Fatal Hearts

Fatal Hearts calls itself a “visual novel adventure”: a kind of relative of IF which involves huge amounts of character dialogue (largely uninteractive), interspersed with set choices (go to the mall, or do your homework?) and puzzles (such as Theseus-and-the-Minotaur-style maze escapes to see whether you get away from your pursuers). It belongs (as far as I can tell) to a tradition of Japanese adventure games and the sort of thing done in Ren’Py (though Fatal Hearts is not itself a Ren’Py game). Play This Thing! reviewed it a short time ago, and I’ve been curious since.

(Disclaimer: I played only the hour allowed by a demonstration period, so it’s possible that things change past the point I saw.)

There’s a fair amount going for this thing: nifty sound effects, decent anime-style graphics, and a certain kind of moodiness. The story didn’t hook me quite as quickly as I might have liked, since a lot of the opening scenes involving the teenaged PC chatting harmlessly with her best friend and occasionally answering questions that seem like rather unsubtle player-preference-testing (e.g., questions about what you want to do when you grow up, what trait you most value in a romantic partner, etc.). But there is a sense of brooding trouble ahead, and it grows stronger as the game proceeds; by the end of the hour of play allowed by the demo, I had (I think) grasped what were the major problems ahead.

The cast of other characters is decent, too, though I had somewhat the sense that I was dealing with a standard set of character types from a genre I don’t know very well. The dialogue is not flashy, but over time you get the sense of personalities, especially from your best friend.

What doesn’t work so well is the interaction design. There are from time to time mini-game puzzles to resolve various things — whether your team or the opposing team will win at soccer, say, or whether you’ll get away from the policeman following you — and they’re really of fairly variable quality. Sometimes the feedback is reasonably good and they’re solvable; sometimes they’re a bit odd, and only reliance on the built-in hints is enough to help with them. But for the most part I felt they were irrelevant: additions meant to give this piece the name of “game” when what it really wanted to be was a lightly-branching graphical choose your own adventure novel. Ultimately it was my annoyance with those passages (some of which felt quite clunky to me) that made me put the game aside in favor of something else.

I do have the sense, though, that I should try some more entries in the Ren’Py/Japanese adventure genre, because I’m interested in how (and how extensively) they make use of the interactive aspects. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, they seem to get away with long stretches of effective noninteractivity (where the player is just clicking to see more of the dialogue). While I generally think that doesn’t work in IF, I can think of a few semi-exceptions (such as the relatively long click-to-continue cut scenes in Little Falls and Ekphrasis). Both of the latter games had graphics: I wonder whether that has something to do with it?

9 thoughts on “Fatal Hearts

  1. This may be a good time to mention a short paper I recently wrote about the genre for a class on Japanese popular culture. You can read it here: http://www.matsunoki.net/files/visual_novels.pdf

    A couple of caveats: this is for a proseminar class, so it’s more a writing exercise than the result of real research. Also, the deadline for this paper was extended (at the last minute) by about three months, so I wrote the paper quite a long time after I completed the little research I did do.

  2. Capcom’s “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney” series was given a proper localization budget and reasonably heavily marketed in the US. I’m actually unfamiliar with the visual novel genre as named, but a quick check with some friends of mine who should know indicates that the games in the series are examples of the genre. If so, they’re probably currently the most popular visual novel series in the US.

  3. Player preference testing – not exactly. That is, choosing ‘flight attendant’ won’t mean that later in the game you get to become one or have any reference to that again. Those questions serve a few purposes: to get the player thinking in-character, to provide a sense of ownership over the character by being able to choose bits of her personality, and in-game because best friend Lucy is subtly fishing for specific information. Unless they know up-front what she’s getting at, most people don’t see what she’s really asking.

    Both Phoenix Wright and Another Code / Trace Memory (name varies by region) are DS games available in English that have some connection to both visual novels and adventure games. However, unlike Fatal Hearts, neither of them features a branching plot. You either Win or you Lose. They’re mostly just exploring and solving puzzles, like a traditional adventure, but with the story delivered in VN format.

    For full-blown Japanese-style visual novels I would recommend Ever 17, which is low on the interactivity scale but has an interesting story and plays with the medium a bit (can’t explain without spoilers). It’s also non-hentai.

