Those were some nice pointers on writing and handling the process, i particularly enjoyed the part on descriptions and blocking. Thanks for sharing this with us
Minotaur Hotel's Writing Manual II — Descriptions, Tension, Mechanics, Blocking, Scope and Length
Today we continue with the writing manual (you can find the first part here). We'll see a few more techniques, this time going into more of the specifics of visual novels (as opposed to general writing advice.
Before we start I'd like to thank Roddorod, writer for Nerus, and GeorgeSquares, writer for The Smoke Room, who were so kind as to contribute with lessons of their own. Going forward I'll try to incorporate more sections from other developers — my perspective is evidently restricted, I think we can all benefit from seeing how others do it.
Without further ado, let's start.
Vivid descriptions, by Roddorod and MinoAnon
Here's how I write descriptions. I start with the scene's mood — just what emotion do I want to convey here? What fits this moment, this character?
Now that I have that I begin with the writing itself. I find it that describing what's going in multiple senses makes for vivid scenes. That's sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste at its most basic, but you can throw in additional ones like temperature, dampness/dryness, balance, so on. For best effect weave the senses with the emotion you want to convey or with what's in your character's mind. Better yet if you use a language that's compatible with the character's way of speaking.
Adjectives are tricky here. Saying "Bob is afraid" is poorer than "a shiver ran down Bob's spine. Cold sweat dripped down his back and his face went pale. His hand, holding that twisted knife, shook like a twig under a thunderstorm."
When you must inform the reader of something through an adjective, ask yourself how important that thing is, or how much its description can improve the atmosphere. It might be worthwhile to break that adjective into a sequence of descriptions like I showed. But don't overdo it. Brevity is important.
Vivid description can also help make your writing more economic. A few well-chosen verbs and nouns can convey as much information as a paragraph of exposition without bringing the narrative to a halt. For instance, let's imagine there's a place called Bobbytown, which used to be the home of an agrarian community before some unspeakable event happened. You don't need to explain this and the town's history from the get-go. You can mention the abandoned fields, the rotten wood, and maybe the place of a violent incident: trails of dried blood, bullet holes on the walls, broken windows, etc.
Something very useful is that if these details are all the reader needs to know of Bobbytown, then you shouldn't need exposition at all. But if there's something important you may choose to expand on it either through new details or exposition when it's going to become relevant. It's a good way to plant foreshadowing.
The same applies to characters. The way you frame your characters and their actions through description can influence the way the reader perceives them. Maybe Daniel had anger issues as the start of the story, and this reflected on the prose through the usage of stronger, aggressive verbs and nouns. But as he progresses through his character arc and mellows out, these get replaced by more neutral words. The reader doesn't need to be directly told Daniel changed, you can convey it through deliberate wording.
But some exposition is still necessary, of course. There should be a balance where the reader has enough information to understand what's happening and there are enough blanks for them to draw their own conclusions. This helps keep prose engaging and interesting, while also being economical and effective if the blanks are in the right places.
I won't go much deeper about this here, because for this topic the best would be if you just read "How Fiction Works" by James Wood. It's worth your time.
Pacing, Tension and Flow: Breathing Room, Tension, Climax and Pay-off
Why do some scenes in movies and books keep us at the edge of our seats? Why can some writers go on and on about perfectly mundane things and make them sound like the most interesting ever?
This largely relates to building up tension and, to a lesser extent, the overall curve of events in a story. In this section we are going to talk a bit about that, but first let's take a look at an example from our game.
At the beginning of Minotaur Hotel the player explores the hotel. The place itself is in ruins despite its wealthy foundation. The player character finds evidence of an old confrontation, then goes off to explore. There's a field of flowers outside with a statue of a man and a dog, the wind is softly blowing. Then he retires to the bar, where the following is told.
"You can still notice the whistling coming from outside, you take a seat at the bar. This newfound darkness is smooth, soft as velvet. It's like being in a candlelit lounge." "Behind the counter, the bottles of fine spirits are still half-filled. They glimmer in exquisite browns, reds, and blues." "You close your eyes, and imagine how this place was decades ago." "The whistling shifts again. It turns into the hum of human life, footsteps and breathing. Chairs being dragged, cutlery and plates clinking. Laughter, whispers, people greeting each other from across different tables." "People dressed so nicely. A barman in front of you, serving the finest drinks you can imagine. He knows your name and how you like it. Whether you are tired or brimming with life, he lends you an attentive ear." "You open your eyes. You are back in the abandoned hotel, majestic and destroyed."
