Talk to Me, Pt. 1: The Western Visual Novel

Like 'em? Love 'em? Want to set 'em on fire? Let's talk about it.

Like 'em? Love 'em? Want to set 'em on fire? Let's talk about it.
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I think it’s fair to say that everyone with a passion for role-playing longs for a game where their choices and potential endings are immeasurable. I, like most, have fond memories of the day when I realized my choices could actually influence what happened in what I thought to be a static story. But how do you define the role decision-making has in video games? At what point does a story become a game?

DEAR ESTHER – PRETTY BOOK OR VIDEO GAME?

Most people would tell you that Dear Esther, a game released back in 2009 by developer thechineseroom, is hardly a game. In this Half-Life 2 mod, you take control of a poetical explorer. Your narrator (Voice? Body? Guide?) drafts letters to a woman named Esther while wandering a deserted, yet serenely green island. As you wander, you receive snippets about the narrator’s life. It’s all very ambiguous in nature, culminating in a strangely depressing, unsatisfying arrival at the precipice. 

The thing about Dear Esther, though, is that you’re always heading to one of a few subtly different endings. Your experience will change every time you play the game, as the island generates random geography for you to traverse. Your past and future are minutely different, but ultimately scripted.

At no point do you, the player, make a choice. Your interaction with the actual program does not manipulate the story. Everything is randomly generated. You only serve as propulsion, navigating the narrator through the environment. There’s no real interaction with anything tangible. 

So, does that make Dear Esther an actual game, or a film? You have to press play to watch a movie, so does it matter if you have to hold the button down while it runs? 

THE STANLEY PARABLE – CHOOSE YOUR OWN PSYCHOSIS 

The Stanley Parable (2011), like Dear Esther, is a mod created for Half-Life 2. Unlike Dear Esther, the outcome of The Stanley Parable relies completely on the choices you make. The game operates like a trust-exercise: you’re plopped into a literal labyrinth and your only guide is a disembodied narrator who probably has it in for you. 

Do you follow the narrator’s advice and head to certain doom, or try to escape the labyrinth? This question, along with what route you take and how fast you get there, changes your ending. 

The unsettling part of The Stanley Parable, however, is that your decisions are still propelling you to one of six fates. A large part of the story is the idea of being free, but at the expense of willingly subjecting yourself to puppetry. I don’t know about you, but I find that a pretty eerily self-aware allusion to video games as a whole. 

THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE

So at what point do you stop making decisions and start choosing satisfying endings? What separates visual novel from choose-your-own-adventure from actual game? Is it simply the need to provide physical stimulus to progress the action? Or is it the idea that a player must manipulate his environment to a degree that changes an outcome? Perhaps, even, the distinction comes from an inherent enjoyment of the story, and not interaction at all.

At the end of the day, you’re in it for the conclusion, right? You’ve invested time and energy into a game, and you expect to be justly rewarded. But what’s the most satisfying reward? Is it the ending that matters, or the experience? 

If the idea of choice in role-playing games is something that gets you going, here a few things I’d like to hear your opinions on:

  • Do you find it inconsistent to desire story-based games that give you infinite possibility while also enjoying games that give you one? 
  • Does your enjoyment of a game increase or decrease with the probability for variety in its story?
  • Adventures that don’t require decision making: interactive novel, or video game?

If you’d like to learn more about the concept of choice-making in video games (especially when it comes to morality), check out this great, in-depth study

Image credit: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/08/04/so-yes-the-stanley-parable/

About the author

HC Billings

HC Billings is an excellent gamer, acceptable writer, and laughable parkourist.