The rise of the furry visual novel
Get a writer, an artist, a musician, and a programmer in the same room and what can you make? Well a video game, obviously. However, you need to remember you only have one of each, so you’re not going to be making the next Skyrim in your lifetime. So what do you do? Well, use the visual medium of gaming to tell the story you want to tell in a slightly more interactive way. You’re now on your way to creating a visual novel.
While most visual novels could barely qualify as games to some, these literary heavy games are the go to for the more well-read, and perhaps more ‘casual’ gamer, that doesn’t mind letting the words immerse them in their worlds.
The genre has already had notoriety in Japan for awhile, but just like the anime craze heading to the West in the 1990s, this storytelling medium is starting to get recognition in other parts of the world. Digital platforms, such as Steam, are allowing for niche games to find a market where one may not have existed before. And if furries know anything, for better or worse, is what happens when niches connect by wire (or wireless these day).
Our fandom, in the past couple of years, has shown that it too has caught onto the rising genre and has jumped in with both paws, and for the lack of a better term— are leaving their mark upon it.
A major victory for a 'minor' title
In the Ursa Majors for 2016 there was kind of a minor major upset in the video game category. Amongst the mainstream titles, including Pokemon and Overwatch, the fandom voted for a game more home grown. Major/Minor, which was produced by furry fan Klace, defeated these titles to take the prize. By utilizing RPG Maker in a particularly unorthodox manner, he managed to develop an extensive visual novel following a player that gets caught up in a conflict that stretches between worlds.
One of the biggest strengths of the game is in the way it propagated itself into the fandom culture. Instead of creating its own characters from scratch, it utilized actual fursonas within the furry fandom itself. I learned this after having started the game and one of the main characters within the game, Rook the Ferret, decided to post a review of Tooth and Claw on this site around the time I was playing it. After that I had looked up the other characters on FurAffinity and was able to find most of them had a profile on the furry website.
So the characters for the game weren’t exactly characters, but in a way, fandom actors starring in the roles of the game.
With this kind of social networking, it gave each person involved a vested interest in promoting and voting for the humble game. This despite the game mechanically being a bit rough around the edges as far as a visual novel that expected replays goes. This technical graininess probably had to do with the limitations of the RPG Maker engine rather than the lack of effort. If I hadn’t become intimately familiar with the tool myself in late highschool I wouldn’t have been able to note that it was made with that game making software.
Novel novels of 2017
Moving on to last year we have had two additional visual novels grace our presence and gain notoriety both inside and outside the fandom: Angels with Scaly Wings and Neko Jishi.
Angels with Scaly Wings is a visual novel that follows your human character as he is sent to a whole other world to try and find the tools needed to save the human world from extinction. Like most visual novels, the game plays the romance angle as you find yourself having to bond with the dragon characters of this world to try and save your world, and theirs. There are many different endings, two around each character: one bad and one good, plus a very bad and ‘true’ ending that can only be unlocked after getting all the good endings for each character. You’ll know if you successfully got a character's good ending because their image will be on the title screen after you obtain it.
Neko Jishi is very similar to Angels in that regard as well. This story revolves around your human character finding that he has been gifted with the ability to see beast deities. Mostly feline-men gods, but some others as well. You have three cat-gods vying for you to help save their respective temples, and you have to make decisions on which ones you will give your attention, which will impact the ending in a variety of ways. What I liked most about Neko was that the three characters each had their own personality, but also had their own surprises when you got beneath the surface into the deeper parts of their character.
Interestingly, just like Angels, each of the three suitors have good endings which will reward you with the character’s image on the title screen. I feel the two games, while similar, each had their strengths and weaknesses
- I like the characterization of the suitors in Neko Jishi better as they got to interact with one another as well as yourself.
- I like the variety of suitors in Angels with Scaly wings because it allows you to play yourself a bit if you don't happen to be homosexual (a.k.a in if you’re straight you’ll find a suitor in Angels where as in Neko your character is strictly homosexual; not that there’s anything wrong with that).
- Neko Jishi is better in the idea that the story you play is from start to finish on any given play-through without needing to replay. Regardless of the ending you get it is a self contained story and you had every possibility open to you from the beginning. You can get to whatever ending you happen to in the first go around, making the story feel real instead of game-like.
- In Angels to get the ‘real’ ending you need to play through multiple times making it feel more game-like. However, for some reason I found myself spending a few hours in curiosity playing it to get them, so they clearly did something right with it and it kept me going.
While it may sound like a hassle to have to replay these novels to get multiple endings, the good news is that both games have implemented a nifty fast-forward function to skip text you’ve already seen. It will instantly slow down once a dialog box pops up that you have never seen before because of a different choice you made. I didn’t play Major/Minor a second time but I do not think it had a tool like this, and given there was also a “True Ending” (denoted by literal true ending flags) it really made me look back and see that as a bit of a disappointing over site. As before noted, it’s probably a limitation of the RPG Marker tool versus the tool used by the other games.
Which also highlights another thing that future visual novel designers may want to take into consideration. If your creating a novel with desired replayability, shorter is better. Both Neko and Angels were pretty short. Neko being about 6 hours on streaming w/o fast forwards, and Angels had 5 acts. Major/Minor was far larger with 10 chapters that took me over twice as much time to stream through than Neko (about 21 hours of streaming time). Note that if you’re not talking with people you can probably shave an hour or two off those times, I wasn’t speed running.
Regardless, I went back to replay Neko, but not Major/Minor. Not to say my time with Major/Minor wasn’t enjoyable and worth the first play, it’s just has less replay appeal then the other titles due to its longer run time.
The future of a medium
The future of this simple medium could look nothing like it does today. In fact I would argue we’ve had one example in 2017 shows how unorthodox visual novels can get. This game I feel is in a good position to take the Ursa Majors this year. That game is a story driven platformer called Night in the Woods. Dronon did a review of that game for this site.
While this game is certainly not what one would traditionally call a visual novel, the gameplay is focused on character interactions and how one’s choices with interacting with them effects the story. In essence, like with visual novels the story and writing are the backbone of Night in the Woods. While it does have platforming and other elements that make it far more interactive than the first-person-text-box-with-character-cardboard-cutouts style that visual novels usually have, one could argue that the side view and platforms are merely just a different manner to deliver this kind of story. I would argue that it certainly helped with immersing the player in the story’s setting, which is typically a visual novel’s weakest point.
A few months ago, one Rick Griffin, author of the Ursa Award winning furry comic Housepets, was thinking about getting into creating a game on his twitter feed. I had noted that a Visual Novel Maker just released on Steam that very day, and given how good he is with comics and visual storytelling I felt that it would be a genre would do well by him. Turns out the two things were far from coincidence as it was that very tool being released that had started to inspire him. What followed was some public contemplation on how to improve the visual aspects of the genre and create a more expressive experience overall. On how to really make the person feel they are the character in question. Needless to say if he does pursue such a project, I will be certainly be throwing money at it as I would be really excited to see what he comes up with for the genre.
In the end, this past couple of years have shown that as far as gaming genres go, the visual novel and the furry fandom may be a match made in heaven. With the writing talents of the fandom, visually interesting characters, expressive artistry, and technical know-how, it will be interesting to see if the fandom can continue to take the visual novel into unseen directions and improve the format of a growing gaming niche.