Energy & Play: A Look at Interactive Fiction & Visual Novels
Games can be stressful. But interactive fiction thinks about game design in a new light.
[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]
When you first start going to therapy, one thing they don’t tell you about mood disorders is how they seep into your everyday life, poisoning the things you love. They rob you of your energy to read books, listen to music, play games, try new things. You start to hate the stuff you love. Or, even worse, you pummel your self-image so hard, you look for relief from external, unhealthy places.
Around 2010, a nervous breakdown caused by an anxiety attack made me realize that I was forming a very dependent relationship on first-person shooters. Kill:Death ratios were becoming a sign of my self-worth. Wins and losses meant whether I was a capable or incapable person. In games like Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead, my teammates’ opinions of me drove my self-esteem. Those negative thought patterns didn’t go away over the years, as I brought them into MOBAs and other strategy games. I became more and more insulated, avoiding new games because I couldn’t get enough kills, or I only scored assists, or I simply wasn’t “good enough” to play games. I thought I was a bad player. I wouldn’t celebrate my successes when I did well, and I was pathologically driven to see myself as nothing but terrible at the games I loved.
One of my personal favorite games, XCOM, is one of the most anxiety-inducing gaming experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life. The series, which focuses on organizing and leading an alien resistance campaign through base-building and tactical combat maneuvers, demands one’s 100% attention on both a macro and micro level, because the game heavily punishes players who make so much as a simple mistake.
That kind of high-stakes, high-reward strategy gameplay is fun for a lot of people, and I can understand why. It is for me too. But it’s also extremely emotionally draining. Like, I don’t want to worry about whether I’m playing my campaign correctly or incorrectly. I just want to sit down and play some video games.
It’s not just XCOM. This happens with a lot of genres that fall into the enthusiast realm: first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, fighting games, MOBAs, just to name a few. Multiplayer games tend to be the worst. DOTA 2’s players tend to project blame onto others for losses, and I took quite a number of personal attacks as a support or a carry just because my teammates couldn’t communicate properly. I get it: there’s an expectation to play well online. But when games demand our full attention while we’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or life stresses, well… it’s hard to do that. Sometimes it’s simply impossible to focus. Or we take our in-game performance too seriously and burn ourselves out.
I wasn’t always a visual novel fan. Even though I was always a fan of books, I used to turn my head away from all things created in Japan. When that changed, I began to realize just how wonderful visual novels can be. There’s no meta game to figure out, there’s no points to score over other people, and there’s certainly no pressure to go at a fast pace to “prove” yourself to other people. As far as I’m aware of, there’s no such thing as Major League Visual Novel Reading (not yet, anyway). There’s just a story to read and enjoy.
Visual novels aren’t alone in this regard, either. As a whole, interactive fiction strays away from skill curves. A personal favorite of mine, Rachel Kaye Clarke’s Twine Smut!, succeeds really well in this regard. The story follows an unnamed woman getting “pounded in the ass by a hipster dude you met on tinder” at 5 AM in the morning. It’s a hot, uncomfortable little game, where sex is a raw animalistic desire that leaves the protagonist feeling deeply disturbed when it’s done. And while Smut! deals with some pretty dark themes, its narrative is easy to follow — the plot advances by clicking on hyperlinking text, driving the story from its start to its end. Certain keywords lead to side branches for the player to read, but choosing to look at these are purely optional anyway. The pace is as slow or fast as the player wants to go.
Most of Kaye Clarke’s games build off that same style: advance through the game via linking narrative branches, read side passages, reach the conclusion of the narrative, and, if you would like, play through the game again to see what you missed. I love her games for that reason. You don’t have to “git gud” to enjoy Smut! You don’t have to grind for advanced storytelling-based mechanics. There’s no one pressuring you to bring your best reading comprehension skills to the game every time you play. It’s all about enjoying and appreciating the story. It’s perfect for a player distracted by outside stress in their lives, because the game is primarily built around narrative design. Not in-game performance.
Granted, there’s problems that come into play with enjoying Twines. For one, it’s a genre that takes some getting used to. If you didn’t grow up with interactive fiction in the ’90s, then it’s definitely a strange little medium. Also, it can be hard to visualize characters and settings if you have a hard time focusing on the text. During my teenage years, I actually gave up reading for that very reason — my mental health was at such a bad state, I wouldn’t be able to get through a single sentence without my mind wandering. Sometimes I still have that problem with Kaye Clarke’s game, too. Not because of her writing, but because I can’t get my anxiety to shut down so I can focus.
