View profile

How Should We Be Talking About Visual Novels?

Minidoshima - Little Thoughts on Japanese Media and Other Stuff
Minidoshima - Little Thoughts on Japanese Media and Other Stuff
this is the culmination of frustrations shared by len and kastel

And It All Began with a Tweet
The other day, a visual novel developer (and Twitter mutual of mine) Arimia posted a tweet criticizing how “another day, another indie visual novel [is again] putting down other visual novels to get you to buy their super unique and never done before visual novel.” Many people have positively chimed in, ridiculing the condescending language and disparagement of visual novels. Their argument: we should be respecting visual novels as creative endeavors.
As someone who’s written about visual novels for ages, I have to say the collective dunking is certainly a welcome sight after years and years of people being extremely negative toward the medium. On the surface, it felt like I did my thing as a blogger. What was once a fringe opinion has become near mainstream: people are now being justly called out as racist and Orientalist for claiming Japanese developers are doing it wrong while “we Western devs” got it right.
Without a doubt, this is a step in the right direction.
But while I am flattered and vindicated by these references to my older articles, I’m unsure if this critique is enough. What they’re all pretty much saying is that these bad developers are just disrespecting visual novels as a medium.
These arguments boil down to three points:
  1. Visual novels aren’t your baby steps to bigger game projects!
  2. They are their own thing!
  3. Let’s respect them by looking into their history!
I don’t think any of my readers will disagree with these points. I surely don’t. Part of why I write is to elevate the status of visual novels for a general audience and to pretty much go, “Hey, isn’t this a pretty cool thing?” I still think it’s a worthy cause and I know that visual novel developers, animators, journalists, fans, and more have found something useful in my own writing, even if they disagree with my claims.
But I don’t believe getting people to respect visual novels is the endgoal at all. Actually, I think it’s a platitude that is limiting even the most well-intentioned discussions of visual novels.
Because what the hell does respecting even mean here?
No Disrespect to Respect But...
Let’s seriously ponder the question from this angle: how would an aspiring visual novel developer go about respecting their lineage?
In most genres, that means researching the current market and playing the classics. If you’re designing a platformer, you probably should be somewhat familiar with the Italian plumber.
But what about visual novels? We can peruse what already exists: flawed but influential visual novel translations (Tsukihime, Fate stay/night), a new onslaught of acclaimed translations (Fullmetal Daemon Muramasa, Fata Morgana), and the emerging English-language scene (Butterfly Soup, ebihimes’s titles). While the visual novel scene was dire a few years ago, there’s now a diversity of titles to choose from. People can now play these games without needing to know Japanese first.
And of course, we can’t forget that writers like me and video content creators like Hazel and Amelie Doree exist. We’re writing to make the medium more known to the public after all.
However, there’s still many untranslated works that have impacted visual novels in their own ways. I’ll just name a few: Leaf’s Visual Novel series (Shizuku, Kizuato, To-Heart), Oretachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai, Chunsoft’s classic Sound Novel series (Otogirisou, Kamaitachi no Yoru, Machi; only KnY 1 is translated and not in the proper format that inspired the look of many VNs), the Ayayo-san series…
And even if some godly fan translator came to the scene, there’s still a lot of catch-up that this hypothetical developer would need to do. Imagine the money and time needed to read all of this when they just wanna make a cute visual novel.
Maybe, we can backpedal and say you don’t really need an erudite knowledge of its history. Just maintaining some level of appreciation is all you need.
But in a world where Steam unfairly censors visual novels and places like itch.io may not give them the visibility Steam might have, this may not be very helpful to this hypothetical developer.
There are effectively few good resources for visual novel developers to help create, let alone respect, the medium. Engine-specific tutorials and examples may exist, but the structures and communities that help developers and critics succeed aren’t exactly there.
I raise the issue of “respect” because it’s a concept that’s been brought up again and again in visual novels and Japanese media overall. We need to elevate Japanese video games/sakuga/visual novels/whatever to a respectable standard, so goes the thinking, and we must treat the subject matter seriously. Our ire comes from people treating entire fields like garbage.
