I’ve always liked playing video games. It has all started when I was around 5 and my dad bought a Pegasus and, obviously, Mario Bros to go with it. We often played together or I tried my skills alone and we often compared who managed to progress further – mind you, those were the times when save function wasn’t a thing in games! So every time you ran a game, you had to start it from the very beginning!
Later I discovered computer’s DOS games (Jazz Jackrabbit was lit!) and the world of computer games for Windows opened up to me. My family knew all about my hobby and, surprisingly, supported it with birthday or Christmas presents! Before you blink your eyes and reread the previous sentence, completely confused, remember that those were the 90s and gaming in my country was still considered pretty much a boys’ hobby and a bad, unhealthy hobby, too – girls like me were supposed to love Barbies and plushies. Thank God my parents were of modern thinking which meant games and Lego for me – I’d never shown much interest in dolls. Still, video gaming was restricted for most of my childhood – I got 30-60 minutes of play per day and my beloved GameBoy Color was being taken away for the school year and returned to me for summer and winter holidays. Still, I used every opportunity to play games in my free time and I still do, over 20 years later.
When I started learning English, it wouldn’t surprise you that I learnt A LOT from the games I played – especially that in 90s game translation was a rare thing in my country. We got tons of games which were not translated at all and basically imported untouched (thus available only in English, or they just translated the box and the manual, but the gameplay was entirely in English). At the time, it was frustrating, because some games you wanted to play were not translated and playing them was trial and error at first in order to figure out HOW exactly to play the game. That was especially true with Nintendo and Playstation games. I don’t remember when first translated Playstation titles hit, but it was pretty late (I’d even guess post-Playstation 2). Anyway, we had to deal with gaming in English – apart from the language benefits it was a double-edged sword because we were kids and kids are kids – if you didn’t understand something, you got angry and you dropped it, getting no language practice out of it as a result. But when you’re a kid, you don’t perceive games in another language that way.
When it came to language teaching methodology, nobody was talking about using video games as a language resource at that point as well. Everybody who played games was wasting their time in front of the screen, in the others’ opinion. This is one of the reasons why I’d never really recognised how much progress I made in English thanks to games. Fortunately, I finally did when I started learning Japanese – it was already late 2000s, times changed, I grew up and was more aware of how I study and consume knowledge. So when I asked myself what would be the most pleasurable thing for me to consume in Japanese, my mind immediately hinted that I should play some games.
But which games wouldn’t require a high level of proficiency in a language? I mean, it’s one thing when you can take your time to read and understand and, if things get too difficult, finally open that dictionary you hate so much. But it’s another story when a game moves forward before you have even finished reading a sentence simply because the game itself was programmed to do so after a few seconds… Or when you cannot move forward with your game because you don’t understand how its gameplay and mechanics work and thus you put the game away. This is something that actually happened to me when I ran Pokemon Blue for the first time (I was only a kid at the time and my English skills weren’t great, obviously, as I had just started learning it), I couldn’t pass further than the second town because I didn’t understand that I was supposed to go back to the first town to deliver a parcel. So I got stuck until I stumbled upon a Polish walkthrough and was finally able to move on. On a side note, Pokemon games were a major factor that contributed to my English proficiency – I played all of them until Sun and Moon series and replayed most of them several times. The fact that you have to repeatedly choose specific attacks and perform other repetitive actions really add up to your language skills if you’re a gamer.
Taking my above-mentioned gaming experience into account, I immediately knew that I didn’t want to play a game in Japanese I wouldn’t enjoy, simply because it would be less rich in text or of a disliked genre (for example, I don’t play sports games or shooters) at the cost of it having a lower level of language difficulty. Luckily, 2 years earlier I’d started to play games of a particular genre which was just perfect for the job: the game didn’t move from one text to another without you clicking to confirm it, it had simple game mechanics, so you don’t have to focus too much on understanding them (and they are also almost the same in most titles of this genre, so once you learn how to play them, you can play any game of this genre, just learn one or two differences in the title’s mechanics and you’re good to play it without any manual every time) AND, what was the best and most valuable feature of it, almost all of the text appearing in the game was DUBBED by voice actors, so I wouldn’t have to worry about encountering a word I could understand but didn’t know how it was written – the in-game characters were talking to me, the player, and what they were saying was displayed on the screen at the same time – this feature really cut down on my dictionary search time.
That genre is visual novel.
The mechanics of visual novel are very simple and friendly even to a person inexperienced in video gaming – your only job is to click or hit a specific button (e.g. on Playstation it’s X or O on the gamepad) in order to make the appearing text progress and you have to make some choice once in a while – usually you, as the game’s protagonist, are supposed to choose between 3-4 different options you’re offered (it can be a line the protagonist is supposed to response with or an action they choose to perform) and depending on that choice the game progresses in different ways (and leads to different endings – each visual novel usually has multiple possible endings). If you’ve ever played heavily plot-driven games like Life is Strange, Heavy Rain, Beyond, The Walking Dead – you know what I’m talking about.
