Outside of fans of obscure Japanese games, Virtue's Last Reward gets short shrift. It's a shame, because its writing and game design are extremely nuanced. Virtue's Last Reward does an incredible job of intertwining gameplay and story together into a whole, exposing the strength of the Japanese visual novel genre.
Some say visual novels -- stories told via text and images -- aren't really games, but in director Kotaro Uchikoshi's view, this view of "game" is too narrow.
"A game is something with selectivity, is what I think. To be more specific, something where the selection made by the player's decision changes the history of events or outcome that takes place within a given set of rules," he said at this year's Game Developers Conference.
By that token, "a visual novel is a game, similar to how darts and fishing are sports."
Virtue's Last Reward is just as compelling as The Walking Dead, but takes a completely different tact, game-design wise. Telltale received a lot of plaudits for forcing the player to make hard choices; Uchikoshi, instead, sets up "discomforting" scenarios, to use his term, and then forces the player to get to the bottom of them.
He also uses a neat design trick to do it.
His foundational game is Chunsoft's Kamaitachi no Yoru, a 1994 Japan-only release for the SNES. In most visual novels, players can't progress until they achieve a goal the programming code is designed to recognize and a flag is set. Kamaitachi no Yoru does not have this; instead, players simply play the story and learn information, and eventually are asked to input the solution to the game's central mystery.
"How were they able to create branching storylines without losing consistency?" asks Uchikoshi. "Using the player's brain as the computer's memory -- this is what's unique about Kamaitachi no Yoru and what differentiates it from games that came after it."
How Kamaitachi no Yoru works: a slide from Uchikoshi's GDC talk
Uchikoshi used the same technique for Virtue's Last Reward. But unlike the simple murder mystery he was influenced by, it has an incredibly ambitious structure with a huge number of branches and a reality-jumping storyline that forces the player to hop between parallel story streams.
It turns out that using the player's brain as the computer isn't just a clever trick for game design -- it also lets the story get under your skin. What's elegant about it is that the main character understands the world in tandem with the player -- and together, you can progress.
To learn more, Gamasutra spoke to Uchikoshi about developing Virtue's Last Reward.
Virtue's Last Reward's branching pathways
Do you conceive of storytelling as gameplay? Turning storytelling into gameplay? There's a divide, according to many developers.
Kotaro Uchikoshi: In terms of "storytelling equals gameplay" -- yes, I do think that. The visual novel is really special in the way that the storytelling is the gameplay. For example, another game where you have a mission to go and shoot someone, the story is there to enhance it, but the main gameplay is to shoot. But what's special about a visual novel is that the narrative is the game. I do think that storytelling should be gameplay.
How do you go about that -- how do you conceive of gameplay that can be story?
KU: It's really hard to explain, but the visual novel is unique on its own -- it's hard to relate it in terms of, say, manga or anime. It's original -- it's its own thing. By creating a visual novel it's automatically gameplay. The formatting behind the whole visual novel genre is just that unique -- and it's probably because it was originated in Japan.
I'm not sure about the U.S., but in Japan it has its own style and it has pretty much evolved on its own. I'm pretty much going on with how the predecessors formatted it. It's hard to explain, but the visual novel genre allows me to write in that way.
Your game forces you to choose to ally with or betray other characters. The first time I had to do this, I betrayed my opponent and she did not betray me. The second time around, I did not betray her, yet she betrayed me! I expected her not to, and I got pissed off. Was that deliberate on your part?
KU: Let's say in the first one you chose "betray," and in the next one you didn't. In the next one, you would expect it's going to be the same. As a general rule, in games, you're not allowed to backtrack and change your decisions.
But that's a general rule of video games. If I took that and used that as a tool and I made it be what you can't do, that creates some emotion behind it -- you're going to be thinking "WTF? It's not supposed to happen!" That was the goal. The goal was to get a reaction out of you as a player. The reason being was so I could connect it to the theme of Schrodinger's Cat. That's why I did it on purpose.
In our prior interview you referenced Western TV shows a lot. Are they a big influence on how you create drama?
KU: In a way, yes, I guess you can say that they have influenced me. In terms of how, since the series is long -- you have to keep putting turns and twists and pushing the story forward. In that sense, I was influenced.