This is a seductive framing that can potentially bring people into your subculture of choice. We are given the chance to educate people about these wrongs while shilling our favorite titles to the public. It’s a classic grassroots campaign that’s seen some success.
But in regards to visual novels and other Japanese media in similar plights, there are fundamental obstacles that have limited what it means to respect such works.
I’m sure, for example, people have gotten interested in a visual novel but come up with nothing when they try to look for info about it. I’m not sure how one can learn to respect a title if the learning is just impossible.
Respect doesn’t rain from the skies; it has to be earned. If we keep talking about respect in this way, it’s just a platitude to curious developers and fans. At the moment, this common rebuttal is like telling someone to go find a needle in a haystack before they realize the haystack doesn’t even have the needles.
Finger-wagging like this without any pointers to resources is frankly unhelpful in the long run. We shouldn’t use moralizing language for problems that are this structural. Instead, we should be asking ourselves how to build an environment where people are able to respect the medium.
Don't Cure, Prevent!
I want to be clear when I say that people with silly opinions on visual novels are silly, but there’s also something to be said about how we never act beyond surface-level remarks about these opinions.
Instead, what I’m describing is an ongoing problem that has plagued developers, critics, and fans of visual novels for years. Think about how Tokimeki Memorial was discussed before Tim Rogers made an entire video on it or how people would preface their praise of a visual novel with “unlike other visual novels”. Everyone rallies around the artistic sanctity of visual novels, but it’s exhausting. We have to already presuppose there’s gonna be some toxicity before we even utter a word.
The way we discuss visual novels on social media and elsewhere is self-defeating. We march to defend the positive values and that’s, of course, an important strategy. But it makes us reactive: we only show up when things go bad and that’s all. We also don’t build resources that would prevent such garbage being spewed on the web in the first place. This becomes a cycle where we correct misinformation but never have the initiative to confront the problem at its core.
We’re just avoiding the question. How is this a healthy space where we can respect visual novels for what they are?
Surely, there must be something wrong about how we talk about visual novels. We are not offering anything useful to developers and critics besides “you should give visual novels some respect” – if that even counts as advice. Let’s be realistic and admit we haven’t done shit for people who want to learn more about visual novels besides what already exists. We feel comfortable saying platitudes like “respect VNs” because we don’t have anything else that’s constructive to say. Our current remarks should be seen as us smiling at a faltering status quo and being upset when people don’t know where to start.
In short, we are very complacent and uncooperative. We don’t wield our agency until things start to go south for us. This is not at all an acceptable standard for people who demand respect for their subculture.
We aren’t putting in the work ourselves!
Our Rotten Foundations
If we want people to take visual novels seriously and therefore earn that respect we’ve been harping on about on social media, we need to start rethinking our cliched sayings and what we’re actually uttering.
Let us return to the three basic points people have raised in the beginning of this polemic, in reverse for readability reasons:
3) Let’s respect them by looking into their history!
As discussed above, this history of visual novels is incomplete and will remain so even in the best of conditions. And besides, there are many developers and critics who have been in the scene for ages but are still unfamiliar with the history. It’s only recently that people like Mochizuki Himari are collecting disparate histories into one space for people interested in Japanese visual novels. The English-language space is nowhere that developed.
But more importantly, this denies the possibility that a fresh face could seriously shake things up. The lead designer of Chaos;Child, for example, was unfamiliar with visual novels – he had only played Kamaitachi no Yoru – but he was able to present a groundbreaking narrative on how we think about disinformation. Indeed, the most interesting writing coming out of Japan comes from people with not much attachment to the medium.
You don’t need to be well-versed to contribute something interesting to its legacy. You could take your expertise in other fields, try to implement it in the visual novel world, and see what happens. Experimentation is always good!
2) They are their own thing!
Whenever people criticize the approach of ironic pseudo-dating sims, their argumentation may be interpreted as a straightforward defense of contemporary visual novel design strategies. But there are many questionable conventions in visual novel design that have stifled creativity.
For example, the multi-route scenario structure has made titles unreadable due to their dragged-out pacing. What should be a cohesive whole gets split up into jagged fragments. Women are also typically not allowed to be anything but heroines for 00s otaku audiences. These limitations are outdated and infuriating for modern audiences.
