Lots of dialogue, massive compendiums, and anime characters. These were the ingredients chosen to make the perfect visual novel. But Vanillaware accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction — an entire RTS.
I’m super glad 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is starting to gain so much popularity compared to it’s launch. I purchased it shortly after release because it’s Vanillaware, and the game amazed me. The game garnered little coverage, and that surprised me. Over four months later, it’s cemented itself as the AAA hidden gem of 2020. As I observed people discussing the game, I noticed a weird idiosyncrasy of the discussion. People seem to majorly refer to the game as a visual novel, generally as a negative or warning sign. This is bizarre to me because I didn’t think once that I was playing a visual novel while playing it. I understand why people are averse to visual novels; we all have game genres we don’t like. Visual novels have this stigma that you spend 100 hours reading dialogue, and then you finish your first route and have to play the others. I’m sure this is true of some, but it’s pretty far off from describing the genre as a whole. I am curious why so many people describe it as a visual novel, when I, simply, did not though. I won’t deny that visual novels make up some of the DNA of the game, but I don’t think the discussion ends there. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim‘s genre is an exceedingly interesting topic that deserves to be explored.
Genres are both meaningless and extremely essential to the way we engage with media. Before we even start to ascribe a genre from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, we need a strong understanding of what genre is. Genre might be a French word, meaning kind or sort, but it’s origin lies in ancient Greek media in the form of comedy and tragedy. These two genres dictated largely how certain works were performed and defined audience expectations going in. You didn’t see a tragedy unless you were ready for the main character to die. This is probably the earliest genre convention. Today, genre is a lot gooier than just comedy and tragedy. The French meaning really adds character to the concept. Genre is how we identify what media is what and lets us put them into easily understood categories. Genre doesn’t technically impact a work at all anymore. It might’ve dictated the tone you read a poem in ancient Greece, but today generally we ascribe genre from the work itself rather than prescribe it. An artist might start their work looking to work in or explore a genre, but it’s ultimately up to those who consume the work to decide. Genre dictates how people have interacted and will interact with the work.
Genre varies wildly for different media. Movies generally have their genres either touch on the emotions they cause (drama, comedy) or the themes they explore (romance, science fiction). Music is some mix between the instrumentation, themes, and sound: Pop-punk might be similar to ska without the horns, punk rock differentiates itself from pop-punk with it’s coarser sounds, and classic rock generally isn’t as openly rebellious as punk rock. For video games, genres are almost exclusively descriptions of gameplay. This is likely because gameplay is the biggest factor of someone wanting to play a game. You might be able to append some non-gameplay genres onto games, but that’s not the defining genre. For example, people call Persona 3 a tragedy (I haven’t finished the game myself), but this distinction is only ever important once you’ve gone past it’s other genres like Japanese role-playing game and social sim. No one plays Persona 3 because it’s a tragedy; they play it because it’s a social sim JRPG hybrid. Game genres often have terrible names because of this. Role-playing game is the prime example because a lot RPGs don’t involve any role playing. The genre name comes from the mathematical systems behind Dungeons & Dragon, a table-top RPG. This also results in a lot of genres that are just named after the games that did them first: Metroidvania, Soulslike, Rougelike. Imagine going into the next Marvel movie and calling it an Iron Manlike. If there are genres added onto the gameplay, generally used when having an in-genre discussion, usually people would ascribe world-building genres like fantasy and science fiction before any other kind. When it comes to video game genres, gameplay is first and foremost the most important factor.
Genre conventions are the defining characteristics of a genre. While sometimes you can just feel a genre is there and that’s good enough, a genre convention serves as a good way to communicate why a work fits into a genre. Genre conventions are very important for later, so I need to define them here. A work doesn’t have to apply all it’s genre conventions in order to fit into a genre; a work might even purposefully go against conventions to deconstruct the work or just to explore new territory.
