I think I’ve figured out what I like to see in visual novels.
A lot of those really popular VNs are the opposite of succinct. I’ve complained about Grisaia no Kajitsu before, but I really dislike those kinds of visual novels where nothing of importance happens in the common route, just for the sake of establishing the characters. I also dislike the self-indulgent, fourth wall-breaking humour that Grisaia was so full of. I understand that the writing in visual novels tends to be so bloated because writers are paid per kilobyte of text, but it’s just not the kind of writing I value.
As a result, I often feel intimidated by the visual novels my readers frequently recommend me. For instance, my friends have been pestering me to play Rewrite for over a year now, but I’ll probably never play it, because it really doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’ll enjoy. A while back, I started Devil on G-string, but all the tedious conversations totally wore me out. “When will you get to the point?!” I screamed internally. And as I’ve mentioned before, it took me almost a year to finish Grisaia.
However, this does not mean that I’ve written off the entire medium. Today, I want to talk about two visual novels I found engrossing enough to finish in one sitting. Saya no Uta and Analogue: A Hate Story are as different as chalk and cheese, but they grabbed me right from the start. They’re not perfect – Saya no Uta in particular is full of huuuuuuge issues – but both games afflicted me with a severe case of the feels, so I consider them both successes.
Saya no Uta
Remember how the premise of Haiyore! Nyaruko-san is that a Lovecraftian monster is actually a moe girl? Well, that’s also the premise of Saya no Uta, except instead of a silly otaku comedy, it’s a creepy gore fest.
Saya no Uta is brought to you by Gen Urobuchi, who used to have a reputation for SUFFERING and DESPAIR, but after Suisei no Gargantia, Kamen Raider Gaim and Aldnoah.Zero, it’s really impossible to stereotype him anymore. But holy crap, Gen Urobuchi in his early days was the biggest edgelord. You could cut yourself on Saya no Uta, or maybe hack your spleen open.
The plot of Saya no Uta revolves around a young guy named Fuminori who gets into an accident and wakes up with a completely different view of the world. Everyone looks like a hideous monster to him, except for one girl named Saya, whom he promptly falls madly in love with. As Fuminori loses touch with reality, his friends become concerned, but they are powerless to shake him out of his growing bloodlust.
Once you get past the shock value in the opening scenes, the plot of Saya no Uta revolves around a classic conceit: what separates man from monster? The theme of subjectivity is conveyed really well here through the art scheme. In any scene shown through Fuminori’s perspective, the backgrounds are awash with what looks like intestines. Although Fuminori’s actions are difficult to sympathise with, it’s easy to understand why he would feel utterly repulsed by the world around him and why he would take refuge in the one girl who looks “normal” to his eyes.
Of course, we the players know that in reality it’s the opposite: Saya is the abnormal one. But since we only ever see her through Fuminori’s point of view, it’s hard not to see her as human, even when she’s doing some truly monstrous things. Her childish petulance and loneliness come across as distinctly human traits. There’s a really fascinating scene where Fuminori explains that the reason why he can kill people without reservations is because he can’t actually see them as human. Empathy is only possible when you identify the other party as human. And to do that, you generally need to see (or at least envisage) a human-like form.
At its best, Saya no Uta has some interesting things to say about human nature. Unfortunately, it’s not always at its best. Some scenes are downright gratuitous. The sex scenes are the worst examples, especially because they’re written with such fetishistic prose. It’s like the game is framing these scenes as horrifying and disturbing while simultaneously inviting you to get off to them.
Even outside the sex scenes, characters sometimes do stupid things or act in plot-convenient ways. Yoh is the living embodiment of this. There’s really no point to her character at all except to provide fodder for some hentai CGs. And thus, for the sake of convenience, she walks straight into an obvious trap.
That all said, Saya no Uta is still a really good visual novel for one main reason: the oppressive atmosphere. It keeps the pressure on during every single scene. Even when I didn’t like what I was seeing, I couldn’t help but keep reading further, whether out of morbid curiosity or whatever. This story would probably have fallen flat if I had read it as a novel, but the art and music gave each scene a haunting aftereffect. It’s sci-fi horror schlock, but it’s memorable schlock. Nitroplus did some great work with the presentation here.
Arbitrary numerical rating: 7/10
Analogue: A Hate Story
And now to Analogue: A Hate Story, an original English-language visual novel (OELVN) created by Christine Love. Analogue is also a sci-fi story, although it’s set in the far distant future where people have colonised space. You (the player) are asked to investigate an interstellar ship that went astray thousands of years ago. Everyone is dead now, so in order to piece together the story you have to read the logs and interact with the ship’s AIs.
The game has a minimalist design, but that works in its favour. The words written by these faceless characters speak for themselves. The only drawn characters, Hyun-ae and Mute, are unreliable narrators with fault lines in their memories and secrets of their own to cover. Their actions are left entirely to interpretation. The result is a game that takes full advantage of the player’s choices. How you choose to interpret the actions of certain characters has a direct effect on the ending.
If there’s one thing I took away from Analogue: A Hate Story, it’s “FUCK THE PATRIARCHY”. The game’s setting is based on feudal Korea, and just reading about all the horrible things that happened made me feel much more terrible than any gory picture Saya no Uta could throw at me. This story isn’t just about the physical violence against women’s bodies; it’s about the violence against their souls, against their right to even speak.
As always with sci-fi, Analogue says far more about the present than it does about the future. The question of why a ship with such advanced technology would be the home to such a regressive society isn’t directly explained in this game (that’s the subject matter of the sequel Hate Plus) but it is heavily implied that there was a political struggle, and that the reactionary ideologues were able to rewrite history. Indeed, such reactionary views about women are not so uncommon in today’s world, either. I’m reminded of Isis and the way they use social media to spread their truly repulsive ideology.
I think the most sobering thing about this story was reading this review by a gamer of an East Asian background, who mentioned some of her own life experiences:
I remember growing up with a constant sense of guilt. I didn’t learn how to cook till I was in my teens. I wasn’t adept at laundry. I spoke too loudly and played too many videogames. I wasn’t feminine enough. I would never be accepted by my hypothetical mother-in-law. One of my earliest memories is of myself as a little girl, sitting frozen in the backseat of a car, afraid that I would be beaten bloody again because I had, at a family gathering, accidentally spilled a glass of tea. I remember whimpering to my father, telling him that I had only made that one mistake, that I would never shame him again if he would only spare me. I think I was five.
Analogue: A Hate Story does an excellent job depicting the fault lines of a traditionalist society, but its true stroke of brilliance lies in the complexity of its characters. Is the Pale Bride a villain or a tragically misunderstood victim? I’d argue both, but why do I feel so inclined to forgive her for doing something which can only be described as evil? Surely no amount of suffering can justify the harm she caused. My emotional reaction must say more about me than it does about her.
In the end, Analogue: A Hate Story is a truly thought-provoking game that sticks with you long after you’ve played it. In fact, I finished it months ago and I’m still thinking about it. I still wonder what I would have done if I had been born in that society. Where does all that hate come from? What can you do when society pushes you down so hard it’s as if you live with a permanent scourge against you?
I haven’t played any OELVNs besides Katawa Shojo (which wasn’t my cup of tea, unfortunately), but if they’re as well-written as Analogue: A Hate Story, then sign me up for more!
Arbitrary numerical rating: 9/10
As always, if you want to leave a comment about either of the games discussed in this post, try to mark the spoilers for the benefit of other readers. Thanks!