It is therefore refreshing to see titles from new creators with little attachment to the industry try their hand on visual novels. As a very recent example, Jewelry Hearts Academia eschews the multi-route scenario and heroine-ification of women for a story about friendship against systemic racism. This is an intentional rupture from history and it’s what makes today’s visual novels exciting to read now.
1) Visual novels aren’t your baby steps to bigger game projects!
I despise this argument the most because it plays on a truism (visual novels are indeed one of the easier mediums to work within) and turns it into some elitist gatekeeping nonsense.
Visual novels are a popular time-restricted game jam medium because it isn’t as demanding as, say, putting together an action game. Since game jams are all about getting the game out there, it makes sense for developers to choose it. We should be encouraging people to make visual novels as much as we like to see more games.
Of course, it’d be nice to have developers who actually like the medium enough to keep creating titles in it. But if it’s a one-off thing, that’s totally fine too. Hopefully, you’ve learned something interesting about game design and collaboration, which then can be translated into something bigger and more major. We should be encouraging people to be better game devs by training their skillsets on smaller-scale projects like visual novels.
We can look toward the cousin of visual novels, interactive fiction, as an example to work off of. It is welcoming to aspiring creators and critics thanks to its abundance of code documentation, user-friendly game databases, and communities of blogs and websites that provide helpful feedback. 
The visual novel environment should not be hostile to new developers. They should not be ashamed of using visual novels or any other mediums to get their foot on the door. It doesn’t matter if the test project is good or not, what matters is that they worked on it.
It is thus unfortunate to see this point repeated ad nauseum; it is the No True Scotsman fallacy at its finest: only the most dogmatic of visual novel developers are allowed to stay, everyone else is a poser. How can such elitist toxicity allow mutual respect between developers, communities, and fans?
Now, I see one potential objection raised to my arguments: “You’ve raised some counter-examples that we can emulate and I agree with them, but they are all at least couched in some sensibility. You say respect is pointless. But when we ask for respect, what we mean is having an amenable and open-minded attitude toward visual novels.”
No doubt about that, but I find it pointless if our rebuke amounts to “please be nice”. We can certainly eliminate this toxicity and still use the “respect” framework, but it still misses an important point: asking for pleasantries is not at all helpful to the people looking for resources.
If we adhere to merely respecting the artistic value of visual novels and their right to existence amid baseless criticism and censorship, we are ignoring how creating a visual novel is actually tough work.
In fact, this is barely different from the usual “are video games art” tripe. It’s overdone, it’s unnecessary, and it doesn’t inform anybody. Who cares if something is or isn’t art? Steam doesn’t give a shit. Right-wingers bent on censoring adult and queer media don’t either. Chanting how visual novels are art won’t make people go “Woah, visual novels are art (whatever that means)”. That shit is so naive and all besides the point.
We should be talking about visual novels and not just to defend them.
We should move past thiis and actually get to the nitty and gritty of what makes designing and talking about visual novels interesting in the first place.
Where I'm Actually Coming From
My frustration with this “respect” line of thinking comes from experience developing visual novels.
I’m part of a visual novel collective, Prof. Lily, and we’re developing our first title. Even though half of the crew knew their visual novel history, we were actually at a loss on how to proceed. Each problem we’ve stumbled upon feels like it should have been answered previously, but we are asked to work from scratch every time. Our experience in game design, criticism, and the technical know-how did not prepare us for any of this.
It may be banal to bring up UI on visual novels for example. What’s there to visual novels in that department? We thought that too, but we realize that the default templates found in Ren'py and Naninovel were lacking. No such databases that collected various visual novel UIs existed – and there’s no way we would be installing a million visual novels just to compare and contrast styles.
More crucially, visual novels lack useful accessibility features that a hard-of-hearing person might appreciate. I read countless posts from disabled people recounting how difficult it was to read a visual novel when it should theoretically be easy to implement. And at first glance, that should be the case; however, the reality is that our current engines lack proper documentation to make those wishes come true. The programmer had to find new solutions to basic problems that should’ve been quick to solve.
