Riot Games and visual novels

Riot Games released a new event lasting from July 22 to Aug. 24 to go along with the debut of the “Spirit Blossom” League of Legends skin line. The skins take on a mythical aesthetic, and the event story takes place entirely within a spirit realm where the characters have various duties regarding how they usher the dead into the afterlife. Cassiopeia serves as the spirit of temptation, Kindred as the spirit of death. Ahri and Thresh both serve as guides for dead and lost spirits.

The aesthetic and the story scream anime, which Riot Games acknowledged publicly. They leaned into it and told the story through a visual novel format, giving the reins for the project to someone within Riot who had experience working on visual novels in the past. It was an undertaking unlike anything League of Legends players had gotten to experience thus far, exposing an entire new group of people to the benefits of a visual novel, even if it was dumbed-down a bit.

What exactly a visual novel is can be hotly debated. Is it a book? Is it a game? The truth is somewhere in the middle. The main purpose is first and foremost to tell a story. Characters and locations are given physical form, unlike books. Events are rarely, if ever, animated which isolates it from movies or shows. In fact, it’s pretty pointless to try to define a visual novel as anything other than just that.

The true difference in a visual novel experience is in player choice. Most big visual novels have numerous routes to travel down through different player choice. The dialogue options can advance or hurt your relationships with other characters, while different actions could lead you to better or worse outcomes. This personal choice style of gameplay almost hit the mainstream when survival horror game Until Dawn released in 2015. The choices you made could help all characters survive until the end or maybe none at all.

The reason visual novels might be more of a new concept to some people is that they have existed primarily in Japan, often serving as a precursor to some easily recognizable anime. Science fiction anime Steins;Gate and drama anime Clannad both originated from VNs, for example. The widely popular and immensely complicated Fate media franchise also originated from a VN entitled Fate/Stay Night.

The versatility of visual novels is apparent out of the gate. Steins;Gate deals with time travel, Clannad with high school life, and Fate/Stay Night with a standard medieval fantasy setting. They aren’t limited to that. Puzzles are relatively easy to tackle in the VN format, leading to such masterpieces as the horror-oriented Zero Escape Series or the unique mystery of Danganronpa. Romances are also prominent in the medium, but the good ones manage to separate themselves well. Hatoful Boyfriend, Katawa Shoujo, and If My Heart Had Wings all three cover romance in vastly different ways. Even with their bizarre premises, they stand out in their storytelling. Of course, stories aren’t restricted to one genre. Doki Doki Literature Club made splashes in the Western world as a romance at surface-level but with a gruesome twist.

The issue with VNs and how they’ve struggled to expand their influence to the West is often very superficial, even if I don’t blame people for rejecting them. I dropped Steins;Gate the first time around because I didn’t appreciate the eccentric nature of the main character and I’ve heard countless stories about how people dropped Clannad for the odd art style. Hatoful Boyfriend is a romance about birds. Birds! Still, all three of these were received well and are highly regarded by fans of the medium today. The surprising depth in the stories and the ability to replay the story to get different endings provides an experience that nothing else can truly replicate, and it would be a shame to write them off because of baseline issues with the aesthetics or the premise.