Growing up, I read tons of classic literature. One such example was The Count of Monte Cristo. So impressed with this work, my young mind wrapped around the idea of Monte Cristo being what proper writing should look like. The harrowing tale of a hopeful man being bent into a mysterious being of fortune and destruction. The serious tone, along with the inevitability of tragedy and loss of self, gripped me through its hundreds of pages.
The Loss of Interest
As a result of these ideals, my standards for fiction had risen dramatically. I lamented that much of more modern works shifted to become focused on interpersonal drama that I found over the top throughout high school. My standards for great literature were in its tone, which made stories that contained any amount of waffling or hammy, unrealistic dialogue lesser in my eyes. With these standards, I quickly became bored with most written stories, and my interest withered away.
What “Good Writing” Looks Like
Fast forward to my college years as an English major. As required by my classes, I was asked to re-read books like The Canterbury Tales. It was a dreary read for me when I was younger, chalking its often vulgar humor to long-past writing conventions. But as an adult with better analysis skills and a budding education, the short narratives transformed from their literal form to a web of themes and ironies. The gorgeous writing aside, the impression it made from its smart design choices made for something that was undeniably “good.”
And that is when I started playing visual novels.
Being a fan of yuri manga, the next obvious step was visual novels. The first visual novel I read was Kindred Spirits on the Roof. The plot is as such: two ghosts, madly in love with each other, ask Yuna, a student at the high school they haunt, to help them hook up girls in their school in the hopes that they can learn how to have their first time by watching others do it.
If you are as confused as I was, perhaps this will help you empathize with how I felt. But inspired by the revelation that a ridiculous premise does not disqualify from good writing, I delved into it.
The story structure strangely reminded me of the Canterbury Tales, with many stories seemingly unrelated ending up playing off the tone of the others. And importantly, these stories affected and received feedback from Yuna, who will eventually become one of those stories. Many visual novels have even more bizarre plots than this, but playing through Kindred Spirits opened my eyes to how narrow my definition of good writing was. There could have been hundreds of books I pushed aside because of my pompousness.
Visual Novels as a form of Alternate Media
This isn’t to say that all visual novels are experiments in comicality. Some of the best received visual novels aimed at the heart with tragedy. One such example is The House in Fata Morgana.
Fata Morgana explores a large frame of time in which tragedy repeats itself. In essence, it elicits a feeling of dread by telling you the fate of whoever approaches the titular mansion before it happens. Techniques like this are common for plays, a form of writing which takes a new shape in its intended setting. Music, atmosphere, and movement all change plays, and as such, so do visual novels. They remind me that all kinds of written media can be weaved into a new shape, and they do not lose legitimacy because of their non-standard form.
A Note on What is Missing
While visual novels have taught me to take abnormal written work more seriously, they are missing some components that deny them from being classic pieces in my mind. Namely, in the same vein as comparing Fata Morgana to Shakespearian techniques, the work is not written beautifully. That is to say, the way the words are written does not convey meaning beyond the literal. For example, even the way the words are written conveys tone and intent in Shakespeare’s work. This is all carried by iambic pentameter, but the same can be achieved with more effort in prose.
Nonetheless, while visual novels likely will never elevate to being hailed as classic literature, they helped me realize that strange works can still be an art that I can enjoy. Rather than being a limit of the written word, it is a limitation of our mindset if we cannot find pleasure outside of our imagined ideal.
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