Everyone has heard that “doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of madness” cliche, but as a critic, I don’t always have the luxury of learning from experience. When I don’t think I’ll like something, I generally just stay away – I’m not a big fan of hatewatching, and feel that if you go into something expecting to dislike it, you’re not likely to learn anything from the experience. But when it comes to the Current Projects, sometimes my life is a sequence of touching a hot stove, burning my hand, hearing someone say “I’ll pay you fifty bucks to touch it again,” and then doing exactly that.
I’ve had difficulty getting into visual novels in the past. I started with Katawa Shoujo, which in retrospect probably gave me some unfortunate preconceptions about the medium at large. I know VN aficionados likely see Katawa Shoujo as an “entry level” piece, but it’s not a bad thing to possess qualities that makes your art accessible to a wider audience. And in Katawa Shoujo’s case, those qualities seem to be things like pacing, a believable interior voice, dialogue that sounds like human beings, and stories that respect the reader’s time and investment.
My experiences since then have been somewhat less positive.
Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning, or at least as the portion of it that I managed to read through, exemplifies many of the things I find frustrating about visual novels. In most narrative art forms, it’s basically a given that less is more, and that the text should respect the reader’s time. Wandering asides that don’t contribute to the work’s core goals are trimmed – lines that exist to celebrate themselves instead of furthering the narrative, themes, or our understanding of the characters are excised. “Kill your darlings” is a truism, but it’s a truism for a reason. Much of the writing we are most fond of ends up being the first to be cut, because it serves our own self-indulgent style tics as opposed to the needs of the text.
Visual novels don’t seem terribly impressed by this foundational piece of storytelling wisdom, or at least, the ones I’ve run into certainly don’t. They ramble and wander, creating words seemingly for the sake of having those words exist. Words don’t have to justify themselves here. Every word deserves its day.
I’m generally not very convinced by people saying “nothing happens” in a story, likely because I tend to enjoy the kinds of stories reviled by the people who make those complaints. But generally, “nothing happens” can be translated to “none of the things that invest me in fiction are prioritized by this work” – normally stuff like overt plot beats or big character turns or whatnot. Adding texture to characters, creating atmosphere, giving the audience a moment to breathe – none of those things are “nothing,” and all of them have their place.
But Gahkthun’s style goes beyond that. And then it circles around. And then it starts again right at the beginning.
Basically every line of Gahkthun (again, at least as far as I got into it) earns itself several repetitions. Characters talk in circles about simple topics, as you might expect, but even worse are the flat monologues by the narrator. The visual novel’s first major scene involves a man cursing a ringing bell, which goes on (and on and on and on) for dozens of lines about how sinister the bell is, and how haughty the man. Even if these ideas were rendered in beautiful prose (they aren’t – the text has a rhythm, but it’s simply staggered and repetitive, and doesn’t employ the kind of evocative imagery, internal melody, or graceful phrasing that might bring this sort of repetition to life), they still wouldn’t earn this level of continuous re-emphasis. And this trend continues through every other element of the text.
But first, of course, you have to get through the prologue. Or four prologues, in this case. Gahkthun opens with a context-free monologue about an unknown person feeling grateful to be Tesla’s servant, followed by the man yelling at the bell, followed by a brief fairy tale, followed by a second monologue about the “balance of the world.” Only after all these sequences do we get to an ostensible main character, which…
Look, I know I’m harping on the basics here, but unless you possess a firm grasp of the basics, nothing else you attempt will actually work. So to hit on another relatively beginner tip, starting with a dramatic cold open is always a risky gambit. Yes, it means you can start with something really exciting – but it also means you give the audience nothing to actually hold on to. When you’re starting with an exciting event that lacks context, you’re actually making a bet that your execution of one isolated, climactic scene is more likely to hook the audience than laying the groundwork to make that audience care about all your future events. Editors and agents tend to actively discourage this kind of prologue – it’s a famous trick, but it’s an inherently risky one, and it undercuts the kind of meaningful, grounded investment that will truly make the audience care about your story.
Gahkthun starts with four of these cold opens in a row, all of which lack context, none of which provide an inherent reason to keep reading. There’s a guy named Tesla, and also a mysterious man who hates a bell, and there was once a fairy tale? Those are just empty words – if I don’t already care about your world, and I’m not already convinced you have the skill to tell me something I want to hear, I am not going to be compelled to continue simply because I’ve been shown some scenes I don’t understand. Every narrative I haven’t read contains scenes I don’t understand. You don’t hook me by showing me those – you hook me by showing why I should care.
By opening with these many meaningless prologues, Gahkthun essentially dares the reader to care. And the text that follows continues in that vein – we’re introduced to our apparent heroine, Neon Scalar, but her story proceeds with that same constantly repeating text, continuously challenging the audience on whether they really wish to continue. There may well be a great plot hiding in Gahkthun, but when you bury your story in prose this labored and purple, it is not actually the same story. The prose isn’t simply the vehicle through which stories are transmitted – the prose is the message itself. Whether or not an audience is engaged or moved by your ideas is a consequence less of the Things That Happen than how well you convey the experience of those events in writing.
Having dragged myself through the punishing experience of this game’s first several hours, I can confirm that it’s not actually all bad. The prose is uniformly bad, and the dialogue equally so; characters actually come off like more stilted versions of their anime archetype selves, and at one point, a “that guy saw me naked” gag is extended across dozens of lines of text. But Gahkthun actually does seem to have an interesting world – it’s standard steampunk, but marrying that aesthetic to a classic anime high school (complete with badass student council) results in some cute quirks. I like the way the visual novel implies a great deal about their world without explaining it, and I like some of the small details, like how even the Academy City black market operates in terms of clubs and school credit.
But those nice details are buried under an insurmountable wave of terrible writing. The prose is purple, the lines repeat themselves, and everything is stretched to the point where it loops into some inverse-of-pacing negaverse. No cool story could compel me to fight through that writing, and as I said above, the writing is the story, anyway. Neon repeating everything she thinks half a dozen times doesn’t just make it take longer for anything to happen – it makes me lose faith in her as a believable character, because it doesn’t resemble a convincing interior voice. Neon describing the landmarks of the city ad nauseum doesn’t just make Gahkthun a struggle to read – it means that by the time we actually visit those landmarks, the story has lost the momentum that might make their appearance exciting in the first place. If you have some cool ideas, save them. Write ten thousand bad pages, realize you’re using too many words. Try again.
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