A question for you; why do so many visual novels start the same way?
There have been many think-pieces and commentaries on how to start a narrative and for all the literary methods at a developer’s feet, VNs usually start one of two ways: either arriving in a new town OR waking up from a night’s sleep. The reason for this is that it’s usually easier to start a narrative from the beginning and the start of a new chapter in life, or the start of the day is as good of a beginning as any. And while it is one of the more humorous tropes in the visual novel world, it’s also one of the most understandable thanks to its universality.
The challenge for writers then is, if they so choose, what other options they have in starting their narrative? One person to look at in this scenario is someone I always find a way to bring up when talking about the technical side of storytelling: Christopher Nolan. Nolan usually starts a narrative at some unspecific point. Often, said point seems to be completely at random and its only after the full story is told do we understand its importance: see The Prestige for a solid example. This forces the writer to think out of the box and make the opening segment interesting enough to the audience without confusing them or spoiling anything important. And, if a writer is good enough, starting their story in medias res can provide enough kinetic energy to the tale to even elevate a potentially lackluster story.
However, there is a caveat to all of this when it comes to video games. If you create a demo in medias res, then a lot of work and thought will have to go into deciding on the exact point because the risks of alienating the audience or collapsing the narrative before it even starts rises exponentially. And that, unfortunately, brings us to Zodiac Axis.
Zodiac Axis is the first visual novel developed by Studio Theophilus: a team made up from some members of Fallen Snow Studios. For those familiar with the EVN scene, Fallen Snow is responsible for Lucid9: Inciting Incident. We’ll get back to that in due course, however the immediate issue is if what we have now is enough to make a judgment call on the direction the story wants to take and whether or not the planned narrative can even hold the audience’s attention for long. And, unfortunately for the folks at Theophilus, the results are a mixed bag.
I certainly like the idea behind Zodiac Axis, which seems like a mixture of classical shoujo like Fruits Basket and more contemporary anime like Zankyou no Terror. And yes, believe it or not those two can mix. The basics of the story is that you play a recently graduated young woman who accepts a tabloid job investigating rumors into people with supernatural powers. The pre-alpha demo starts, as hinted before now, in medias res with Alison (our protagonist) already embedded with her potential subjects. That setup alone, executed correctly, should a solid way to create tension and depth without a lot of explanation. However, you all know the drill by now.
The demo never says this is what is going on. I found out about it later while researching the game for this feature. Alison hints at it in her internal monologues, but we’re left ultimately wondering what the point is. This hamstrings the entire demo which, under slightly bolder direction, could’ve provided an effective hook for the audience. It’s not completely wasted though thanks to The Cat: a masked man who clearly has some sort of supernatural ability and is stalking Alison out of his own interests. Their scenes easily save this demo for me, at least, as their banter gives their personalities some much-needed depth the rest of the cast doesn’t get for now.
There is also a bit of confusion on if anyone other than Alison knows about The Cat. Some of the character do apparently see him, but do not consider him a threat. This could be due to their supernatural gifts, however by Alison’s descriptions of him it should raise some concern since they never seem to pay attention to their conversations. Again, without any broader context, all we can do is speculate. But at least the alpha confirms that yes, you will be able to romance boys.
Likely, Cat isn’t anything to write home about. It’s just that he stands just a bit above the rest of the cast thanks to his more psychotic personality. The other characters barely register outside of Basic Anime Characters 101 and unless you just really love these worn-out tropes, it’s hardly anything to sell a new VN and its developers on. Ironically enough, this was an issue with Lucid9 as well and the title’s reliance on anime stereotypes brought them enough cover, but little fire to go with their smoke. It would be nice to get something concrete in the full demo: something that pushes back against the clichés we got in the alpha and shows a bit more ‘proof of concept’.
Because, to be fair, the concept is strong enough to keep someone like me invested in a pretty low-tier alpha. The inherent tension and drama of working undercover as these supernatural beings are slowly revealed to the public, the protagonist caught in the cross-hairs thanks just as much to her foolish heart as it is her financial desperation; that’s incredible rich earth to till. And that’s not JP trying to force a straightforward Otome title into a role it isn’t designed to be in, by the way. From the game’s synopsis:
A light and fluffy adventure ensues in which you:
- Are almost crushed by a chandelier.
- Find yourself in a burning house.
- Witness an execution.
And somewhere along the lines, you start to think that journalism is a lot more complicated than you expected.
That tone and narrative direction is only hinted at here. It’s for understandable reasons, but now that those sweet, sweet crowdfunding dollars have been appropriated it’s time to show that side of Zodiac Axis. The developers already have a sense on how to do it: in medias res. There’s no reason the next demo can’t just drop of at a completely random, but extraordinarily tense point in the narrative that can show just how dark this game can get. It would also help to show the rest of the cast in a different light and hopefully shake up their current static presence. These are points that could’ve been covered by now, but thankfully nothing is mangled to the point where this project is DOA.
As we’ve seen with games these developers have worked on in the past, it can be extremely tempting and easy to settle for delivering something stagnant. So, here’s this feature serves more as hope more than anything. Hope that the next time we talk about Zodiac Axis, it isn’t afraid to explore the narrative it set up on its own. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
If you want more information on Zodiac Axis, check out the official site here. JP3: OUT.