Visual Novels

In my last post I discussed Japanese Dating Sims and that they are a subset of a general category called Visual Novels.  The Visual Novel is a hybrid media form that has never caught on yet, but thanks to devices like the iPad, they could in theory become very popular. We just need a breakaway hit to finally emerge and then all the copycats will follow.

So what is a Visual Novel?  Well that depends on what direction you come from.  From a static media perspective, the visual novel is a comic book with choices.  From a video game perspective, its a graphic adventure game without an inventory to keep track of.   They all have text and pictures. Most have choices to make, some tell a linear story (aka Kinetic Visual Novels) without choices. Most are hand drawn graphics.  Some have voice over, music, sound effects, some pictures are animated.

Just as comic books have a reputation of being about superheroes (since the majority of them are), Visual Novels have a reputation of being about romance and sex because the majority of them are.  But just like Comic Books do not need superheroes, VNs do not have to be about romance or sex. Some of the new independent producers are doing adventure, horror, sci-fi, etc. Most of the new ones stay in the “rated T for Teen level”

The best way to learn about visual novels is to just download a few and try playing them.  A couple of good sources, many of which are free:

http://www.renai.us/ – A collection of mostly free independently produced Visual Novels. Windows, Mac, and Linux links available for most VNs.
http://vndb.org/ – A database of Visual Novels from around the world, and thus mostly from Japan in Japanese.

If you are interested in creating your own:

http://www.renpy.org/ – Ren’Py is an open source freeware Visual Novel development and publication suite used by many independent VN creators.
Lemma Soft Forums – A forum dedicated to making of Visual Novels. A lot of creators meet here to post their work, get feedback, help each other out, etc.

I have been trying out a few:

Ripples – A kinetic short romance available as an iphone app. Also downloadable. Rated PG.

Fantasia, Realm of Thanos – A Fantasy Adventure. Rated PG. There is also a sequel I have not tried yet.

Daemonphilia – Romantic Comedy. Not Graphic. PG-13

Each Uisage – A mystery story set on a remote island in 1985. I love the original watercolor painted graphics. Rated R.

Digital: A Love Story – A story told over BBS messages on 1988 computers, some of which you have to “hack”. Fun concept PG.


Is There a Future Here?

As a commenter in the last post pointed out.  Visual Novels today come from two different sources.  Japanese games translated into English, and independent authors/artists mostly doing it for fun in their free time.  Neither source is likely to bring about any breakaway hits anytime soon.

The Japanese games tend to be very Japanese, and tend to cater to the shy teen males in Japanese prep schools.  They are very dialogue heavy, so you can spend time and get to know the characters.  As one commenter puts it:

This is the secret of the visual novel. They are socialization simulcra. I don’t mean a simulcra in the sense of a simulation, an accurate model which can duplicate responses. I mean it in the sense of a substitute that elicits and provides many of the same responses. Visual novels are not dating simulations, they are dating substitutes. Virtual dolls. Little computer friends.

Consider their first person presentation, their stylized graphics that focus on expressive faces and communicating emotion, the hours of voice acting directed at the player/protagonist who never breaks the illusion by speaking with a voice. All highly effective and relatively cheap ways to simulate social interaction.

Consider also the mundane hours of banter in place of traditional narrative. I found it boring while playing Yume Miru Kusuri but if I consider what was said, how long it took to say it and what meaningful new information was exchanged, then I compare that to a typical session of socialization in Second Life I’m stunned by how similar they are. I don’t mind that when talking to my “real” friends, because a lot of social is not story telling, it’s simply connecting and expressing support and interest in each other. I was bored by a simulcra of it, but even for me it quickly began to be captivating. I can only imagine how strong the impact must be for an anxious awkward high school kid in a society like Japan’s.

The problem with these dialogue heavy cultural specific visual novels is that they tend to be weak on plot.  These games cater to a specific demographic that does not exist much outside of Japan.

The other source are the independent sources. Ordinary people with some talent for writing and/or drawing and/or programing who are looking to express themselves in a medium they find suited to their talents. This is what attracted me to the medium myself.

Generally speaking there are usually only a small number of people working on these VNs, often just one person.  Its a rare individual that is good in writing, drawing and programming, which is one of the reasons that VN development is uncommon.  Quality varies extensively, unfortunately sometimes it varies within the VNs themselves.  Then there is also the imitation problem.  Many indie VN developers are heavily influenced by Japanese VNs, pushing the bloated dialogue, weak plot, and Hentai content too far.

On the other hand, the visual novel is a media format that anyone can break into, is not dominated by anyone outside of Japan yet.  Even better, I mentioned above that the iPad is quite possibly the greatest visual novel distribution device ever made, and yet there are practically no visual novel apps available yet.  Comic book publishers are already creating comic book apps for the iPad, and a visual novel is essentially a “choose your own adventure” comic book.

The market isn’t there yet, but it has potential.

