In a couple of past articles I’ve written, I’ve mentioned the genre of games known as the visual novel. Actually, the term “game” is a difficult one to apply. The amount of interactivity between games in the genre varies, but all of them boil down to one thing: lots and lots of reading. There’s a reason “novel” is part of the name. It’s easier to consider these kind of games more like books that have illustration, animation, music, and some voice acting.
The visual novel is pretty firmly a Japan-only genre of gaming, although it is gaining some very niche popularity in the West in recent years. The fact that most of these games focus just on reading and tend to feature anime aesthetics and storytelling styles seem to push Western audiences away from them. Not to say, though, that nobody here plays them. The Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape series are both visual novel-style games that have gained a decent following in the West. However, these series lean heavy on the side of the genre with gameplay, with just as much time spent solving puzzles as reading text. It’s the straight-forward just-reading ones that don’t seem to grab the West’s attention.
A couple of companies attempted to import this kind of game long before the genre got attention from the likes of the Phoenix Wright series. One of the companies that made a major push for the genre was Hirameki International. Originally founded in 2000, Hirameki began its effort to bring visual novels to the West with its first releases in 2003. All of their releases in their first two years were games intended to be played on DVD players. While the low amount of interactivity in a visual novel seems to fit this kind of setup, a DVD player typically isn’t seen as a gaming device. That, perhaps, is what drove them to move to PC publishing in 2005. Their first PC release would become their most well-known among those who know the genre, and be held up by these people as one of the best of its kind seen in the West.
Originally released in Japan in 2002, Hirameki brought Ever17 to North America in December 2005. In Japan, this game was the second installment of the “Infinity Series,” a set of novels that shared a universe and some similar plot points. In North America, though, this is the only installment we officially got.
Ever17‘s story revolves around a set of characters who become trapped in an underwater theme park known as “LeMU”. The characters have about three days to find a way out of the theme park before it succumbs to water pressure and is destroyed. Along the way of finding an escape, they discover secrets about the theme park and each other that hint that everything happening may have occurred for a reason, and that they are all connected to each other in some way. Some may recognize this as a similar setup to a more recent game, 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, which was written by the same author as Ever17.
The game’s story focuses on seven characters, and the player is given a choice near the beginning to choose one of two characters to experience the story through. The choice affects the perspective on the story, but also decides which characters will be featured. The first half of Ever17 follows a “dating game” structure, where the player chooses which of the female characters, out of four possible, they wish to romance. Each of these characters has a personal story that eventually adds to the game as a whole. After completing these stories, you are able to go back and access the finale of the game, which ties every loose end together in a way that has made many players hold up this game as one of the best visual novels to be written.
As mentioned earlier, as a pure visual novel, there is little to no interactivity in the game. You simply read the story line by line, and eventually you are given choices as to where you want the story to go. These choices are mostly to determine which heroine’s story you are trying to follow, and also to provide you access to the endgame once you reach that point. In a comparison many are apt to make, it plays very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
While many players of the game treasure it and will shout its praises to the ends of the Earth, this style of game was even more niche back when it was released than it is now. Anime was also much more stigmatized around this time, so the combination of an unknown genre, a game that isn’t a “game,” and an anime aesthetic practically screamed a quick death for the game on the general market. Ever17 ended up with a very small release, and those that own the game tend not to want to sell it, so when an English copy is found for sale, it typically commands multiple hundreds of dollars. Hirameki itself, after a handful more releases, ended up bowing out of video game publishing in 2008. An archive of their original website shows that they had set their hopes high, with many more announced releases than they actually ended up publishing.
Hirameki, overall, seems like it was a company ahead of its time. In the past couple of years, publishers have begun bringing more visual novels to Western shores. A number of visual novel-exclusive publishers have popped up again as well, such as MangaGamer and JAST (although these companies are heavily relying on pornographic games). The genre remains niche, but gamers seem to be more willing to give it a try, and its popularity is slowly rising. In some ways, one can say that Hirameki paved the way for visual novels in the West, and they have definitely left a major mark with Ever17. We just have to wait and see what the future holds for this style of gaming…or reading, if you prefer.