Several years ago, Aura (known to many visual novel readers as the lead writer of Katawa Shoujo) authored an essay in which he contended that "VNs, such as they are, don't actualize the immense potential of the medium." In this essay, he noted four major problems with visual novels of the time:
- "Dependence on genre conventions." As Aura puts it, "Visual novel is a medium, but just about every single one of them falls into some sort of anime type genre, both story- and artwise. Portraying sex pornographically, hyperadolescent themes, archetypal characterization and so on keep VNs tightly locked as a niche that has no hope of ever appealing to anyone outside the incredibly tiny number of diehard anime fans that basically shape the limits of the potential audience current VNs have." I've noted on my own blog that the Japanese high school seems over-utilized as a setting, even when looking at visual novels with non-Japanese development backgrounds.
- "Word diarrhea." There's nothing wrong with a long story that justifies its length, but but verbosity is something that should be avoided, not celebrated. Many visual novels have a very high ratio of words to content, perhaps emerging from the fact that in Japan writers are paid based on word count. Expectations for Japanese prose may also factor in (although Japanese to English translations are hardly the only offender in this category).
- Underdeveloped interactive storytelling. This is one of the places where visual novels have the ability to explore storytelling in ways that other mediums can't, but many visual novels are mostly linear with a few predefined "routes" that the player can't diverge from too radically.
- Inadequate visualization. The standard background + sprite format (interrupted by the occasional fullscreen CG) is a bit constraining when it comes to presenting a story visually. Though many (quite fairly) prioritize narrative elements like plotting and characters over visual elements, visuals are necessary to justify the medium, to a certain extent. We are talking about visual novels, after all.
I consider these points to be fairly uncontroversial, especially considering their original context (the post is from 2011). While this quartet of complaints isn't exactly a benchmark or reference point by which I measure my own work (or the work of others), it suggests a set of values that I mostly agree with.
Looking at these four bullet points, one of these things is not like the others. Dependence on genre conventions, verbosity, and underdeveloped interactivity are mostly issues that I feel can be addressed by writers. Do you want to avoid common genre tropes? Write different. Do you want to avoid verbosity? Write better (and edit more aggressively). Do you want a narrative that offers players greater agency with more branching paths? Write more. But when it comes to visualization, the writer has much less control. You could make the argument that a writer can make certain creative choices that have impact on visualization, like choosing a constrained setting (allowing the artists to work on rendering a smaller number of objects with greater fidelity), but for the most part, visualization is outside the hands of the writer.
Lots of western indie developers have done quite well in addressing some of the narrative gripes mentioned above. We've seen visual novels that break out of traditional genre conventions and use the medium to explore LGBT themes, or give us a more feminist take on the classic Cinderella story. Quality of writing and fidelity of player choice have also improved as more writers have been attracted to the medium. But visualization hasn't gotten the same treatment. Visualization is one of the harder places to innovate and advance the medium, simply due to the resources required, though some established studios like Capcom and Spike Chunsoft have made forays into the world of 3D graphics. (Ace Attorney 5 and Zero Escape 2 represent especially interesting landmarks in this area, since they're 3D sequels to 2D games.)
I enjoy writing stories, and visual novels are one medium that I can apply that skill to, but I don't really feel empowered to tackle the problem of visualization. Project Ven caught my eye precisely because with their creative approach to visualization, they're doing things I can't do alone as a writer. The presentation of the Project Ven demo is a pretty radical departure from what I've seen in previous visual novels (those who have played it know what I'm talking about), and as soon as I played the demo, I knew that I wanted to be a part of what they were doing. Much to my delight, the team decided my writing would be a good fit for their project. I joined the team as a writer last month, and I'm thrilled to be a part of what's coming next.