READ.ME: Guiding the Guideless

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I confess:

He did it!

objection

But in all seriousness, I am guilty as charged. And why not? There are surely good reasons to do so, just as many as there are not to use one. Looking at the merits of both sides, I don’t see a problem with either decision.

Using a walkthrough can be a good thing!
Not using a walkthrough can be a good thing!

Walkthroughs have a place in some visual novels. And the type of guide matters; sometimes it can be enough just to know how many endings there are – maybe the game itself provides this information. Sometimes a little more detail is required, if a novel has a particularly convoluted branching structure.

Walkthroughs don’t have a place in some visual novels. The type of novel matters; sometimes, the enjoyment of the novel depends on the surprise and mystery of where the story is headed that a guide can ruin. Sometimes a guide simply isn’t needed as a game isn’t complicated enough to merit one. And sometimes, a game would be quite simply spoiled by a guide, where the whole purpose of the novel is to meander and wander through the story.

There are a number of reasons to mention something so mundane at this point in the game. As experienced visual novel players know, sometimes there really is no excuse to be using a guide for a novel. Novels that have these simple paths aren’t really concerned with the choices and secrets a guide reveals, after all; rather, they are more concerned with a story. Books don’t come with guides, after all. (Shut it, SparkNotes.) And for examples like the game from which the above shot was taken, using a walkthrough seriously detracts from the possibility of enjoying a path through the game that a “perfect playthrough” would not reveal. The same can be said for a certain medical drama game Lifesigns where, even if you use a walkthrough, it doesn’t really matter.

Honestly, look at games like Kirakira! where there are no more than 3 choices that matter. And for those choices, I promise: if you keep your eyes on the goal, you won’t mess up. No problem! The game couldn’t possibly need a guide.

Most events are "inevitable." Like this one!

Most events are “inevitable.” Like this one!

Unless, if you recall from an earlier READ.ME article about the game, there is a certain meritability to playing through a game multiple times. And during one of those playthroughs, perhaps if a certain combination of requirements are met, a certain true end could be unlocked.

This poses somewhat of a problem. It’s already been extensively discussed why re-playthroughs and single-playthroughs have their own merits and flaws. One of those considerations would be this: thinking KiraKira! is over and one character’s route can only end in tragedy, you pack up the game as a good experience and go home. This would deny the player the joys of a considerable chunk of content left in the game. A guide may have helped by pointing out that there are not 3 endings plus a bad, as the number of characters might suggest, but an additional “true” ending for one of the characters.

Yes, multiple playthroughs of visual novels is kind of a must. Yes, this might seem a little ridiculous to point out. Yet in the end walkthroughs can be pretty important to unlocking a game’s full potential. I might be whining, and I definitely don’t put as much energy into playing a visual novel as I should. But I’m not the guy who is sketching out flowcharts that mark choice branches and flag opportunities – and some games are pretty unforgiving on these features. A guide helps, especially when a player wants to read the whole story. Nothing sucks more than knowing there is a “true” end or a “happy” end (or a particularly vicious bad end that’s so horrible you HAVE to see it) and not being able to unlock it due to some little thing the reader missed.

And of course the flip side is equally attractive for the right game. Playing through School Days is one of the greatest experiences to watch the repercussions of careless choices play out, the meter between the two main heroines providing no small amount of that fun. Plus, the game includes a bloody flowchart (not literally, but that would be fitting) to track your progress in reaching the various endings.

Who would miss out on seeing the epic conclusion to this little situation?

Who would miss out on seeing the epic conclusion to this little situation?

School Days is a bad example of this next one, but oftentimes visual novels adopt a less linear approach. Open-ended visual novels do exist; sadly, the best examples haven’t officially made it to the English-speaking world. One particular example could be the recent release of the fandisc Tick Tack!, a sequel of sorts to Shuffle! if a certain ending is assumed. Taking place over 12 days, the reader essentially dictates an outcome to the came as a result of his or her choices in a very open-ended format. While there are specific endings to achieve, once the story is read the game’s enjoyment comes not from unlocking different story paths but from interacting with the characters via the many possible permutations of the days’ events.

Attaching a value judgment to either option isn’t the intention of this by any stretch of the imagination. It bears consideration, however, to how a visual novel is best to be enjoyed. I’m sure there are those of the opinion that a guide should never be used, or that a guide should ALWAYS be used. Heck, sometimes a guide isn’t really available. One of those unofficial titles that has stayed in Japan, Kagetsu Touya, actually warns players not to use a walkthrough as it will detract from the enjoyment of the game’s open-ended nature. Regardless of the player’s choice, perhaps it’s their enjoyment of the game that matters most. Tell your story in the comments below!

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