The Following is an essay that I did for an University English Book History course on the use of Type, Text and Visual Communication in Visual Novels. I have here transcribed the essay in full for your own enjoyment and enrichment.
Monolithic. This has been the reality of the written word for centuries, when a word was written, whether on stone, or on paper, the words would remain as is, motionless and static. Everything that text would say would remain as is (outside of deterioration or other’s interference.) However now in the current digital age, such physical necessitated limitations are no longer mandated, but are rather implemented by choice. However this also means that the use of text is no longer bound to these constrictions, and as such artists and creators can now find different ways of conveying story and meaning through text, far beyond that of the traditional book. One of the more recent mediums that have used text is, of course, the modern video game, which for decades has utilized text to convey everything from simple instructions to epic stories. Of particular note is the genre of Visual Novel games, a style of “Electronic novel”, which tells story through text accompanied by pictures and sound. They are by far one of the wordiest game genres to date, as most of their content is in fact the written word. They are the type of artistic game which, as Jim Andrews notes, “Subordinates the videogame dimension to the literary… dimension.” However these games are far from eBooks, or simply text displayed on screen, but rather they use the technological advantages of their medium to portray text in a much more engaging way than physical pages ever could. This is accomplished with the increased dynamics given to the text, which allows for more flexibility in its portrayal, in fonts and colors, in the display scrolling, and scripting. All of these convey a vastly different experience to the reader, and proves how text can be a vital part of storytelling beyond just what the words themselves mean.
This pictorial conveyance of meaning happens because type is first and foremost a visual medium, and as such it is the visuals that first and foremost convey information, even before a word is read. As Mike Parkinson notes, “Visuals are not only excellent communicators but also quickly affect us psychologically and physiologically.” The audience’s response to the type’s pictorial qualities is of course a highly subjective phenomenon that colors their response of the text as a whole. Capitalizing on visual storytelling allows authors to relay meaning instantaneously, and to impart context, even before content (in this case the meaning of the “words” themselves) is considered.
Figures 1 – Katawa Shoujo (1a - snow)(1b teacher)(1c female classmates) - Screenshots of the game.
Typeface is of course one of the most recognizable visual aspects of text, and is the most frequently used means of giving meaning to text outside of the realm of the “word”. The physical layout of the letters, both in ink on paper, and in pixels on the screen, has a great deal to show in how the audience of the text perceives the words and meaning. As İsmail Hakkı Nakilcioğlu notes, “Each font has a language of its own. Some fonts are usually suitable with all kinds of writing and telling, some are only eligible to give certain messages” Now in Visual Novels, the choices afforded the designers are many, and of course varied. And while many VN’s may not capitalize as heavily on this fact (as is the case also with books) there are some who do. One of those is Katawa Shoujo (see figure 1) a romantic dating visual novel, which as one blogger points out, “instead of a boring typical font, Katawa Shoujo uses a beautiful soft font befitting the mood set by the story.” The font in question is one “Playtime-With-Hot-Toddies” (see figure 2) the blogger’s noted response of course is fascinating, as it underscores the usually subconscious biases of the reader when looking at text. This particular font is indeed “soft” to look at. The lack of serifs and the slight tilt of the letters, as well as the thick, simple design give the text an almost marker-like quality, reminiscent of children, innocence and simplicity. It reinforces the aspects of friendliness and innocence found in the game.
Figure 2 - Font type: “Playtime-With-Hot-Toddies” The main font for all of Katawa Shoujo.
Another Visual Novel, Analogue: A Hate Story, uses a number of fonts, some being more traditional whilst others like White rabbit (see figure 3) are distinctly more digital looking, with the sharp angles, and very consistent line widths. All of which enforces the fact that what you are looking at is on a “computer screen” (in the game). Analogue however also shows a different use of type (see figure 3a), where a secondary typeface, which has a much larger x height and wider spacing, is used to differentiate the specific phrase “master” from the rest of the sentence. It is an attempt to convey the lavish and drawn out style of speech usually used in such circumstances (being a fairly common trope in Japanese media), which succeeds because of the visual distinctiveness between the two fonts.
Figures 3 – Analogue a Hate Story- (3a Image) taken from the game showcasing changing typeface on the fly for dramatic effect. (3b) White Rabbit, one of the main fonts used in the game, which is used as the font on the override computer console within the game.
