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Visual Novel

Entry updated 11 May 2020. Tagged: Theme.

Term popularized in Japan for a text-based Videogame usually enhanced with Anime-style illustrations and audio dialogue; not to be confused or conflated with the Graphic Novel. Although marketing for visual novels (­VNs) is apt to describe them as enhanced, interactive books, they might just as easily be described as Adventure games with extremely limited branches and gameplay. Considering that most use a graphic style derived from Anime, they might even be parsed as extremely limited works of animation, with a full-scale soundtrack, often seemingly from professional voice-actors moonlighting under pseudonyms, but only a few hundred frames of imagery visible across a viewing experience of several hours. Many have strong links to the world of erotica, and indeed their technological roots arguably lie in the relatively simple structure and gamified disrobing of strip poker – the first demonstrable example being Second Love (1986), a strip mah-jongg computer game that saved memory by using anime-style images rather than real photographs. However, the VN phenomenon is rooted more deeply in Japan's local market for computer games, where small-scale manufacturers found a domestic niche for bawdy erotic stories, with anime-style box-art that made them resemble far more expensive cartoon productions.

Unlike standard Adventure games, the choices made by the VN player can initially seem arbitrary, with little immediate impact on the narrative. Such decisions often function as a form of aggregate personality test, determining which of several narrative directions is most likely to appeal to the player. Many function less like games and more like onscreen erotic novels, in which occasional decisions are invited from the viewer. Sometimes, these are yes/no, right/left actions that actively influence the plot, but others are simple solicitations for data, a personality test to determine which ending, featuring which girl (or sometimes which sexual fetish), the viewer best warrants or deserves. The line between a low-rent video game and a visual novel is hard to draw, and subject to recurring online spats between their defenders and detractors. However, the VN scene in Japan saw substantial growth, among both professionals and amateurs, around the turn of the twenty-first century, with the wider availability of scripting templates and engines that streamlined the process of creating new games – examples include the release of Digital Novel Markup Language in 1998, and the program NScripter in 1999. The market split into overt erotica, and more chaste "dating simulators" that employed a similar gamified female cast of winnable objects, but with the emphasis on romance. Certain elements of these dating sims often appear in non-VN works, like the award-winning Mecha-combat title Gun Parade March (2000).

The first visual novels to be translated into English were Ring Out (1996) and Timestripper (1998), both released by Otaku Publishing, of which only the latter, an erotic pastiche of The Terminator (1984), might reasonably be considered sf. As more erotic games came onto the market, Jonathan Clements observed in "Sex with the Girl Next Door: The Roots of the Anime Erotic" (in The Erotic Anime Movie Guide, coll 1998) that the demands and practises of the VN genre were starting to steer the depiction of female characters even in mainstream Japanese entertainment, turning many cast lists in Manga and anime into predictable, off-the-shelf assemblies of female stereotypes. In doing so, however, programmers were arguably working with archetypes that had already accrued over a generation of media entertainments, themselves based on a perceived need to create a "diverse" variation in personalities in a sentai Superhero team-show or similar genre.

Visual novels are most likely to be encountered in the sf field as sources for spin-offs in other media, particularly anime and manga. Some, like the sprawling Fate/stay night (2004) franchise draw directly on a common VN trope of replaying events from the point of view of different characters, or taking the same starting point, but then adapting each variant plot path as a separate work. The most notorious VN to date is Doki Doki Literature Club! (2017), a pastiche of Japanese games developed in the US by Team Salvato, and utilizing a complexly metafictional structure (see Postmodernism and SF) in which the characters become aware of their status as fictional creations, and attempt to enlist the player in subverting the narrative. Parts of the game can only be accessed by actively tampering with the programming code, a task in which the player is encouraged by in-game accomplices, only to drag the narrative into increasingly dark and disturbing areas, a God Game gone wrong, in which the player wrecks the lives and tests the sanity of girls who proclaim their love for him (see Horror in SF). [JonC]

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