Well, after a disappointing adventure at my local airport where I was denied from seeing Takeover: Brooklyn IV live, followed promptly by a head cold that I’m just now getting over, it’s only fair that I come back to a community not exactly in turmoil, but far from the tranquil facade it likes to put on. Now, for the inevitable few who will end up reading this hello: I’m the ‘mean’ VN reviewer you’ve been warned about. For you, what you’re about to read might be a little surprising. But I assure you, for everyone else it’s just another Saturday with VNs Now.
Yes, I’m aware that won’t do much for new folks. But, you have to at least try to ease in.
So, for that last few years, I have been pushing for developers to invest in platforms outside of Steam. My reasons for that can be found in this analysis of Steam’s current situation here, but beyond that it imperative that game developers nurture markets and platforms, not just put out work and expect reward. One of the platforms I have pushed hard is Itch.Io and I have been pleasantly surprised at the increased attention they’ve recently given VNs. Then I was forwarded an editorial they put out recently on the subject and, admittedly had a damn good laugh at their expense. For all of their support, the good folks at Itch still have a lot to learn.
The editorial is entitled Visual Novels Are Having A Moment and I encourage everyone to read it for themselves, along with much more rational response here. Luckily, both are short reads and you’ll get the gist fairly quickly. But, at least to begin with, I’m going to extract from the very first paragraph of the Itch piece to try and explain that while this editorial is objective awful, it’s not exactly a bad thing. I know that’s a bit contradictory, but trust me I have the receipts to make the case. For now, though; check out this opening paragraph:
We’ve written before about visual novels here before, but in the year since that last post the genre has been in a renaissance. Games like Doki Doki Literature Club have been playing with the structure of the genre, developers like Aether Interactive have been pushing the standards of writing forward, and The Worst Girls and Pillow Fight teamed up to master presentation. Now more than ever is visual novel community’s time to shine.
Well, this is just pure ignorance on display. I have been covering visual novels for some seven years now, not quite as intensely as I used to but still here. And while you don’t have to know the history of EVNs in particular, to make that statement you’d have to either ignore or dismiss some truly great work. The only way you can even believe that tripe like Doki Doki Literature Club is ‘playing with the structure of the genre’ is if you’ve never played VA-11 HALL-A which took the genre structure, got it drunk and made out with it on a bar. You’d have to have never played [redacted]Life which took this exact same idea DDLC had but gave it the heart, soul and depth that DDLC didn’t have the time for in between jump scares and promoting waifus. And I know you completely Herald and Oxenfree, which took all of the tenants of a visual novel and adapted them to a three-dimensional world. Again, if you like DDLC I’m not here to tell that you’re wrong (yet). If you try to tell me that DDLC is some sort of landmark for visual novels though, I’m afraid I got some bad news for you because on that course DDLC is late by about, oh, five years.
‘The Worst Girls and Pillow Fight teamed up to master presentation.’ Uhhhhh, do you mean this? Son, you must be new here because to think that, you’d have to completely ignore the artistic mastery of Cinders and Old Man’s Journey, the brilliant avant-garde work of Cave Cave Deus Videt and The Great Palermo, and the expressionist wonder of Along the Edge. How many video games do you know that could fit the phrase ‘One Perfect Shot’? I know more than a few. From Dysfunctional Systems, to Taarradhin, to The Lion’s Song, to One Small Fire At A Time, to Old Man’s Journey (yes, again), to Over the Hills and Far Away, and The Pillars of the Earth you can see epics told in single frame.
And this is all just imagery. Presentation is more than just imagery, after all. Modern gaming has a host of talented musical artist in Bear McCreary, Jeremy Soule, Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori, Jack Wall and Amon Tobin. Right next to them, I would put Isaac Schankler, Rob Westwood, Kristian Jensen, Chris Hurn, Matthew Myers, Collin Babb, Tilo Alpermann, Michael Kelly, Efe Tozan, Adam Skorupa, Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz and Michał Cielecki. There was a time when every EVN and, Hell, every visual novel period, sounded the exact same. Now, those developers who are able has a well of talent to pull from to give their work a unique sound: adding to the uniqueness of their presentation. And that options was built by the names you see here.
