Where are all the Slice-of-Life video games?
Slice-of-life stories are everywhere, it seems. The vast majority of all sitcoms, 4-panel comics, romance and comedy TV shows are just that. The same goes for many books and anime, to say nothing of reality TV and IRL live streams. We seem to be seduced by the idea that a medium can show us life as it is, especially when that medium has all the talent and money behind it as a Netflix Original. And while the obsession with realism that dominates today’s media landscape extends far beyond that genre alone, it’s undeniable how much the popularity of the slice-of-life story has influenced modern storytelling.
With the exception of games, that is.
Looking for slice-of-life video games, you won’t find more than a handful that many may recognize. A few, the most popular of the bunch, will either be work simulators, such as farm life simulations harvest moon and Stardew Valley, or normal life sims, like animal crossing and the aptly named the Sims. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of games on this list will be visual novels.
The reason for this might seem obvious: slice-of-life stories, at their core, are about comedy, romance, or interpersonal drama — all things few popular games have in a heap, let alone actually build on. But as with any norm, and just as important as this norm, here is a crucial exception. In fact, there are several exceptions, and their name is Adventure Games: Wild Hearts of Sayonara is a wild music video/arcade game hybrid where you help a girl rebuild her broken heart; Kentucky Route Zero deals with how we choose our pact through life, explored with magical realism; the “Ben and Dan” series, from Well there, Dan that! fame, is all about telling tongue-in-cheek jokes and playing with the tropes of point-and-click adventures. Our three main components, romance, drama, and comedy, are all there, but none of these games can be called a slice of life. Meanwhile, you’d be hard pressed to find a single dating sim that is not a slice of life.
Such mundane stories really seem incompatible with a certain “playability” that visual novels, simulators, and interactive fiction often don’t have as much: compared to more down-to-earth action games, like the miserably precise medieval life simulation Kingdom Come: Deliverance, visual novels have a lot more dialogue, more characters to develop a relationship with, more letting your mind wander about what you’ll be doing next weekend, spending time before the end of your working day. It’s not that video games don’t want to be a slice of life, or that they don’t want to be relatable.. They just don’t want to run the risk of looking mundane, of not appearing like a video game should.
Few people know that the term ‘slice of life’ comes from the French ‘slice of life’, originally coined to describe the way the stage in Antoine’s Living Theater was set up during their naturalistic plays. Antoine will build the scenography of a stable by bringing chickens and hay onto the stage; he insisted that the audience feel the heat of the bakery oven and smell the rotting flesh hanging from the ceiling of the slaughterhouse. Unsurprisingly, opposition came quickly, with many believing that this style was not only impractical, but fundamentally incapable of capturing the depth of modern life, its deep and delicate essence lost in a sea of detail. Symbolist writers, like the poet Maeterlinck, argued that this inner life would be best expressed through dialogue without actions, through the poetics of “depth and stillness”, and without real stage preparation, leaving the audience to paint his own image of the next world. hear the words of the actors.
The relationship between 19th century French theater and the modern slice of life might be indirect at best, we bet there is at least one major point of connection between the two: they both aim to be meaningful while remaining mundane, elevating the little ups and downs of normal routine at the exceptional level of importance one would instinctively attach to them, had they experienced them in real daily life. We see it in the recent Visual Novel/Dating Sim My sweet zombie!, from Tsundere Studios, where the dramatic contrast between fear and excitement inherent in building a new relationship is exaggerated by the discovery that your new friend and housemate is a real zombie.
Even if it’s slight, there is an inconsistency in what we have just seen: within video games, the slice of life remains in the realm of visual novels, a genre whose defining characteristic (and most criticized aspect ) is (too) text. Essentially, this text is dialogue spoken by the characters, either in conversation or as a monologue, and it is often delivered through static character art sitting against a static background. As in real novels, and in some styles of theatre, it is up to the audience to combine these different elements into a cohesive whole: to give a real voice to the characters and to see them looking at each other, not staring at the actor but moving freely and acting together. Given what we know, visual novels should be a terrible fit for slice-of-life stories, especially compared to the fully explorable environments of open-world games. But these aren’t perfect either: their problem, as explored earlier, is rather an unwillingness to show and elevate everyday life, and there can be no slice of life without everyday life.
Imagine, however, what kind of game we would need to find this digital simulation of life. First, we are not talking about the relaxed little life of animal crossing, or the unintentional parody of American suburbia that is The Sims, but realistic, overly detailed replicas of life, perhaps a little exaggerated in some ways, in video game form. We are not talking about MMORPGs or virtual worlds like second life That is. The latter, in particular, explains everything, in its name: virtual spaces do not seek to represent life in a digital environment, they create space for another, a second life, exist alongside the first. And just live is certainly not the same as performing a slice of life.
A peculiarity of Antoine’s Théâtre Vivant, which at first glance seems to fit badly with the positivist and naturalist attitude of the theater, is that the actors there often improvised their text, and could speak freely with the public. The reason was that life at the Living Theater was not represented in the story that the actors acted out or conjured up in the mind of the audience: a piece of life, the slice of life, was instead on the stage itself. Thus, a strong bond between the life replica, the actors and their stage, and the audience, who could leave the theater and to stay alive, would have allowed the fake life of the play to come to life through the audience.
But as with the early critics of naturalism, having thought that one could to give life, at least on a screen, whatever event, activity or human experience we know enough about, we’ve begun to realize that that too doesn’t make life. For one, life is a story. It is internal and introspective. Seeing life through someone else’s eyes, or seeing your surroundings acted out with them, means nothing if you don’t know whose eyes they are and if they aren’t the ones telling their story. .
In One night hot springs, a short Visual Novel from solo developer “npckc”, the environment is only there to allow the protagonist to find her place in it, and to bring conflict between her and her friends. The same could be said for the plot: when this story is reduced to the beats of the main story, it barely feels like a story. One night hot springs is, in short, the story of three friends who decide to go to a Japanese hot spring. They talk, they bathe, they sleep and the next day they leave. This is what happens in that story, but from that description alone, you can’t tell what the game is about at all.
This is because much more importance is given to the protagonist’s point of view, to her own experience of the story and to what makes her her story. What I didn’t tell you is that Haru is a trans woman and one of the friends she goes to the hot springs with doesn’t know that, and Haru doesn’t know how that other girl is going to react. . It does not act simply in reaction to its environment, and its action alone does not make its history. The internal drama contained within herself and the visual novels ability to convey her inner life is what gives this banality meaning and insight – what makes this story feel like a slice of her life.
Antoine created, for his stage, precise reconstructions of real places because his positivist upbringing led him to believe that the actions of any person were guided by their environment, which then had to be staged. as part of the characters themselves. But there’s much more to what moves us than the material world around us, something most games are ill-equipped to handle. Visual novels are a great fit because they rely heavily on dialogue, letting the characters tell their own story, because they can skip the boring part of life unintentionally, and because they let the player to construct their own image of this world. In doing so, they are able to explore this “depth and stillness” of modern life in its banality.