If we were to look at the genre conventions of a first-person shooter, the first aspects you probably would define would be that it’s in first-person perspective and that you shoot things. There can still be more genre conventions than that though. It’s extremely common for first-person shooters to be about war: from Wolfenstein 3D to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. How far away from the genre conventions of an FPS is something still an FPS. Portal 2 is the quintessential example of a FPS that you might not call an FPS. In Portal 2, Chell’s gun shoots portals and is used to solve puzzles. There’s still conflict and enemies you need to defeat, but the large focus isn’t on that. I would describe Portal 2 as a puzzle game first, and a first-person shooter second. You’ll still need the skills of aiming and twitch reflexes that an FPS demands of you to solve puzzles, but it’s significantly downplayed. Portal 2 might not even come up in a discussion about the greatest first-person shooters because FPS isn’t the main genre someone ascribes from the game. On the contrary, Splatoon often gets brought up when discussing first-person shooters despite being in third person. Third-person shooter is a genre in and of itself, but Splatoon tends to contain many more genre conventions of first-person shooters than third-person ones, despite it’s perspective. Funnily enough, people call Splatoon‘s single-player mode a Mario Galaxyesque despite it not being a platformer or containing any of the space and gravity themes. I would tend to agree with that description, although Mario Galaxyesque might be a long way from calling itself a full-fledged genre. A true contrarian might call Pokémon Snap an FPS because you do shoot photographs in first person, but it contains none of the conflicts (excluding throwing poison gas at innocent Pokémon) or war that defines the FPS genre. Genre conventions help us understand media, but aren’t required of a work to fit into a genre.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim contains many genres, and genre is a key theme of the game. I’m going to talk about the mechanical genres first to avoid major spoilers of the game. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has a nice description telling of it’s genres on the official site: “Uncover the truth and delve into a 2D sidescrolling adventure featuring gorgeous art and environments. Then, battle the kaiju in fast-paced, top-down combat. Customize the Sentinels with an arsenal of mechsuit weaponry, and fight to defend humanity!”
The first section declares the game a “2D sidescrolling adventure,” which is the genre I first thought of when describing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Colloquially, I would just call this an adventure game or potentially an old-school adventure game. Adventure as a genre might be poorly named due to a lot of non-adventure games involving adventuring, and the genre postdating the 1980 Atari 2600 game, Adventure. Adventure is, of course, an action-adventure game. Adventure and adventure games do stem from the same place as they are both adaptations of the text adventure genre. Do you see why game genres kinda suck I’ve said “adventure” too many times, and it’s refereed to three distinctly different genres, not sub-genres. Adventure, of course, is an adaptation of the game Colossal Cave Adventure, the first text adventure game. Adventure and text adventure were likely the same genre before Mystery House, the first graphical adventure, now adventure, game. Playing Colossal Cave Adventure inspired Roberta Williams to create Mystery House The defining of adventure as a succinct genre away from text adventure likely happened with the release of the original King’s Quest in 1984. This would define an adventure game as a game about exploring an area, solving puzzles, talking to people, and telling a story. The old-school adventure sub-genre wouldn’t emerge until a lot of adventure games ditched the 2D, side-scrolling aspect that defined adventure games previously. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim definitively fits the genre conventions of an old-school adventure game. It lets you explore an, albeit small, world through 2D, side-scrolling movement. It contains puzzles, albeit light on them. You do spend a lot of time talking to people, and the game tells a big story. It’s certainly closer to the genre-convention-ideal adventure game than, say, Kentucky Route Zero, with it’s singular puzzle. Kentucky Route Zero is lauded as one of the adventure game greats despite it’s distance from the puzzle solving aspect. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim adheres to the conventions of an old-school adventure game.