This whole exchange and everything leading up to it is what I call "breathing room." It's a brief interlude in the story, its purpose is first and foremost to lull the reader into the emotional state I want of him. In this case I want the reader to relax, dip his foot into this setting's calm atmosphere, immerse himself into it, then sink.
The magic of breathing room is that taking the reader into this reflexive state gives you the opportunity to instill ideas without relying on dialogue. Looking at the objects laid out, the characters and what they are doing, brings up implications. In this case think of beauty, ruined by time and carelessness, and the logical implication that follows — it is your role to restore this place to an old glory. The scene itself conveys what the story is about.
On another level, this is priming the reader to what's to come. I want to imprint this same sensation — something majestic and ruined that needs to be restored — into another element.
And when it comes to the pacing in particular, we are about to dive into an unsettling darkness. I want to transition from one to the other somewhat subtly, naturally, I want to drum up tension. These are the next lines.
"One can understand why the old man wished to pass it on to someone who would care for it. You tap your jacket's breast pocket, making sure the crumpled parchment is still there." "Even the yellowed, stained paper exudes warmth now." "You stand up and walk out. As you do so, you notice a large *purple stain* on the floor behind the counter, and the *glass shards* of what used to be a wine bottle." "You proceed further into the hotel. *There's a lot to see still.*" "All the way down the hallway a set of sliding glass doors beckon you. But from afar the difference is clear. The *wallpaper is ripped, and one of the doors is cracked*."
Tapping your breast pocket, feeling an old crinkled piece of parchment exuding warmth. That should be a comforting thought, but then look at the following lines.
I highlighted a few words with asterisks (*). Each one of them is a break from normalcy, a sharp-edged stone hinting at the approaching darkness. A large purple stain on the floor hinting at bloodshed (even if it's wine, the hint is there). Glass shards, perhaps the result of a struggle. "There's a lot to see still," which some may consider ominous. And ripped wallpaper, a cracked door. Each of those shifts the mood of the scene closer to darkness.
play music "music/white_stone.mp3" fadeout 4.0 fadein 4.0 "You step on something hard. A revolver bullet." "You push the door to the side and are greeted by an even more chaotic sight. It's the hotel's restaurant. The tables are overturned, and both chairs and plates lay broken on the floor."
The player character steps on a revolver bullet and that alone should clue you on what happened here. The music changing reinforces it.
While I generally disapprove of using Campbell's Monomyth structure, I find his concept of "thresholds" very useful. These lines (mainly the "bullet" one) are the crossing of an atmospheric threshold, it's when the player character is forced to witness and relive an old tragedy.
Now that the barrier has been crossed we can build tension more overtly.
"It leads you past the pantry and to the *massive iron door of a cold room*, which is locked from outside and boarded up." "All around the kitchen things are *strewn about.* There's even a pan on the stove with what must be *fossilized food,* and the sink is filled with dirty dishes." "On a nearby counter is a *revolver covered in thick dust*, and you think back to the bullet in the hallway and the stain on the restaurant floor." "The old man wasn't kidding when he said he wasn't a good person." "You check your phone. Perhaps you'll need to call the police, or a morgue. But there's no signal out here." "You breathe in, preparing yourself for a terrible sight. The *rusted door fights against your will, but stands no chance.*" "Darkness pours out."
The asterisks here, again, highlight ominous, oppressive, chaotic elements. The final line is purposeful — in truth it would be light pouring in, but this word choice implies otherwise. There is a darkness sealed here and you are about to unleash it, whatever it may be.
"The stench strikes first. It's the stagnant smell of blood and rot. It clings to your nose and mouth like a bitter oil." "Before your eyes can adjust to the darkness a second wave of stench hits. It's like a farm, too -- the scent of dusty fur, maybe even hay, but cooped up in a hot, humid room for decades." "And, last but not least, stale shit and piss. This place has it all, the stench of a thousand different deaths." "The light pouring into the cold room shines on the floor in front of the doorway. Empty cans of soup and glasses of jam are strewn about over the trail of old blood." "Whoever was locked in here didn't die quickly."
