Spring Thing: Through Time

Through Time, by either MC Book or Killer Robot, is a chooseyourstory game. There will be spoilers. This year’s Spring Thing appears to be You Wake Up In A Boring Bedroom Comp. Medias res, folks, please look into it.

Through Time is heavily drawn from visual novels, specifically dating sims. Jacob is a 28-year-old with a dead-end job and no prospects who mysteriously leaps back in time ten years to, basically, get a do-over on high school.

I am not, on the whole, a fan of VNs. This post, by an author of one of the few Western-made VNs that I’ve played and been somewhat impressed by, matches a lot of my reasons and articulates them from a place of deeper knowledge than I possess. But broadly, when I see something VN-inspired I immediately start looking for three things:

  • Are the characters distinct, interesting creations? In line with the anime tradition, VN characters tend to be drawn from an established set of cookie-cutter templates, differing from them only in trivial surface details. Of course, every medium has its own character tropes, and weak characterisation can happen anywhere, but VNs seem to actively pursue the goal of every character being a trope clone in a different colour of wig.
  • Is the writing disciplined? There’s a strong tendency in VNs for the writing to waffle on at great length, repeating itself heavily and treating banalities as deep insights that the narrator must navel-gaze over for screens and screens of text, or else reporting every word of long conversations about nothing in particular. Again, this happens in every medium to some extent: but the ability to self-edit is one of the first and most important skills that a writer must learn, and in VNs (at least, in the Western-made VNs I’ve encountered) this is very commonly ignored.
  • Does it have a sophisticated structure? That is, is it using the choice-based, branching-narrative form in a way that makes player interaction significant and interesting? Does the form of the game fit the structure of the story, or are they horribly mismatched? Is the player offered interesting choices?

If a piece fails on these fronts, there’s very little it can do to compensate. So how does Through Time do? On the prose front, I’m afraid it’s not great.

“Well, nice to meet you then.”

You say, extending your hand. She slowly extends her own hand and shakes yours.

“Yeah, I’m sure we’ll get along like the bestest of friends.”

Olivia says sarcastically. She then turns her attention back to the window, effectively ignoring you.

First of all, I repeat: reported speech is a single sentence, not two sentences! Otherwise, the ‘you say’ part doesn’t refer to anything. The first part of the above, for instance, should look like this:

“Well, nice to meet you then,” you say, extending your hand. She slowly extends her own hand and shakes yours.

Secondly, ease up on the adjectives for speech. That ‘sarcastically’ only needs to be included if it’s unclear that that’s the tone – which, in this case, it isn’t. Overemphasising the obvious makes writing look anxious, as though you’re not sure whether the audience understood you the first time or not. And it’s just plain inelegant – the genre of Tom Swifties exists precisely because adjectives describing speech tend to look ridiculous.

Finally, less of the ‘then’. The normal assumption when you’re describing action is that events happen in sequence: the first thing you describe happens, then the second thing, and so on. So the ‘then’ in ‘She then turns her attention…’ is redundant, a word that doesn’t add anything. And when in doubt, always get rid of the words that don’t add anything.

Character. The thing is, Jacob doesn’t really behave like a 28-year-old trapped in the world of an 18-year-old: he behaves like a hopeless 18-year-old. The fantasy of a high-school do-over is, let’s be honest, largely premised on the fact that most of us are less catastrophically clueless and emotionally immature than we were in high school, and if we did it again we’d make better hair choices and stupidly hurt fewer of our friends and, hey, maybe if you didn’t suck so badly then things might go better with GIRLS. Through Time initially seems as though it’s really only interested in the GIRLS part, but this is actually a bait-and-switch.

Initially, Jacob behaves exactly like a high-school boy protagonist in a dating-sim VN: clumsy, unassertive, boring, incapable of conducting a conversation because he’s unassertive and boring. Some of this has in-game justification: Jacob’s memories are somehow scrambled by the time-travel thing, and only at the conclusions of the game do we start to get some backstory about his past and connections to the other major characters, at which point the game becomes about sorting out his relationship failures.

But this is too little, too late. The player shouldn’t have to find a winning ending before they get any significant character development. If a character isn’t interesting to us well before the ending, why would anybody care about getting to the ending in the first place?

Conversations are – per genre – mostly about big pauses, nobody actually saying what they mean, people maddeningly failing to work up the courage to actually say what they mean, and ellipses. This mostly serves to make me want to never, ever want to have a relationship with a VN character because christ paragliding backwards this is crazymaking.

So, what’s the structure like? There’s a lot of text, broken up by no-choice jumps, between each actual choice – which is standard for VNs – and the stakes of each choice are usually not apparent until after you’ve taken it, and possibly not then. This is a genre where very small, boring choices  – things along the lines of  ‘do your homework or stare out of the window’ – will have unexpected consequences for your relationship status. Some are a bit more obvious, and most are at least clear after you’ve done them – ah, OK, if I get the wrong classroom then I run into Olivia, presumably that bumps our relationship up a bit.

This makes sense because it’s designed for heavy replay: the first few runs will almost certainly end in failure, but they serve to map out the territory. (As is somewhat common in this genre, you’re locked out of the best end until you’ve completed some other endings.) The territory is pretty standard: certain choices improve your relationship score with one of the four main characters, and if you pay enough attention to a particular character by the time the Fair happens then you get the option to go down a story track dedicated to them. If you don’t particularly commit to anyone then the game ends prematurely. Once you’re on a particular character’s track, most of the non-optimal choices end the game.

While it’s structurally a choose-your-girlfriend dating sim, there’s actually only really One True Girlfriend for the protagonist: of the other three characters, two are Just Friends and one’s your little sister (your platonic little sister, it is contextually necessary to stress). And this One True Girlfriend comes with a One True Ending, parts of which only make sense if you’ve seen the other endings.

This kind of game is really designed for exhaustive play, for people willing to play through again and again until they understand how everything fits together and have seen all the outcomes. Accretive parser-IF can be a bit like that – Varicella is the stock example here – but the thing is, this model relies on your audience being really engaged with your content. If you love all the characters and want to see more about them, or if the writing’s so fuck-off great that you want to hunt down every last nugget of it, you can afford to do this. You can’t get your audience to stick around purely with the promise of The Mysterious Answers That Will Only Be Revealed If You Complete Everything. (Very sensibly, the author has included a full diagram of the game’s tree, so you don’t need to brute-force the entire thing.)

So. In terms of story design, this is clearly the strongest of the chooseyourstory entries, but it really, really needs to tighten up its prose and characterisation. Prosewise, I’m going to be a broken record: add more distinctive detail, and cut, cut, cut. Don’t have something happen, and then have the protagonist think to himself ‘gosh, that thing happened, and here is what it was’ for three paragraphs. Get rid of the shoe leather; I don’t need to know about Jacob getting out of bed every morning. Get rid of the padding. If you’re going to have your character navelgaze, have us actually learn something about them in the process: if they’re just dithering over things that we know about already, you’re wasting time.

As far as characterisation goes, the story only works if we’re shown aspects of Jacob that make him seem worth redeeming – otherwise you’ve got a Manic Pixie Dream Girl problem. In general, I think that One True Eternal Love premises are unconvincing, but if you’ve going that route then you really need to give your readers some firm grounds to find your leads appealing. I was readily convinced that Jacob was a slacker with a mean streak that allowed friends to come to harm through inaction; I was less convinced that he was such a wonderful boyfriend that he was worth moving the space-time continuum for.

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