Aside from physical shape, another major aspect of the visual storytelling is shown through the usage of color. Now unlike font, where books and other physical media are well acquainted with the choice and use of font, color has been a much less-used tool in the creation of printed media, due to the realities of increased cost and production time. Games however do not have this particular setback, and so can use full advantage of color in underscoring the experience. To go back to Katawa Shoujo (Figure 1 above) the main use of color is in differentiating the names of characters, allowing for more immediate recognition of the speaking party. The color is also often associated with the visual depiction of the character (i.e. the text color matching the character’s hair color). However this is not the only option, as demonstrated by the Ace Attorney series (see figures 4 below.) Here the color actually depicts different states of speech, and importance. White for spoken dialogue, blue for internal thought, red for important details, green for witness statements (the game is a courtroom drama), and so forth. This color coding, instantly relates a great deal to the player, making it easier to ascertain important details from idle chatter. This is indeed a great advantage that Visual novels and other digital media have over the printed book, whose majority plain black text on white pages are both uniform, and indistinguishable from page to page. Books therefore rely heavily on context in order to communicate such trivialities, and even so can still be confusing to readers.
Figures 4 – Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (4a whale) (4b hawk) (4c Detective) These are screenshots of the game showcasing the use of contextual coloring.
The most drastic departure though, that separates the text of a book from text in a game, is the scripting - or rather the programming that determines how and when text gets displayed on screen. A book, as it stands, has words permanently fixed on the page, allowing little room for subtle changes in speed of speech or inflection in tones to be conveyed. Those nuances are therefore usually decided by the reader. However as Janet Hsu, a localizer and translator for the Ace Attorney series notes, the programming teams for these games actually develop every piece of dialogue’s animation in order to invoke real speech patterns, and to drive dramatic impact. Actions like slowing down text for a shy character, or having massive blocks of text flash by faster than the eye can read for a ranting character, are both part of the visual storytelling. It has nothing to do with the words being said, but from the movement, the speed, and the styling the player intuitively understands the nuances of the character interactions, giving the text even more dramatic depth and weight. And not only does this reveal more about the characters and give the reader a trove of information, but since it is all communicated visually, almost subconsciously, it also engages players more thoroughly than permanently static text.
However what may be Visual Novels greatest contribution to the literary realm is the melding of literary storytelling and visual images/ animation. As noted by a columnist in the Economist “The brain finds it easier to process information if it is presented as an image rather than as words or numbers… information presented visually can be grasped in a few seconds.” And this sentiment is just as true for Visual Novels as much as the graphs and charts the columnist is referencing. For the audio/visual accompaniments of the text within a visual novel convey much of the context, visual detail and action of a scene. It is not usually the most important part, as the visuals are often “subjugated to only serve as support for the text instead of being a free-standing element.” However a great amount of detail that would be otherwise detailed in lengthy descriptive paragraphs are instead conveyed instantly and with more force. Take for instance the crowd from Katawa Shoujo, in which the developers use the visual effects to create the scenes. The greyed out figures (see Figure 5 below) that move behind the characters, added to the bustling sound effects give a great sense of being surrounded by a faceless mob. The figures are barely discernable from each other, which helps denote the impersonal nature and size of the crowd and all of that is communicated to the player within a second of the crowd appearing on screen.
Figure 5 – Katawa Shoujo’s background crowd effect
Another example is Ace Attorney’s Phoenix Wright’s most iconic move, that of his courtroom “Objection!,” (see figure 6 below) followed usually by him standing with outstretched arm pointing accusingly at the previous speaker. The speed of the delivery (barely a second) along with the striking red text, overly artistic font, spiky speech bubble and the firm audio call out that accompanies this single moment all help to deliver what can only be called a dramatic punchline. (That is “drama” in the genre sense, not the adjectival sense.) Sometimes similar moments are even accompanied by a complete silencing of the background music signaling a complete reversal of fortunes (either for or against the player) due to some new argument or evidence. Here the effects are less about staging and background detail, but about relaying quick affirmative action, and creating a sense of speed and dynamism in the story. The Ace Attorney series in particular is known for this so much so that they have been praised by other game developers for it. Akihiro Hino of Level 5 notes that he was “really impressed with was the “presentation”: the character’s actions, the sense of tempo with which the images and sounds were synchronized.”
Figure 6- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney -Dual Destinies playthrough. (34:29) - Use of Phoenix’s famous “Objection!” stance.
What Visual Novels show is that there lies a great potential for the use of the written word, far beyond the parameters that only physical media provides. The digital text is not bound or beholden to the conventions built up around centuries of print culture, but rather there are still many exciting avenues for discovery, artistic license and creative works to thrive in. Games such as Ace Attorney, Analogue, and Katawa Shoujo prove that there is still much that can be done. Their command over audience’s attention, and use of both old and new print technologies, are testament to the fact that the book, vanguard of the written word, is not the be all end all of written works, and that other media, and genres can still advance, and do things better than just a book on its own could ever accomplish.