OELVNs and Japan

Visual novels are usually associated with Japan. While early western adventure games like Mystery House share quite a bit of their DNA with visual novels, the conventions we associate with visual novels today were cultivated in Japanese adventure games, while western adventure games largely explored other modes of presentation (you can read a fascinating deep dive into this here). Japanese visual novels are also closely associated with anime, particularly romance anime. And like western romcoms, romance anime has its own set of traditions and tropes, one closely shared with visual novels.

In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of original English language visual novels (OELVNs). This is great for us fans, as it means the possibility of more stories and new perspectives. However, a decent chunk of OELVNs decide to imitate the tropes of Japanese visual novels. Sometimes they even take this to the point of explicitly telling stories about Japanese characters in Japanese settings. Katawa Shoujo, one of the oldest and best known modern OELVNs, showed that this approach could find an audience. Wing Cloud’s Sakura series, Love in Space’s Sunrider series, and PixelFade’s games carried on in this manner and also found success. I and many others enjoy these type of games. But I’m also excited for OELVNs to push harder toward forging a different identity by embracing their own perspectives.

Press Your Advantage

Making any game is hard, and OELVNs are often at a disadvantage compared to their Japanese counterparts. Japan has a number of longstanding studios that produce visual novels on moderate-to-large budgets, and so can afford lots of polished art and voice acting. OELVNs are often made by small indie developers who rely on things like crowdfunding. Most won’t have the funds for lavish production values. If the setting is Japanese, then Japanese writers also have the advantage of familiarity. Who is in a better position to write a Japanese high school story, someone who actually attended high school in Japan or someone who watched Ouran High School Host Club?

I think OELVNs can offer something Japanese visual novels don’t by embracing their (usually) western perspectives. While Japan might have the seven school mysteries, the West has traditions like Greek mythology and Grimm’s fairy tales woven into the fabric of its culture. Japanese visual novels sometimes use these too, but usually not in the same way. Western writers who have grown up with these stories since birth can explore them differently than Japanese writers who often use them as a change of pace from their own traditions. And I, for one, would love to read visual novels that can explore western folklore with the type of fluidity that comes from having them ingrained in one’s cultural experience. I think this can also help fight the perception that OELVNs are essentially the bargain bin version of visual novels. I don’t agree with this sentiment, but it’s not uncommon to hear. And if OELVNs are offering exactly the same types of stories and settings as Japanese visual novels but with lower budget production, it can look that way at a glance.

This is also a way to expand the potential audience for visual novels. There’s a big overlap between anime and visual novels, and when an OELVN uses anime tropes like spontaneous nosebleeds or the red string of fate, it reinforces this to an extent. English speaking audiences who know about these tropes usually learn them through anime. If OELVNs are willing to trade these tropes in for things more native to their own culture, then the stories potentially become accessible to people who aren’t familiar with or interested in anime and Japanese culture. Admittedly convincing them to give visual novels a chance might still be difficult. But visual novels are a medium not a genre. They can and should tell all kinds of stories.

Of course, another possibility is that most people who buy visual novels view them just as much as a genre as a medium and OELVNs that imitate Japanese VNs are responding to this market. I haven’t done any market research, but if this is true, then the strategy makes sense. If this is case, I think we as fans should try to be more open to visual novel developers who want to do something different. We might not always enjoy the results, but it’s a great way to try new things and grow the community. And even if you really only want the Japanese visual novel experience, a bigger community likely means more localizations in the future.

It Takes All Types

I don’t mean to imply that OELVNs are a wasteland of unoriginality. Sure, not all of them are amazing, as is the case with anything, but many have a lot to offer. The Japanese-styled entries can tell great stories with compelling characters. Katawa Shoujo achieved its success for a reason. And Doki Doki Literature Club found a voice through metacommentary on many of the worn tropes. Other OELVNs do aim to build an identity separate from Japan, often successfully. For example, I recently played Aquadine, and it creates its setting by drawing on European arts and folklore. There’s also a lot of great work by groups traditionally less represented in the target audience of big studio Japanese visual novels.

Nor do I mean to say that any particularly kind of visual novel is inherently bad. Great story and characters can always shine through, and if your vision absolutely needs to happen in the Kendo club of a Japanese high school, by all means, go for it. If you’re a strong storyteller with something interesting to say, I’ll listen. But it might also be wise to think about what exactly what you want to contribute. In a sense, it’s just the oldest piece of writing advice there is: write what you know.

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