Content warning: Bloody picture and gory description.
In August 2002, I was 5 months old.
In August 2002, an 29 year old former social worker sat down at his designated booth in the Tokyo Big Sight convention centre to sell a little CD that contained the fruits of his work on a dinky old PC, an NScripter visual novel with terrible sound equalization and some hilariously bad character art. (Oh yeah, it was also some kind of weird murder mystery with some occult stuff, who cares amirite?)
He had no expectations, and it was warranted: Higurashi no naku koro ni: Onikakushi-hen sold only 5 copies at the summer Comiket of 2002, and he approached and was turned down by many a store afterwards. Yet he still had the spirit to give away free copies of future games to those who would give him feedback by email. He and his circle of family and friends known as 07th Expansion still kept plugging on, spending hours upon hours to see his story through to the end, even if it took him longer than a university degree’s worth of time.
19 years later, Ryukishi07 (we still don’t know his real name) has written and done a lot. The most obvious distinction now is that he is no longer a nobody: The modern TV anime of Higurashi When They Cry, the Gou and Sotsu arcs, are trending towards the top of the anime popularity charts this season. Millions of people around the world now know and love the various works of 07th Expansion, not just limited to Higurashi but also with the other installments of the When They Cry visual novel series, those being Umineko When They Cry and Ciconia When They Cry. On top of that, there are plenty of other unrelated visual novels that each have their own unique charms and distinctions, and there are plenty of manga and anime adaptations (some better than others) that have truly set the series as one of the success stories of the doujin scene, reaching fame and even being mainstream in the anime world.
The When They Cry series and other works by 07th Expansion have a lot to unpack. It’s kind of funny; their works are nearly the only visual novels I have read, but I can still call myself a visual novel reader having only read their works; I mean, all told, there’s about 3 Harry Potter series’ worth of content that they’ve made. And of course, there is so much to talk about in relation to the devices used in the writing, the characters, the plot, and even real-life meta connections that makes all of 07th Expansion’s experiences more distinct and impactful than anything I have ever went through. Within this article and probably more to come, I’ll be breaking down individual aspects and devices of the When They Cry series (mostly) to understand, at the very least, how they made a profound impact on me.
One of the most notable aspects of the When They Cry series is its unbelievable ability to break down and comment on various genre tropes. Higurashi follows a more standard approach, known by most as a solidly made horror mystery, but Umineko throws the reader into a multilayered self-aware meta fest (I can’t do it justice so just read it please). Knowing this, Ryukishi07 made a specific statement about how his visual novels stand out from the rest: he referred to them not as “visual novels” but instead “sound novels”.
Of course, a “sound novel” is not really an established genre, though one could make an argument for those kind of podcasts or audiobooks that make use of sound effects or music. For anyone who has played 07th Expansion’s works, by all accounts they are still visual novels. They have visuals, character portraits, effects, all the usual things that were in line with the other visual novel works of the time. Instead, R07 wanted to emphasize sound as being more important than the visuals in order to immerse the player into the story, which at the time was not very common to say the least.
Well, actually, the real reason he might have made the decision is just that he’s not very good at art. The problem with someone like him taking on such a large project mostly by himself is that there’s bound to be at least one skill that he’s just kind of lacking, and in this case, it happened to be drawing. (Actually, he didn’t make any of the music by himself either, but shhhhhh no one said anything). It’s really hard to feel completely immersed in a story (a horror story, at that) when the characters just look like a child’s doodle, with blob hands and terrible proportions.
So what do you do? The answer was the make it intentionally secondary, and more importantly, to encourage visualizing the scenarios in a different way; using your imagination. What ended up happening was that other than the character portraits and their facial expressions, the background scenes are extremely vague and nondescript, and in most cases, they are just heavily filtered photos of real places in Japan. With that, there’s kind of a derealization because of the presence of real scenery in an “anime game”; the characters are the only drawings to go off of. Instead, the vagueness encourages players to try to conjure up a better image in their head than what is given; not to observe but instead to make an effort themselves to actively understand the scenarios.
Of course, a lack of focus on the visuals itself is not enough to make the games worthy of the term “sound novel”. Without an equally strong focus on sound, the games might as well be written off as low-effort or just better off as a book.
In terms of sound design, with Higurashi, the beginning was difficult to deal with as R07 did not have access to musical artists and was not a musician himself. For the first few games before dai came along to do compositional work, the game exclusively used royalty-free music and sound effects. In this case, the genius was mostly in the programming.
Like stage directions in a good play, music changes and sound effects need to be properly planned out along with the writing of the scenarios. In both violent and comedic scenes, R07 uses sound effects gratuitously and to great effect, often sequencing multiple sounds in quick succession to illustrate a specific movement or impact . They’re really dramatic at times, but they work, while still leaving room for the imagination here too, due to how generic the sounds were. As well, despite the fact that it’s royalty-free music, the curation and timing was still incredibly well done to add a perfect context to the overall mood of the scenes and the characters, especially the emotions being felt by the narrator. Like so many other forms of multimedia, this is one of the ways writing can be taken beyond just words.
Later on with Umineko, the music really took off; the success of Higurashi after its end seemed to attract many composers who were more than willing to work on the next big project. One of the main reasons Umineko is a visual novel like no other is because of its radical innovation with its soundtrack and effects; boasting a vast variety of artists and styles with some creative pivots that have never been done before. The most famous of these are the various tracks that the musician zts did for the game; he introduced hard techno and trance electronic music as backing for some intense scenes, which shouldn’t make sense for a story that takes place in the 80s, but here we are. Being able to organize and place music from over 20 different artists all into one coherent product and making each song match perfectly to the mood is an absolute achievement, mostly also due to how much logistics is involved in that.
Making up a new phrase to describe what sets your art apart is a pretty interesting way to do marketing. If you want to show the world something new that has never been done before, it’s only natural that one would try to make a mishmash of previous genre tags and tropes in an attempt to describe the aspects of your work that are most valuable. For a single phrase in an old interview, the “sound novel” rather than “visual novel” designation of 07th Expansion’s works provides myriads of insight into the single-minded creation of a vivid world.