Visual Novels: A Cultural Difference Between The East And West

By Ishaan . February 17, 2011 . 12:44pm

Visual novels are a largely overlooked genre of games that we actively encourage more people to look into around these parts. While they certainly aren’t for everyone, those looking for an emphasis on character development and story progression often end up finding it in visual novels in a way that most other games don’t quite offer.

 

While they’ve been published on near every video game console from the N64 to the Xbox 360 in one form or another, visual novels typically tend to be most at home on the PC — an open platform, free of any kind of publishing restrictions. As a result, they’ve been able to explore subject matter like love and sexuality or career and ambition in a way that console games haven’t quite been able to match. Over the years, we’ve also seen several other genres of games incorporate visual novel elements into their own design, the most notable being the Ace Attorney and Persona series in how they emphasize character interaction, development and relationships.

 

You might be thinking, “But that sounds great! So, what’s the problem?”

 

Sadly, the problem is that, for all they have to offer, visual novels are largely ignored by the vast majority of the game market, especially in territories like the U.S. and Europe. This is for both cultural and genre-related reasons.

 

Due to the enormous amount of content out there, it isn’t always easy to separate the good from the bad if you’re looking for a more “pure” visual novel experience on the PC side of things. Erotica is a barrier for many whose knee-jerk reaction is to classify visual novels with sexual content as “porn games,” and one could easily argue that even certain publishers often don’t do a good enough job of promoting why their visual novels are worth playing.

 

Recently, we talked to John Pickett, head translator of PC visual novel publisher, MangaGamer, to go over just what some of the challenges these games face are, and how they can be overcome. We hope you find it an interesting — or even informative — read.

 

Lets begin with a quick introduction for people who play games but tend to keep their distance from visual novels. Who are you guys and what do you do?

 

John, MangaGamer: Well, we at MangaGamer are similar to other companies like Atlus and NISA in that what we primarily do is to localize games from Japan into English, so that those in the western world can experience them as well. What separates us from them is that our focus is on visual novels, a genre of game not as well spread as others here in the west yet. Another difference is that we focus on games developed for the PC and not consoles.

 

Since our founding in 2008, we’ve offered our games for digital download worldwide through our website, but recently we’ve started offering hard-copies of our games as well through Hendane! in North America, and as soon as we find another distributor, Europe as well.

 

However, for those who say they haven’t played a visual novel at all before, I have to ask: Are you sure you haven’t? Or do you just think you haven’t because you’re not familiar with the term? A lot of games currently on sale, popular, and so on draw many elements from visual novels, and ones you think might not be considered visual novels are much closer than you think they are. For example, if you took the FPS out of Mass Effect, what would remain? A 3D visual novel. If you’re trying to pursue a relationship in Dragon Age or Fable, then you’re already doing something very similar to what most visual novel players do.

 

Something we talk about a lot is the relatively limited market for visual novels outside of Japan. It’s a similar situation to what Japanese game developers face in general in the U.S. and Europe. For traditional games, this is an easier issue to deal with because there are so many different genres available to catch people’s attention with. What do you think visual novels need to attract attention?

 

Well, seeing as our goal is to try and expand and cultivate this western market for visual novels, this is a question we’ve been trying to find an answer to for a while.

 

I think one of the biggest hurdles visual novels face, and this is also true to some extent for Japanese developers in general, is that we ask, nay demand, that the player actually read. I know, if you’re reading this interview you’re probably thinking “Why is getting people to read considered a hurdle?” but I would instead ask you to think about how many people didn’t bother to read this article once they saw it was more than one paragraph, or how many people just skimmed over this paragraph you’re reading right now.

 

Visual novels and most Japanese games do not offer the quick, easy, and instant satisfaction of “BOOM! HEADSHOT!” that tends to capture a large portion of the western audience. The sad truth is that this is very much a cultural issue.

 

I’m sure many here who have taken the time to read this can list plenty of people they know who never bothered to read more than they were required to in school, or even people who can’t read very well. There’s not a whole lot of pressure in America to be able to do so, so it becomes okay to not read. If most people you know aren’t reading, there’s not a whole lot of incentive for one to do so.

 

In contrast, the opposite is true in Japan. Those who can’t read are under great pressure. Reading is encouraged nearly everywhere. If you get on a train to go to work and want to look at an ad, you don’t see a pretty picture barely related to the product, you see a wall of fancily designed text telling you all about it. In Japan, adults aren’t expected to watch the Daily Show; they’re expected to be current on the latest issue of Nikkei, Japan’s weekly business magazine.

 

To put this in a more game-related perspective, go back to my previous example of Mass Effect without the FPS. How many in the west do you think would still play Mass Effect if the ability to run around randomly shooting aliens was taken away? Probably very few. In Japan, they might have even gotten more purchases had it never been there. Or look at Catherine: would its sales be worse for a lack of that adventure/puzzle game? I don’t think it would in Japan, but in the west, greatly so.

