One of the highest forms of praise one can give a piece of media, whether it be uttered by hordes of fans swarming a celebrity or from the clacking keyboards of online fandoms, is that “this media changed my life”. In this modern sea of morals, allegories, and political messages flooding every sector of entertainment, it has become radically difficult for any single story to stick out so much that one makes their own worldview vulnerable to its message.
But of course, on this beautiful October 4th, what better thing to do than to write again about Umineko (and Ryukishi07’s other works)? Yes, for me, and for an unnaturally high number of other people, R07’s works have been philosophy-defining, paradigm-shifting, life-changing. Especially for me.
Of course, much of it can be boiled down to the beautifully designed ups and downs of the numerous character arcs and the beautifully raw and human emotions among the chaos permeating every scene, but I’m not here to give spoilers. (Okay, maybe I am. But I’ll keep them to a minimum.) Instead, I’ll go through a couple interesting devices that I’ve noticed reading R07’s visual novels (and that extend to other VNs) that I think a lot of people have taken for granted in today’s media sphere, that are instrumental in imbuing his works with the spirit that makes it so compelling and informs so many people’s way of life.
The art of the tangent
I’m sure most people love going on tangents, especially me. I think that psychologically there is a sense of control over a conversation, a full exposition of your mind, the sense of freedom that what you’re going on and on about is more representative of the true you. In this boring drama that we call life, sometimes we have to relish in our own limited minds, with nothing feeling more liberating than the acknowledgement of those on the same playfield as us, on the limited chessboard we each play on…
Yeah, sorry. I went on a bit of a tangent there. Force of habit. But to get back on the topic, I think that tangents, especially from the point of view of the narration or the creator themselves, is a forgotten art in the most popular forms of media. While they do make appearances in many books (think of how many times Victor Hugo goes off-track in Les Miserables), it’s simply just not viable in a lot of cases to just pause the action of a TV show or a movie for the director to somehow insert their takes on the whole thing. Who is going to have their chaotic car chase scene interrupted with “At this moment, he had realized that no longer how much he ran or fought for what might be seen as a force for good, he was struck by the fact that his life would remain this way to the very end and that he would never find fulfillment… such was life in an eternal war.” If we see and hear the action, we want more action. If we see words, we pause and contemplate the words.
Every single time anything happens, he cannot help but pounce on how it might relate to the broader structure of society, the motivations of humans, the what and the why of their actions. The greatest aspect of this art is that he doesn’t always do it from the narrator’s point of view, but instead writes the running thoughts of a character in response to whatever just happened, and it always makes sense. The first-person voice switches from character thoughts to omniscient narration to the narrator’s headspace so many times that after a while I stopped noticing altogether. Hell, he even contradicts himself sometimes this way. But it is convincing every time.
How can it be interactive if you can’t even do anything?
I’m a bit of an odd one in consuming media – in order for something to feel truly enjoyable to me, I have to interact with it. Because of this, I do tend to gravitate towards games, riddles, puzzles, and other narrative dialogues. Personally, I think it stems from the fact that I have an obsession with keeping my mind talking to itself – even with things I consume relatively less, like movies, I find it far more enjoyable to run commentary as the movie is going. Most people obviously don’t like that of course. So, why the hell is my favourite piece of media a completely linear visual novel, with the only interactive element in Episode 8 being relatively unimportant?
Of course, having mystery novel elements is the first obvious interactive aspect at the surface level. On the small scale, there are many impossible closed-room murders and riddles, and on the large scale, the game keeps its audience guessing at the overarching reasons for the entire story. Since the When They Cry series is predominantly split into question and answer arcs, released over a period of roughly 3 years, there was a period of time that was specifically engineered for community theorizing which was often read by the author himself, who had an extreme freedom to toy with the community because the answers had simply not been revealed yet.
The visual novel media style is also subtly responsible for this. There is a very unique mindset that comes with being able to set your own pace within the media, even if it’s just through being able to click one button. It gets memed on, but that one button to advance progress seems to be more than enough of a gameplay tool to completely alter the experience. While this might be similar to how we read books, I think that the incorporation of a “character notes” menu as well as the background music and sound design creates an immersion somewhat more like a movie that can be paused at any time. I legitimately took notes while reading Umineko, filling up two entire small notebooks in the process.
Going even deeper than this, there is a central soulful message that I think is instrumental in changing the way people think. Through the revealing of the answers, and the self-referencing meta dialogue, R07 is able to convey to the audience that “You have been thinking of this wrong the whole time, and that’s OK.” It doesn’t matter if we have figured out the plot from the start – there is always something in any of the complex character arcs that will lead to the realization that our angle was totally wrong, and that perhaps there is another perspective to be taken. This is also unique between every person – we all think wrong in a different way, and that’s the fact of life. Strangely enough, despite all of this, I would not say that R07’s works are heavily ideologically charged in a political sense, but far more about the stories of individuals, which leads me to wonder (with no answer) how that even works for changing a whole worldview.
Conclusion: Always think.
So yeah, there you have it. R07’s works are compelling and life-changing, and the main reason for that to sum it all up is the fact that they don’t allow you to stop thinking. Or at least, that’s how they are best enjoyed. Remember, it takes two to create a universe.
If you’re going to spend hundreds of hours on the original VN format rather than the anime adaptations, then you might as well let it give you a couple pointers in life. Without love, it cannot be seen.