June 18, 2019
At the strike of midnight beginning this new year of twenty-ninteen, I took a solemn oath. I would seek out the underappreciated games and spread the message of their glory through the land! Well actually my wife and I barely made it to midnight, and I decided on my resolution halfway through January, but the point remains that I have enjoyed a plethora of great indie games this year.
The latest in a growing list that I have played is a bit of an oddball, a visual novel called VA11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action. No matter what game I’m playing, I inevitably relate it to Zelda along the way. Is it as good as Zelda? Does it have something that could add to Zelda? I guess I just can’t put my favorite game series out of my mind, in hopes that occasionally I’ll think wacky thoughts like “Hey, could a Zelda visual novel work?” Honestly I never even considered this possibility before I played VA11 Hall-A, but now it actually seems interesting to me, so I thought I’d compile my thoughts and raise the question for further discussion. Let’s get to it!
Va11 Hall-A is the first visual novel I have ever played further than a demo, so this is coming from a fairly narrow viewpoint, but I think there are quite a number of elements about the game that could translate easily to The Legend of Zelda. The focus on characterization is taken to a new level which most game series could scarcely to scratch the surface of. The only one to come close would be Fire Emblem; with its support system adding little tidbits into these characters’ lives on and off the battlefield, it solidifies the series as my favorite RPG franchise. Visual novels unfold similarly, and to a far greater extent than would be possible otherwise.
In VA11 Hall-A, you play as Jill, a bartender in a future where your regulars range from douchebag newspaper editors to happy-go-lucky sex robots, as well as the occasional talking corgi. These characters seem like one-offs when you first meet them, every one, but the ones that repeat have had so much of an impact on you since the first time you met them that you can’t help but be emotionally attached at the second meeting. Sometimes it’s the kind of emotional attachment where you hate their guts, but still, it’s emotional.
Jill herself has the most characterization, of course, but it’s hard to see for the first few ingame days of the story. She has a bit of a silly side interacting with her coworkers, but for large chunks of the narrative, she has to put on a poker face and serve whatever weirdo wanders through the door. I’ve known many bartenders and waiters, and I can tell you that speaks true to how the real world works on an almost scary level. After the first week of the game’s story, Jill has a long conversation with her boss, Dana, taking her character to a new level. The depth of human emotion shown within this scene is something that Fire Emblem can barely hold a candle to, and if Zelda tried to hold a candle to Fire Emblem, it would burn its finger lighting the match.
This sort of characterization is among the few elements the series has always lacked. Even at its best with games like Skyward Sword and its highly praised storyline, the only characters that really develop over the course of the game are Impa and Groose. Link saves the day as always without saying a word, and Zelda realizes her destiny but remains basically the same as she starts throughout the entirety of the narrative. Certainly none of the characters were bad, but with a little more personality, a little more emotion, and a little more growth, the stories in the Zelda series could truly blossom and become impossibly good, rather than simply giving reason to the gameplay, which is the true factor that makes the series an icon.
To extend this point, I actually think Link should remain silent in this hypothetical visual novel. Putting the player in control of his actions and giving him limited to no dialogue options has always been the way Link himself has been characterized, and I think this could make an interesting mechanic for the game. In VA11 Hall-A, Jill’s dialogue plays out itself and you can only influence the conversation by serving drinks. I know, that’s pretty odd. Still, it makes it very interesting to see what effect you can have on people by giving them screwed up drinks, putting more alcohol in to get them drunk faster, and other such mechanics.
This interaction through action system would fit Link perfectly. Link’s entire character is action, not dialogue. If the rest of the story played out around you and Link got choices like using one item or another to solve a puzzle, this could open up rooms of the dungeon (and therefore secret dialogue segments) that would otherwise be missed. If he got to fight enemies in some way, the other characters could react to how he fights, or who he helps first if multiple allies are attacked at once.
The possibilities are endless, and I would not have been sold on this idea last month, but suddenly this is seated among my dream games.
A visual novel Zelda game is something most people might scoff at, but I believe it has great potential, and I would love to see an attempt be made. Would this interest you? Do you think I’m a fool for suggesting a visual novel with a mute protagonist? Would you prefer to just read a book? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter or the Two Guys Playing Zelda Discord server and we can keep the conversation rollicking!