 

So I think what the west probably needs most right now to start luring interest into visual novels are those with more of a gaming element to break up the reading. Games like 999, Ace Attorney and so forth are showing there is a demand for these games even if relatively small at present, and introducing people to the idea that you can still have a great game that requires a lot of reading.

 

As for our end, our upcoming release Koihime Musou has a gaming element, and we currently have two games we hope to bring in the future with one as well. We’d also like to look into more as well, but we don’t want to forget that a gaming element isn’t the part that makes a visual novel great either.

 

Let’s say there’s someone that’s into visual novel-like games on consoles. Games like Catherine or 999 or the Ace Attorney games. What do you think PC visual novels have to offer them?

 

Well, first I would have to point out that those playing 999 or Ace Attorney are already playing visual novels. Admittedly, Catherine appears to be adding a rather extensive action/puzzle element to the game, but the sections where the story develops — the conversations with the other characters, the choices you will have to make as Vincent, and the way they then affect the ultimate outcome and progression of the story — all of that is a tried and true visual novel. Likewise, anyone enjoying Disgaea Infinite is already enjoying visual novels, and anyone enjoying the Agarest War series is enjoying a visual novel with an added SRPG element.

 

What visual novels on the PC have to offer is more of what people who enjoy such games already find enjoyable. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to max out someone’s Social Link in Persona, then congratulations: you’re already entranced with the process of completing a heroine’s route in a visual novel.

 

For anyone who likes playing a game to experience the rich story, or character interaction, then visual novels are right for you. Visual novels, as the term suggests, are often primarily text with the added touch of on-screen visuals, voices, and other elements found in movies, anime, and games, but not typically of bound novels. If you’ve ever found yourself playing an RPG and wishing you could just get on with the story instead of grinding your way up a few more levels, visual novels are great for you. There are a lot of great stories told through visual novels, and quite frequently they’re even adapted into movies, anime, and more because of how great the experience can be.

 

However, while the story, character interactions, and text are certainly the most important elements to visual novels, they most certainly do not always stop there. Just as Agarest War adds in a SRPG element, there is a fair deal of visual novels for the PC which does so as well, and in fact, one of the games we’re looking to bring over in the future does something quite similar. Just as Ace Attorney adds a detective/investigative element, we have one game which also does so that we’re hoping to bring over.

 

There are a lot of people that tend to think of porn games the minute they hear of visual novels because a lot of them do tend to cover sexual subject matter. If you’re a consumer, how do you separate the unintelligible erotica from the richer, more story or character-driven experiences?

 

People often say “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in this case you more often than not can. The “unintelligible erotica” as you call it is pretty obvious from the title. If you’re buying something called “My Sex Slave is a Classmate” or “Conquering the Queen” from a page with an “Are you over 18?” gateway, then you really ought to be able to guess what you’re getting.

 

Even if the title doesn’t make it obvious, we try and make it clear which is which on our website: if under the sample CG section you see a lot of uncensored intercourse, then you can pretty much guess what you’re signing up for when you click “Add to Cart.”

 

Titles that aren’t like that are going to be your more story or character-driven games with only maybe one or two adult scenes per heroine. Granted, there are some games which fall at varying points of the spectrum, so you might find a game about in the middle in terms of story and adult content, but if you’re ever unsure, there’s a healthy community of fans on our blog, forum, and elsewhere who can surely help answer your questions and lead you to whichever type of visual novel it is you’re looking for. I know I frequent those two places myself to help anyone who’s interested in the genre.

 

One of our editors recently decided to try Higurashi out on the iPhone. It was his first visual novel. He was kind of taken aback by the game at first, but he couldn’t put it down after that. What do you personally think is a good game for people to start out with?

 

A lot of our fans frequently recommend Higurashi or Kira Kira. They’re both really great works, and it’s no surprise why they’re the most frequently recommended. Those who are coming from anime rather than video games tend to pick up Shuffle! or Higurashi from what I’ve seen, namely since those are two popular anime series in the first place.

 

Aside from those three, I honestly tend to ask what kind of story a person likes before recommending a visual novel to them. I’ve used this tag a few times on Twitter before, but it’s a very true statement: #theresanerogeforthat (note: “eroge” stands for “erotic game”). No matter what your tastes, or what it is you want to see, there’s almost certainly a visual novel out there that will provide what you want. Granted, it may not yet be available in English, but we’ve tried to offer a variety on our catalog too, and this variety will only continue to grow as time goes on.

 

If you’re just looking for an introduction to visual novels, and have an interest in Japan though, I think our upcoming exclusive will be a great one for people new to the genre to try. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of details to offer on this title right now, but it looks really good to me and I can’t wait to talk more about it once we can.

 

Part 2 of our discussion with John will go up in the near future. In the mean time, he tells us pre-orders for the Da Capo Limited Edition will go up Friday, February 18th, at 00:00 AM EST on retailer Hendane’s website. Those in attendance at Katsucon this weekend will be able to buy pre-order cards, too.


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