What is Gameplay?
As it turns out, most games that people play have this little thing called gameplay. Whether it’s aiming and shooting enemies in an FPS or the resource management and strategy in a 4X game. Most would agree that these examples would constitute gameplay, as disparate as they are. One could also claim that the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) genre has games where picking a choice is the only real interaction with the game. Does that constitute gameplay as well?
Technopedia.com defines gameplay as the way “the game is played, the game rules, the plot, the obstacles that need to be overcome, and the player experience.” I take that to mean any interaction on the player’s part would count up to and including the player’s own personal experience with the game. Personally, I would define gameplay as requiring skill (either mechanical or cognitive) and the possibility of either winning or losing the game. My point being that it’s not as easy to accurately define the term ‘gameplay.’ The easiest (emphasis on easiest, not the best) way to collate all these definitions would be to put them all on a scale. On one side, we have games where minimal interaction from the player is required, e.g., kinetic VNs where reading is the only interaction. On the other side, we have games with fully-fledged game mechanics, that have multiple success and fail states, etc. Obviously, where a game falls on this scale generally has no effect on how good said game is. This scale is merely to be used as a tool to analyse the industry. I’m no data analyst and much of what I infer here is anecdotal in nature, so please take everything you read with a large grain of salt.
Gameplay is a term used to define the way players interact with a certain video or computer game. It is further characterized as the way the game is played, including the rules, the plot, the objectives and how to conquer them, as well as a player’s overall experience.techopedia.com
Now, if we apply this scale to the adult games industry we can see an interesting shift towards games with fewer gameplay elements. In fact, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that a good portion of adult games fall under AVNs that employ a Choice-Based system wherein choices made by the player influence the story and possibly the end outcome. They can range from small 15-minute experiences made by a single person to feature-length epics with overlapping plots and branching choices developed by an actual studio.
I was never a really big fan of visual novels and when I first got into adult games I was a bit thrown off by the fact that many of them were VNs. Slowly I dipped my toes into a lake I wasn’t comfortable swimming in, and as my knowledge of the industry grew, I began to appreciate the visual novel medium. But I also did begin to wonder why so many devs took to the VN formula. On the surface, it seems easy to guess; Ren’Py is arguably one of the easiest game engines to create your first game in. A crash course in Python programming and creating decent art assets will get you pretty far along your journey as an adult game developer. But I believe that there’s more to this than just ease of access. Another crucial aspect that we shouldn’t ignore is that the vast majority of developers are either really small teams or even just a single person. When your development team is that small, it’s almost essential that compromises have to be made. It’s with small projects like these where the quality of the game is derived from the passion and drive of its devs.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many devs have more of a story to tell than a game they want to make. And what better medium than a visual novel for pure story? The tools in Ren’Py are ripe for creating some of the most visually stunning and emotionally rich stories, let alone them being adult stories. As some would say; games are art.
However, I see things slightly differently; having a background in Game Design allows me some extra insight into the world of adult gaming. The biggest question I could put forward about adult games is this;
Is gameplay for adult games ‘different?’
We look at traditional videogames as a mesh between storytelling and gameplay where the goal is to accomplish a set objective in order to ‘win’ the game. Visual Novels also combine these two aspects but the end goal is usually quite different. When a developer creates a VN – more than likely – their goal is for players to enjoy the story. In essence, experiencing the story is the main objective. In cases where some VNs have multiple endings, achieving the ‘true’ or ‘golden’ ending can be considered a secondary objective.
There are obviously exceptions to the rule; MIST is a great Visual Novel with a heavy focus on its story. But that doesn’t mean that the game shies away from traditional gameplay loops. In fact, it has a simple yet sturdy RPG system complete with combat and character levels. You could even call it an RPG-lite with VN elements. In MIST, the player is tasked to go on excursions into the wilderness to investigate strange happenings, accomplish a certain goal, or more menially, to gather food. If during these expeditions you fall to an enemy, you will return home prematurely and without any of the food gathered. This can be considered a Soft Fail State as there is no permanent penalty for losing a fight. There are also certain events in the game where losing a fight leads to a game-over screen. This would be a Hard Fail State as without winning the battle, there is no way to progress the game. In this way, MIST would satisfy my definition of gameplay (and probably leads to my increased enjoyment of the game).