    For Ren’Py exploration of combining story with very simple puzzles, try Time’s Tear – http://atp.manga.sk/pages/tst.htm – I think that only has one win ending, too. Very few people combine puzzles and branching storylines, and most Ren’Py games are straight visual novel, not adventure game. ‘Magical Boutique’ mixes the VN with a business simulation of sorts…

    To Oren Ronen: There *are* commercial Japanese visual novels with female player-characters. Look for ‘otome games’. And even among the male-focused games, not all of them are high school students (not even in all the ones translated to English, which is a miniscule fraction). :)

  4. There is a huge difference in terms of which type of video game (genre) is popular in Japan
    as compared to the US. Right now…more and more US games are sports, racing, first person
    or 3rd person shooters and pure hack & slash.

    While in Japan they love RPGs, SRPGs (strategy RPGs), fighting games, survival horror,
    and they have a lot more commercial interactive fiction.

    I notice from playing many video games. That Japanese games tend to focus a lot more
    on customization, strategy, creating many interesting characters, diverse story (horror, romance, mystery, fantasy, etc). There aren’t as many US video games that focus a lot
    on deep characters and story.

    Notice we are talking about video games. Not pc games. And, still there are so many
    fps, sports/racing and h&s pc games hehe

    There is also much more balance between turn-based and action games in Japan. Here in the US
    very few video games are turn-based on strategy based. That type of game is almost dead
    when it comes to US developers. Most US video games are real button mashers hehe I’m not
    saying they aren’t fun. But, there is a lot more button mashing than thinking or planning a
    strategy

    I also notice that there aren’t as many survival horror video games made in the US. There are
    a lot in Japan. I guess pure survival horror is a bit slow for many players here. I noticed
    that Resident Evil 4 was very popular here in the US. Not surprising since it was faster paced
    and more action than horror. I liked it…but I like the earlier RE games better in terms of
    story and horror. RE4 was more like action horror instead of survival horror.

    I’m a huge fan of strategy and turn-based games. So, I love Japanese SRPGs and RPGs.

    I also have to say that I’m a big fan of Emily’s IF. I enjoyed many of your work. Like
    Pytho’s Mask, Bronze, Glass, Last Sonnet of Marie Antoinette, etc…I hope
    you will continue. Especially with romance/fairy tale type of themes.

    It’s nice to see there is still a place for IF in the US. Even though
    sadly it seems IF isn’t something that attracts a lot of attention from most video game
    players.

    That brings me to one last point. I have a disdain for video game magazines. All they focus
    on is pretty 3D graphics and big name games. They have a hatred for most turn-based/strategy
    games. They also don’t like anything that seems be a graphic novel/IF type game. Heavy focus
    is on multiplayer/online gaming for fps, sports and racing.

    I wish the IF genre would get more popular in the US again. But, that’s wishful thinking
    on my part. Big name franchise series and their numerous sequels like Halo, GTA, or Madden are often gushed upon by the media and that overshadows
    great, obscure and more innovative games.

    Oh well…sorry for rambling and getting a bit off topic.

  5. Only playing the demo won’t tell you anything about this game.
    There are fourteen different endings, and almost every choice you make will get you a different one.
    The puzzles are great and entertaining, and, depending on your choices, you’ll rarely play the same one twice.
    Even one little choice will completely change the ending you get..
    I’ve already played this game ten times trying to unlock all fourteen.

    I’ve gotten six.
    Great, great game.

  6. Please stop comparing visual novels to IFs… they aren’t really that similar besides making choices. Think of them as two different things.

  7. They’re both interactive narrative forms, which I am interested in. If they approach that differently, that just means that there’s much potential to learn from the other medium. I don’t see why comparing them is a bad thing.

  8. Coming from a IF player background (I started with the first examples of the genre in Spain, in the mid-eighties) I’ve found myself more and more interested in these visual novels. When I discovered them for the first time, the ones I played were hentai… but one of them trapped me, I don’t remember it’s name but it was creepy as much as sexy…

    Recently I’ve come across Phoenix Wright and I’m developing a treatment to see if I can bring the same feeling into a pure IF version… Reading this entry I realize than maybe what’s needed it’s the other way around… how much visual novels can benefit of the interactivity of pure IF.

    Okay, I’ve gone way off topic on this one :P But please Emily, keep us posted on your opinions about VNs in contrast to IF, I’m very much interested in your views on this matter.

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