That point about Aether Interactive ‘pushing the standards of writing forward’…I’m going to have to make quick work of. No disrespect to Aether Interactive who has done some decent work, but they have yet to meet, much less exceed, the standard set by works like Cupid, The Last Birdling, One Small Fire At A Time, One Night Stand, Aviary Attorney, Basiliska, the Jisei Murder Mystery Series, Solstice, Cave Cave Deus Videt, Juniper’s Knot, Taarradhin, VA-11 HALL-A, The Royal Trap, and Three Guys That Paint. On and on, stories of love, tragedy, psychological trauma, hopelessness, faith, death; every cover of the fictional spectrum has been covered here and there is at least one great example of each of them in the EVN community specifically and the visual novel sphere as a whole. So do not, DO NOT come and tell me something is pushing forward a standard that you don’t even realize already exists.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m coming down hard on this commentary, and while I am venting to a degree I’m not mad that it exists. In fact, I’m excited that it exists. If I’m being very honest with you all, I’ve been waiting for this to happen.
Two years ago, I did the last Sound Off podcast even though I didn’t know it at the time. The episode is called ‘Lighting Candles’ and it came during a down year for the larger VN sphere. Several plagiarism scandals hit all at the same time with groups like Marble Syrup, Dharker Studios and Akki Sekai if you remember those days. Around that time I also was making statements of the current state of the visual novel community; noting it had matured into a ‘market’. While it would not be an overnight change, it meant that enough had sufficiently changed that some conversations within the EVN community could, and should, change. Among the various markers of that change was the success in the arts by groups like We Are Müesli, Universal Pictures partnering with a developer to make a visual novel based on one of their IPs, and the larger gaming media beginning to cover visual novels like any other game.
The caveat I gave to that third one was that gaming media would cover VNs, BUT they would want to be Columbus and talk about this new, great genre they discovered. So, they would say that the game they loved was the definitive project of this exciting new gaming medium, not realizing that in the process they would erase the foundations of the medium they claimed to love. This editorial by Itch is the exact article I said was coming. It is parts of gaming media and even some developers starting off at second base with the assumption they’ve hit a double. Or, to be slightly nicer and to piggyback on what I said earlier, Columbus landing in the West Indies, not realizing he wasn’t actually close to India.
Is it frustrating? Yes. I’m sure visual novel developers that have broken their backs these past seven years don’t have a lot of nice things to say about this situation. But is it a bad thing? No. Not at all.
Every generation, whether it be generations within a certain medium of the arts, business or even in a bloodline, should (if everything goes well) have a better start than the previous generation. It’s a sign that something went incredibly right in the past for the present to be able to claim any sort of ‘moment’ that has come before its time. It’s our responsibility, both from the developers end and the audience end, to conserve (heh) the achievements of those who came before and recognize, for those who can’t or won’t, just how far we’ve come.
That’s not a victory that a singular project, developer or critic can claim. And there are still mountains to be climbed, to be fair. The Developers side of the visual novel medium is still an insular tribe that assumes the only people interested in VNs are people who plan to make VNs. VNs now have to deal with the new shadow of the ‘gold standard’ of the medium being fodder for streamers instead of just copycats of the Japanese source wall. There is still very little liquidity and stability in this burgeoning market: which is what is needed now more than crowdfunding wells. And, less we forget, there are still bad actors being supported by toxic fans who, frankly, will give cash to anyone who pats them on the head and tells them they’re special. There is still a mountain to climb for visual novels in the West.
But, visual novels in the West have climbed more than a few mountains too. And those mountains look a lot easier to conquer once you’ve climbed K2.
The ‘Moment’ Itch takes note of didn’t happen this year: it happened years ago. And that moment has been a foundation that many have and will stand on to make their own VNs for years to come. Those trying to get a moment in the sun will have their time soon enough. To all of you, though, take your moment. Drink it in, man. And then, let’s get back to work. I’m not nearly done yet, and I know you aren’t either.