Besides, there’s a disconnect between what’s needed and what’s written about in accessibility discourses. This leads to the phenomena where well-meaning developers implement features that are unnecessary and useless for people they want to help. Visual novels especially don’t have much agreed-upon standards, so developers are more than likely to come up with their own solutions. We are forced to reinvent the wheel with every new project.
I thus became cynical whenever people bring up how easy it would be to implement accessibility features for simple games like visual novels. Accessibility is truly the textbook example of “easier said than done” if you don’t have pre-existing support and resources.
I am by no means discounting the imperative for better accessibility in visual novels. Accessibility is undeniably important to the future of video games. However, it is infuriating that we lack even the basic resources to do a better job at accessibility. It doesn’t help that we don’t have channels to talk about what people would like to see more.
I thus became extremely aware of how closed-off we in the visual novel communities are. There’s no unity, we’re only advancing our own (monetary) goals. No support from journalism and others exists except from when shit hits the fan.
And let’s just say hearing “it’s okay if you can’t get your stuff on Steam, just do it elsewhere” fucking sucks. Gimme a break. The matter of the fact is most people buy their shit from Steam; it’s why Steam holds a goddamn monopoly in the first place. Things don’t sell well if they’re not on Steam!
There’s no doubt that the visual novel space has grown over the years for the better, but it remains hostile, depressing, and fucked up to work in. We are fending off shit by ourselves. This is not at all a respectable environment to work in.
And I’m fed up with platitudes about how we should be respecting the artistic value of visual novels. I’ve already written about visual novels for ages and even tried my hand developing a few, so I’ve explored these avenues for too long.
I know the problems and it isn’t a lack of respect. It’s a lack of support.
Solutions and Proposals
Let’s be honest to ourselves once more: we’re getting nowhere simply talking about how we should respect the history and culture of visual novels.
And besides, I know too well from blog statistics that reading an article does not at all translate into someone playing the visual novel, let alone negating their biases.
Again, I won’t deny the value of writing and reading articles analyzing visual novels. This isn’t some article saying farewell to my oeuvre after all. But I’m more interested in proposing something bigger and more beneficial.
Coming up with solutions and proposals isn’t easy, which is perhaps why we’re so inclined to talk about “respect”. But for a critique to be complete, it is necessary to show what’s missing and fill in the blanks.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what Len and I have come up with:
1) An actually useful visual novel database
Wouldn’t it be nice if VNDB was actually a visual novel database that ethically records data about visual novels?
I don’t want to go on a long tangent about how VNDB has become the worst thing on the planet, but it is of utmost importance that alternatives or reforms are made to this site.
Most glaringly, we need to remove deadnames and real names for translators and staff members who go by aliases. Let staff, not some rando, choose how they present. Leaving this be adds to the toxicity of the community and makes the visual novel space more unsafe.
There is much to improve on what already exists: we need to be more exhaustive with our staff credits, provide consistent guidelines on spoilers and sensitive content, allow titles exempt from VNDB to return, and more.
A visual novel database should actually be a basic resource for anyone who wants to look into visual novels, not just a labyrinth of sexual content tags.
2) Dev-Friendly Databases and Repositories
At the moment, information about visual novels is fragmented between communities. And even if you’re able to enter into such communities, you’re supposed to use Discord’s terrible search feature for past questions. There’s no easy space to look up info, not to mention how nerve-wrecking it is to pose a question. And if Discord dies, all that information will die too.
We need archives and the such to record frequently answered questions and more. Allowing developers to research things by themselves without having to enter a dozen social circles first is a boon to all, especially for experienced users who are sick of answering the same old questions from them. Writing up something that people can point to seriously helps a lot.
There’s many ways we can do this. We can take the r/AskHistorians approach and build a wiki that links to resources, FAQs, and users specializing in fields. A database that collects pertinent and hard-to-find information (like an actually useful VNDB) will work wonders too. An example: the VIPRPG database is flawed, but it properly archives the titles it has. Can’t forget the likes of MobyGames and IMDB too.
