Friday, December 16, 2016

I Heard You Like Visual Novels

One of these days I'll get over Life Is Strange.

As it stands, though, it's felt more like something I need to work through rather than move on from. Usually, after I finish a video game or novel or movie, I'm left with a burst of thoughts and questions and reactions. That's a major function that this blog serves: to capture and help me process that response in the moment while it's fresh. As time goes on, my emotional and (ugh) intellectual ardor gradually fades. I'm left with a handful of major impressions, and head off to consume my next piece of entertainment.

Life Is Strange, though, is one of a handful of things that has actually grown more significant after I finished it. In the immediate aftermath of the final episode, I was primarily obsessed with the technical details of the plot and metaphysics: figuring out who did what, who was lying, how various powers worked, reconstructing the timeline(s), and so on. I've gotten to a point where I'm more or less satisfied with all that: finding an answer that satisfies me, or concluding that there is no definitive answer, and choosing to either leave it ambiguous or adopt a particular headcanon that appeals to me. With that out of the way, though, I find myself left with... feelings, and reflecting over the characters themselves: the situations they were in, their relationships with one another, what it meant for them, whether it means anything for me.

And, well, that isn't a problem that can be solved. I can see why so many people are still drawing fan-art and such more than a year after finishing the game. While the game itself comes to a definitive end, the characters are so fully-realized that we keep on thinking about them.

As noted before, I've slipped into a mode of "MOAR CONTENT!", devouring even tangentially-related Life Is Strange material. One item that has been on my radar for several weeks is "Love Is Strange." This is a free, fan-made game which has become very popular within the LiS community.

I was hesitant to check it out. I thought that it would suffer in comparison to the professional game it's based off of, and was worried that it might somehow diminish my appreciation for the source material. Fan-created games don't have a great track record... even finishing something at all is a minor miracle, and making something people will be happy with is an even greater challenge. Still, I noticed that a lot of my favorite artists and bloggers frequently referenced it, which encouraged me to take the plunge to download and play it.

I'm really glad that I did! While it explicitly pulls from Life is Strange, it very much feels like its own beautiful thing, and not some pale imitation. For starters, it's set in an alternate timeline (or AU as the kids are saying these days): the same characters exist and have the same personalities (very well captured and represented by the authors), but the events in Life is Strange never took place. Love is Strange takes place one year later, without any super-powers or crimes or drama. It's an appealing but very low-key storyline, essentially a dating simulator, that's almost entirely focused on Max's relationship with her classmates.

The game itself belongs to the genre called "visual novel", dialogue-heavy games with static images. I haven't played many of these before; the only ones I can think of off hand are Christine Love's fantastic Analogue/Hate games. As people who are better-informed than me have pointed out, Love has created games that are really clever subversions of and commentaries on the visual novel format; but since visual novels are primarily popular in Japan, and her games mainly reach a North American audience, a lot of what they're doing is lost on us. Anyways - I really liked the Love games, and that background helped me feel at home when playing Love Is Strange.

MINI SPOILERS (for both Love Is Strange and Life Is Strange)

They did a really good job of capturing the voices of the different characters; I could totally hear Ashley Burch's voice in my head while reading Chloe's lines, or Hannah Telle's interior monologue when reading Max's thoughts. The characters all make sense based on what we saw during the game; at the same time, they weave in new details and plot threads that keep things engaging and interesting.

I think that, in a lot of cases, they wanted to evoke emotional reactions that paralleled what we experienced in Life is Strange. So, for example, Kate is facing new bullying. It's far less vicious than what she went through earlier, and both the cause and solution are original, but it feels kind of like an echo to her dramatic story in Episode Two. It's deeply cathartic to help her work through her problems, offering her support but letting her stand on her own and find her strength. Likewise, Chloe's plot can feel like a metaphor for both the ending of Episode Four and the Bay ending of the game. Depending on the decisions you made in the earlier game, you might be able to revisit a particular feeling, or perhaps explore a path you'd previously left untrod.