Yet, visual novels are much more simple, there usually isn’t any walking on the screen, it’s more static – you can see the text box, the background image and a character sprite on the screen. Let me show you an example:
In the game, you mainly read a bunch of text while the characters, background scenery and text appearing on the screen change. The purpose of the game is to, basically, read the whole story, as you would read a book from cover to cover. Sounds boring? But pour some background music, sound effects (like broken glass or rain), voice acting, diversity of characters’ images (with different facial expressions, too!), rich plot, occasional extra detailed image (they’re commonly known as CGs, i.e. computer graphics and they usually show a scene from the game that you’re experiencing at the moment), gamepad or console vibration to the mix and you get an exciting and engaging emotional roller-coaster, that is visual novel games.
In a sense, visual novels are like typical paper novels, but more interactive in their nature, as you can influence the outcome of the plot (the story usually has various endings – both good and bad ones – and it’s quite fun to discover them all), you can also see the characters (and their facial expressions too, since sprites are not the same all the time – the game usually includes several sprites of the same character with different facial expressions and clothes, which only adds to the experience), see the setting of a scene, hear the sound effects, listen to the background music (actually, they have great soundtracks and, to tell the truth, most of my favourite motivational tracks come from video games!), hear the characters’ voices and so on (I mean, especially in otome games, if you put the headphones on, it’s an amazing, out-of-the-world experience, as they use a special equipment called “dummy head mic” to record the voices. Because of that, if a game character is supposed to whisper in your ear – you’re under the impression that he/she REALLY is whispering straight into your ear. This is why I enjoy those games so, so much).
So, in a way, visual novels are like a book but in a game format. However, you get as much reading practice as you would with a book, just with some handicap – because most of the text is displayed and read by the voice actors at the same time (usually excluding the protagonist’s and the narrator’s lines – but that makes a nice change and a welcomed challenge in-between the dubbed parts). You can also turn the voice acting completely off in the menu if you want a real challenge. Or just mute chosen characters – most visual novels include such options in the game’s settings.
I mostly play otome games, which is a romance in visual novel format. Of course, like it is with books, you can get visual novels of basically any genre – horrors, sci-fi, drama, comedy, slice of life, mystery and so on. The same thing goes with their language version – English and Japanese ones are the most common, but many visual novels have been translated to major European languages, like Spanish, German or French, so you can purchase those instead if that’s your target language. Just pick your poison and get some practice!
What’s more, visual novels can be nicely fused with other game genres – I know very successful and engaging fusions between RPGs and visual novels (e.g. Pokemon, Persona, Ys, Trails of and Tales of franchises), horror and visual novels (Corpse Party, Death Mark) or point-and-click games and visual novels (Virtue’s Last Reward and the entire 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors franchise, Danganronpa or Ace Attorney). Not to mention the fact that you can also replay games you’ve already conquered in another language – not necessarily visual novels, but of other genres too! If you know the game’s mechanics, it makes it that much easier for you to play them, as you only have to focus on the dialogues and the plot – and they’re also something you’ve already read before, so it’s like reading Harry Potter in another language – you know the plot by heart, but you discover how it was translated or, as it is with Japanese visual novels, how they sounded in the original – I actually find it fascinating to get to know how some jokes sounded in Japanese, how closely something was translated, what was lost in the translation process and so on.
For instance, I’m a hardcore JRPG fan and love their rich plots as well as game mechanics, so I often play those (and they also feature tons of standard visual novels elements, like rich dialogues or voice acting, especially when the in-game characters are talking with each other! Just take a look at the example below). After giving visual novels a try, I made a brave choice to include JRPGs in my Japanese gaming mix – but only those I’d finished before, so I know their gameplay mechanics inside out. As of last week, I purchased a game of my favourite JRPG franchises of all time, that is Persona. I got myself a copy of Persona 4 Golden in Japanese as a result. I can’t wait for it to come and play it in the original! I’m definitely going to tell you about my experience with this one!
As I’ve said in my last entry, the great thing is that because a visual novel is a game, it tends to draw you in, as games usually do, and you get curious about what’s going to happen next. As a result, rather than checking your dictionary every time you don’t understand something, you usually continue playing without that dictionary search. That is why games are great for what I’ve talked about the last time – immersion and understanding the unknown from the context. And you can benefit from visual novels especially, with their rich and captivating plots and long gameplay. Getting every ending takes around 20-30 hours of playing – that varies from title to title, of course, but it’s usually that much.
Yet, if you use games for language practice, you have to take into consideration that this hour estimate is about games you can play comfortably, that is without taking breaks to check your dictionary (so either when you’re already advanced in a language or the game’s in your mother tongue). I usually take much more time when I’m playing in Japanese because I’m not fluent yet – in total, it can take several weeks before I finish a game.
As for the games’ prices and where to import them from, I plan on writing a separate post about my games, manga and books shopping tips and sources – I’m going to publish a post on that in 2 weeks. The next week’s topic is going to be an extension of this entry – since I’d revealed that I was going to publish a post about video gaming and language learning, many people approached me, asking what game I would recommend for their level. This is why the next blog post is going to cover my personal recommendations for visual novels on 3 levels of Japanese language proficiency – easy, intermediate and hard – as well as how to evaluate whether a game we’re interested in is going to be suitable for our language level. Stay tuned for next week!