the player.
Ace Attorney can probably be considered as a forefather of the visual novel genre, even if the games are pretty recent and there are most definitely older visual novels. However, it is a game that brought the genre back into the mainstream, and it is still pushing it to this day. For the sake of the piece, I’m only going to focus on the gameplay of the first game in the series, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The idea of the game is that you play as an attorney who is defending an innocent suspect in court. The gameplay here is split into two main entities. The first is the investigation, where players must explore the scene of each crimes to find clues about the actual events. These sequences are directly comparable to entering a new area in adventure games. In those games, the player is let loose to explore a limited space, and they must talk to people and pick up items that could aid them later. While it is impossible to progress in Phoenix Wright without collecting every piece of evidence or testimony, the player still must follow that same basic pattern. The second gameplay segment is the actual courtroom trial. Here, the player must find holes in witness testimonies in order to prove that the defendant is innocent. Players use the information and evidence found during the investigation in tandem with logic to do this. This logical reasoning is the key component of why people love this series, and why they are so closely tied to old adventure games. Both require logical thinking to progress the story. Instead of using items to escape a situation, you’re using evidence to disprove a statement. Players are rewarded with progression just by coming to the conclusion on their own. Their intellect is challenged rather than their reflexes and timing, which was the appeal of the point-and-clicks when they were so popular.
Danganronpa is my personal favorite of the three series mentioned here, but it does follow a lot of what Ace Attorney does in regards to player involvement. The games revolve around a cast of students who are all the best at their specific talent who are forced to play a game where if they want to escape the location they’re trapped in, they must kill another student and get away with it. The gameplay is split up into three sections here, but two are similar to Phoenix Wright. The daily life sections are purely there to progress the complex story and allow the player to interact with the characters so that they may get to know them better and become more attached to them. I liked this idea a lot because it made it all the more involving when one of the characters eventually ended up dead. From there, you must investigate the crime scene similar to Phoenix Wright, and then finally you follow a trial where the students must figure out who the killer is. The big connection to adventure games is similar, where you must use logical reasoning and your previously-found information to poke holes in a student’s arguments. However, the trials also include a few other minigames in order to switch things up. This is where visual novels become an evolution of adventure games. They aren’t just logic puzzles crammed into a story. The minigames involve the player even further because it gives them something to do that isn’t only about thinking. It’s a nice mental respite from the more cerebral argument sections. They all make sense in the context of story, such as playing a snowboarding minigame to go deeper into the character’s mind so they may come to a logical conclusion. It breaks up the pace of the story so you aren’t stuck simply reading the entire game.
The final series to look at is the Zero Escape series. The basic idea of these games are that 9 people are forced to play the deadly Nonary Game, a game that changes depending on the entry in the series, but almost always involves a balance between trust and betrayal to keep players alive. Characters are forced into challenge rooms where they must find a way out. What makes these games so unique is that they take full use of the medium by being inherently about making decisions and then replaying the game to make different decisions. Branching timelines and plotlines often rely on each other in order to progress. You may not be able to finish one timeline without playing another first. The visual novel sections are almost the entirety of the game, but they are broken up by the puzzle rooms. Each room holds a certain puzzle that must be identified and solved by exploring the room, as well as using some logic skills. The puzzles vary from pattern recognition to code decryption, among a lot of others. Essentially, you’re playing a bite-sized point-and-click adventure game in each puzzle room. The player’s observations and rational thinking skills in both genres of game is relied upon to progress.
So today’s popular visual novels are very similar to old adventure games, but why are they evolutions rather than simply new forms? As we established before, adventure games revolve around story, exploration, and puzzles. Starting with story, the plots of games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango were certainly ambitious and interesting, but they did not push the boundaries as a story-telling medium. No new ground was broken. The style of gameplay never pushed storytelling into new territory unseen in games before or after. Visual novels can easily be seen as the step that adventure games never took. Adventure games wanted to take players on a, well, adventure through a good mix of story and gameplay, but that balance made it so these games could be a jack of all trades but a master of none. In contrast, the stories put out in visual novels are very developed and deep because of the nature of the games, giving them much more time to develop the characters into ones you truly care about and understand. Very rarely do I consciously think about the fundamentals and ideals of a character in a game. A game like The Last of Us put story at the forefront enough to make you care about and understand Joel and Ellie, while a game like Dishonored focuses much less on story, and therefore I am not as invested into the thought processes of Corvo and Emily. Visual novels, on the other hand, always make me care about the characters, whether I like or hate them, because I spend a lot of time with them. I’m shown who they are and I’m able to think of them as actual people with hopes, dreams, and fears rather than gameplay devices.
The puzzles are the other major step up with visual novels. There is nothing inherently wrong with the puzzles of old adventure games. However, oftentimes the puzzles are outrageous and lack real context to the adventure, and a solution that makes perfect sense in your head won’t end up being the correct solution. It’s what made those games so memorable; so many unforgettable parts of the games involved the player questioning why the developers put this specific puzzle in this specific part of the game. These portions, however, detract from the real effectiveness of the story. If the game is going for a really involving plotline, these random puzzles bring the player out of the experience. These visual novels, however, incorporate their puzzles into the game’s concept so that they make sense. You’re finding holes in arguments using evidence as opposed to microwaving a hamster. You’re solving a killer’s puzzle about acids and bases in a chemistry lab instead of sliding a card into a slot to stop what’s being sucked through the tube. Visual novel puzzles may not be as memorable, but they contribute significantly more to the cohesiveness of the product.
In essence, I’d say visual novels are a more mature attempt at balancing engaging story and thought-provoking gameplay. There’s more development for each aspect of the games and they feel like a more coherent product. They feel like they were developed more expertly and the creators arguably deliver a more professional product overall. That’s not to say old adventure games are unprofessional or any lesser of games than visual novels. Some people may want more silliness or memorability in their games, which makes the adventure games more suited for those players. This gameplay style has even seen a few strong releases in recent years like the new King’s Quest and Broken Age. However, fundamentally, visual novels do seem to borrow a lot from these games of a bygone era and it’s exciting to see a different generation of gamers enjoying the similar format.