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Why the West Still Undervalues Visual Novels

/ May 19th, 2017 No Comments

Literature and video games have been kindred bedfellows for decades. The two forms of entertainment have enjoyed a successful partnership that has lasted for decades. The result of it has been all manner of terrific games and concepts, which have made playing a delight for gamers who don’t mind some extensive reading.

One form of interactive literature that stands out the most is visual novels. Originating in Japan in 1983, visual novels are interactive stories that utilize a heavy mix of sounds, images and style to create an immersive reading experience. Visual novels are engrossing interactive storybooks that transcend the static nature of regular literature.
 

The Portopia Serial Murder

Released in 1984, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was instrumental in innovating visual novels.

But what truly sets visual novels apart from books is freedom of choice. Players are often given multiple choices on how to proceed, such as in the Choose Your Own Adventure titles. Its multiple-choice format enables readers to alter the direction and development of the story toward one of many different endings.

But visual novels grant even greater freedoms. Depending on what game you play, you can better interact with its universe, play mini-games, take all manner of advanced branching routes and access features that are impossible in a regular book. Visual novels are undoubtedly the most advanced, interactive forms of literature to date.

Visual Novels in the West

Though visual novels have experienced great popularity in their birthplace of Japan, they have yet to achieve the same level of acceptance in the United States. In fact, seeing a visual novel is rare in the U.S.

The most glaring reason for this stems from the fact that gamers in the west tend to favor fast-paced, real-time titles that don’t require extensive reading. More action-packed titles requiring little reading tend to snag both the limelight and profits.

But there’s another reason why visual novels haven’t received a kinder reception: many titles that use the visual novel format are pornography aimed solely at adult players.

This trend has remained a steadfast root of the genre since the 1983 release of the first known visual novel: Lolita by PSK. The game helped established eroge, a type of visual novel comprised of highly erotic, sexually explicit stories. Well-written storytelling is a rarity in eroge, as is a solid gaming experience, and it is often ignored in favor of sexual exploitation.
 

Fate-stay-night

Fate-stay night is the rare example of a well-known eroge that’s been accepted in the mainstream.

The pornographic approach tends to makes money. Eroge remains a very profitable and polarizing form of gaming. Most visual novels that come from Japan are eroge and are far more common than non-pornographic visual novels.

The latter, despite lacking explicit sexual themes, are unfortunate victims of being irrationally discriminated against due to the infamous reputation of their eroge counterparts.

True, there’s the elephant in the room that nearly all gaming genres, not just visual novels, are used as a means to produce interactive pornography for adult players. Yet, that hasn’t stopped the mainstream gaming world in the west from being any less hesitant to employ visual novels and unfairly judge the genre as inherently sexual in nature.

Still, despite not having complete acceptance yet outside of its native Japan, there have been some successes for the genre. Mainstream titles like Snatcher and the Phoenix Wright franchise have enjoyed terrific fanfare from gamers and critics on western shores. There’s also a strong, vibrant visual novel community in the independent gaming circuit.
 

Phoenix Wright

Phoenix Wright is a prolific, influential visual novel franchise that is popular in and out of Japan.

As if that’s not enough, some eroge has managed to achieve a high level of praise, usually after sacrificing explicit adult content. The Fate-stay night franchise — despite its adult-oriented content — has been able to cement an audience outside of Japan. The latest action-based entry in the series, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star, is being published in the west this year.

Will Visual Novels Ever Be Accepted in the West?

Such acceptance of the genre in general is at arm’s length despite its more than 30-year lifespan. The mainstream western gaming world just doesn’t want to fully embrace visual novels. The genre is indefinitely in a sort of limbo where the mainstream gaming industry of the west is concerned.

So what can be done to change this? Unfortunately, not much beyond a large quantity of patience and elbow grease. The visual novel genre must continue to perverse and be improved upon by the creators who employ it. More importantly, it must be used as a means to impart high quality interactive stories that don’t simply rely on sexual exploitation.

There are a few independent game creators who focus on creating visual novels, such as Winter Wolves. Titles like Loren the Amazon Princess and Planet Stronghold showcase how visual novels can be used as a platform to create games devoid of explicit content but full of innovation, strong storytelling and challenging gameplay. The result has been widespread praise from players and critics.

It’s time to take such efforts seriously and learn from this example. It’s past time western gaming embrace visual novels. Not only is there a severely untapped game genre that can be used to produce amazing games, visual novels make for excellent reading — and that can’t be said about many video games.

 

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover of video games since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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