Why aren’t visual novels more popular in the West?

I couldn’t think of any better title for this post, but this is a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Visual novels are a well-established part of the gaming world in Japan, but here in the States they’re commonly seen most charitably as novelties, or uncharitably as only for weebs like me who are already immersed in anime and anime-flavored games. Why should this be the case, though? The VN format doesn’t have to be a strictly Japanese or eastern-only thing. Indeed, there have been some VNs produced by western developers, though most of the notable ones are produced by people who are clearly fans and students of Japanese visual novel developers and use anime stylings (Katawa ShoujoDoki Doki Literature Club!)

Not that I even have an answer to the question I’m asking. I do have a few hypotheses, though, based completely on my own probably mistaken, misinformed ideas about the industry. Let’s test them out and see whether they make any sense.

More sense than this, hopefully. From the painfully poorly translated Ever17 (2002).

For those who don’t know what a visual novel or VN is (if you read this site, you definitely know — more for those readers who stumble across this post during a Google search) it’s a type of game that relies mainly on written narrative and dialogue to tell its story rather than traditional gameplay. It’s a novel, in other words. But it’s also visual. VNs typically feature character portraits during dialogue and CG screens that show up during special or important events. In addition to nice visuals, a VN should have a soundtrack with backing music to fit and enhance the mood of the scene, and it may even include voice acting. VNs also often require the player to make decisions at certain points, sometimes while in dialogue and sometimes in the middle of an action scene. Some VNs construct several separate storylines, locking the player onto one route or another depending upon their choices.

There’s one question that might jump out at you here: where’s the gameplay? All you’re doing is reading, watching, and listening. And probably making decisions when you arrive at branching dialogue and action options, but can that really be called gameplay in the sense that we normally think of it? And this is perhaps the most important distinction between VNs and other sorts of games: they don’t involve a lot of player interaction beyond making those occasional choices that determine the path your character takes in the plot. Some VNs don’t even include this feature: there’s a subset of VNs called kinetic novels that involve no player input at all beyond sitting back and taking in the story.

planetarian (2004), a kinetic novel.

For this reason, some don’t consider visual novels to truly be games. Adventure/puzzle series with heavy VN elements like Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape have enough gameplay to avoid getting stuck with the VN label, and those titles have found some success in the West. But over here, plain old VNs seem not to have broken out of the ultra-otaku “I only watch my anime subbed” circle. The only exception I can think of is Doki Doki Literature Club!, and I believe that was only because popular Youtube gamer personalities played it for its horror elements. DDLC is best appreciated if you’re already a fan of the sort of dating sim it’s parodying, so I don’t even know how much other people got out of it aside from thinking “shit, that’s creepy.”

Meanwhile, the visual novel format itself has not caught on among developers here, despite how easy it seems to implement either on PC or in mobile form. If there were any widespread demand for VNs here, you might expect some to be produced for people to play/read on their cell phones on the bus or train or while taking way-too-long breaks in the bathroom while at the office. But if any such mobile titles exist, I haven’t seen anyone playing them yet.

So unless I’m just completely out of touch with the rest of society, which is likely, it seems to me that the VN format has about as much of a presence in the mainstream here as it had twenty years ago, which is almost none at all. Perhaps because it exists in a gray-area realm between PC/console games, novels, and anime. And if a product is hard to categorize, it’s probably hard to pitch to a big publisher.

This relatively small customer base may be part of the reason that I’ve seen such wildly varying quality in the localization of VNs. While my Japanese is still very limited, just about anyone can tell when a translation looks sloppy — if it contains grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, and pieces of dialogue that simply don’t make sense, it’s pretty obvious that the job was rushed or otherwise done without much care. I’ve already posted two examples above of professional localizations that have some problems: Ever17 and Our World Is Ended, released 15 years apart. A real shame, considering that the original works are high-quality in just about every other way.

And they’re not the worst examples. I’ve seen a couple of officially localized VNs that look like they were run through a machine translation. It’s interesting to note that fan-translations of VNs are often far better and more professional-looking than these supposedly professional jobs, but those take years to complete if they’re ever completed at all. There’s a graveyard somewhere full of the remains of dead fan localization projects.

That’s not the only obstacle that the visual novel format faces in the West. There’s another, very different but perhaps even harder to surmount: the belief that VNs are all dating sims or porn games.

Okay, this one is, but a lot of them aren’t. From Nekopara Vol. 3 (2017).

This is similar to the stigma anime used to face. Back in the 90s, outside of popular kid-oriented series like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, a lot of people seemed to think of anime as “that weird perverted Japanese cartoon stuff.” Certainly, there were and still are a lot of hentai series out there, but anime has mostly gotten past the misconception that such material represented the whole medium, to the point that Netflix is now producing anime series that are getting watched by wider audiences than you’d normally expect.

The visual novel medium hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The fact that the VN is just that — a medium, one that can be used to tell pretty much any story the creator wants — still seems to be not that widely recognized. To be fair, again, many VNs are dating sims and/or porn games. But look at the four screenshots I’ve posted above: the first three are from all-ages games, and there are many more of those around to play. And even 18+ titles like Nekopara are commonly available in all-ages versions with the sex scenes removed. Don’t misunderstand me — I have absolutely no problem with 18+ VNs — but the mistaken idea that that’s all VNs are probably wouldn’t exist if there weren’t so many of them.

Not that I’m going to stop playing them. From NekoMiko (2019), no relation at all to Nekopara aside from the catgirls in frilly outfits theme.

In the end analysis, though, is this really something to be concerned about? Should we care whether VNs become more popular, or should we instead be happy to hold onto these as niche-interest sorts of works?

I’d say we should care. If the VN format gets more recognition over here, it means we’ll have more VNs ported to the West, and those that are ported will likely have localizations of higher quality than the current standard. Well, I should say they’d hopefully have higher-quality localizations, but who the hell knows, really. At the very least, the publishers would no longer be counting on sales from the hardcore weeb demographic, so there might be more pressure to satisfy a wider audience with a more polished product. I’d also be interested to see more of what our own developers here would come up with. In any case, it’s not like anyone needs a big pitch to a publisher to create one: some of the best known series started as independent VN projects like Fate/stay night.

On the other hand, if VNs become more popular, they’d probably also draw more attacks from the self-appointed content police I’ve written about, and then we may well see our much-anticipated VNs have controversial content removed to satisfy those pricks. So maybe it wouldn’t be such a great thing.

So apparently this time I’ve got no conclusion at all. Instead of a definite answer, I’m left with still more questions. I’m very sorry for wasting your time, reader. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe this was really just my stupidly long-winded way of saying I have a few visual novel reviews and analyses coming up, so you can look forward to those at some point. There’s no better time than now to pick up a VN, after all. 𒀭