READ.ME: East, West, Dead

Visual novels are thought of as a primarily Japanese medium largely because, with a couple of notable exceptions, the vast majority of them do indeed hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. That does not, of course, mean that Western developers are averse to creating narrative-focused interactive experiences, however — but it is interesting, as with many other styles of game, to contemplate the differences between Eastern and Western approaches to telling stories using video games as the medium.

This week, I thought it would be interesting to play through Telltale’s The Walking Dead series of episodic games and do a bit of a “compare and contrast” on these differing approaches. The Walking Dead has been enormously well-received by almost everyone who has played it, with its strong focus on narrative, believable characters and emotional engagement usually cited as the main reasons for its success — factors that fans of visual novels will also often cite as the reason they enjoy that style of game. The Walking Dead has also been praised for the difficult choices the player must make throughout, most of which impact the ongoing story to a significant degree — another factor that visual novel fans will be quick to point to when explaining their passion.

At heart, then, The Walking Dead appears to have a lot in common with a typical visual novel. The player takes on the role of a character in the story rather than a “blank slate” or silent protagonist. The overarching narrative is mostly linear, with player choices impacting the specific circumstances of what happens at each of the significant moments throughout the story. In The Walking Dead’s case, the consequences of your actions are usually reflected by which of the non-player characters progress onward to the next story beat, but smaller actions have knock-on effects, too — certain characters will remember things you told them earlier in the episode or series, and this will sometimes impact the specifics of what happens next. The series isn’t complete yet — the final episode is set to be released later this month — but it’s probably fair to assume that there will be at least a couple of possibilities as to how it all ends, some (or, going by the tone of the rest of it, all) of which might be fairly upsetting in nature. The guilty pleasures of the “bad ending.”

So far, so VN, then, but how does Telltale’s offering differ from the Japanese approach to story-based gaming? Well, there are two main factors at play that aptly highlight the differences between East and West: interactivity and presentation.

In a typical visual novel, you’ll be spending most of your time reading. When something exciting happens you normally get a special “event” picture to go with the textual description of what is happening, and in the case of some titles you might even get a video sequence. But for the most part, you’re reading, reading, reading, and your sole interaction with the game is when it comes to decision points. There are exceptions, of course — Aselia the Eternal, which we discussed recently, is a notable example — but  there are just as many titles where player agency is very limited or, in some cases, completely nonexistent. This doesn’t make these games bad at telling their stories (or “bad games”), however — titles like Deus Machina Demonbane remain exciting and thrilling to experience even though you don’t actually “participate” in the various dramatic action scenes throughout the story as such, and Alcot’s hilarious My Girlfriend is the President remains consistently entertaining throughout despite the fact that there’s only really one choice in the entire game that actually matters, and that’s right at the beginning.

Contrast that style of presenting the protagonist’s actions with The Walking Dead’s much more hands-on approach. For a lot of The Walking Dead, you have control over the player character. You choose where he walks, what order he performs various actions and, in some circumstances, whether or not he is successful at various action scenes. Where a visual novel would deliver a flamboyant description of how the protagonist shot the head off a few zombies, in The Walking Dead you’ll be presented with a scene where you actually have to aim at the zombies in question and pull the trigger yourself, and you see it happen rather than having to imagine it.

This increased interactivity can actually be quite a powerful narrative tool, because it means that most of the actions the protagonist Lee takes have the illusion of being the player’s choice rather than that of the writers. I shan’t spoil any specific circumstances here for those who haven’t yet played it, but picture a hypothetical scene where the narrative dictates that there is no other choice but for the protagonist to kill something or someone he doesn’t want to kill. In the case of a Japanese-style visual novel, we might get a few text boxes of the protagonist’s inner turmoil at the inescapable truth of the situation with the eventual, inevitable conclusion being that yes, he does what has to be done. In the case of The Walking Dead, however, that inner turmoil is all in the player’s head. They are the one that has to press the button to snuff out that life. They are the one that has to make that difficult “choice” that, in most cases, isn’t really a choice at all.

Both approaches are valid, and both have their pros and cons. The advantage of the “hands-off” Japanese-style approach is that it allows the writer to explore the character’s feelings and help the player to understand what they are going through. It highlights the fact that the player is not the same person as the protagonist, they are merely along for the ride. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that this can potentially lead to a feeling of disconnect between the player and the protagonist — particularly if the protagonist is somehow unlikeable or hard to relate to.

The advantage of The Walking Dead’s approach is that it leverages the player’s emotional engagement with the story and characters to make the simplest possible means of interacting with a game — pressing a button — feel like it’s a big deal. The downside of adding interactivity in this way is that it potentially adds the possibility of “fail states” that don’t really add anything to the experience. You can “die” by failing an action scene in The Walking Dead, but there’s no penalty for doing so. The story doesn’t continue; you simply retry from a few seconds prior to the unfortunate mishap. This can also create a disconnect between the player and the narrative — if the protagonist’s death has no consequence for the player besides a minor inconvenience, these otherwise-exciting interactive action scenes lose some of their impact, as the game doesn’t take the Corpse Party approach of providing a substantial “Wrong End” to cover the fallout of the protagonist’s death.

Ultimately, of course, there is no “correct” way to tell an interactive story, and we should be glad for the fact that game makers are so willing to experiment with different means of leveraging our favorite medium as a means to engage us with a narrative. Every player will have their own tastes as to the way they prefer a story to be presented — the strong critical and commercial success of The Walking Dead with Western audiences compared to the niche status of Japanese visual novels in the same territory would certainly seem to suggest there is at least a small degree of cultural difference at play here. There are other contributing factors, of course, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Now hurry up and release that fifth episode, Telltale!

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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.

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