And here we arrive at a point so dark it becomes scatological. Knowing what happened to Asterion (he was locked here for decades) I have to offer the reader the necessary information for that to be extracted. "Shit and piss" convey the message.
But scatology is disgraceful. Now that the information was offered, let's defuse the tension just a bit into a less repulsive tone.
"The cold room extends into absolute darkness, a hallway in and of itself. You proceed, scraping your shoes on the floor so you don't trip over the refuse." "The entire floor is covered with discarded glasses and cans. Whatever scraps were left in them has long rotted, dried and crumbled into dust." "Both your footsteps and breathing echo. The overbearing humidity drapes across your back, and your breathing becomes agitated. The stench is stronger." "Your sight finally adapts to the dark. At what must be the cold room's far wall, you notice the faintest glimmer."
We continue onwards into darkness, but at the end there is a glimmer. Just what thing, what person, could maintain a literal glimmer of light while locked away here, in these horrifying conditions, for so long?
"Whatever it is, it's slouched on the floor, motionless. As if it died where it stood after who knows how long locked here." "A shy blue glimmer, however, flickers where its left eye ought to be."
The scene speaks for itself. Darkness pouring out of the cold room implies there is an evil sealed here. Indeed there is dirt and disease there, but when one looks more closely there is a shred of light flickering still. But the creature is dead, "as if it died where it stood." The old man's words echo here — he did horrible things he regrets, did he not? Didn't we find signs of struggle and violence, too? A gun, even.
All of this builds up to frame Asterion as a victim of Clément's violence, but it also concludes the imprinting process. From the moment the player arrives at the hotel until now he is bombarded with symbolisms pointing towards old beauty, ruined by time, that must be restored. Then as soon as that is reinforced enough times we swerve paragraph by paragraph into the darkness, directly towards Asterion. This tells what the story is about and everything that will come next.
But our lesson on pacing is not yet done. Now that we hit rock bottom we must linger here for a while. What follows next is a somewhat long scene where Asterion reawakens and explains some events of the past, how the hotel works, so on. We could have done it outside the cold room but that would take the reader too soon out of the darkness. This reinforces Asterion's suffering without us having to tug at the reader's heartstrings.
Mind you, this here is an example of that "salted caramel" writing principle. I wanted to avoid unearned drama and pain (it's too early in the story for extended, tearful paragraphs about pain!) so we needed to throw some mixed emotions here. This is why it's absolutely vital that Asterion still shows some pride — dignified pride — here. He doesn't plead for the player's heart either.
No, if we want to engage the reader rightfully then we must play by gentlemanly rules. Melodrama is an insult to the reader's intelligence and emotions. So we have to be quick-footed, resourceful.
Everything that comes up next is a slow build-up of Asterion's character — there is a hidden beauty, ruined by tragedy, but even in his lowest point he tries to hold on to a measure of grace and dignity. Every choice the player is given revolves around this central point. And it keeps building up, up, and up...
Until the player returns from old storage with a bottle of wine, and finds Asterion sobbing.
"The previous Master's carvings stare at you, wide-eyed and beckoning you further into the Quarters. The smell of old dust seems so small compared to how sweetly the room welcomes you." "If a place could ever be alive, and if it could ever be naked, this is it. The Hotel itself embraces you, its intimacy laid bare." "Nothing moves and Asterion is nowhere to be seen. Silence reigns, save for a faint hum of life. You leave the wine bottle on the Living Room table." "You delve deeper into your quarters, and the hum grows louder and sharper. It's like breathing, ragged and pained. The dust visible under the sunlight shudders." "The sound is coming from the Office." "Asterion's standing over the desk, his back to you, sobbing." "Your footsteps are not enough to make him aware of your presence. The minotaur sobs again and again, each one coming from deeper inside of him." "They begin meek, hardly more than a snort. But he lays his hands on the desk and curls forward. His vertebrae jut sharply from his deathly thin skin, made more obvious by how he hunches over." "He spits out a sob from the depths of his lungs. The dam bursts, he breaks into wave after wave of grunts and half-muffled screams." "He presses his face against the desk and claws at it, leaving his marks in the pristine wood until he falls to the ground, curled up like a child." "He sees you then with his tear-drenched eye and ignores your presence. Master or not, you are too small." "He curls further into himself, mouth covered by his hands as he lets out another muffled yell. The minotaur's voice breaks midway through and he goes silent, even if his mouth is still locked in agony." "But Asterion looks up to you, aware of your presence, and makes no effort to hide or cower. In fact he tries to speak, but you can't understand his slurred words, only that his voice has a tone of welcoming." This is a climax, the pay off to everything we built up to this point. The tragedy and pain pours out, and by extension a shred of hope squirms in. But now we must let it linger. Let the player enjoy it for a minute, yes? "Comfort him.": "You cross the gap separating the two of you one step at a time. Asterion's eye does not avert from you." "You sit by his side, back to the desk, and only then his gaze drops down to the floor into further sobbing." "You drape an arm over his shoulder and pull him to you." "The minotaur doubles down on his crying, now muffled by your shirt. His fingers dig into you -- they'd hurt were he not so emaciated." "You rub the back of his head and let the minotaur go at his own pace. As the sun sets further, darkening the room, his crying grows quieter and more discreet as well."