There are a total of four "routes" in this game: Chloe (duh), Kate (awww!), Victoria (!), and Rachel (!!). Unlike some other VNs, you don't bounce between characters during the game: instead, you pick one near the start, and then just focus on them for the duration of the game. That really helps replayability, since 90%+ of the content is new for each route (including multiple new locations and unique journal entries).

The dialogue mostly runs on rails, but there are... I dunno, maybe a half-dozen or so branching choices during each route. These can have some fairly significant impact, both on the direction of the story (where you go, what activities you perform) and your relationship. So far I've just played the Kate and Chloe routes, and I was happy to discover that I had achieved the "true" ending for both of them. It wasn't exactly trivial - I had to think carefully through a couple of choices to decide the best thing to say - but, again, they've done such a good job at faithfully representing the existing characters that we can draw on our knowledge of Life Is Strange, in addition to the text within Love Is Strange, to grok the other person's values and needs.

END SPOILERS (for Love/Life Is Strange)

Ultimately, I think Love Is Strange is kind of a hangout game. Much like a long-running TV show in which we've come to enjoy spending time with characters, it's fun to simply relax with them for a bit, without huge earth-shaking consequences hanging over our heads. It feels like a long, protracted release of breath after the intensity of Life Is Strange. I found myself thinking of the Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC, which similarly gave the gift of more time with people we'd grown to love.

Of course, Citadel had the benefits of an entire AAA studio behind it, plus all of the original writers reprising their roles. Love Is Strange's origin story sounds miraculous: a bunch of fans on tumblr discovered that they shared a love of the same game, and passed around text and graphics and game code until they created this. That's incredibly cool! Oh, and something I haven't mentioned before: the music is great. It doesn't use "real" licensed tracks like Life Is Strange, but its background instrumental music fits the mood really well, and a couple of tracks in particular are quite emotionally stirring.

I've followed quite a few fan-game efforts over the years, and while there have been some amazing successes (Fall from Heaven 2, Counterstrike), they are vastly outnumbered by ambitious projects that have petered out. It's a big testament to the team for accomplishing this, and by proxy a testament to Dontnod for creating a game that inspires such enduring devotion in its fans.

While I was exploring the exciting new world of visual novels, I decided to pick up another entry that has popped up in my Steam Discovery Queue a couple of times. Highway Blossoms, a "kinetic novel" from Alienworks. I'd deliberately avoided researching it, and was initially disappointed when I realized that, unlike the other visual novels I've played, this one doesn't have any choices. No branching dialogue choices or gameplay sections or anything: just clicking through to advance the story.

After a very short time, though, I forgot my disappointment and got fully wrapped up in the story. The pacing is excellent, the dialogue punchy, and plot revelations are carefully tuned to flow at a pace that keeps things intriguing without seeming rushed.  It also has a higher level of visual polish than Love is Strange; where LiS has a semi-impressionistic style loosely inspired by the Life Is Strange aesthetic, Highway Blossoms has a gorgeously vibrant aesthetic with sharply-designed characters and vivid backgrounds. While it looks similar to many other VNs, there is more movement on the screen. Characters will occasionally move around, backgrounds will slowly pan or zoom, clouds may float overhead. There are also some really pretty, very subtle lighting effects: seated around a campfire, characters will be lit by pulsing embers as the logs crackle and pop.

MINI SPOILERS (for Highway Blossoms)

Since Highway Blossoms doesn't have any choices, it of course only has one "route", that of Amber and Marina. Fortunately, it's a great one! They're terrific characters, as vividly drawn narratively as they are visually. Amber is the main narrating character. She's very independent, fairly private, deeply skeptical of the world around her, resourceful and nostalgic. Marina is opposite and complementary: bouncy, joyous, naive, trusting.

Those two characters utterly dominate the narrative and screen; when Marina steps away for a moment, it's unusual enough for Amber to comment on. However, they aren't the only characters; unlike other VNs, where almost everyone you see is romance-able, here there's a varied supporting cast that provides assistance and obstacles to the main relationship. These are more stereotypical characters, but engaging and fun.