What Tech Will be Gone in the NEXT Decade

I saw an article last week on a list of things that have nearly disappeared over the last decade. The list consist of:  calling, newspaper classifieds, dial up internet, encyclopedias, CDs,  land line phones, film photography, yellow pages and address books, catalogs, fax machines, wires, hand written letters.  All of them are still around, they are just becoming archaic or obsolete.

I suspect that over the next decade, there will be other things that are common today that will become archaic and decline over time.

Broadcast Network Television – Rupert Murdoch who runs Fox is already trying to kill the Fox broadcast network and turn it into a cable/Satellite only network.  He also has plans to turn all of his news sites into subscription only, which is likely to fail miserably, but his plans for TV actually make financial sense.  If so, NBC, CBS, and ABC could follow suit, and Broadcast TV as a mainstream media outlet will be dead.  Now if AM Radio can survive for 100 years, so can Broadcast TV. It will just have a lot more infomercials and pointless talk shows (just like AM radio) to fill in the gap.

Satellite Television – You are probably wondering why I would predict the downfall of Satellite after predicting the end of broadcast.  It is quite easy: The future of TV is instant access.  This is doable on internet based TV services like Uverse and FiOS, and even possible with cable services via broadband internet if you have a receiver that can buffer the show as you download.  It is not doable on Satellite. This plus the huge overhead cost of Satellite TV services will spell doom for these services.  I’d even go as far as to predict that one of the two major satellite services (Direct TV or Dish Network) will  stop satellite operations and close, or jump to the IP TV market instead.

Multiplex Theaters – Multiplexes with their 24 small theater screens are likely to head to the scrap heap. Large theaters with big (or IMAX) screens capable of 3D and digital projection will replace them. The multiplex experience is too close to home theater, and with high costs of going out to the theater, it is likely to decline in popularity.

DVDs – Just as CDs started to disappear last decade, DVDs are likely to disappear this decade with widespread On Demand TV and game download services.  BluRay will never be more than a niche market as well. This will also include video games on DVD media. Not only will places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video start disappearing, but those Red Box dispensers will too eventually.

Printed Newspapers and Magazines – Between the Internet, and the Kindle, print is dead.  Online news papers will still exist, some may even thrive via online delivery options, but papers you read by spreading it out on the kitchen table will disappear.

Big Box Bookstores – Just as the giant chain record stores have disappeared with the demise of the CD, the giant chain bookstores will disappear with the demise of print.  Small specialty shops will still be around (rare book stores and comic book stores), as will book departments in department stores. But as more people convert to tablets, like Kindle and the Nook, and access to online libraries to go in them, the market for printed books will be dead.

Libraries – Between budget cuts and new technology, libraries will get rarer and rarer. All the major cities and universities will still keep them around, but with the primary use of the libraries being free internet sources these days, providing free “hot spots” around town is cheaper and can promote commerce in those designated areas.

Gas powered vehicles – Over the next decade, oil production is going to be level or in decline. We are going to be forced to find ways to use less oil, or live in a new Great Depression. Considering the sheer number of gas powered vehicles there are, it seems quite bold to predict their demise, but I foresee natural gas powered hybrids, plug in hybrids and pure electric vehicles (including electric bicycles) dominating the road within a decade… either that or $20 a gallon gas.

Incadescent bulbs – CFLs and LEDs for the win! This one’s a no brainer.

Hard Drives – The one weak point in computers today are the hard drives. They are physical devices with high RPM spin that are almost guaranteed to fail within 5 years. Average life span is around 3. The thing that has kept them around for so long is that solid state drives are still slower, hold less data, and more expensive.  I believe hard drives are at their peak right now.  There is little need for faster or bigger hard drives than what we have now.  If solid state drives can catch up to where hard drives are today, and that is a very likely scenario in the next decade, hard drives will become obsolete.

Desktop computers – You know those big boxes with 2 or 3 DVD burners and 2 or 3 big Sata drives powered by 500 watt power supplies sitting under your desk like the one I am using right now? Archaic dinosaurs by the end of the next decade! I think the 10s will see the end of Moore’s law of bigger and faster, replaced by smaller and more energy efficient. The big desktop computer under my desk is likely to be the size of my ipod touch in 10 years powered by a 30 watt power adapter — and just as powerful.  Its tempting to just predict everyone will use laptops, as that trend is already coming to pass, but the primary attraction of desktops is gaming, which is doable on laptops but it is awkward.  The primary components to the desktop is the full size monitor and the full size keyboard.  Monitors won’t be shrinking in size any, and LED backlighting, touch screens, and 3D capabilities will become more common place.  This pretty much guarantees there will be a place for non-mobile computing, it is the CPU part of the computer that will be getting smaller and more energy efficient.  It may even get small enough to carry around with you to move to different keyboard/monitor “terminals”.

The key to the next decade is energy efficiency.  All signs point to energy being a major concern in the next 10 years.  The more energy efficient our tech, the less impact energy shortages will have, and the cheaper it will be to live.