Ghost Switch pairs a ghost and a con man together with the goal of swindling folks with fake exorcisms. Their sneaky schemes are all laid out without saying a word, though, as this visual novel conveys its dialogue only using symbols.
Game Developer sat down with Jasmine Osler, the game’s developer, to talk about the challenges of using symbols to drive the narrative in such a text-heavy genre, the challenges that come from conveying meaning with symbols instead of words, and the other tools (sound, visuals) the developer used to add clarity to the narrative.
Visual novels are a story heavy (and therefore, often text-heavy) genre. What interested you in trying to do a visual novel without text?
I've been making VNs for several years - since 2013 - and wanted to try something new. I like to try out new techniques and experiment with each visual novel. Dear Devere was a visual novel without character sprites, so a wordless VN was a new constraint to play around with.
I don't think I'm the first game developer who has tried making a wordless visual novel. I remember a while back seeing people on Twitter talk about it as an idea, but I haven't seen a wordless VN since. So, I thought I'd try it out since I felt it was an idea that would be interesting to explore. I think it's important to push the medium. It allows it to grow and evolve. It's the opposite of gatekeeping, which stifles and stagnates game design with inflexible definitions.
What ideas went into creating the game's symbol-based dialogue system and nto creating a form of dialogue that used pictures?
I remember thinking about comic books that have used thought bubbles with symbols instead of text. These examples tend to be for a brief instance (instead of for the whole story) and to serve a purpose (The Adventures of Tintin uses them to replace what are presumably swear words), but it was a place to start off brainstorming.
I also looked at how several adventure games have approached symbols as text (Dropsy) or used very little text and focused on other aspects to illustrate the story (Florence).
What difficulties came in designing the symbols themselves? In getting just the right symbols to convey what you wanted?
I tried to make the symbols clear enough that they could be understood by most readers, but also have multiple interpretations so they could be reused. A sun can mean warmth, and it can also mean daytime, and so on.
The fire alarm symbol ended up getting redesigned after my first attempts because the first version wasn't easily recognized as a fire alarm when I asked people during the jam.
How did this dialogue system affect the story you wanted to tell in the game?
It meant the story being told had to be one that could be understood without text. I brainstormed several ideas on what I wanted to centre the story around. At one point, I had an idea to tell the story in a non-linear way, similar to Thirty Flights of Loving. I decided to tell a story about loss and how, try as you might, the way you live your life will not last forever. It was a story that was simple enough that I felt it could be told through symbols.
What challenges came from using this system instead of text? What benefits came from it?
Making it wordless meant that I couldn't write banter between the characters using words, which is one of my favorite things about writing. But I could still try to convey banter with symbols. There's a nice moment where the characters, Shade and Maddie, are in the park and discussing using the money they've just earned to buy and play a video game together.
I wrote the dialogue as text and then went over it, replacing it with symbols. It was an unusual process, because I wrote the dialogue in a very matter-or-fact way. "I feel sad," that sort of thing. People generally don't speak as plainly as that, but I knew it was dialogue that would be translated into images.
What other tools did you use to help convey narrative and tone (snippets of sound, the character artwork, etc.)? How did you bolster the meaning of the symbols with other elements of the game's design?
I used several methods to help tell the story. Like traditional visual novels, the textbox had name tags. But instead of character names, it would show an illustration of whoever was speaking. I used sound effects, like a phone ringing, as well. Combining these, I could convey that a character was talking on the phone, even with the phone not in view and the character sprite not showing a held phone.
I used animation (like the character Shade bobbing up and down as he sneaks forward) and facial expressions on the sprites to help show what was happening.
I also used visual shorthand that I assumed players would know and make connections with. For example, the ghost Malevolence is designed to look like green fire. The ghost is fire. Therefore, the ghost is defeated when you use a fire alarm. Because pulling a fire alarm will lead to the fire being defeated.
How did the time constraints of the jam affect the design of the game? The design of symbol-based text?
The Spooktober VN Jam is a month-long game jam, so I made a schedule estimating how much time should be spent on making each asset to complete the jam on time. I've done game jams before, so I was used to this time constraint.
The pro of a wordless VN is that you save time checking for spelling and grammar issues, which gives you more time for other things. The trade-off is that you now need to create a symbol for every distinct idea you want characters to say.
I think I spent about two days of the jam drawing the 77 symbols for the text and three days for plotting out and writing the story and three endings. I usually try to finish the writing within the first week of a month-long game jam so that team members have a clear idea of what assets are needed as early as possible.
Do you feel this story delivery method affects how players interpret the story? What do you feel this added to the player's reception of your story?
Yes. With writing, there's always going to be a gap between how you wrote something and how the reader interprets it, so replacing the text with images adds a new degree of that. There's a chance that players will interpret it differently than you intended.
With a wordless visual novel, the player has to work to translate the symbols. Otherwise, they can't read and take in the dialogue. I really like that sense of becoming an interpreter because it's a form of engagement and interaction with a game medium that enjoys minimum keyboard interaction. Adding more interactive elements can be a balancing act in visual novels. For example, some VN fans like minigames, some do not. I think the minimalist approach of interaction in VNs means that the elements that are there are inspected more, and should be thought-out and polished if they're included.
I feel that the method I used to convey words was well-received from players. People have told me that they enjoyed it, and that it made the visual novel feel different. I'm glad, because I was curious how people would react.