Even more than the supporting characters, though, I think the environment does a great job at  setting the mood and driving the story. The southwestern setting is fully realized, in the gorgeous backgrounds and evocative writing and lonely atmosphere. This is one part of the country that I've never really explored, and playing this game has pushed it high up on my list of future vacation destinations: the stark raw beauty and often alien surroundings makes the story... somehow both more epic and quieter, if that makes sense. There's a sense of timelessness and insignificance when you contrast the brief lives of these humans with the ancient rocks that will outlast them. At the same time, though, the absence of life on the barren rocks makes the vibrancy of human connection even more beautiful and precious.

The pacing of the main romance is fantastic. Amber's attraction to Marina is obvious from the very start, and it seems likely to be reciprocated. But Amber's natural reticence, skepticism, and recent emotional baggage keeps her at an emotional distance from Marina. It takes a long time of shared struggle and experiences to bring them together, and they don't fully connect until about five hours into the story. Among other things, this makes their love feel incredibly earned, more of a natural evolution of their characters than something presented for our enjoyment.

The romance itself also does a great job with consent. I've played a fair number of games with romances (typically RPGs), and am used to the PC and NPC deciding that they want to get together and then doing it. Highway Blossoms has made me reconsider how to present and portray consent... in the past I've thought that it would seem like a minor roadblock to overcome or a point of affirmation, but here it's... well, it's really tender and sweet, a genuine discussion that's integrated into their relationship rather than a barrier that guards the perimeter. It's also subtle, without a great deal of attention drawn to it, but that makes it all the more endearing: two people checking in on each other and making sure they're still on board as things develop.

END SPOILERS (for Highway Blossoms)

In the end, I was more than satisfied with my purchase of Highway Blossoms. Per Steam, it lasted a bit over six hours, and delivered a non-stop stream of high-quality storytelling (aided and abetted by terrific art and music).

That did kind of get me wondering, though… can you really call it a game? The only real user interaction is clicking to advance the story, which is more or less identical to, say, turning the page in a book. At the same time, though, it uses the media that we associate with games: it’s played within the Steam interface, mouse and keyboard in hand, looking at the monitor, absorbing the graphics and text and music and sound effects describing “our” character’s journey. It’s game-like, even if it isn’t a game.

And that raises a kind of existential question: what DOES make something a game? If Highway Blossoms had contained a single branching dialogue choice, would that have magically transformed it into a game? What if it contained a single dialogue choice that didn’t impact the rest of the story at all?

I don’t have an answer yet. I know it was good, and can worry later about whether it’s a game.

Highway Blossoms also made me think more about narration styles. I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of video games as fiction that’s told in the second person, but HB reminds me that this definitely isn’t required. It’s a fully-fledged first-person-narrated game, with Amber telling the story and revealing her inner thoughts.

I’m still thinking through the implications of this. One fairly obvious one is that a first-person narration puts more emphasis on the character, while a second-person narration focuses on the player. There isn’t a whole lot of room for the player to color their perceptions of Amber. They might have different REACTIONS to her, admiring or disliking or pitying various aspects of her personality and story, but I think every player will more or less agree on who she is and what she’s like. In contrast, a western-style RPG will typically give the player immense leeway to define their perception of the character, assigning them different quirks and traits.

To be a little less vague: A first-person narration could include a line like "I feel sad." But a second-person narration would almost never say "You feel sad". It might create a scenario in which tragic things occur, and might give the player the option to select an option that says "I feel sad". There's a deep-seated assumption that developers shouldn't assign or assume emotional responses to the player, but of course it's totally valid to assign those responses to the character.

And, of course, all of this makes me think of Life Is Strange (I may never stop). This is technically also a first-person game: Max is giving her own thoughts on things, providing her own descriptive text and objectives and such. But, with the player’s control over the character, there’s much more opportunity to shape your idea of the character. Many things stay constant: she’s always somewhat withdrawn, empathetic, observant, tenacious. Depending on how you play her, though, she may have different levels of attraction to different people, be relatively braver or more cautious, pragmatic or idealistic. It ends up feeling like a collaboration between the developers and the players, coming to a consensus on who this person is. That’s probably also true, to a lesser extent, in Love Is Strange: there are fewer parameters to play with, but we’re still more or less shaping our vision of Max and hoping that this version will find happiness. In contrast, Highway Blossoms’ protagonist is more or less presented as a fait accompli, and in Christine Love’s games, the protagonist is almost entirely defined by the player (or perhaps even one and the same).

