Man, I like Visual Novels, and by that, I mean, I like a lot of the ideas about visual novels. I really like the notion of a videogame medium where writing is put front and centre, and people are expected to engage with text. This year I already reviewed one (rather impressive) Visual Novel, Long Live The Queen – and last year, I spoke energetically about Analogue and Hate Plus. What then, will we see when we turn to a more ‘classic’ visual novel?
First things first, Dysfunctional Systems is sort of an episodic game, promising that it forms but one part in a greater whole. There’s a codex, for storing all that useful information (maybe?), there’s a lovely, smooth, elegant interface that promises to be reused in later instalments. That might be why its price point is $5, but you can buy a lot of game for $5.Hell, in the right places, you can buy lots of games for $5.
is a visual novel of an old style, with a very small cast and a very small number of choices. It used to be when you told a story where you had art for four characters and five backgrounds, you’d tell a story about a small, closed space and make the engagement between those characters the core driving force of the story. You wouldn’t try and use that to tell a big, expansive story about open spaces with huge crowds of people and massive effects and ideas. The limitation of the systems – usually storage space – encouraged the creators to make their product tight, simple, and small. Closed room stories, stories about human interactions, murder mysteries or relationships in chaos.
Dysfunctional Systems is, uh, well, it’s about interdimensional travellers from a futuristic utopia travelling from world to world fixing their problems.
It’s also about an hour long.
Visually it’s hard to complain about the game; it’s quite beautifully done, even it does have that slightly Deviantart feel to it, with a very small pool of art resources used repeatedly. The pictures are high quality, but there’s conspicuously few of them; in the epilogue, there are multiple characters who are shown only as a name in a script, and the best dialogue comes in what is, ultimately, a non-interactive epilogue.
The writing… well, I know I’m a person who considers himself a writer, and I didn’t like how Dysfunctional Systems was written. I feel about half the text was unnecessary padding. There’s a lot of stuff in the story, plenty of words, but almost none of them were interesting or enjoyable. Your mentor character, Cyrus, seems like he’s meant to be interesting, edgy, morally ambiguous, but since he starts off by bullying a teenaged girl in his charge to drink alcohol when she explicitly says she doesn’t want to, he just seems creepy. The protagonist projects sincerity and uncertainty but it’s done so hamfistedly, repeating self-doubt over and over; she has that waifu feel to her, of something someone who wants her to exist outlining the traits about her they like so much. Given these are the first two characters you meet and they have to carry the whole story until the epilogue. That means a lot of ‘…!’ and a lot of ‘you don’t understand!’ and it doesn’t feel like it’s building a pattern. It feels like phrases were thrown into a bulleted list as a sort of narrative grout.
Still, this is a visual novel, and it’s worth examining in light not just of its text, but also its hypertext.
Hypertext, The Idea
Hang on, sit down, we’re talking about something important here. If you don’t care about visual novels as games, you can just jump this section. We’re going to talk about a property of videogames in general, but which visual novels present almost as a centrepiece: Hypertext.
Crash course in literary theory time! To explain hypertext – in a very not-professional-academic way – first we have to define text. The text of a media is the main body of a piece of media, separate from other material like the notes, the illustrations or appendices or things like interviews or other related media. For example, the text of the Avengers movie is just the movie, but it includes all of that movie, from the first second to the last, including all the credits. Conversations about the movie, the making-of documentary, related histories in other comic books or other continuities is the space around the text, which is referred to as paratext.
Then there’s hypertext, which is text revealed by multiple varied iterations of the text. Sound confusing? The easiest example of this is movies that seed hidden information around a twist. You know, Fight Club, The Prestige, or Memento. Videogames are amazing at creating hypertext – because there are multiple variables that can change from play experience to play experience, and that can give you, the player, opportunity to see different information that’s exclusive to each experience. Visual novels, which have a small number of entirely controlled elements, are a storytelling form that can benefit immensely from a conscious use of exploring hypertext.
With that in mind, then, if hypertext is one of the things a visual novel can play with, and even emphasise, does Dysfunctional Systems play with its hypertext well?
Hypertext In Practice
The simplest version of hypertext is comparing different versions of a story. There are even stories about hypertext – consider the narrative of Snatch or Rashomon. With Dysfunctional Systems the hypertext narrative comes through multiple play-throughs of the game and to get to that first point of divergence, you have to play for about twenty minutes out of an hour. Imagine if you had to wait through a twenty minute cut scene before you could try out one different piece of equipment in a boss fight. If you’re not a Final Fantasy XIII fan, that’s just not going to work.
More than that though, when I played the game the first time, I didn’t feel tension about what I was doing when I finally got to make my choices. Specifically, it felt like I was fumbling with a safe combination, I found the wrong set, and then, the safe was taken away. I didn’t feel like there was a mystery to be revealed, or some meaningful change I could make with my comments. While I could replay the game and try for a slightly different component, I didn’t feel like any of it would make a difference, at least, based on the plot that followed. While different perspectives on the same events is pretty much the embodiment of hypertext, I didn’t feel like there was any qualitative difference to what I was doing, that there would be meaning in the difference.
That said, the game has a truly visceral description of vomiting and I’m quite impressed, if also nauseated and disgusted.
I guess the question that hits me is whether or not the choices I made will be meaningful when all of Dysfunctional Systems is complete, or if I’m meant to wring this hypertext out of this sliver of a game I have so far.
I ultimately feel a bit reluctant to give Dysfunctional Systems a verdict because it seems to be a very sneaky, subtle form of incomplete. It isn’t an Early Access game asking you to buy the whole thing and maybe deliver a game, after a bunch of changes. It’s just… not complete. It wants to be the first chapter in a sequence.
Right now? Dysfunctional Systems feels incomplete and cheap; inadequate for its price, and while it was pretty and showed competence at things like user interface and the writer likes some of their ideas, it’s choppy, most of the writing is bad and unnecessarily padded.
I can’t recommend buying Dysfunctional Systems at all right now. Wait until it’s done.