Visual Novels also stem from text adventures. In the same vein of Mystery House, Visual Novels add visuals to text adventure to then form an entirely new genre. Visual Novels generally feature a large amount of text consisting of mostly dialogue. If there’s any player agency it’s usually with players making choices that change what text will appear. This commonly takes the form of dialogue choices that lead to branching stories with multiple endings. They’ll use portraits to display different characters in a scene over a background, and occasionally have an image that displays a specific scene not using it’s usual layout. They tend to have features such as text logs and compendium of terms. Visual novels are one of the most rigid genres because people rarely ascribe visual novel as a second or third genre. Visual Novel genre hybrids become increasing popular, with games like 999 adding in escape-room segments, but, generally, the other genre has to be less than half of the games gameplay content. You wouldn’t see someone describe Yakuza 0 or Final Fantasy VI as a visual novel despite their large amount of dialogue-based text. The Ace Attorney series probably comes closest with it being a mystery, puzzle, adventure, visual novel. I think Ace Attorney games ascribe visual novel despite having a large amount of other elements because it weaves together all of its genres. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim certainly doesn’t have the look of the visual novel, but it’d be presumptuous of me to say “everyone is wrong, and it is not a visual novel.” The DNA of visual novels and old-school adventure games are the same, Colossal Cave Adventure. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim definitely airs closer to visual novels than most adventure games. If I were to order a list of genres I describe 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim as, visual novel might clock in at around 4th due to the large overlap with adventure game. I don’t need to tell someone it’s a visual novel if I tell them it’s an adventure game. It doesn’t aid my communication around the game in the slightest. If someone were to call 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim a visual novel, I just don’t think it’d be as apt of a description. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is more an old-school adventure game than a visual novel, even if it is both.
The second half of the description from earlier states “Then, battle the kaiju in fast-paced, top-down combat. Customize the Sentinels with an arsenal of mechsuit weaponry, and fight to defend humanity!” 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has three main modes, but one is just a compendium (a notable element of a visual novel I failed to mention prior). Your main gameplay time is split between the adventure game mode, and an real-time strategy game mode. I’ve never really played a real-time strategy game other than the Pikmin series, and I’m pretty terrible at Pikmin. I had major reservations when it came to starting 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim because of this. Playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim didn’t feel like playing an RTS, however; it felt like a Fire Emblem game, a tactical role-playing game. It features a lot of genre conventions of real-time strategy games. The enemies move in large swarms of units in real time. The enemies have production factories. You can build various buildings. Very specifically, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim feels like a tower defense game, a sub-genre of RTS. The main goal of every mission is simply defend this tower against all enemies or for two minutes. So why does 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim feel like tactical role-playing game. Part of it is right there in the description: “Customize the Sentinels.” The resource management feeds directly into an RPG system. The main resource you get essentially serves as experience points you can use to buy different abilities, just like in Dungeons & Dragons. The game notably does not feature any role playing, but that’s just TRPG being yet another horribly named game genre. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim also has the player controller a few very powerful units that are all notable characters rather than unnamed grunts. TRPG and RTS games are sort of adjacent, as one might describe them as sub-genres of a larger “strategy” genre. The larger more conceptual game genres generally aren’t super useful for communicating about games, but it might be the best way to describe 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim‘s mech combat section: not as apt as a mix of a TRPG and an RTS but perhaps more eloquent. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim combines elements from both tactical role playing games and real time strategy games to define it’s gameplay.
