A few weeks ago, we spent this column discussing the reason why we play different types of game. The answer is, of course, different for everyone, but in the case of visual novel fans, most people will cite “story” as their main motivation to continue — even if the actual “gameplay” side of the title is left significantly wanting in the eyes of some people. Take the title My Girlfriend is the President, which we discussed a while back, for example — in that game, once you’ve chosen which of the game’s four “paths” you’re going to undertake, there are absolutely no decisions to make that have any impact on the way the story ends at all, and yet that does not stop it from being a hugely entertaining and satisfying experience.
There were some great comments on the “why do we play?” post. “Razzle Bathbone” noted that “involvement creates immersion… if you play a game instead of doing something else, you’re playing because you want to participate, not just sit back and take in somebody else’s work.” Your exact definition of “involvement” may vary — simply pressing a key to advance and occasionally making a decision may be enough for some, while others prefer to take more direct control of what is going on. (Others still prefer a more “freeform” experience, but the inherent limitations of the visual novel medium make that a play style better suited to other types of game — and that’s why we have different game styles in the first place)
“Mike G.” then followed up on this discussion by specifically bringing up a title known as Aselia the Eternal, a game which combines traditional visual novel-style storytelling with a fully-featured turn-based strategy game — in short, a game which provides you with a significantly greater degree of “involvement” than a lot of other titles.
“In titles like this, where you fight (and maybe die) with the characters, this can build a greater relationship with them,” he noted. “I mean this literally, and not as a game mechanic. Your emotional attachment to the characters becomes a little deeper, and I believe this can definitely enhance the story in a way that normal visual novels can’t.”
Mike’s comment intrigued me, so it was with a healthy degree of curiosity that I fired up Aselia the Eternal for the first time and prepared to immerse myself in what looked set to be a very unusual experience in an already unusual medium.
Aselia the Eternal, for those who aren’t aware, saw an English language release late last year from genre specialists JAST USA. There are actually two different versions of the game available in Japan — an 18+ ero version and an “all-ages” edition that made its way to PS2 and was subsequently back-ported to PC. It’s the latter version that JAST brought to Western audiences, partly in an attempt to diversify its lineup to a broader audience than its traditionally “adults only” offerings attracted, and partly also because the 18+ version of Aselia featured a fair amount of material which would have proven “problematic” due to the “appearance of the characters and the thematic elements of some of the scenes involved,” according to a statement on the JAST forums. I’ll leave it to your imagination (or a very NSFW Google session) to determine exactly what could have proven to be so “problematic,” but suffice to say that the version we ended up with, also known as Kono Daichi no Hate de, is not compromised in any way and in fact includes a number of additional scenes that were not present at all in the 18+ original.
Regardless of content that may or may not be present, however, Aselia the Eternal most certainly is an interesting game in the way it treats its narrative and its approach to gameplay. It’s probably fair to say, in fact, that it’s a title which was very much composed as a story first and foremost, and then the gameplay designed to fit around that — in other words, the gameplay serves the story, rather than the other way around. What this means in practice is that there’s a lot of reading before you get to do any fighting, and said fighting often breaks for continued plot exposition. In short, the demarcation between “game” and “narrative” is a lot less distinct than it is in many other games, where plot scenes are often treated as a reward for successfully completing a bit of “game.” In Aselia, meanwhile, “plot” and “game” intertwine with one another to such a degree that the whole experience feels extremely coherent as a narrative-based work, yet at the same time provides a significantly greater degree of interactivity (and consequent opportunity for outright failure) than many other titles in the visual novel medium.
Mike’s comment was absolutely right, too. Because it’s a good five or six hours of nothing but plot exposition before you get to fight your first battle, you already know a lot of the characters pretty well by that point, and thus they’re a lot more than abstract units on a strategic map that you don’t care about. They’re “real” people, and you want to keep them safe — and not just because allowing a main character to bite the dust in battle means an immediate game over. When they charge into battle, you’re not thinking “Yes! My strongest unit is sure to come out on top!” — you’re instead thinking “Go, Yuuto! Go, Aselia! You can do it!” It’s an interesting contrast to how strategy games traditionally work — and a particularly relevant observation at a time when so many people are commenting on the powerful sense of emotional investment provided by simply renaming your troops in the recent XCOM reboot.
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet finished Aselia the Eternal and as such I’m hesitant to comment on the interesting things the story and characters do in too much depth — I’ll save that for a future column. I will say, however, after about 15 hours of play, it is abundantly clear to me that Aselia the Eternal very much provides that sense of “takeaway” that I described in the column referenced previously. It’s a deep, compelling experience both in terms of its narrative development and its surprisingly competent turn-based strategy gameplay, and aptly proves that the visual novel medium most certainly can tell a good story while incorporating more traditional video game-style interactivity at the same time.
Aselia the Eternal is available now from JAST USA as either a digital download or a boxed copy. It’ll set you back $29.95. Thanks to Phil at JAST for providing the review copy — and we’ll return to discuss this game in greater depth once I’ve actually beaten it!
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.