For a foreigner, Japanese video game music is a difficult subject. How to understand the aesthetic without hierarchizing it or comparing it to the Western culture? How does one, through different experiences, observe and analyze it? This is the task we are going to focus on, because this series of articles is going to be about Japanese music itself. Specifically the music from visual novels – a genre which, forgoing many well-known immersive mechanics, still manages to blur the line between the real and virtual world.
Why do I put such little distinction between Japanese soundtracks and visual novel soundtracks?
But before we get to know the history of visual novels, and then peek in between the staves (lion’s share of which will come in the next article), something should be clarified. Why do I put such little distinction between Japanese soundtracks and visual novel soundtracks? The answer is simple: most of this genre’s games are the export goods of the Land of the Rising Sun. And although the market changes constantly, visual novel crème de la crème comes from no other country than Japan itself – and that’s why we will focus on those.
The origins of visual novels go as far back as the year 1983, when (on computers NEC PC-6001) came out a text-based adventure game The Portopia Serial Murder Case. The player’s objective was to solve the mystery of murder, and to do that, they talked to characters, investigated the crime scene and solved puzzles. Text-based narrative, locations in a form of static background images, a set of choices in regard to moving from one place to another or interacting with the environment – and that’s it. With time, since the premiere of the 2-hour-long The Portopia Serial Murder Case, more games were being released, that the cornerstones of were the aesthetics of a static background image and text-based narrative, but abandoning the puzzle part to fully embrace the story it’s telling. But why was it this game that started it all? And why does the Japan-dominated genre have it’s origins in the West?
At that time, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, adventure games were the dominating genre focusing on the story; Yuji Horii (game designer) created TPSMC to introduce the Japanese people to such games. As history showed us, this experiment had been successful; soon more and more projects like this were being released, initially focusing on the puzzles, but as time went by, abandoning this aspect. And also borrowing the aesthetics and techniques of connecting consecutive frames from manga. The NEC-PC6001 computer had a three-channel sound generator, which means that after programming the sound effects, there was not much room left for the music – if it was even supposed to be there. The only composition we can hear in Portopia is a short „theme” at the very beginning and end of the game, which could resemble the sound that police sirens make. Of course, the simplest of waveforms have been used, the sound of which continues to serve as the cornerstone of all synthesizers.
The concept of relying on the power of suggestion and simplified symbols, instead of showing directly what is happening in the game, kept evolving faster and faster. After TPSMC, games based on manga aesthetics of connecting the consecutive frames, joined forces with dating simulators – those, on the other hand, are games, where the goal is to begin a romantic relationship with one of the presented girls (important titles here are No Ri Ko and Tokimeki Memorial, the latter developed by Konami). Both genres have a lot in common: silhouettes of the characters embedded in the static background image of the location, Japanese visual aesthetics, little interaction… but also the presence of the erotic element.
Summing up: visual novels are the descendants of classic text games, but restraining from any form of interaction.
In the gameplay above, we can hear a clear forecast of what is to come in the musical future here – a cult of synthesizers and electronic music (also in search of synthetic sounds resembling „analog” instruments, for example electric guitar or strings), a certain emotional „transparency” (to be heard mostly in the simplicity of rhythm and harmony) standardised sound, a lot of stimuli. And if we want to explore the origins of such outcome, we need to remember that the very first soundtracks (of course, not only the Japanese ones) were simple modules generating basic waveforms; thus, consequence is the name of the game. But is the emotional transparency connected to the idea of games as entertainment not to be taken seriously? That’s a topic for another discussion.
Let’s go back to the evolution of the games themselves. The rest is history? Pretty much. So here we are – the year 2019. Ever 17: The Out of Infinity has been embraced by hundreds of thousands of fans, multiple animated series have been developed based on Clannad, and the internet catalogue of visual novels (right here) holds information on more than twenty thousand entries. Summing up: visual novels are the descendants of classic text games, but restraining from any form of interaction, from time to time presenting the player with a (usually key) choice, which will lead them into one of a couple of different story routes. This is not to say that there are no VN’s with more interaction; we should remember that this genre is very diverse, and experiments are just as welcome here as they are in any other type of games.
This is not to say that there are no VN’s with more interaction; we should remember that this genre is very diverse.
Which is also true about the music. Is the very stimulating soundtrack’s job to compensate for the passive visual aspect or the minimalism of the narrative? How much of an influence are J-rock, J-pop and J-rap? Now that we have some information and a little „know-how”, we can fully focus on the music – which we will in the next article. For now, over and out!