Now, I actually skipped over a section of the genre description on the site: “Vanillaware, the storytellers behind Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, craft a sci-fi mystery epic spanning thirteen intertwining stories.” From here on out, I’m not holding back spoilers relating to the story since the game’s themes are going to come up; you have been warned. First and foremost, Vanillaware decided to prescribe not gameplay genres but world building, atmospheric, and story-structural ones. I will say mystery is both gameplay genre and an atmospheric/story-structural one, but in this case mystery does not describe it’s gameplay. I think this description does a significantly better job at describing the game than the gameplay descriptors do. If I were to recommend 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim to someone (outside of recommending it to everyone on quality alone), I would likely chose someone who’s a fan of science fiction or mystery. Science fiction is the main element of this game, not any piece of gameplay. Generally my recommendations sound something like this: “play this game it’s the most Pepe Sylvia game ever.” Pepe Sylvia, of course, references the iconic scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia. The game presents it’s mind-twisting mystery through the use of a significantly large amount of science fiction tropes. If you aren’t ready to pull out the cork board and string or can’t get behind time travel, multiple dimensions, mechs, kaiju, time loops, androids, body swapping, what have you, then maybe it isn’t the game for you. The strategy segment is pretty easy even on the highest difficulty, and none of the puzzles left me stumped for that long. The largest barrier to entry and what defines this game is the elements of the story it tells, not it’s gameplay. This makes perfect sense; the game’s story took six years to write. I imagine that’s a record for video games. Anyone going in needs to prepare to watch an epic unfold. It’s much more an epic than a lot of longer visual novels, since those tend to have deep exploration of characters rather than grandiose stories. Gameplay genres fail to categorize 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim the same way other genres do.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim doesn’t just preside in the science fiction genre; it’s a direct commentary on it. The story of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has an interesting complexity curve. The game starts off really complex at the start, growing as you move through the first couple of segments with each character. At some point, the pieces start falling into place and the complexity plateaus. Finally, everything starts coming together and the rapidly declines down to simplicity. The overall plot is much simpler than the sum of it’s part. This is because there’s many incorrect assumptions made early in the narrative both from unreliable narrator and our own minds: Ei Sekigahara claims to be from another dimension, Nenji Ogata thinks he’s in time loop, Yuki Takamiya is playing Kogoro Aketchi for a seemingly government organization. The characters and players use the science fiction media we’re accustomed to to make sense of an increasingly complex world. This is probably shown most explicitly through Natsuno Minami’s evocation of Men in Black and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (What’s up with this title Spielberg? I didn’t need an abbreviation and the unabbreviated form together, just pick one). 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim challenges us to not rely on science fiction. Renya Gouto figures out exactly what’s going on with meticulous research and notes. How many times has something in the real world been called “Skynet.” The human tendency to understand our increasingly complex world through science fiction hurts people. Calling Google “Skynet” both doesn’t allow us to understand and think critically about what Google actually does and the harm it causes, and it lets us brush off extremely complex topics in hopes it’ll go away. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim demands we see the world how it is in order to actually face the extreme adversity we endure.
No character in 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim quiet understands it’s themes like 426. We see 426 abuse human’s reliance on media to understand our own world through. He tricks Megumi Yakushiji into injecting code into our cast under the guise of magic and witches. We see this as a science fiction take on a magical girl story at first, but even from the get go it’s increasingly clear something is up. It’s likely Megumi would’ve done the same thing if she had been told the truth since it’s for Juro’s sake, but the disguise of information makes it easier for her to digest and understand. She has a lot of hesitance every time she shoots someone, and I imagine it’d be even more if she couldn’t cloud her judgement under the guise of magic. 426 also shows Juro Kurabe his own memories through video tapes pretending that they are science fiction movies. Juro has an easier time swallowing 426’s memories when they’re presented as great works of science fiction rather than reality. 426 isn’t a villain though; in fact, he’s the character who saves the day. This opens up a lot of interesting readings regarding the game’s theme. You could fully support my previous claim about media clouding our judgement of the real world and 426’s propaganda further proves it, but I’d argue the game’s presenting a more nuanced theme.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim says it’s okay for us to rely on media to understand our world, as long as it doesn’t end there. The time travel concept defining the early part of the game might’ve just been a farce, but hey those andriods, mechs, and kaiju are still androids, mechs, and kaiju. The world gets more and more complex and hard to understand every day. There’s no way around using science fiction to clear our understandings of things. Once we do that though, the fight isn’t over. We need to understand what separates fiction from reality: take notes and do the research. Science fiction is a great way to keep us emotionally grounded in times when we have no idea what’s going on. We just have to use it to our advantage to aid our understanding of things instead of letting it be our only understanding of things.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a game about science fiction. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong or right to call it a visual novel; that’s not important. If you’re recommending someone play 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, make sure science fiction comes first. People ascribe genres from media, but in this case I think we should listen to developers. I understand the game just like how Vanillaware prescribes it, and I think this understanding does the game more justice.