Visual Novel Romance: On Agency

One of the most common complaints I see about galge (romance visual novels with male protagonists and female love interests) protagonists is that they’re too passive. Maybe the guy is dense, or wishy-washy, or just overall milquetoast. In any case, he sits back and waits for things to happen. If he can be spurred to action, it’s only by the direst circumstances or most direct of entreaties. It forces you to ask yourself: why would girls be tripping over themselves to chase a useless guy with no personality who never does anything? It’s hard to get invested in a love story between an adorable heroine and a protagonist who feels like an empty, undefined space.

As a consequence, a lot of readers like the contrast found in protagonists like The Fruit of Grisaia’s Kazami Yuuji who make things happen and aren’t afraid to call the shots. I certainly like my protagonist to have some initiative too. However, when things go to far in this direction and the protagonist calls all the shots, the heroines lose their agency. They become toys to make the protagonist look heroic or satisfy his desires. I find this even worse than passivity. Just as a relationship between an adorable heroine and a useless cardboard cutout feels empty, a relationship between an adorable heroine and a domineering force feels twisted and lifeless.

So where does the balance lie? What makes for a protagonist who can act boldly without becoming oppressive? Let’s take a look at some examples from my favorite, and least favorite, romance visual novels.

Spoiler Warning: minor spoilers for Fruits of Grisaia, Murasame’s route from Senren*Banka, Kotori’s route from If My Heart Had Wings

I’ll Have It My Way

The Fruit of Grisaia explores the relationships that Yuuji, a maladjusted and brooding ex-supersoldier, can form with five girls with whom he attends school. Except the girls all have serious issues of their own. The stage seems set for Yuuji and his love interest join together and help each other heal. That’s not what happens though. Instead, Yuuji decides what he thinks is best for the girls and makes it so, often over their expressed wishes. The heroines’ feelings are obstacles to be outmaneuvered or overcome rather than viewpoints to be understood and considered. Yuuji even subjects the heroines to various ordeals to “cure” them as he sees fit, and in one case, literally withholds the key to the heroine’s salvation until the moment he deigns to dispense it.

For me, this made the romance wholly unsatisfying. Yuuji was like a mechanic fixing cars. At best, he’s a paternalistic savior. At worst, it’s a self-serving power trip: he gets everything on the terms he decides. And because Yuuji dictates the terms, I never felt that he himself opened his heart. Yuuji’s plans could fail, but that’s a rejection of his skills and judgment. He never takes the emotional risk of asking someone to accept and love him from a position of weakness or when he comes empty-handed. Without emotional risk, there’s no emotional payoff. You lose all the feels. Nor do Yuuji and his heroine become a team; the heroine is always subordinate. For me, a compelling romance can’t exist unless both parties are equals and willing to be vulnerable.

Interestingly, both The Fruits of Grisaia and Yuuji are quite popular. He’s certainly an unusual romance lead, with his superspy do-it-all skills and his brooding, edgy personality. Some people like a dominant lead, and Yuuji certainly fits the bill, to an extreme degree even. I’ve also heard of a few people who view him as a subversive comedy character–a complete inversion of the passive protagonist with no exceptional traits. However, accepting that idea leads to a very different reading of The Fruits of Grisaia as a whole, one where the emotional climaxes are in fact cutting satire. Perhaps for others, the idea of holding the affections of a beautiful girl while dictating the terms is an appealing fantasy. After all, romance is often enjoyed for its elements of fantasy and wish fulfillment. I think my younger self might have liked Yuuji for that reason. But as my tastes have changed, I now find him overbearing.

We’re in This Together

An example of shared agency, and one of my favorite visual novel romances for it, is that of Masaomi and Murasame in Senren*Banka. Murasama is a spirit born from human sacrifice who has existed for 500 years and the central conflict of her story concerns whether she might become human once more. Masaomi can restore her humanity by performing a sacred ritual, but Murasame herself feels conflicted. Over her 500 years of existence, she fears she has drifted away and become something else entirely. And though she wishes to be together with Masaomi, she is unsure if she can truly be human again–or if she deserves to.

Masaomi wants Murasame to become human, both selfishly and because he thinks it’s the best choice for her. He also realizes the most important thing is that she has to want this too. When he first approaches her about her past and her doubts, she rebuffs him. And Masaomi accepts that in the moment. Rather than demand to know, he steps back and reassures Murasame that she has his support. Once their bond deepens and he finally does press, it comes in the form of a question. Will you become human for my sake? Masaomi doesn’t cloak his request in a pretense of doing this for Murasame’s “own good.” He’s open and honest: I ask you to consider my feelings because we’re lovers and in this journey together, and I trust you enough to tell you this, even if you might reject me. Masaomi takes initiative and advocates for his hopes for the relationship, always a fair play. But he respects that Murasame has just as much right to do the same, even if that makes him vulnerable to pain and rejection. Shared agency makes the couple’s journey and ultimate happiness something that belongs to both of them.

You Can Still Go for It

The need to share agency doesn’t mean a protagonist can never take impulsive or unilateral action. But if they do, it’s something that needs to be warranted by the circumstances and earned through the couple’s shared experience. I think my favorite example of such a moment is the conclusion to Kotori’s route in If My Heart Had Wings. After the protagonist Aoi’s then girlfriend Kotori is injured in a glider accident, her concerned parents come to take her to live back home with them. She doesn’t want to go, but she also loves her family and understands their concerns. At the last moment, after Kotori has said her resigned goodbyes, Aoi physically prevents her parents from taking her by blocking the road out of the town. It’s not something they talked about or that she asked him to do. He simply acts on the undeniable impulse that wells up in his heart.

This works because Aoi is a consistently thoughtful and empathetic protagonist who by this point has spent lots of time with Kotori and shown in his words and actions that her wishes and dreams are dear to him. He’s opened his heart to her too, sharing his own failings and fears. And even when Aoi does spring into action, he has no real authority. He can stop the car momentarily, but if Kotori truly wishes, she can still ultimately leave. Aoi’s desperate gamble is a leap into the unknown that puts his heart in Kotori’s hands. It’s a moment that reinforces their relationship is something they built together and that they overcome obstacles as a team who trust each other deeply. Plus, it’s exciting! Aoi has that spark that makes him go for it at the climactic moment, and the way the story handles agency increases the stakes.

Final Thoughts

While I understand the frustration with passive visual novel protagonists, I think the flip-side of heroine agency is just as important and all too often overlooked. Sharing agency means sharing in the rewards of the relationship, while on the other hand, nothing kills romance faster than an overbearing lead with a savior complex. At least that’s how I see it.

Have your own opinions on initiative and agency? Is your idea of a good romance visual novel protagonist different? Give a shout in the comments or @FairPlayWes.

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