Visual Novels and Real Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

“When you say that you are free to choose—say, between the train and the surface car, or between the movies and the theater—you are using rather ambiguous language. All common speech for expressing mental experiences is loose and ambiguous. You have the two alternatives—movies or theater—in your mind. You hover between them. You do not feel any compulsion to choose one or the other. Then you deliberately say to yourself—not realizing that you have thereby proved the spirituality of the soul, which has made apologists perspire for centuries—‘I choose Norma Talmadge.’

Well, let us examine it patiently. In the ordinary acts of life you behave automatically. You don your clothes and shave and eat and walk, and even work, in a mechanical way. The motive arises, by routine, at the proper moment, and the action follows. It is only in grave things—such as whether you shall go to see Norma Talmadge or Bebe Daniels—that you use your freedom. To be quite accurate—am I not right?—it is only when two or more motives seem to have about equal force that you are conscious of your freedom. If one motive, if the reason for doing one action, is palpably stronger than the reason for doing the alternative, you do not hesitate. The ‘will’ follows or acts on the stronger motive.

Why, you ask, do I put ‘will’ in inverted commas? It may shock you to know that psychologists are not sure that there is such a thing. You may be surprised to know that your ‘will’ is only a theory (like evolution). What you are really conscious of is a series of acts. It is just a theory of yours that there is a thing you call your will behind them.

Well, to come back to the ‘acts of will.’ When you hesitate between two courses, do you for a moment doubt that your will eventually follows the one which seems to you wiser or more profitable?

Yes, I know. Just to prove your freedom you may choose the less wise course. But in that case you merely have a new motive thrown into the scale. Your ‘will’ always follows the weightier motive. How, then, is it free? All that you are conscious of is the hesitation of your mind, because for a time one motive balances the other. They may remain so balanced that you do nothing, or leave it to others to decide. But if you do decide, you are merely conscious that the battle of motives is over and the stronger carries your will.”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

“None of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know; we prefer to attribute our choices to volition, will, or self-control….Perhaps it would be more honest to say, ‘My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.’”

—Marvin Minsky

“What individuals do, alone or together, over a moment or a month or a lifetime, is really just the product of the process of blind variation and environmental filtration operating on neural circuits in their heads.”

—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Da Capo II was the first (and so far, only) visual novel I read. It didn’t take me long to notice just how little interaction the “game” involved. I had more or less expected this, because I’d read a little bit about visual novels before actually trying one out, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the long stretches of passivity that the “game” entailed, especially in the first hour or so. In that time, I probably made a grand total of three to four choices; the remaining hundred were made for me.

What makes visual novels so appealing, then? After thoroughly “playing” Da Capo II, I think I have some idea. To put it simply, the appeal lies in everything that makes the VN different from real life. First of all, the novel has you living in an idealized world with idealized people. What’s more, you are the main character in this world, surrounded by pretty maidens with flawless features and attractive personalities. They don’t exactly throw themselves at you, but you feel quite confident that, with enough effort, you can end up with any one of them, because you know that they are meant for you.

Furthermore, the sense of time passing is somewhat muted in Da Capo II. There’s not a single clock to be seen; the only indication of linear time is the month and day, which is given at the beginning of each day. Time is ultimately moot in this world. You can take as much (or little) time as you like to take in what people say to you, because every word is spelled out for you, and you can even access a “Text Log” if you either forgot or failed to catch some part of the dialogue. Since time freezes for as long as you need it to, you can literally spend an entire year or more (in real time) in making the most trivial of decisions, one that would normally take you up to 5 minutes to make. In this game, life waits for you. You can save your progress at any time and pick up where you left off anytime you feel like it. Above all, you can do what the vast majority of people with any sense of possibility and potential no doubt wish they could do: start over. In Da Capo II, you can start your life over from Day 1 anytime you wish. Having gained knowledge and experience from your previous run, you’ll have a better idea of how you can shape your life in the way you desire. You can explore all the could-have-beens that you didn’t before. So “losing” is a non-issue. Didn’t get the ending you wanted? No problem; just start the novel from the beginning, figure out what you did wrong, and make different choices. In this world, second chances are infinite. Got the ending you wanted, but want more? Same principle applies. In this world, you can eat your cake and have it too.

I was also quite struck by the insights Da Capo II conveyed to me regarding free will. I realized that the very choices that the player makes ultimately depends on his predilections, which are, in turn, shaped by genetics and environment. So simple, yet remarkable. The player is supposedly “free” to determine the trajectory of the story, but in actuality, he is only free to act on his strongest motives—just like in real life.

Although you will be given the freedom of choice at key points in the game, much of the novel is scripted. The overwhelming majority of what you think, feel, say, and do in-game are determined for you. Can more be said of our own lives in the real world? Just how much control do we really have over what we think and feel? Over what we say and do? Over what happens to us? Could it be that we are much like the protagonist of a visual novel, a self-aware marionette being directed rather than directing?

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