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

24 thoughts on “Why aren’t visual novels more popular in the West?

  1. Considering the journalists’ infatuation with walking simulators, I would’ve thought the visual novel would be especially popular with them. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. It’s strange because it has all of the things they claim are good about walking simulators, being story-dense experiences with rich characterization and a lower budget, yet they turn up their noses at them. It’s a shame because I feel visual novels are deliver the kinds of experiences walking simulators can’t. Sure, Zero Escape and Ace Attorney are reliant on puzzles, but (especially in the case of the former) I found myself even more interested in seeing how the stories progressed. If anything, visual novels manage to address the fatal weakness of walking simulators by giving their protagonists actual agency – even in some kinetic novels. It’s a shame they don’t get more attention because there is a lot of interesting content to be found within them.

    • You make a good point — especially considering the fact that many critics seem concerned with how video and PC games need to become “serious art”. Wouldn’t something similar to a novel appeal to them? According to their own standards, they should have talked up stuff like planetarian and the Infinity series, but for whatever reason they never really have. I’d guess the reason critics have largely ignored VNs is that dating sim/h-game connection people have traditionally made with them. To be fair to them, a few have praised some deserving high-profile VNs like Saya no Uta, so maybe things are changing a bit.

      I also agree that VNs do better at delivering a satisfying experience than walking simulators do. Part of my annoyance at walking simulators may come from my feeling that they’re still trying to be “real games”, even if they don’t feature any gameplay beyond simply walking around and activating triggers that move the narrative along. By contrast, VNs simply are what they are.

      • I think the walking simulator is popular with the annoying subset of critics who believe that a work must be good if it has angers half or more of the audience. I remember one Salon article that called walking simulator’s gaming’s most detested genre, but whoever wrote it didn’t even make an attempt to understand why people had a problem with it, suggesting the people who coined the term were degenerates (Actual quote: “the label ‘walking simulator’ does a better job of describing the kinds of people who create such labels than it does the games it purports to define”).

        The genre is still around, but it seemed to have significantly waned in popularity. It’s just as well because the walking simulator is a genre that, by its very conventions, cannot meaningfully innovate. A lack of innovation is pretty bad in other mediums, but is downright expected in video games, which is probably why it faded into the background.

        I once theorized that the walking simulator manages to evoke the Uncanny Valley effect in a lot of people. You get a work that almost succeeds in being a game, yet anyone can see the distinct lack of gameplay, resulting in a strong, negative reaction. Visual novels, by being upfront about their lack of gameplay, have managed to exist without ever facing a similar backlash.

        And I think too many critics are concerned with making the medium into a serious art when the most interesting bits of innovation tend to result from a more hands-off approach and letting things develop organically. Pandering to critics hasn’t done the film industry any favors given the indies’ general refusal to innovate. Conversely, part of the reason I liked Undertale so much is because it provided me with the kind of story-heavy experience I never knew I needed. That is the kind of standard that artists should strive for.

      • I think I read that Salon article too. You can just tell when the writer has an agenda and is forcing the issue they’re writing about to fit their views instead of forming their views on their honest analysis of the issue. And insulting the “typical gamer”, who is supposed to be an unkempt guy sitting in a basement with Dorito dust on his fingers — that’s a favorite of theirs. It’s too bad that such disingenuous people will always find some supporters.

        I never thought of it in those terms, but using the uncanny valley concept makes sense when it comes to walking simulators. Looking back at it, that might explain how unfulfilling the few I’ve gone through were. At best, a couple of them tried out some interesting ideas, but in execution they still didn’t work for me.

        Undertale was a great example of how a developer can cleverly weave gameplay into the story. I was surprised to see how far it reached outside of the typical circles of indie game players — even the mainstream guys had to praise it. If only other worthy independent games would get that kind of recognition.

      • I’ve actually wondered the same thing myself. I’ve known lots of reviewers to get really in-depth on the environmental narratives/walking simulators, yet don’t seem to bother with visual novels even though they hit largely the same storytelling beats. I would theorize it’s part of a general downward trend in the western world on reading in general, but I’d have to do some research to make a more cogent point about it, and I don’t have time for that.

        Thinking about visual novels overall, a lot of the successful ones do come with various adaptations, but, as is usually the case with movies, reading it is best. I’ve been playing through Higurashi recently, which has been adapted to just about every other medium you could think of (I think there’s even a stage play based on it) and yet I’ve got no interest in that, as I don’t think anything can quite match the viscerality of the original VNs. Yet, even then, I’m given to wonder if it’s like western comics, in that the source material is niche and it’s always the films and tv series that draw the big audiences.