We should also be thinking about more specialized databases for visual novel developers. A UI database for example would be handy. Examples of title screens, option menus, and how the visual novel reads will be useful to UI designers. Bird Graphics Book Store is not exactly a database, but it chronicles graphically interesting Japanese book covers. Fonts in Use is another database that collects fonts in everyday usage. These databases could work as a moodboard for developers or allow us to connect to staff members too, as is the well-known case with Sakugabooru.
This way, we wouldn’t be working from scratch or feel lonely in our endeavors. Games are a collaborative effort and we should embrace that. Sharing our knowledge is beneficial for everybody.
And who knows, we could make an account like depths of wiki or randomsakuga recording some dank UI stuff we’ve found in visual novels. The PC-98 Bot has definitely introduced many people to visual novels for sure.
3) More Open Spaces
It’s difficult to open up a blog when all the platforms aren’t friendly to people starting out. Likewise, writing a post may sometimes feel like you’re screaming into the void.
And while Discord communities are useful, there’s the aforementioned risk of closure and you are still required to find the “good” spaces. These obstacles are not inviting to new people.
We can certainly aspire for something bigger. For example, we shouldn’t put forums off the table just because they’re old; there’s still a good chunk of communities living in this “outdated” mode. More websites, zines, and newsletters dedicated to visual novels and their communities would be incredible.
And it’s important to get more developers, translators, and critics interviewed too. Doesn’t matter if it’s Japanese, English, Spanish etc. We should know about how they’re making these games and not merely respecting their right to exist. I’m thinking something like a visual novel version of Gamasutra but better.
4) Write About Us, Even When Nothing’s Happening!
Lastly, there are journalists, bloggers, and video content creators among us who could write about our work and interview people within visual novels – even when things aren’t chaotic on social media.
We shouldn’t just be interviewing people when Steam censors our visual novels. Interviewing visual novel people should be a common sight! I guarantee most of us in the visual novel scene are salivating at the idea of getting interviewed or a column to write in, myself included.
While I recognize the difficulties of writing in an industry that favors the deity of SEO, neglecting to even comment about visual novels makes it even more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We become more marginalized as a result, so any small mention seriously helps a lot.
But at the same time, I don’t want visual novels and their creators to be merely a picture of despair thanks to Steam. We have stories we can tell because we’re just game devs, critics, and fans. You journalists have this power to platform us, so please use it. It doesn’t matter if you belong to a major platform or just a small blog read by ten people; we love to talk about visual novels.
Because we don’t just respect the scene, we care about it.
No More Platitudes, I Say!
I wrote this post because I care about the scene. I have been pondering this question on how to further the scene for ages. And I was sick of discussing how visual novels should be respected as an art form because that’s just me preaching to the choir.
I view platitudes as dangerous because they divorce truisms from action and recognition. They let us be comfortable without seeking opinions that could help communities prosper. Such complacency sickens me when I can hear all the screams for help so clearly.
However, I do recognize that “respecting” holds a certain charm. We want to be validated for our hobbies and efforts like everyone else and their interests. Years of hearing hurtful bullshit have made us downtrodden for obvious reasons, so it’s nice to look back and see all the progress that’s been made since.
But the fight isn’t over yet. Right now, our conception of visual novels is just “art worth defending” when it could be something more substantial.
So while we can certainly talk about giving respect, the issue is more along the lines of “where does this respect come from?” This goes beyond saying what we like about visual novels in the face of pejoratives; we should be thinking about visual novels as something worth caring about.
To learn how to care about and therefore how to love visual novels, that is the goal we should strive for. And if we treat these tenets seriously, then we must reconsider the shape and fragmentation of our communities.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote in Anna Karenina that “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” We could modify a famous visual novel aphorism too to make a further point: “Without love, it cannot be respected.”
We have to actually love visual novels and their people first if we really believe we should be respected.
Did you enjoy this issue? Yes No
Minidoshima - Little Thoughts on Japanese Media and Other Stuff
Minidoshima - Little Thoughts on Japanese Media and Other Stuff

Articles on anything interesting within Japanese subculture and more. Written by Kastel and edited by Len.

In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Created with Revue by Twitter.