I wanted to address the music-themed visual novel Kira Kira again today, if I may. I know I’ve covered it a number of times recently, but it strikes me as quite an interesting if not important work that does a number of particularly noteworthy things. Specifically, with what I’d like to talk about today, I would like to highlight the question of what it means to “beat,” “complete,” “finish,” “clear,” or whatever you personally call it when you come to the end of a visual novel. It’s a subject I covered from another angle in a recent Swords & Zippers column with regard to JRPGs, and it seems particularly pertinent when discussing Kira Kira.
There are a number of schools of thought on games (or, more specifically, interactive narratives, whatever form they might take) that have multiple endings. One approach is that you take your first playthrough as “gospel,” reach the end, deal with the consequences of the decisions you made and then move on to something else. This is perfectly valid if you’re happy with it, and indeed there are a number of interactive story authors who actively advocate playing in this way — the most high-profile example recently is probably when Quantic Dream’s David Cage specifically said that playing his interactive movie Heavy Rain more than once would “kill the magic of it”, because the player would no longer have to deal with possibly unwanted or unpleasant consequences of actions.
But another school of thought is that there’s a whole bunch of content there just waiting for you to see and enjoy, and actively denying yourself the potential enjoyment of exploring it is doing not only yourself a disservice, but the authors of the work, too. This is doubly so in works where you only get a full understanding of the characters involved from several playthroughs from different angles – School Days HQ, which I frequently bring up, is a great example, as is stuff like Aselia the Eternal, Katawa Shoujo and, yes, Kira Kira.
Today I’d like to talk a little about Kirari’s route. Massive spoilers are ahead, so stop reading now if you’re planning on playing Kira Kira for yourself and don’t want to ruin the surprises.
Kira Kira is structured in several chapters accordings to the decisions you make throughout the course of the story. The first chapter focuses on the efforts of the Second Literature Club to put together a band in time for the school festival; the second chapter sees the band, high on the success of their performance, take a grand tour of Japan; and from here, things branch off in one of several different directions. There are several “bad” endings that bring the story to a premature close before a lot of things are resolved, one “good” ending for each of the three heroines, one “bad” ending for one of the heroines and one “true” ending that can only be seen once you’ve seen all the “good” endings.
Kira Kira is relatively unusual among this style of visual novel in that the centerpiece of its narrative is not a romantic relationship between the protagonist and one of the three heroines — though once the story starts to branch, it becomes clear that both romance and sex are going to be involved. We talked about Chie-nee’s route last week, including how it depicted two friends who had known each other forever growing closer through shared experiences and hardships, eventually culminating in a satisfying relationship that was good for both of them. Chie-nee found someone that she could depend on rather than always having to be the “strong, mature one,” while protagonist Shikanosuke found a good influence in his childhood friend and successfully pushed his life in the right direction.
The thing with visual novels is that they can very easily (and very often do) subvert your expectations. Kirari’s route initially looks like it will be relatively similar to Chie-nee’s — she, too, has a difficult home life, though this time it’s because of her family’s poverty rather than the marital breakup of her parents, and Shikanosuke comes along at just the right time to act as a shoulder to cry on — but the overall story takes a very surprising turn in its third chapter. In Chie-nee’s case, the third chapter brought the story to its conclusion with the relationship between Shikanosuke and Chie-nee proceeding well and having a positive effect on both of them. In Kirari’s case, well… she dies. Horribly.
I was absolutely floored by this. Kirari had been a constant, bright and cheery presence through the entirety of the game’s first two chapters, and the game had rather deftly set her up as the “slightly annoying but cute genki girl” character — she’d always (well, one spectacular Heroic BSOD episode aside) been full of energy, full of life and, of all the Second Literature Club’s band members, the one most likely to succeed as a performer. Which, of course, was entirely deliberate; sure, it would be sad (and surprising) to see Shikanosuke, Chie-nee or Kashiwara pass away, but the emotional impact of Kirari’s injuries and subsequent death in a house fire is considerably amplified by the fact that things seemed to be going so well for her — it was looking like she might be able to escape the horrible life she’d been enduring with a constant smile on her face up until now; instead, her life was cruelly snatched away from her. Live fast, die young and all that.
What’s interesting about Kirari’s route is that it doesn’t end with Kirari’s death. Rather, a fourth chapter begins that takes place five years after the group’s graduation from high school. Shikanosuke is clearly traumatized by the death of the girl he loved, and throws himself into the difficult life of a struggling musician, never really quite managing to make ends meet. We see his health and mental state deteriorate as he regularly blacks out and hallucinates images of Kirari — at one point, the mental image of her even manages to temporarily convince him (and the reader, for that matter) that he had completely imagined her death and that he was the one who had suffered traumatic injuries. We quickly discover this to be false, though, and Shikanosuke slips deeper and deeper into a very dark place — we’re talking full-on utsuge territory here, in stark contrast to the rather light-hearted “slice of life” coming-of-age story that comprises the game’s first half. Eventually, after a traumatic episode leaves him hospitalized, he returns home to his family, and a sequence of surreal events unfolds where it’s not entirely clear what is real and what is taking place in Shikanosuke’s imagination. Eventually, it is the spirit/ghost/hallucination of Kirari that brings him back to his senses, allowing him to redouble his efforts with his bandmates — who, in a nice touch, include recurring character Murakami from earlier in the game as well as a girl who is seen in one scene early on and then promptly all but forgotten about in the other routes — and honor Kirari’s memory through music.
We leave Shikanosuke and his new band just as he’s beginning to perform the song he based on doodles and recordings Kirari made before she died. Shikanosuke steps out from his usual role as bass player in the shadows to sing the new song — using the now-burned and charred “skull microphone” that the Second Literature Club bought for Kirari’s birthday early in the game’s narrative. It’s a nice wrap-up to a tale which took a surprisingly tragic, unexpected and thought-provoking twist — and it’s very peculiar to think that those who only play through a single route of Kira Kira might miss this spectacularly emotional episode in a game which already rather effectively tugs at the heartstrings while simultaneously feeling pleasantly youthful and light-hearted.
In summary, then, by all means consider yourself “done” with a visual novel once you’ve played a single route to completion — but bear in mind you could be missing out on some of the most interesting narrative moments in one of the other paths! While personally speaking I think I liked Chie-nee as a character more than I enjoyed Kirari’s company, I was astounded and genuinely shocked by the very different direction Kirari’s narrative took, and extremely glad I investigated it. Now there’s just Kashiwara’s route and the “true” ending to see — and having been brought to tears by the tragedy of Kirari’s route, you better believe I’ll be checking both of them out thoroughly.
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.