Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Not Even a Valid Excuse is a Valid Excuse

I have a blog, you know?

It's this one, that you're reading. It's hosted at a website called "Blogger"; the URL states ".blogspot.com". At some point, I may have given the impression that I talk about videogames on this blog. Perhaps by talking about them at length? That helped, certainly. And the word "game" being in the title. Ergo, I have set up everything you need to know about my humble abode here: it is a blog, which tends to lean towards talking about videogames.

It would be infuriating, then, if somebody stumbled along - let's call him Johnny W. Let's say he stumbled upon my videogame blog. And he looked pretty hard at my videogame blog. And he saw how it was a blog, about videogames. And then something snapped inside his brain, and his face lit up with realization, and he sputtered, "I get it! This isn't a blog about videogames! It's a cooking recipe repository!!" He then goes wherever he goes to write his opinion down, and belates the blog thusly:

"This is the worst cooking recipe repository ever! It was all about videogames, for one. What a cheat! This is the most abundantly not cooking recipe repository I've ever found. It's not even named after one. It says it's a videogame blog. Well, that should quench it, folks."

...y'see. That is because I never once. Never once. Stated anywhere I was a repository for recipes of cooking. He is forcing labels onto me, then judging me based on those inaccurate labels. Can you imagine if somebody moved a book from "fiction" to "non-fiction" in a library, then circled around, picked up the book again, and declared, "this is the stupidest non-fiction book ever!" ...there's quite the reason behind that. That is because it isn't a non-fiction book.

An eroge visual novel came out recently. It's sort of notable for a few reasons; it's made by an entirely Western team despite no evidence to the fact (you'd swear it was Japanese), and that team of Westerners happened to be 4chan regulars. That's basically it. The concept for the visual novel is that it's a romance novel set in a school for disabled children, but it doesn't seem to be as pronounced as you'd expect from 4chan (well, if you're one of those "/b/ is 4chan" ignoramuses, you can get out now, alright? Alright). Indeed, the whole "special needs school" is handled with surprising deftness and maturity. But that's besides the point.

It's called Katawa Shoujo. I'm not here to argue whether or not it counts as a "videogame" or not. Visual novels are a medium (or a format, if you'd prefer) of storytelling that walks the line between traditional JRPGs and novels, and even the slightest push could see a visual novel fall to either side. Whether or not Katawa Shoujo leans to either side is irrelevant, because the creators have outright admitted that it's more about the "novel" bit than the "game" bit. There is the usual branching storylines and all that, but the game isn't trying to rub it in your face. It's about the experience of the readin'. It's undoubtedly so.

So I'd like you to answer me, if you can, why this visual novel - not a game, but a visual novel - has warranted coverage from the likes of The Escapist and Rock Paper Shotgun? ...cos it's by 4chan? Is that reason enough? Perhaps. But can you tell me why they're judging it like it's a game? Because it's not a game.

Why have Rock Paper Shotgun taken it upon themselves to "review," in their ever so deft "oh yeah, this ain't a review... wiiink!!" way (wretch) this not-game... as if it were a game? Oh. They explain: "last year there were a couple of games that brought up the question of what actually counts as a game." Hmm, yes. Go on. "...To The Moon replaced a perception of choice with wonderfully vivid narrative, deep characters, and an exploration of subjects poorly explored by any medium, let alone gaming. So where does that leave Katawa Shoujo?"

That leaves it as... not a game. To the Moon said it was an RPG. It's there on the website: "RPG". Okay, leaving no- oh. No, you went ahead and continued.

"Underplayed, sadly, proves painfully true. The more I play, the less there appears to be to do, with this half-a-story being told at me while I click after every pause and sentence. And worse, those sentences quickly become far less worth reading. The interplay between the excitable Misha and the mute Shizune are pointlessly confusing, one invisibly signing to the other, both voices coming from Misha, but with the game seeming to make no effort to clarify any of it."