There. That should be enough for now. Remember, we are not advanced enough to justify this going much longer, it would be unearned drama. So now we bring it down...
"When all is dark except for the stars shining beyond the window, Asterion's hands relax and he slouches fully onto your chest." "He almost seems to be asleep, but you catch his eye looking up at you." "Asterion's pacified, but you give him a few more minutes to make sure. His fingers dig at you one last time right as he sighs. You pat him on the back and help him up." "He says nothing about what just happened, but accepts your hand. And when you leave the Office, he stays close by your side." and return to a semblance of normalcy and plot progression... "Back in the living room, you guide Asterion to the sofa. He sits without questioning, but accompanies you with his gaze as you open the wine bottle and bring it over to him." you "It was just where you said it'd be." "Asterion caresses the bottle."
What I want you to extract from this lesson is the feel for tension, for its rise and fall. It's like waves crashing and retreating at the beach, so placidly, building up to a large wave just after the tide retreats a few metres more than usual. It's something you'll have to get a feel for.
Another way to frame this, and I know for a fact some writers find it more useful, is talking about it like a flow. We could say it's when you, the writer, are in control of the step-by-step dance the reader is locked in. Envision it however you want.
With that said, the way I structured this topic might give you a wrong impression. What I showed here is only one example of a curve of tension, of good and ill fortune going up and down. It's the one we use and it works, yes, but it's by no measure appropriate for every or even most stories.
Let's take a look at a little video from a much more accomplished writer, shall we?
Vonnegut puts it very well. There are many ways we can structure our stories, in his case it's about good and bad fortune. I find his framework very functional if we are being pragmatic about how to make engaging stories.
If you want to know how we fit in his structure, Minotaur Hotel as a story starts from a point of nearly total ruin and devastation, from which our duo of main characters crawls their way up. Trials and tribulations arrive regularly to try and pull them back into that old darkness, but by holding on to ethics, humanity and smarts they keep clawing up. It's a story of things getting better despite seemingly very sorry odds.
Other stories will have different structures in this sense. It's good to keep in mind what you're going for and how it functions, how the cogs and gears fit together. And that takes very nicely to our next topic...
If you ever read a piece of fiction where you have a really hard time visualizing in your head what the characters are physically doing in relation to their setting’s space, it might be a blocking problem.
So what exactly is blocking? The website writing excuses defines blocking as “the part of the narrative that tells the reader where the characters are, where the scenery is, and how these things are interacting,” which I think is a fairly decent definition. Blocking as a term comes from the world of theater where playwrights would have to write down where actors would be on the stage during a scene so that both the audience would be able to see them and so the character could interact in an organic fashion, working with their script. Think of it like written choreography, but for everything that isn’t dance.
Writing blocking well comes down to the establishment of our setting, establishment of our characters within the setting, and how those two things interact in a way that makes sense to the reader. For visual novels, some basic blocking is automatically done for us. There is an established background and we can choose to place sprites of characters on the left, on the right, or in the center of the screen. We can think of the screen we see as our stage, and our sprite characters as our actors or performers. Novels don’t have these visual cues, so have to put in even more work. But for visual novels, blocking shouldn’t end with backgrounds and sprite placement alone.
