Visual Novels & Tonal Shifts

I’ve spent a good portion of this week playing DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB. It’s a game that came out about four years ago in the visual novel genre. For those not in the know, a visual novel is a game that’s designed like one of those old “choose your own adventure” books. It’s an interactive story, complimented by art and visuals, but the graphics are a lot simpler than traditional games.

This game has completely absorbed my imagination. You play a high school boy who joins a literature club at the urging of his female friend Sayori, only to find it populated by three other ridiculously cute young women. The apparent object of the game is to woo one of these girls with your poetry, but there’s an important twist. DOKI DOKI isn’t a dating sim, it’s a horror game. And when the horror comes, my GOD. It doesn’t jab you in the face or kick you in the gut. It takes a pipe wrench to your kneecaps and puts a slug in the back of your head.

I’m not finished with the game yet, but with its darker elements now in gear, I’m even more engrossed than I was before. The tonal shift is so dramatic. The structure of the story, so surreal. It’s a wonder why such dramatic changes aren’t used more often in art.

I have my suspicions about American audiences wanting their serviceable, formulaic stories. Art that doesn’t challenge them too much and never makes them feel unsafe. I’ve nothing against that sort of thing, BUT I think it is important to challenge ourselves sometimes. It’s important to step out of our comfort zones. A dramatic tonal shift in the story your telling can be a huge boon for that story. I’m not sure if I can find a way to do it in my free ongoing serial ONE AND ONLY, but it is something I want to keep in mind for it, and future projects.

From what I understand, Asian cinema has been employing these dramatic tonal shifts for a while now. Outside of the original FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, I can’t think of any American movies that have embraced this technique.

I think the reason that a shift in tone or genre can be so effective is that life is not one genre. So, even if your story is pulpy and larger than life, a dramatic tonal shift will affect your audience in a visceral way. It will make your unreal work seem more real, at least on a primal subconscious level, because the change will mirror the changes present in life. Life has moments of tenderness, horror, somberness, joy, and laughs. Oftentimes, these moods shift with little warning. Sometimes when the change comes, it takes a pipe wrench to your kneecaps and puts a slug in the back of your head.

That’s not always the experience I want with my fiction–I like a good Marvel movie like anyone else–but it’s something I’d like to see more often. More irreverence. Weirdness. Tonal shifts that take you in a whole new genre. That’s the shit that sings to me.


Some of you may remember that I have a Twitch channel that I mostly ignore. After I’ve played through DOKI DOKI, I’ll probably play it again and stream the experience there. Playing visual novels is probably the most comfortable way for me to use that channel.