Visual Novels, and how much their public perception sucks

Visual Novels, are the only otaku media that I really got into,  other than anime itself. I rarely enjoy manga, Light Novels are too rare in english, and I’m a PC gamer, so most Japanese video games are also unavailable for me.

But ever since I looked into Fate/Stay Night almost two years ago, I would consider myself a Visual Novel fan almost as much as an anime fan.

I didn’t even read that many VNs, and I have a horrible track record with finishing the ones that I started, even if I liked them, but there is something so fascinating about the potential of that medium, that I just keep obsessing over it as a fan. It reached the extent that if I see an article on a random website about any subject, with one throwaway line in it about a VN identified as a “dating sim”, I keep posting corrections about it in the comment section as long as that section is active with discussion.

Visual Novels being mixed up with video games, is one of the most tragically harmful cases of ignorant stereotypes limiting a medium’s potential. Sure, some people are always creating certain stereotypes about every genre, medium, and art type. I’m not really bothered by most of these, because it’s obvious that the kind of people who would judge a complex genre based on a few vague impressions and jokes that they heard, are not just uninformed, but inherently narrow-minded and ignorant.

For example, when I see someone making a joke about how all anime is tentacle porn, I won’t stop and argue that actually it was just a minor 80’s hentai fad, and since that, most of the anime screenshots with tentacles in them that you can see on the net, are from comedies that are just ironically referencing the trope. And I won’t start recommending great non-tentacle-related anime to them. Not just because it would sound petty and fanboyish, but also because frankly, I don’t want such people to see the rest of the otaku subculture. If they got this far in their life with a selective bias that only let them picking up a single negative element, they would probably just become the kind of anime fans who would, a few months later, write rants about how they have been anime fans for decades, but nowadays everything is moe, and K-on and girls doing cute things.

As the saying goes, haters gonna hate. And the people who make negative stereotypes, and encourage prejudices, are definitely haters. Even if they are inside a fandom, they are driven by finding some pattern, some group of people, or some supposed trend, that they can hate.

In that regard, gamers are special, because there is one prejudice about video games that they don’t even see as negative, and accept for themselves. It goes like this:

“Video games are designed to be wish-fulfillment fantasies, where  the controlled character represents the player’s self-insertion.”

Of couse, gamers might disagree with individual examples of this; for example when someone calls GTA a murder simulator, or Mass Effect a sex simulator,  they love to compare them to classics from movies and literature, that also had sex and violence, and were called artistic for it, so obviously games shouldn’t be treated differently just because you happen to control the protagonist character.

They might say that in individual example, but they don’t really argue with the principle behind it: When a new game is being controversial in a new way, gamers are the first ones to assume that every content  in a game is ought to be direct wish-fulfillment. For example, there is the latest Tomb Raider game, that involves Lara suffering a lot. Since I’m barely following gaming recently, I just randomly encountered it’s trailer now during E3, and all my thought about it was that it’s an interesting mood shift compared to what I remember from the earlier games. I was surprised to read all the comments below, about how everyone instantly concluded that Tomb Raider is now made for torture fetishists. And while I’m not saying that they are wrong, it seems strange that no one even considered the possibility, that maybe, watching this story about Lara going though all those hardships, is not intended to be pleasant viewing material. No, in a game, everything is done by the player, and for the player.

So, for various reasons, Visual Novels are identified with this medium, video games. Even though their content is made of 99% linear narrative, with interactivity often being limited to choosing which novel-length story to read first,  they are being locked up in a ghetto of “dating sims”, with an image of lonely virgins simulating the details of dates with virtual characters. (somehow similar to how the old media image of a gamer constantly imitates RL school massacres in the “virtual reality”). They aren’t even stories,  just tools that one uses to fulfill a desire. Even if the actual setting involves fights with aliens, or an orphan grieving his parents, as long as there is also a major romantic subplot, it can be identified as “a game about dating” with a stretch, to make it fit the stereotype.

Even the anime fans, who watched Clannad, ef, or even School Days, and who must have noticed that they aren’t even literally about dating, they are just romance stories like movie or a novel would be, are cheerfully accepting the label.

It’s especially anoying with the reaction to upcoming anime adaptations of eroge. If we look at eroge adaptations individually, there is a notably good ratio of memorable classics compared to failures, and even the failures  tend to fail because they were badly directed, confusing, cheap, or not all that fitting for animation, but at least they were obviously attempting to tell interesting stories. Yet when it comes to predicting what the next season’s eroge adaptation will be like, every previewer seems to fall back to the expectation that the show in question will probably be a trashy harem full of fanservice, with the protagonist being bland self-insert.

Which is baffling, because these stereotypes aren’t even just unfairly exaggerated, but they aren’t even the right stereotypes. This is how Mexican immigrants might feel like, if they are accused of stealing babies and being witches and fortune tellers.

Visual Novels are entirely based around writing down the POV protagonist’s internal monologue, so while he might sometimes be a brown-haired teenage boy, he could hardly be the blank slate Yuuji Everylead that you can find in Light Novels, because if he is also the narrator through his first person view, he needs to grow some personality to do it interestingly. This is why many of them are at least sarcastic, trollish, or at least Tsukkomi-ish in comedies, while others are outright evil, legally insane, or otherwise extremely weird.

And while there are more female than male characters in the average Visual Novel, they rarely form an explicit harem. That is another attribute of long-running stories, like manga and light novel series, that’s continued serialization is depending on how long they can stretch the time between the characters falling in love, and becoming a couple. But with romantic Visual Novels, that are written in a single block, it’s enough to quickly present the potential love interests in the first act, and pick one long before the rival girls would start playing tug of war with the protagonist’s arms.

Even some of the typical anime fanservice scenes are partially unnecessary. After all, once we already saw one very graphic sex scene with a heroine, there is no need to figure out any excuse for a hot springs scene or a beach visit, just so the audience can see their uncovered legs. If you saw a VN adaptation with lots of panty shots and bathing scenes, that was probably the anime director’s original content.

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