So let’s first talk about setting and scenery. If we think about some of the most iconic settings in fiction (the Bridge in Star Trek, Bilbo’s house in Lord of the Rings, the inside of the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars) it’s very easy to visualize almost every nook and cranny of them, so it’s even easier to visualize characters occupying space in them. While all of these examples are spaces we can see with our eyes in film, translating these spaces to writing can be difficult. We don’t want to bore readers with excruciatingly detailed descriptions of spaces, but we also don’t want to make the reader feel like the characters are floating around in an aimless void. We can instead slowly reveal the spaces of interiors as characters explore and use them, building an image for the reader piece by piece instead of all at once in a descriptive information dump.
Something I’ve found useful for developing settings is drawing a map of the space and its set pieces. If you aren’t big on drawing, you can even use games like the sims to design these spaces in your head. The mines in The Smoke Room are fairly complicated and have secret passages, so I knew I’d have to draw a map to be able to understand the spaces in order to write about them. However, It’s important to remember that maps are just guidelines for ourselves, the writers-- a lot of readers aren’t necessarily going to care about the ins and outs of where the sink is located in our character’s kitchen. If our setting is very simple (a football field or a studio apartment with a few pieces of furniture) then we probably don’t need to map it out.
Now let’s talk about characters interacting in the scenery and the setting. Sometimes we can visualize a space perfectly in our heads, but it may still feel like the characters in our story are wading around in a void as opposed to warming up in the gym or navigating the workplace we’ve written for them. Often this is just a problem of prose efficiency. We can replace a lot of nonspecific pronouns for specific nouns, and nonspecific verbs for specific verbs. “He started working out” vs. “Peter gripped the bar and pulled” both say the same thing, but one is more specific with verbs and nouns. There’s nothing wrong with “he started working out” on its own, but if we notice that a lot of our sentences are as nonspecific as this one, it can create a vague effect for our entire passage.
Sometimes sentences need more description, but an author should be aware that added details slow down a scene. A frequent challenge is that we have to balance specificity with pacing if we’re writing a quick action scene. We can sometimes cheat by having action scenes take place in familiar settings so that we don’t have to reiterate on previously described places in too much detail. But often a chase scene can take us somewhere new, so the balance between specificity and short sentences can be delicate.
The last thing we have to talk about is characters interacting with one another in settings and scenery. This is important in all scenes, but it’s especially important in scenes with conflict or intimacy. If character A says “fuck you” to character B, the effect drastically changes if:
- Character A has a gun in their hand pointed at Character B.
- Character A is in front of a fast food joint wearing a clown suit, holding an advertisement sign while character B drives by, rolling up the window.
- Character A has his hand on character B’s throat on a narrow balcony with short railing while it's thunderstorming.
- Character A is flopped on a couch, covered in Cheetos dust, watching a soap opera.
- Character A is smiling at character B in bed, and they are holding one another.
Another thing to note is that settings can also affect the behaviors of characters. A claustrophobic character will be under more stress in a cave or a tiny room, so it will affect their behaviors too.
Where characters are spatially located in a narrative while they interact with one another adds so much to the mood, tension, and ultimately the memorability of a scene. Settings can be characters in their own right, and should be given as much attention as your acting performers.
Plotting a Build
This is how we cook here in Minotaur Hotel, I'm not saying this is how other VN writers do (in fact I know the usual monthly build Patreon model makes what I'm about to propose essentially impossible) but it works nicely for us.
To put it very bluntly, every build of Minotaur Hotel so far has a sort of self-contained structure.
- Things are kinda ok, but not really good.
- Something a bit disruptive happens.
- Characters get together to solve the small problem.
- A bigger problem shows up, it interacts with the first problem and makes it more interesting.
- Characters have to solve all these issues, they show who they are while doing it and stew a bit.
- Let it cook.
- Build up — you are about to accomplish a good thing.
- Let it linger.
- Look at that, we have changed along the way, haven't we?
- Settle down, the build is coming to a close, and...
- Set up a plot hook for the next one.
The secret to making it work is the "let it cook" line. Let the characters show what they are made of. Let sadness, joy and laughter flow from it. Give it breathing room.
This is why we take our damn time making the builds, all of this means we have to write a lot of content to make it work. And it works well, really well. The bigger the set up and the more of a slow burn the cooking process is, the bigger the pay off for the reader.
Now, I know what you're thinking... What if you don't want to make such inhumanly long builds? We can adapt this a bit.
- Things are kinda ok.
- Something disruptive happens.
- Characters get together to solve the small problem and show what they are made of.
- Leave it 2 minutes in the microwave.
