Quick Hits: On Plotless(?) Visual Novels

If you hang out in some of the online visual novel communities, for example reddit or vndb, you’ll hear people sometimes describe visual novels as “plotless.” Usually, this is taken in a negative context and applied to visual novels that focus on characters and relationships as opposed to action, combat, competition, or mystery. This is perhaps the visual novel take I find most frustrating. It’s fine to have a preference for action or mystery over character drama. Everyone has their own tastes. But things like combat or murder mysteries don’t automatically make stories more valid as stories than focus on characters and relationships.

A good example to illustrate the point is Hoshi Ori Yume Mirai, or HoshiOri for short. HoshiOri follows Hino Ryousuke through high school with his friends, and later into college and adulthood. It’s a slice of life story through and through. HoshiOri shows the characters doing and grappling with things that are normal for people their age. Their efforts are treated earnestly, and things that would be important to high schoolers, for example a school festival, are presented as climactic moments. Ryousuke eventually becomes romantically involved, and the story continues to show how he, his partner, and their relationship grow into adulthood.

I’ve heard HoshiOri described as “plotless moege” (moege is a portmanteau of moe and game) and seen people complain that it’s a story in which “nothing ever happens.” This is simply not true. Each section has rising action and climactic moments. The characters go through challenges that force them to grow and change together. This is by definition a plot. It’s just a plot about ordinary people and their relationships rather than super-powered samurai fighting aliens. It’s fine to say you don’t like HoshiOri because you don’t feel the events or stakes are interesting. There’s nothing wrong with preferring samurai vs. aliens to high school slice of life. But don’t deny the plot exists as a way suggest HoshiOri isn’t a valid story at all.

Visual novels can go the other way too. Danganronpa is a killing game/murder mystery that focuses on intrigue and action via solving murders. It’s fast paced, exciting, and mysterious. People die. Crimes are uncovered. On the other hand, the characters and relationships are shallow, and the story doesn’t spend much time developing or exploring them. But no one calls Danganronpa a “characterless” visual novel. That wouldn’t make any sense. There are still characters, they just aren’t the focus. And like HoshiOri, it’s fine to like or dislike Danganronpa depending on whether you find the things it focuses on interesting.

I think we should stop conflating plot with action and stop characterizing visual novels as having plots or not period. It’s meaningless. I assure you that 99% of all visual novels have plots. Describe the things you like more precisely instead. Love sports and competition? Aokana has those in spades. Want some combat action? Baldr Sky has cool mecha too! This is so much more illustrative than saying you like visual novels with “plot.” And when someone else says they enjoy visuals novels that focus on characters and relationships, respect that too even if it’s not your taste. All of these are valid stories with plots and all have something to offer to the right person.

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