So… I guess my very weak conclusion is that both the narrative voice and the player input can contribute to the player’s perception of the protagonist. I’ve adopted a particular gospel about “good” game writing, using a certain set of tools to accomplish a type of result, but this excursion into the foreign land of visual novels reminds me that there’s no one right answer. Depending on the goals of the developer, they might choose to use different tools in order to shape the player’s experience and create the kind of game they want to make.

Some other random thoughts:

Every single visual novel game I’ve played has used the Ren’Py engine. It’s kind of nice having a consistent interface and set of controls to learn. Once I learned that clicking the middle mouse button would hide the UI in one game, I could immediately start using it in the other. It was also interesting to discover the journal, which is a lot more significant in Love Is Strange but is still present in Highway Blossoms. I doubt that I’ll ever build something with Ren’Py, but I am kind of curious how modifiable it is; each game includes a programming credit, so there’s probably at least some scripting involved beyond the text and images. The most complex game remains Analogue: A Hate Story, with a surprisingly dramatic command-line terminal; nothing in Love Is Strange or Highway Blossoms reaches that level, but each of them does include their own innovations, like the achievements in LIS or the wonderfully dynamic lighting in HB.

I’m not sure how common this is in the genre, but the visual novels I’ve played have all been fairly long. Highway Blossoms clocks in at around six hours; Hate Plus requests that you play it over three real-world days. One practical effect of this is that we spend a lot more time getting to know the characters and absorbing them; in this respect, the experience is a lot more like a TV show than a movie. There tend to be multiple arcs, both shorter ones that drive individual segments as well as a bigger over-arching one that spans the length of the game. It’s… nice. AAA games often reach for a more cinematic aesthetic, but these days I’m more drawn to serialized television shows, and this approach rewards you with a more relaxed, thoughtful, sometimes deeper game.

Finally, because I can’t stop thinking about Life Is Strange, here are a handful of half-baked musings that don’t merit their own post and so will piggy-back on this one:

MEGA SPOILERS (for Life Is Strange, somehow, still):

I’ve been thinking about names a lot lately. I don’t think that every name in the game is significant, but a few do pop out. One big example: Chloe PRICE. It’s really evocative of the final choice you have to make, the sacrifice, the price to pay. Either she IS the price, what you might give up in order to save the town; or she HAS a price, the sacrifice to make in order to be with her.

Also, the title “Life Is Strange” itself grows in meaning the more I think about it. I’d initially interpreted this as “Gee, lots of weird stuff keeps happening!” By the end of episode five, though, I’d come to think of it as meaning, “Chloe’s continued existence is unnatural”. We give her the gift of life in the first episode, but that knocks the universe out of alignment; the longer she continues to live, the greater the chaos grows. I don’t really LIKE this interpretation, since it’s an argument for Bay > Bae, but it’s a compelling one.

END SPOILERS (for Life Is Strange)

Oh, yeah: albums! Here's Love Is Strange, here's Highway Blossoms. Both contain minor spoilers in the images and major story in the text and captions.

Yup! I’m feeling a lot better about visual novels now than I did after watching Welcome To The NHK. I doubt that they’ll replace RPGs as my genre of choice, but it’s been fun to see the different approaches they have to storytelling and become more acquainted with the conventions of the form. There are a couple of intriguing elements in these visual novels that I think could be adapted well to other games, and it always feels good to add another element or two to my creative toolbox.

On a more personal level, I’ve really appreciated the relatively calm and reflective mood of these games. Sometimes you want to make difficult decisions and save the world, but often you want to spend time with the people you love, and these games are great at offering the latter.

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