        I don’t use tablets much so I might be completely off base on this, but I do kind of wonder if part of it is that they require reading on a computer, when that’s not really the way our culture has been going since tablets have come around. The more successful VNs you mentioned, Ace Attorney and Zero Escape, do originate on handheld consoles after all. I wonder why we don’t see more big name VNs coming through tablets.

      • A downturn in reading may well be part of it. I heard a while back that fiction writers were making a lot less in real terms now than they even were in the early to mid-20th century. I imagine it’s not easy to measure, but if it’s true, that sounds about right — after all, people have shows and films on demand at home, games, and all the rest to occupy their time. Audiobooks and podcasts are popular now for long commutes and filling up time during dull, repetitive work, but that doesn’t help either, since you have to give a VN your full attention.

        That’s a good point about VN adaptations. I feel bad that I haven’t read Higurashi — I’ve only seen the anime adaptation. It’s good, but I have to wonder how much I missed out on by not reading it instead. The difference in quality between Higurashi’s semi-sequel Umineko VN and anime series is massive; the anime was supposed to have been so poorly received that it was dropped after its first season, and having watched/played both I can say I get why. With a quality adaptation, though, I have to guess that a lot more people do just watch the anime.

        Apparently there is a thriving VN market for mobile devices, though it seems none of the games in that market are directed at my demographic. I don’t really get that. I’d love to have one of my perverted catgirl VNs ported to mobile so I can play it on the train after this international plague is over. And on the off-off-off-chance any big publishers are reading this — I’m not the only one! We will give you money to make this happen, I promise.

  2. Oh, oh! I love talk about popularizing the VN medium! I wrote a bit about it and I theorized it mainly boiled down to the lack of overlap. Most VNs have an anime aesthetic and even their narrative is distinctively influenced by anime tropes. Thus, you’d have to be comfortable with anime, like to read, and be prepared for the time investment while also game predominantly on PCs.

    And I like how you mentioned VNs on mobile. During 2018’s VNConf, Frank Zhang did a talk on them. Xiang Xiang also had a great presentation in 2019. (I’ll leave links at the end of this comment) It turns out that mobile VNs are doing very well. The reason we don’t really hear of them is because they target a completely different audience: adolescent girls. You might know about Fujisan’s comment (a producer at MoeGamer) during an IMHHW interview; how he said he wanted their VNs to even appeal to “12 y/o French girls” in order to expand knowledge of VNs in the west. I laughed at it at the time, but it seems it had more merit than I thought.

    Zhang’s Talk: https://youtu.be/gxvKmbQUch0
    Xiang’s Talk: https://youtu.be/-a4pZvIDPS4

    • Man, it looks like I really am out of touch. I had no idea there was a VN market aimed at adolescent girls over here. I guess there is a whole world of otome games that I’ve never gotten into due to lack of interest, but those definitely can’t be discounted. I’ll have to check those interviews out as well — thanks for the links!

      You also raise an interesting issue with the overlap problem. I didn’t think of this at first, but it makes sense — how many people in the game-playing audience fall into all those categories? Maybe this is part of why a lot of VNs contain adult content: that kind of stuff always sells if it’s done well, and sometimes even if it’s not.

    • Yeah was going to say ‘completely out of touch’ as per the article. VNs are extremely popular on mobile, and games like House in Fata Morgana, Zero Escape, Hakuoki, (I’m a girl so mainly play otome), Amnesia have large fan followings.

      Then there’s a slew of indie titles, like Demonheart, ebi-himes games, Leviathan, Solstice etc.

      It’s true they aren’t massively covered by western gaming journalism, you can chat with Moegamer Pete and check his blog about these games and topics.he follows the male oriented VNs which are more sexualised. And why that means they are maligned by the press. But it by no means the games aren’t doing well, they have a niche that is well supported, despite being eclipsed by AAA titles.

      It’s a pity as there are some absolutely great titles that are very mature, stuff like ‘Six Days of Snow’ that is quite Nabokovian, then just well produced ones like ‘Cinderella Phenomenon’. (both of those are free on Steam)

      The VN I’ve played that came closest to being a game was ‘Long Live the Queen’ which was very well received as well. I guess it’s up to bloggers and players to keep talking about the genre, there’s a good audience out there if you can reach them.

      • I’m learning just how isolated and out of touch with the rest of the world I am with this post! It’s good to finally know that, at least.

        I know about some of the games you’re talking about, though since I’m not into that otome scene, I admittedly have no idea what’s going on with it — it seems a lot more active than I could have guessed. But it still seems to me from what you’re saying that VNs are largely a niche thing, which was more or less my point. Still, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I don’t have any answers, like I said.

        Your response also reminded me of Long Live the Queen — I always meant to play that one. Maybe now’s a good time.