- Build up — you are about to accomplish a good/bad thing.
- Let it linger, but not for long (it gets cold very quickly, you see.)
- Look at that, we have changed along the way, haven't we?
- Settle down, the build is coming to a close, and...
- Set up a plot hook for the next one.
Mind-boggling, I know. Wanna make it better? Then make it so two to four or so updates are all building up to a greater achievement — the anime dweebs call this a "plot arc." This way you can release small updates monthly or so while still getting that bigger pay-off after a while.
Now, you may be asking yourself "oh, I wanna tweak with this structure a little bit, I think I can make it better for my story" then absolutely go ahead and do it. The golden rule in this is it has to work for the reader. If it work it works, that's all that matters.
Scope and Length
Artists often look to works they enjoy and try to make something similar, but different. If it worked for them it can work for you, right? But that can also happen because of a certain tunnel vision — an artist can stop thinking outside the box and just try to replicate things.
The same happens for us in the niche of visual novels. We take what worked so far and try to make something similar.
But look around you. In the specific case of furry visual novels Morenatsu was the first one to come around to the West, and it never got finished. Bl*ckg*te came later and suffered an even worse fate. Both had an issue in common: they were bloated with too much planned content, too many "dateable" characters.
Then came Echo, with a somewhat reduced scope. It "only" had five routes, a modest amount compared to the others. It's more manageable but still quite the challenge, so much so that only now is it close to being finished.
On top of that there is another aspect which compounds the issue. Pick a few novels and see how many pages it takes for a day to pass in a story — you will find that time is very relative, months can go by in three sentences and a single day can take twenty pages. Meanwhile we, visual novel writers, often find ourselves strictly sticking to the idea that a single in-story day should be long. Always long. Always packed with so much content that some VNs become slogs of irrelevant interactions.
This is the standard this niche is immersed in: vastly overblown projects, bloated with too much planned content and too much text packed in what could be briefer affairs.
Oh, and make no mistake, I am just as guilty as any other VN writer. Our latest build was about 90.000 words long — that's two novels worth of text. We too fell on this trap. Still, do as I say and not as I do: aim for smaller projects.
Note from Kangarube:
I feel like it's worth mentioning that not every game needs to be long. A 3-9 hour game/VN can be extremely valid. A short one especially if it has a multitude of choices and paths, but — even without that — the possibility of a short VN is just as much as a large one. Something small with an intricacy of thought put into it could be just as worthwhile as one of a sprawling epic scale.
Leave room for a kind of "lyric poem" of your medium. There is as much room for an "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" of VNs as there is for a Paradise Lost of VNs.
Keep Kangarube's words in mind. Go for smaller, more intimate and straightforward ideas.
While Adastra is not a short writing project by any measure, it is short by VN standards. It's largely non-branching and kinetic. And going forward I believe we will see more Adastra-like projects being done (and succeeding) than Morenatsu-likes.
This focused structure brings advantages. In truth readers will remember more fondly something deep and of "merely sufficient" length than a shallow experience of extraordinary length. If you have 5 dateable characters you have to write there is no way the experience will be as tight and tailored as if it was a single one. This is something we have witnessed clearly with Minotaur Hotel — Asterion is the main show and that focused approach gives us the space to go all-out.
For beginner writers my recommendation is clear: go for simple, manageable projects. Don't be afraid of going with a small idea at first to get your feet wet. A good way of thinking it is that our visual novels could be more like actual novels by going to a range closer to 50,000 words instead of 500,000.
If you have a big, beautiful idea in mind, something you feel you absolutely must get right, I highly recommend you put it on the shelf for now. That need to get it right brings fear of getting it wrong, and that can paralyze a writer.
Mechanics in Visual Novels for Dummies
What would you say makes a visual novel different from a book? There are pictures and sound, the setting and the characters are constantly in display, they might even be voiced. Some visual novels even count with mechanical aspects, the most common of them being routes. If you dig deeper you will realize there are visual novels out there with more sophisticated mechanics, the Ace Attorney or the Danganronpa series for instance, or Utawaremono which outright doubles as a strategy game. At this point the line between a game and visual novel might become blurry, so how do we differentiate them?
There are some visual tells. Everyone recognizes the text box over sprite and background format, or the presence of story-altering choices, multiple routes, etc. There is a common factor that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves: the gameplay is subservient to the writing.