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Kinetic Visual Novels. Games like this have a linear story to tell and feature no branching paths or alternative routes. They are, in effect, more akin to traditional novels than to games. Historically, eastern developers tend to employ this format for their games. Now, I don’t particularly have much experience with Kinetic VNs; they’re just not what I look for in adult games.
Now, what do I mean by gameplay “is gameplay for adult games ‘different?'” Well, as I said above, most VNs tend to stray away from standard gameplay tropes, sure there might be bosses to battle or stats to level but these are just a means to an end. And that end is, more often than not, a steamy sex scene. As was previously mentioned, player experience counts as gameplay, and what better player experience is there in an adult game than a sex scene? Every gameplay element, every choice, builds up to a sexual and narrative release, as well as another form of release…
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Ren’Py
Now, I don’t think anyone doubts that VNs are the popular choice when it comes to adult games. As previously mentioned, Ren’Py’s ease of access makes it the prime choice for amateur devs to try their hand at something. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing; anyone can start something with little to no experience and create something great. On the other hand, we have Sturgeon’s law to contend with.
Having so many people be able to create their own games means that we have an incredible range of stories from Sci-Fi and Fantasy to the more mundane Slice of Life. From abstract art pieces to straight-up raunchy sex games. There’s something out there for everyone. For example, I’m a bit of a romantic and so I tend to enjoy games with a heavy emphasis on romance. However, I also like a bit of mild S&M. Is it possible to find a game that employs both? Most definitely! In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say it’s one of the more common combinations you could find. Variety like this is an incredibly good sign of a healthy industry.
There is, however, a caveat; with so many new developers beginning their projects with little experience or foresight, that leads to a noteworthy number of them being abandoned shortly afterwards. And even with many ongoing projects having a considerable interval between updates, there is a chance that audiences may grow weary of false promises and subpar delivery.
If we look back a few decades into the history of gaming, some of us may be old enough to remember the Video Game Crash of 1983. One of the leading causes of the crash was the sheer number of low-quality third-party games developed for the Atari 2600. Any company that could develop an Atari game did and flooded the market with so many bad games that consumers’ confidence in Atari just tumbled. And I can see some of what happened then happening now, not just in the adult sphere but in gaming as a whole.
Not to mention that audiences’ tastes change over time, and what was once popular yesterday may not be so popular tomorrow. Take the incest fetish, for example; it’s been popular for quite a while now and probably will be for the foreseeable future. But things can change and maybe it won’t be so popular in the future.
Now I’m not a doomsayer prophesying the downfall of adult games, nor am I saying that amateur devs shouldn’t make games. And neither am I decreeing that incest is no longer in vogue. I am merely cautioning that there are pros and cons to certain factors that the industry as a whole should consider.
A personal opinion
Do I like VNs then? Well, I grew to like them. And I can appreciate the range of stories that they can deliver. But there is more to games than just stories and I believe it would be healthy for the industry to diversify the types of games it creates. I like my games to be challenging, both narratively and mechanically. And I don’t think it would hurt for developers to try something a little bit outside their comfort zone.
To put it succinctly, the adult game audience is quite different when compared to the average gamer. They come and they enjoy these games for vastly different reasons and thusly, want different things from the games they play. Adult developers just provide that more than sufficiently. But as previously mentioned, stagnation can happen in any industry and it can happen here (though it would be highly unlikely).
I apologise if this piece may sometimes sound a bit like a soapbox, and I may have gotten a bit off-topic here and there. I’m not the best at collecting 20 different thoughts on a particular subject and collating them into a semi-coherent piece. I’ll just sign off by saying that adult games, like any piece of media, have a right to exist and if you have an idea for a game you want to create, go out and do it.
Thanks for this. I found your discussion of gameplay and the state of VNs interesting and insightful.