If you’re at all familiar with visual novel developer Key, Little Busters is both good and bad in exactly the way you expect it to be. Rather than dwelling on Key’s approach to storytelling, I’d like to draw attention to some of the game’s less obvious techniques. I was impressed by the way LB ties its presentation of its story to its themes, but elaborating on this will require the use of spoilers, so you’ve been warned.
First, a bit of background: scenarist Jun Maeda, noted for Air and Clannad, created Little Busters before temporarily stepping down as a writer and leaving the company’s most recent game in other hands. You could argue that he wrote the same story three times in a row (four if you count Angel Beats). It’s a slight exaggeration, but there are trends: all three of his games are noted for stressing thematic overtones instead of straightforward romance, and his use of fantasy elements often serves to dramatize concepts or create symbols. There is usually a strong thematic backdrop to whatever drama the characters wind up in. Little Busters follows in the same footsteps, but it falters in a few unfortunate ways before delivering an admittedly satisfying story.
I’ll start with the obvious complaint: while the game’s main route and true end were written by Maeda and thus fit nicely with its overarching themes, its side routes (which are mandatory to reach the true end) are mediocre at best. They follow the classic Key structure of transitioning lighthearted slice-of-life into melodrama in which a (usually) fantasy element acts as a symbol or metaphor for some inner conflict or psychological scar in the heroine’s past. Romance allegedly grows from the process of saving the heroine from these conflicts, and the endings are usually happy. While this approach worked wonders for Kanon back in 1999, it has been repeated in Key’s games since then and in Little Busters it feels uninspired.
But this is a typical complaint. Staleness aside, the larger problem is that the side routes hardly tie into the game’s overarching themes or even its tone, in stark contrast with, say, Kanon‘s stylistic emphasis on hazily-recalled childhood memories and promises. Even in the absence of Maeda-esque thematic overtones, Kanon managed to capture a consistent tone across its routes, unifying its story despite its lack of a true end. Little Busters fails to do this. It falls victim to the formula of giving each heroine a route since the core story revolves around Riki and his childhood friends. The side routes feel extraneous in retrospect, and they’re long enough to kill the game’s pacing.
Long-windedness aside, my only problem with the writing is that it spells out its subtext. This is a shame because the overall construction of the story is incredibly clever. Unfortunately, the conclusion is peppered with direct explanations of parallels in the plot, leaving very few of the central themes to guesswork. And though not from the game, this is clearly a recurring problem for Key.
Little Busters tells a wonderful story but it does a good enough job of summarizing it that I don’t need to summarize its summary. Instead, I’ll talk about what impressed me the most: the game’s use of the time loop and minigames to establish its setting and underscore its themes.
That was a mouthful so I’ll start simple: time loop. By default, visual novels wipe the protagonist’s memories at the end of each route while the audience proceeds to make connections between the routes. The viewer’s perspective is wider than the protagonist’s when the game is viewed as a whole. Instead of following this model, Little Busters places its narrator in essentially the same position as the reader: experiences are collected and built upon after each loop, and Riki points out inconsistencies alongside the audience. Of course, the familiarity of the setting means that it takes a while for us to notice that it’s an endlessly looping, disconcertingly idealized, childhood-like high school life.
In particular, this trick stands out when the player is using the “skip previously read text” button during subsequent playthroughs. Rin’s dialogue changes over time, usually to show that she has grown more confident and mature. These changes draw attention to themselves because the game’s engine stops skipping when it hits a line that you haven’t read. This often happens in the middle of previously read scenes, emphasizing that you’re reading something that changed over time and not merely a branch from a decision point.
But the game’s real accomplishment is its battle system. For starters, the silliness in Little Busters serves a purpose, albeit not a thematic one. Much like how Kanon’s repetition of snowy scenes and hazy, dreamlike flashbacks attempt to establish mood and setting, I’d argue that Little Busters uses its sheer ridiculousness to harken back to childhood. The game revolves around “adolescence,” as the OP video informs us. Little Busters establishes a world of childish silliness and adventure in the image of Riki’s childhood, pulling away from the high school setting and its association with romance. I hardly batted an eye at the first combat scene because it’s the kind of wacky comedy I expect from visual novels, but it recurs to the point that it simply stops making sense. And this is wonderful, because the combat shouldn’t make sense–in fact, it’s one of the main clues we have as to the fact that the world is an illusion.
There are more examples along the same lines: baseball drags the characters out of the classroom and associates the game with motifs unrelated to the high school romance setup. Kyousuke’s insistence on sending the group on missions ties their school lives to their childhood while simultaneously enforcing the theme of needing to grow stronger. (And then there’s the fact that the entire game is one elaborate mission, but that’s another issue).
This makes for an easy segue into the main point: Little Busters tells you to be emotionally mature. Riki was saved as a child by the strong and confident Kyousuke; Riki himself must mature into a leader like Kyousuke to save Rin, and the two of them must work together to literally save their friends’ lives. The game forces you to become stronger in order to continue. Friendship is a wonderful thing, but each link in the chain has to become emotionally mature and self-sufficient for the whole to survive.
And what better metaphor for “growing stronger” is there than an RPG level-up system? The absurdity flies under the radar, making it easy to take it at face value until the end of the game. The system is fairly deep: it’ll take a few loops for you to figure out how to place first, which is great because it encourages the player to actively try to level up. Best of all, your characters’ stats grow across routes. Rin eventually grows strong enough to take down Sasami, a battle that you’re almost guaranteed to lose during your first few loops. In striving to take down the childhood friends as part of a “minigame,” you’re actually mirroring Riki’s actions in accordance with the game’s main themes, growing from a nobody into a leader like Kyousuke. It feels like a gimmick at first, but the battle system both hints at the too-good-to-be-true surrealness of the dream world and gives the player a concrete, literal means of “growing stronger.”
That’s how you make use of an interactive medium.
I have mixed feelings about Little Busters, but the game ultimately works because of how vividly it presents its themes. Symbols in the game’s form combine with parallels in the plot (Riki following in Kyousuke’s footsteps in Refrain) to heighten the emotional impact of what would otherwise be a simple story. I love that the childhood friends grow from side to main characters and how Riki ceases to be a self-insert. I especially love the foreshadowing in the time loop and formal tricks it employs in toying with the spectator’s perception. We’re never given an omniscient view of the game and we get strung along by the story right beside Riki getting strung along by Kyousuke.
This, combined with an already well-designed plot, puts Little Busters on the level of Key’s other well-known works. Its content is surprisingly grim: the illusion of childhood doesn’t last forever; reality is inescapable, and it’s scary; you can’t grow up if you always depend on your friends. But the classic Maeda mushiness shines through in the end: growing up might be hard, but your friends will be there to help you through it.
It’s a shame that Little Busters’ story comprises only about half of its total playtime, but in the end I can’t be too cynical. It’s a fantastic game.