Here comes the second part of our investigation of the music in visual novels. After a brief history lesson in part one, it’s time for crème de la crème – the music. In the previous article, I described the characteristics of visual novels: we already know that they focus on the story (thus putting emphasis on the content, not form), that the aesthetics derives from the Eastern tradition, that they send our peripherals on well-earned vacation.
And this is the clue that should spark our musical discussion – key to understanding visual novel music is the idea of heavily limited interaction. What does it mean for the soundtrack itself? The pieces not only serve the basic functions of illustrative music (for more on that topic, check out Chance Thomas’ great book), but its tasks are that much more important, because immersion, such crucial factor in making any other game function properly, is in visual novels extremely scarce. This means that the score, which in any other genre’s game would be one of many stimuli, has much more space to sound and resonate; with its fair share of the player’s attention, it has more room to stimulate him and to compliment the overall experience. And it is this „burden”, and the saturation of the stimuli that goes with it, is one of the fundamental characteristics of visual novel compositions.
In a genre so dominated by the Japanese market an effort to seek similarities to Western illustrative music is also one in vain. Because the games developed in the Rising Sun land, are made with the fellow countrymen in mind, it should strike as no surprise that the VN aesthetics derives from the Japanese tradition; be it the graphics, be it J-rock, J-POP or even J-rap. A blizzard of synthesizers, adrenaline-pumping drums, guitar riffs – all that, topped with dynamic and structural simplicity, combined with a completely different pacing (the general usage of tempo in the narrative) contributes to an overall effect hard to mistake with anything else. Two of the genre’s veterans’ works come to mind: Takeshi Abo’s and Toshimichi Isoe’s. It’s also worth to mention how the music in visual novels is implemented – this does not require an advanced sound engine, because usually, the simplest of commands are used, such as start, end, pause, loop. This aspect is not limited to the score – the simplicity of the mechanics is compensated by audio-visual saturation and (repeating that once again) the emphasis on plot and narrative.
In a genre so dominated by the Japanese market an effort to seek similarities to Western illustrative music is also one in vain.
Independently from all these observations and the time spent analyzing, after some contact with not only the visual novel music, but also the Japanese illustrative music in general, the darker spectrum of our cognition might heavily suggest that this music is exaggerated, caricatural or perhaps even grotesque. Of course, cultural clashes bring dissonances. Such condescension and generalization is a false lead, though – even heavily influenced by the Western music tradition (for example through the functional harmony), the Japanese weave in their music ethnic instruments, arrangement solutions and an approach to synthesizers that are to be found nowhere else. Of course, „different” does not mean „worse”.
Speaking of tradition – it should be noted that there are many similarities between this genre and Japanese animated movies/series anime. Very often, a successful visual novel gets a corresponding movie or TV series (Steins; Gate, Clannad). There is one important aspect of this kinship – VNs usually approach their intro cinematic as if it was an anime’s opening, adjusting it (or not) as they want and as it suits the game. The openings (aesthetically completely different from Western intros) are one of the features of visual novels, and their music more often than not, becomes a veteran in our musical playlists. This distinctive style of an introductory cinematic has become an integral part of the visual novel package, and thus we shouldn’t be surprised that the games without any corresponding movie or series also incorporate it.
The Japanese people aren’t the only ones that develop visual novels. Have you heard of Telltale Games? Since the premiere of The Walking Dead, a discourse has arisen within the internet, whether it is a visual novel yet, or is it a point & click adventure game (as are the previous Telltale’s games). For the sake of this article, let’s say that it is a visual novel. What music awaits us, then? Most importantly, guitar music – often, but not always, swerving into ambient. In The Walking Dead, Jared Emerson-Johnson used drones, synthesizer „clouds” and many little „rattles and ratchets” accompanied by soft usage of percussion, but the most important information for us is that the music score here is much less intrusive than in the Japanese titles. Does it come purely from aesthetics? Or is it maybe consensus between more of player’s interaction (which does happen in the game) and still shy mechanics? Or maybe this is the difference between the Eastern and Western tradition?
What if we were to take the Eastern aesthetics and put them on the Western ground? What if we made a game having American roots and a Japanese heart? Katawa Shoujo is an example of such a project. This very conventional in its form visual novel tells the story of Hisao, a Japanese fellow, who is sent to a school for disabled teenagers when it turns out he suffers from arrhythmia. In the school, he meets a couple of girls, which he, depending on the player’s choices, ends up (or not) engaging in a romantic relationship with.
Is The Walking Dead a visual novel?
The plot of Katawa Shoujo can serve as a catalyst to discuss an interesting topic, namely the similarities and the differences between visual novels and dating sims. This is a question for an entirely different discussion, though – so let’s stay on track. The soundtrack from Katawa Shoujo (by Nicol Armarfi/Sebastien Skaf and Andy Andi/Blue123) can be broadly perceived as classical music (with a touch of other genres, for example jazz), which means that we will find there many compositions for orchestral instruments, which have been arranged in various patterns – duets, trios, quartets… And there is also room for percussion and drums, guitar, saxophone, or even… the music box. It would also be futile to look for any dynamic fluctuations – the idea of how elastic the musical narrative in visual novels is, is an important aspect of it. This OST presents to us diverse music, adequately stimulating and yet rhythmically and melodically almost banal (with it, escaping a certain sense of „Japanness”, very present in the two other aspects).
So what does it all say about how we perceive Japanese soundtracks? Or perhaps the whole spectrum of their music? How will it evolve along with the genre? What will the composers surprise us with in the future? Is The Walking Dead a VN? I hope that with this article, I’ve shed some light on soundtracks from those still a bit exotic (for some of us) games. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comment section!