      • Well cRPGs are niche as well and no one could say that genre isn’t thriving or doesn’t have a large fan base so niche doesn’t mean they aren’t popular. Or rather popularity and catering to a specific audience aren’t necessarily the same thing… Not sure I’m explaining that well…

      • That’s true enough. I guess I was talking more about broad popularity vs. a very focused, strong kind of niche popularity if that makes any sense. A VN like Saya, for example, is very famous in its niche, but outside of it I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who’s heard of it. Certainly a game series can do very well by targeting a specific audience — most of the series I like do just that.

  3. The other thing worth considering is the distinction between “porn game” and “game with sex in”. Japan makes that distinction with nukige (porn) vs. eroge (including sex) but we don’t. Well, those who aren’t weebs don’t, anyway. Hell, as you say, we don’t even tend to distinguish between all-ages and 18+ VNs, leading to the assumption you describe.

    I do disagree slightly with one of your points, and that is that VNs *do* have a considerably more substantial presence in the West than 10-20 years ago. 10-20 years ago you would never have been able to pick up a boxed copy of something like Our World Is Ended or Steins;Gate down at your local GAME, whereas now it’s something you can do with ease. (Well, not *right* now, but you know what I mean.)

    I guess the thing that does need to be worked on is the perception of visual novels, particularly by the press. The press are all over “lol so random wacky Western parody VN” any time it shows up (particularly if it’s also “LOOK HOW GAY THIS IS”) and will ignore genuine masterpieces.

    I wrote a review of the beautiful SeaBed for Nintendo Life recently and it continually got pushed back from its originally intended publication date so the site could post more Animal Crossing crap. To their credit, it did get published in the end, though, which is more than a lot of sites will bother to do, but it’s clear it wasn’t a high priority.

    • Yeah, that’s a point I missed. There’s definitely a big difference between nukige and eroge. Maybe some games blur that line, but it does exist.

      Looking back at what I first wrote, I think I overstated just how niche these games still are. It seems like they’ve grown the audience quite a bit, and it’s true that many more VNs are commercially available now than there were ten or twenty years ago. My impression is that it’s a larger niche. I don’t know if that makes any sense. There just don’t seem to be many casual players who are willing to pick up a VN, assuming they even know what they are.

      It’s really unfortunate that good games still miss out on attention just because most professional journalists can’t be bothered to change their views. And speaking of western parody VNs — as much as I liked DDLC, and as much as it deserved its praise, it was a bit annoying to see that game talked up by people who would also swear up and down that they’d never play a straightforward dating sim because it would be too “embarrassing.” DDLC didn’t feel like it was created to mock such games anyway, but rather to give the player a new experience.

      • DDLC was so effective precisely because it was put together with such genuine-seeming love and affection for the high school romance genre of VN. Its subversion of expectations worked so well because everything proceeded exactly as you would expect in that kind of game… until the end of the first act, which took just that extra little step beyond what *usually* happened in most cases. That is what allowed it to spiral out of control into what it became, and why it was so *good*.

        Unfortunately a lot of people couldn’t see beyond “HAHA EDGY SCARY THING HAPPENED LOOK BUFF NATSUMI MEME LOL” and thus it became very difficult to have an actual serious discussion about the game.

        It’s difficult. To an extent, I feel like marketers/publishers of eroge/nukige don’t help matters somewhat; look at a JAST USA or MangaGamer product page for a VN and inevitably most if not all of the screenshots will be the sex scenes, even in VNs where that is emphatically not the main focus. Anyone familiar with the medium will already know that’s not the main focus, but imagine how that looks to someone testing the waters and looking into this stuff for the first time.

        This sort of thing is partly why, when I do have the energy to cover a VN (it can be exhausting to do all that narrative analysis!) I handle things the way I do. It’s important to acknowledge sexual content when it exists, but it’s also important to consider why it’s there — and that that “why” isn’t always “so the reader can get their rocks off”.

      • Yeah, it is too bad that DDLC just became a meme for a lot of people. It was really innovative and well-executed, but I certainly think those who can appreciate it best are the players already into that kind of romance VN. On the other hand, I’d like to think DDLC got at least a few people interested in playing some more straightforward games in the same style.

        And it’s just as you say: every time I see a promotion for a VN being translated and ported over it’s shoving the sex scenes in your face no matter what. I know sex sells, but those kinds of scenes are a lot better when they’re in the context of a good story with interesting characters. There are plenty of games made to get one’s rocks off, after all, like all those nukige you bring up.

        I feel your pain re: covering VNs as well. I’ve started writing what I meant to be a review of one I just replayed, but it’s turning out to be an entire commentary/analysis piece and taking a hell of a lot longer than I intended. I hope it pays off!

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    • Even though I like VNs, I get that too. Especially if you have to do a lot of reading for work or school and want to unwind with action — sometimes I’ve felt that way.

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