Visual novels aren’t the perfect fix to that problem. But because the VN is such a visual experience, I think they provide some leniency by doing some of the work for the reader. A really good example is Aevee Bee’s We Know the Devil. Bee, who helped sponsor this essay as ZEAL’s EIC, worked together with illustrator Mia Schwartz to create a visual novel homage to the sort of teen horror movies and books that many 20-somethings grew up with in the ’90s. As Schwartz explained when chatting with merritt kopas on Woodland Secrets, the game’s queer themes naturally came into the story as the writing developed. So as a result, We Know the Devil doesn’t burden down the narrative by hyperfocusing on its queer or trans plot points. The game simply lets the story flow to where it needs to go. It’s a lovely work for that reason. Everything feels so surreal and mysterious, but the way the characters are portrayed is just so relatable. It’s easy to jump into, it’s a true to life experience for many of the game’s fans.
Bear in mind: more visuals aren’t always a good thing. One of the reasons why I stopped reading comics is because of the action scenes. Who’s getting beat up on the floor? Why did Batman just punch that person? How come that girl’s ass is disproportionately huge compared to the rest of her body? Too much movement can be confusing.
But I never had that problem with visual novels. And I think We Know the Devil captures why so clearly. The game features pictures from a forested American Pacific Northwest, the sort of area that middle-class families would send their not-so-pious kids to for a month away at Christian summer camp. Character art assets, supplied by Schwartz, are drawn in a cartoon style that is both minimalistic and lively. Just one glance at Venus or Neptune tells you everything you need to know about their body language and mannerisms. And combined with the fact that the story is driven through dialogue, it’s easy to keep up. It’s easy to visualize moments and sequences in your head. It’s easy to get through the story, even if your depression or anxiety is weighing you down, because everything is there for you. It takes so much less energy to do than, say, trying to put together an image of a character from scratch while reading a story. Or leading a shadow government against an alien invasion
The more I think about it, the more this problem reminds me of an essay from Kate R that was published here back in March. The piece explores the Souls genre through cheating, addressing why the games community tends to look down their noses at trainers, cheat codes, and all other forms of gameplay hacks in singleplayer games.
“Games are so often dismissive or unaccommodating, and the culture that has formed around it equally so — it prides itself on games that encourage huge time commitments, are prohibitively difficult, or pile on a ridiculous number of things to attend to,” she writes. “It’s a culture that’s fueled by a desire to feel accomplished, by winning out against a stacked deck. In essence: many games pride themselves on their inaccessibility!”
See, that’s where visual novels and Twines are different. Those games don’t pride themselves on inaccessibility. They pride themselves on their narrative design. They thrive on the idea that a story should be approachable for a player, even if its themes are complex. They come with save, load, auto, and skip features that encourage the player to play through the story at any pace they want. Unlike the traditional arcade game’s design, which forces the player to confront and solve a problem through rules that primarily end in the player spending more money, interactive fiction is built on experiencing and interacting with a story for the sake of enjoying the story. For that reason, the conflict isn’t always in the player’s hands. Many times, we’re just the viewer, allowing the problem to play out through the main character’s behavior and only coming in at decisive moments to add some input. It’s a totally different experience than, say, playing as XCOM’s Commander and watching the world burn as all of your choices end in failure.
Of course, that’s not to say that visual novels are entirely free of the same problems that come with traditional fiction. And there’s always the issue of reading comprehension, genre accessibility, and whether you’re the intended demographic for a story. If you’re unfamiliar with the culture (or subculture) a game is founded in, its story is not going to make sense. Just as if you struggle with focusing for long periods of time, a visual novel is not going to solve that problem.
But that brings us back to Kate R’s article and what she calls the desire for an “ideal game.” You see, the enthusiast gaming community traditionally looks for the “ideal game” in releases. It’s a romanticized version of thinking about game design that “sees the game in question as complex and intentional, with all of its systems exactly where they should be, without anything extraneous or broken.” In actuality, games are driven by “personal, individual factors [that] affect a person’s capability to enjoy a game.” I think this applies to genres, too. It’s not about whether a medium is objectively superior thanks to its design systems. It’s whether you, as a player, can enjoy a given game.
R says there’s never going to be a 100% accessible game. I think that’s the case for interactive fiction, too. Humans are flawed creatures that create flawed things, and our art is no exception. But the way that visual novels, Twines, and other narrative-driven formats approach game design, they deprioritize grinding for experience and reprioritize the subjective experience of enjoying and playing a video game. The game doesn’t judge you for your skill level. It simply asks you to follow along with the story.
For those of us with a lot on our plate, visual novels and Twines are important. Instead of focusing too much on game mechanics and level rank, these genres ask us to think about the themes, characters, and stories that each work deals with. That’s why Rachel Kaye Clarke’s Twines and Aevee Bee’s visual novel have proven so popular. Their stories aren’t about executing the correct moves at the right time, they’re about experiencing, feeling, and sharing in someone else’s problems. Compared to an objective search for the “ideal” form of play, that’s quite a relaxing way to think about video games.