There, you used that word "game" again. But -

"Oh, I haven’t mentioned, have I? This is a dating sim. After well over an hour of clicking, clicking, clicking this hasn’t been revealed. Other than that every girl I’ve encountered seems to be very beautiful and flirtatious. Not in a cheap way, I should stress. "

It's not really a "sim," per se, it's a romance visual novel. You did accept this in the opening paragraph, didn't you?

"I refuse to say “it’s not a game”, because it is. It’s just one where you don’t get to do anything meaningful, as you’re told a massively long story about not very much. And one I haven’t the energy to persist with to its ending, let alone explore the other four stories it has to offer."

...aha, okay, you can shut up now.

Why do you refuse to say "it's not a game"? Because you were told it's not by the novel? Is that why? Cos that seems the perfect excuse to say "it's not a game"...! In fact, I reckon by the time you realized you were clicking to turn the pages, you'd have figured that it was, in fact, a story, and not a game. Oh, are games about the story now? No, no, I know games can be about stories. But is gaming as a whole defined by the stories now? Oh. I didn't know this. Because it's objectively a fallacy, for one.

But at what point, did a not game, declaring it wasn't a game, not allow itself protection from the sentence "it's not a game"? I want this answered. Are books... are books covered by this too? "I refuse to say this book "isn't a game". Because it is." Uhh, no. It's a book.

I don't want this to come off as simply "Rock Paper Shotgun are fucking retards who are poisoning an entire medium," because that's not very nice, I don't quite believe it, and because... well... it goes beyond that. At some point, gaming culture buckled and let novels slip in as games. That's... well? That's kind of disgusting! To the Moon was mentioned; I'll happily say it's a game, because it's made by a company that say they "make games". I'll say it's a failure of a game for being just slightly, oh-so-slightly, devoid of substance in the "game" part of the game (you know... the important bit, the bit that makes gaming as medium what it is...?)

But Katawa Shoujo. It very much was released with blazing, neon letters above it, "I am not a game. I am a novel. Please do not treat me like a game, for I am not one." I would have thought that would tear it. ...it didn't. Rather, Katawa Shoujo as been accepted as a game by pretty much every major gaming publication that dared to run a story on it. I'll accept it perhaps warrants a look-in for handling a unique subject matter in a rather meek fashion. I'll even begrudgingly accept that being made by 4chan, more or less, makes it a curious title.

I will not accept that it is a game. Why, Katawa Shoujo itself, has not accepted it's a game. It's a novel; a visual novel, sure. A novel with several branching paths, but how is this different than having a written novel having a "what if" scenario in its opening pages, opting to keep optional content behind different chapters? Or including several short stories that posit that question, "so what if this happened instead?" That's all it is. The interaction in this e-book comes down to turning virtual pages. This does not make it a "game." There's not even any role-playing in it; it's written in first-person, as apposed to second-person (which would have made "the player" the "first person," in case you can't follow literary jargon). So why. WHY. THE. FUCK. HAS. IT. OPENED. THE. FLOODGATES. TO. BE. JUDGED. AS. A. VIDEOGAME.

It's pathetic, on behalf of the gaming community, to willingly accept things that aren't games through their radar as games. It's sad, too; it's almost like a sign of defeat. "Yes," publications are saying. "Gaming is about stories and relationships and characters. This book is as good as a game." It's just that, in the process of doing that, we seem to have unwillingly stamped impossible-to-fulfill expectations onto an otherwise competent novel. What Rock Paper Shotgun have inadvertently done have called bullshit on an entire format of storytelling by virtue of not being game-like enough, despite not actually being games... this is ignorance, it goes to breed further ignorance, like a plague. Soon, neither visual novels nor gaming will be spared, and we'll lose both mediums alongside and inside each other. Unless we put our foot down and say: "this is not a videogame." Especially when by very definition by its creators, the thing is not a videogame.

Incidentally? I have been reading the novel that is Katawa Shoujo, and it's very well-written and drawn and it has a rather adorable ensemble cast of characters. It's rather enjoyable to read, if you're into this stuff. Worth a look, indeed, especially if you like anime and manga and eroge 'n stuff. I do hope you will keep in mind, as so many people have thoughtlessly gone out of their way not to, that it is a visual, erotic novel first. And a videogame... never.


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