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How Japanese mystery visual novel games create an immersive world?

The essence of Japanese mystery visual novels is to emphasize the circumstance ambiance, story plot, and revealing human truths. The key element to mystery games is the involvement of players in-game experience.

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

March 29, 2022

8 Min Read

Japanese mystery visual novels never fail to fascinate people, especially for quite a lot of enthusiasts of mystery and detective games. This article introduces how Japanese mystery visual novels use the closed circle as an element to create a satisfying mystery for players.

Japanese mystery visual novel games are usually with lots of regional cultural characteristics. There already are large numbers of high-level works, although they are still fairly uncommon. From Doujin groups to large-scale game companies, for works like Banshee's Last Cry, Umineko When They Cry, The House in Fata Morgana, Japanese mystery visual novel games have attracted gamers from all over the world with their unique charm.

The essence of Japanese mystery visual novels is to emphasize the circumstance ambiance, story plot, and revealing human truths. The key element to mystery games is the involvement of players in-game experience, and simple visual novels may make it difficult for players to immerse in the game because of the lack of interactive means. In order to provide an immersive game experience, Japanese visual novels pay more attention to the creation of the atmosphere and circumstance ambiance, to enhance the player's sense of engagement. Therefore, this article will summarize one of the common methods in Japanese visual novel games to create the ambiance, and analyze how such games use locked-room elements to make players immerse in the story plot and successfully creates more players' involvement.

1. Background and Atmosphere

Closed circle mysteries

The most common setting for Japanese indie mystery visual novel is the closed circle (クローズド・サークル) or Locked-room mysteries which first appeared in Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None. Since the story of And Then There Were None is set on an isolated island, this model is also known as the closed circle of suspects. The setting of this detective story has been created again and become carried forward in Japan, and now the idea of closed circle is seen across in many Japanese indie adventure games. The closed circle mystery usually refers to a situation in which for a given crime (usually a murder), and there is a quickly established, limited number of suspects, all gathered in a relatively closed environment due to natural or man-made factors, and are temporarily unable to contact the outside world. In the situation where no one can leave, there is succession of deaths, and it is known that the criminal is one of the people present at or near the scene. In mystery visual novel games, players often play the role of the detective, who has to figure out the criminal from this pool of suspects with fewer and fewer survivors.

2. Practical Use

Umineko When They Cry & Return to the Shironagasu Island

Umineko When They Cry is a Japanese dōjin soft visual novel series. The game has typical closed circle mysteries such as the island in the storm and the big mansion. The story takes place at Rokkenjima, a private island where the wealthy Ushiromiya family has gathered to attend the family meeting every year on the first weekend of October. On October 4, 1986, the eldest son, Zousu, taking the place of the ailing family head, Kinzo, presided over the meeting, in which everyone was discussing the division of assets. In his own study, Kinzo ignored his vulture-like children and focused on his mysterious black magic behind closed doors. And the grandchildren, on the other hand, in a harmonious atmosphere, did not care about a rivalry that grew among their parents.

There are also five servants in the house, three of whom are favored by the family head...... Due to the typhoon, Rokkenjima becomes an island isolated from the outside world. Two days after the typhoon, the police boarded the island and saw only a horrific scene. Afterward, someone found a letter that expects to unravel the truth about the murder done by the witch Beatrice, making the incident a mystery that was unsolvable for years. In the isolation of two days, what actually happened on the island? Was it murder by the witch or a human being? As a detective and mystery game, Umineko When They Cry hopes that players can gain pleasure in the reasoning process. The player's goal is to solve the mystery of the murder in the closed circle on Rokkenjima and to find out who the murderer really was.

Return to the Shironagasu Island, the indie mystery visual novel by a single developer, also uses similar elements of closed circle mysteries. The mansion located on Shironagasu Island, where the GPS is unable to operate, is exactly the place that the detective goes for investigation. The game starts with the testament of a millionaire: a mysterious invitation to the unknown island. The game's protagonist, Sen Ikeda who runs a detective agency in New York, together with Neneko Izumozaki, a girl with special abilities, travels to the secluded island. A sequence of strange things happened on the Shironagasu Island, and the two also experienced a number of insoluble murders. What kind of hidden secret is buried in the mysterious island? The player has to figure out various clues in the isolated island, to solve the mystery and then escape safely from this cursed place.

3. The effect

Survival instincts in the closed circle

The game has its own advantages over fiction or film in presenting the environment of the closed circle mysteries: the player can play an important role in the scene of a murder. In the closed circle mysteries, the characters suffer from the stress of unknown dangers and isolation from the outside world, and those who are trapped start panicking, become anxious and suspicious, and even gradually take all kinds of irrational behaviors. The detective role by the player, at all times or temporarily, will be in a state of powerlessness. Human's survival instinct alongside fear of the unknown, makes the player constantly concerned about the survival of the characters, because of potential dangers that may happen at any time. Without knowing what dangers lie ahead and what will happen next, precisely fits part of human nature, that is the fear of the unknown and the instinct to survive.

In the mystery game, the player will not know who is the real murderer until the last moment. The setting that, knowing the murderer is around but got no way to escape, successfully awaken the tension and fear, as if the players are there experiencing it themselves, being afraid of the unknown. Many games with closed circle mystery place more importance on the atmosphere of the entire game, rather than on the truth of murders. Often, Japanese mystery visual novel games are set with multiple endings to give players more space to explore. Many of them also add various innovative settings to the closed circle mystery, including the discovery and the use of special items, elements of a countdown clock, reincarnation, parallel worlds, and superpowers, which makes it more interesting and attractive.

As the closed circle mystery works well in highlighting atmosphere, it is also increasingly used in the same type of games in some other regions. Indie game The Vigilant Villa also sets the murder case to a hilltop villa, where the main character must spend seven days, losing contact with the outside world, and find the truth of the case. Together with other characters in the story, the player has to solve the mystery in isolation. Interacting in reading texts, closed circle mystery games are with the well-designed story logic and soul-stirring plot. Therefore, these games have become a paradise for fans of detective and mystery games.

4. Player Experience

Immerse in the mystery as the protagonist

Many classic closed circle visual novels have received highly favorable reviews. Take Return to the Shironagasu Island for an example, there are 1660 reviews on Steam, of which 1615 are positive, with a positive rating of 97.2%. Most players have praised the game's mystery settings, the story plot that linked together with each other, and the sense of immersion and involvement experience it provides for players.

The Japanese mystery visual novels like Return to the Shironagasu Island have a full story, and the flow is quite natural from the beginning to the end of the story. And each part of the story is felicitous, right with great character designs. For this type of game, the requirement for players control is almost zero. Abandoning the gameplay of controlling, the visual novel games focus more on the psychological interactions. Players, as the protagonist of the game, are immersed in the whole atmosphere, shedding tears for the death of friends in the game, trembling with excitement for escaping from the island, as if they are experiencing it all in reality.

This kind of feedback is the true reflection of the player's emotional involvement. Many players tend to play the game multiple times, with a fresh experience for each time. It is widely agreed in the fans of mystery visual novels: first time new, the second round for plot, third to dig more into the details, the fourth time for full achievements, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth all dedicated to nostalgia. It is a unique charm, that the mystery visual novels attract so many players.

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