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Published January 29, 2013

One of the more interesting debate topics inside the video game community at larger in the last year was Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead. This episodic adventure came just about out of nowhere, spinning its tale over the course of the year in five downloadable episodes. It literally came out of nowhere to win Spike’s Video Game of the Year and was nominated for similar honors at D.I.C.E and in several other mainstream and gaming publications. Many have and will continue to snark at that: citing an over-emotional, over involved fan base as responsible for its success rather than anything special about the game itself. To quote Urdnot Wrex: they are fools and they should be eaten for saying something that stupid.

In that case, what is the debate all about if The Walking Dead deserves the honors and accolades it has received? That concerns its genre. As the accolades grew I asked a rather innocent question over on Twitter: is this game a visual novel? To be fair to you, my magnanimous followers responded in what was essentially a hung jury. But the debate has raged on and as we look forward to a new year of gaming, that phenomenon remains unsolved. What was The Walking Dead?

The answer is as plain as the nose on my face: yeah. The Walking Dead is a Visual Novel.

Okay, I can’t hear myself think with so many people booing me so please settle down for a moment while I explain my opinion. Most of this comes from a theory I have the most people, visual novel enthusiasts and detractors alike, have pretty much the same mental image beam into their head whenever someone says the words ‘visual novel’. And that image is something along the lines of this;

Yeah, that’s pretty much it isn’t it? Bright, candy-inspired colors, obscenely pretty young guys(???)…diabetes-inducing romances…the singing…oh God the singing. And don’t any of you male VN fans come on this site and make jokes, because augment the genders in this picture and now the game’s targeted at you.

Side note: nothing fuels the dark side in me quite like anything that combines romance and singing. I have no idea why, but it’s gotta be a ‘shadows even in the brightest light’ kinda thing…or sour grapes from not getting to punch anyone involved in High School Musical I dunno. I promise I won’t snark on this subject…yet. But that gun’s being loaded for a bit later this year (Thanks Ayu!) so expect a few…er…let’s just call them ‘magic tricks‘ for now…as the year rolls on.

Wow I have gotten way off track. Where was I? Oh yeah; the fact the people will look at the preening twits up there and anything that fits the look of that picture is now classified as a visual novel for them and anything that doesn’t look like that isn’t. Yes, I am saying that people are judging what is a visual novel and what isn’t by how closely a VN is to their Japanese counterparts and again that is for fans and detractors alike, but I’d argue that a good visual novel in Japan or America or anywhere else is defined by one thing: the story. A good visual novel needs to be able to stand just about on story alone in order to leave a good impression with its audience. Presentation is important of course: it’s the visual part after all, but it is a factor in the ruling not the rule itself.

The core of the Walking Dead is its story: which focused on themes that strikes a cord with nine out of ten humans. Redemption, death, courage, family and survival…just to name a few. Deeper than that was the story surrounding Lee and Clementine and the connection they have not only with one another, but also with the audience. If they seemed fake or overacted or anything other than a real, let’s just call it what it is, Father-Daughter relationship the entire game collapses. But it’s real which is why so many of us after playing Episode 5 nearly had an emotional breakdown…okay there was no ‘nearly’ about that one. Just about everyone broke down and cried like a three year old as did I.

Outside of Lee and Clem, the mechanics of the game build up the story and interactions between the characters. For example, Episode 2 (God that one was screwed up) when the St. John Family are preparing to butcher you and one of the characters who has had tension with you has a heart attack in the holding cell. If you choose to let him die, it directly affects a fight scene you have at the end of the episode and any decision you make affects your choices and relationships in the next episode.

But JP! Your choices doesn’t change the ending! There’s only one ending and visual novels don’t just have one ending!

…Okay?

I’m sorry but the idea that the more endings you have the better is total crap. Unless your 20,000 endings all resonate with the player in the exact same way then the majority of them will be cosmetic: save for the one that deals with a character the player likes. In romance games I can sort of see the rationale, because branching story lines allow the player to have different outcomes to different relationships. But even then for me that’s a stretch because it assumes that the player will be essentially a completionist and want to see every route in the game rather than favor one or two targets and repeatedly play the game because they enjoyed the story of those one or two targets.

The idea of multiple endings and really the overarching idea of choice is, ultimately, cosmetic because if you don’t choose the canon ending your fans will be happy to choose it for you. Then you’re not telling a story: you’re just trying to please as many people as you can. I don’t have a problem with that, but please don’t dress it up to be more than what it is. Unless you’re fulfilling some romantic fantasy, the goal isn’t to please the reader: it’s to close the story.

But JP3, it’s fully voice acted! How can you consider it a VN without text?

…………………………….
Yeah someone said it so I have to address it.

Look, I don’t mean to be a jerk here and if you don’t like the game or disagree with my opinion that is perfectly fine. But to confine the entire Visual Novel to a strict definition where not including a static text box is forbidden is just…not very forward thinking. Really, it isn’t very backward thinking either as story telling is the oldest method of delivering fiction in human history. Snark aside, I am not an actor so I can’t tell you the different between reading off a script and playing a role. What I can tell you is that in Japanese VNs that are fully voice acted the bulk of the text bars function the same way they do in the Walking Dead: as subtitles.

Again, this is something I can be a bit cutting on because that’s just my way, but this is something that should galvanize the EVN community (in my humble opinion). A story-driven game came out of literal nowhere, went up against any army virtual Goliaths AND WON. There is a growing market of people willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something strictly off word of mouth and that is gold for EVNs, so embrace it! Nothing but good can from what Telltale Games has done. Again, I respect all opinions here. But whenever anyone asks me if I consider The Walking Dead a VN, I have my answer ready;

‘The Walking Dead is an English Visual Novel…and there are plenty more just like it.’