What does this mean? Let’s go back to Danganronpa or Ace Attorney. Imagine if the gameplay was removed from the trial sections of one of those games. There aren’t debates or cross-examinations, your role is to watch the drama and mystery unfold. This might not affect the story itself, but it sure would be much less engaging to sit through these lengthy sections, without breaks of any kind, waiting for the culprit you might have already figured out to get exposed.
In Ace Attorney’s case, the gameplay is subservient to the story in the sense it provides the pauses the game needs to break down this huge trial into more digestible parts, while also giving the player little puzzles to keep them entertained and engaged. Gathering evidence and performing cross-examinations help us immerse ourselves in our role as investigators and lawyers respectively. Its usage enriches the experience, but it isn’t the defining factor. You will still be reading during most of your play time, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Your visual novel doesn’t need to have fancy mechanics or be “video game-y” to be good. My favorite one is as kinetic as it gets, lacking interactive elements. But the mechanics we see implemented in these games aren’t chosen randomly, there is intent behind them. And yes, this can apply to routes also.
Outside of the furry niche, Steins;Gate is a fairly entry-level visual novel. It was one of the first for many. All you need to know is that it is a science fiction story that deals with time travel. Once the time travel plot device gets introduced, the characters attempt to use it to solve their problems. This has unexpected and catastrophic consequences that put the protagonist in a journey to discover and undo all of his friends’ changes.
Steins;Gate is a linear game with endings dedicated to each character in the event you fail to undo their changes. This has a clear intent: to reinforced an inability to fight fate, and that attempting to do so will yield terrible consequences. This turns out to be build up for the game’s true ending, where this notion is defied in a heroic last stand and ultimately defeated.
The variation exists to set up an overarching theme that acts as the story’s true, unseen villain, so it can be surmounted at the end. It it all to elevate the story.
For a more sophisticated example, let’s take a look at the Zero Escape series, at 999 to be specific. This game consists of visual novel segments broken up by puzzles, with branching choices in the form of deciding which puzzle you will tackle. Certain combinations of choices will result in different events and endings. The twist here is that you will reach a point where you need information from a different branch in order to progress. Again, this mechanic isn’t arbitrary, it is relevant to the game’s story and a tool used to set up the twist at the end of the game.
By now you must be noticing a pattern. Often, there is a narrative reason behind branching. But does this mean your game must have a “true path” like these examples? Not necessarily, but it’s still relevant when it comes to any sort of variation. This is still a literary medium; the presence of visuals, sounds and gameplay merely give us extra tools that we can use to enhance our story. And, like with any other literary tool, you shouldn’t be wasteful. For example, just like your dialogue should advance the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters.
If you ever struggle deciding the amount of routes your game should have (or if it should have routes at all), you might need to think back at what your story is about. What are the themes you are trying to explore? Do they work well together? What message do you want to ultimately convey? Based on all of that, does this route add anything to the narrative? It’s important to get this right because adding a route to your visual novel doesn’t only mean you will need to write it, you will also need visual and audio assets and to code it in. A route you don’t know what to do with can represent a huge drain of resources in exchange for an unsatisfying payoff. Visual novels provide us additional tools, yes, but misusing them can hurt you way more than if you committed a mistake while writing a traditional novel.
You don’t need to know every single detail about your story, but having a grasp of what it is about and how each route connects back to that is important to create a solid narrative. You are writing a story, after all. The mechanical aspects should work alongside the narrative ones, not against or isolated from them. It’s the same for your visual assets: having backgrounds and sprites doesn’t mean you can slack off on your description. Combining them with powerful prose mean you get to squeeze the most juice out of both. Having trouble writing a good story will mean trouble making a good visual novel. Period.
If you don’t have any experience whatsoever when it comes to writing, please practice and try to at the very least get a couple of short stories out before you tackle this. Read some books also, read some other visual novels. There aren’t that many within this furry niche that are mechanically complex, but if you expand your horizons you might find something interesting. Try out some of the exercises proposed in this same document. Trust me, it’ll make your life easier in the long run.
Finally, if me bringing up so many examples from outside of the niche got you interested in any of these games, consider trying them out. A visual novel I didn’t bring up but that I earnestly recommend reading is The House in Fata Morgana. Despite it having a linear story and lacking gameplay, it pulls off a couple of tricks exclusive to the visual novel genre and has excellent writing, although it isn’t a story for the fainthearted. It’s a good example of hidden gems you can find if you dig enough.
