Everything is a visual novel now and it rules


My mature response to you disagreeing with my thesis (Image credit: Fellow Traveller)

There are plenty of games with an huge amounts of words in them, and sometimes people call these games visual novels in a smartarse way. Disco Elysium, for instance, contains thousands of words of novelistic prose. It’s not a visual novel, though. At no point does the action pause so that a portrait of your partner Kim Kitsuragi can slide in from screen right, play a sound effect like a cartoon slap, and then slowly fill a text box with ellipses to suggest how horrified he is to catch you stealing a dead man’s shoe while wearing a culturally insensitive hat.

That sounds like a pretty fun game, but it’s not what Disco Elysium is. Disco Elysium is an RPG that just happens to have a lot of writing in it. 

That said, there are games on the spectrum between the classic visual novel where you cry about characters in high school and the classic non-visual novel videogame where you get to stab a stand-in for your dad at the end. And there are more of them than ever before.

(Image credit: Fellow Traveller/Kaizen Game Works)

I have a lot of respect for the way Paradise Killer tricked people into playing a visual novel. That’s a glib way of saying what I mean, which is this: Paradise Killer blurs the line between visual novels and adventure games, much like the Ace Attorney and Danganronpa games that inspired it, by making you explore a space looking for clues. But Paradise Killer goes even further into the territory we normally associate with “real games” by giving that space the kind of level design you’d get in Unreal Tournament multiplayer maps.

Paradise Island feels like a bunch of custom deathmatch maps stuck together. There’s a beach covered in obelisks, a waterway with ladders that invite you to climb down and then back up it, Grecian pillars that grow out of fountains, and statues—so many statues—of skulls and gods and ladies. It even has a ziggurat. It was made in the Unreal Engine, and it feels like it.

(Image credit: Fellow Traveller)

But this isn’t a place you go to camp the flak cannon. It’s a place where you solve a crime by talking to characters represented by 2D portraits that move between a handful of expressions (including one of shock that you’re going to see a lot) and bark a handful of spoken phrases. Otherwise they speak through dialogue boxes, preserved in a log so you can scroll back for anything you missed. At the end of the game there’s a trial where you present your evidence and make your case, but in the meantime you grill odd-looking characters about their alibis and motives, and then are given the option to “hang out” with them.

That’s the most visual novel thing about Paradise Killer. It suggests the kind of game where you select which characters to spend time with each day, then realize too late you’ve committed fully to one of them and been locked out of the rest—or that you weren’t supposed to spread your time so thin and now, by not committing wholeheartedly to a specific NPC the first time you meet them, are stuck with a bad ending where you’re forever alone. But Paradise Killer is not that kind of game.

(Image credit: Fellow Traveller)

You’re supposed to hang out with every character as often as possible, even the guy possessed by a demon who has been accused of murder, because getting to know them is how you get them to let their guard down and give up some vital piece of evidence. Paradise Killer may borrow the language of visual novels of the dating sim variety as well as the Phoenix Wright variety, but it’s not going to punish you for deciding you’d really like to hang out with both the doctor on his yacht and your driver who poses with her car like she’s shooting an album cover.

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