I write my first draft as if it was a mad scramble to reach a finish line. Make it good if I can but the priority is getting it on paper. Sometimes a scene will be just dialogue without descriptions, or vague comments about what should happen.
Then comes editing. Go back, read, hammer it down. Add descriptions — actions, scenery, so on. Make sure the descriptions are good.
Then I bring in others to edit. First of all that's Awoo and Nemo, the other two writers, but also whoever in our team is available. More eyes is better.
For us the editing process can take weeks. Yes, that's right, weeks. No one can edit 90.000 words in a few days — to merely ask that is an insult. We usually start editing when the build is halfway written. Yes, this means we have to manage our time, sometimes schedule things in advance. But, you know, our team isn't working under a monthly deadline or anything. We can take our time.
If you are writing for a project that sticks to a monthly schedule things are tougher. Maybe you'll only get the writing done a day or two before release. In this case you can edit as you go along, so at least the beginning and middle of a build went through some polish.
I can sympathize with the hardships of writers working under tight deadlines. I know that, for most, a lack of editing comes as a consequence of scarce time and human resources — you can't just snap your fingers and get it solved. But we can't ignore the truth of the matter either; a lack of editing is a grave flaw. If your project is consistently failing to provide the adequate conditions that make at least one round of editing possible then that issue must be addressed. Find the root cause and solve it.
I hope you enjoyed today's lessons! Next week we'll take a look into some writing exercises I personally advocate for. They don't involve visual novels in any shape or form but if you git gud at writing short stories and novels all that experience translates over to VNs.
See you next week!
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Very useful and interesting information on writing atmosphere, story and world building.
Most of the time it's best to "just show not tell"
About the linear vs nonlinear, in my opinion I enjoy both respectively and its debatable which one I enjoy more, both have their own pros and cons but by the end of the day if you succeed in telling a good story that's good enough
Thanks for this. Do you think you could write some about finding / managing a team? How do you find the people you end up working with? How do you allocate creative control to people while protecting vision? How do you make decisions about the content / direction of the novel -- do the writers have more control in general, or is it pretty democracy-like?
Hello. The questions you raised deserve a DevLog on their own but I can give a few quick pointers.
Do you think you could write some about finding / managing a team? How do you find the people you end up working with?
The Minoh team is composed, for the most part, of people I had known for years (like nanoff and Kangarube) whose talents and skills were already evident, and we already had a good level of trust going. Nemo and Awoo I met on 4chan and we were all anonymous writers, just writing stories for people to enjoy. I enjoyed their writing, we were all doing the same thing for fun, we all got along well.
Later efforts to expand the team were difficult. We have a very particular culture and chemistry among ourselves, if someone is going to join then it's important that they can mesh well with our creative environment.
How do you allocate creative control to people while protecting vision?
For Asterion's story I have a very clear vision. When anyone writes content for it (I write most but not all of it) I make sure to tell them what the scene has to convey and where we have wiggle room. I also am conscious of each writer's particular talents and I try to match it.
Outside Asterion's story... Well, my vision for Mino Hotel encompasses the kind of creative freedom to try our ideas. Giving everyone a considerable amount of freedom — including to propose characters, comment on any other part of the production, make edits, everything — is part of the fundamental creative freedom I have.
How do you make decisions about the content / direction of the novel -- do the writers have more control in general, or is it pretty democracy-like?
We have the story's themes and all decisions must mesh with them. It all must fit together and make sense. A lot of creative decisions are based on this, which can be quite objective at times. We also decide by consensus, which means that everyone has to be on board. It is surprisingly easy for us because we are all very in synch.
There was one time we made a decision by democracy and that was the one thing that we had to go back and fix (a story for another day).
Anyhow, the best way to describe the way we work is we take pride on Minotaur Hotel being a group effort. I want everyone to throw their ideas, even bold ones, and it all works because we have a very firm grasp of the story's themes and where it's going. I want everyone to write stories they love, even if that means they are peculiar. I do not care about telling the stories that would bring in the most people.
The process is also very improvisational at times, kind of like jazz. We have a strong idea of how this song is to be played but every once in a while someone strikes a great solo and we conform to his work. Sometimes we even have to tinker with the story's outline to make it work. But it does work.