Let’s talk about visual novels. By and large they’re poorly written and full of porn, and I could leave it at that, but I want to take a look at why the format has jumped headlong into appealing to the lowest common denominator. In theory, it should make for all kinds of interesting stories: they’re like novels, but with sound and graphics and maybe reader interaction! There are so many possibilities, what could possibly go wrong?
The first issue is one of market expectations. A lot of early VNs had sex, so it became something customers expected. Tsukihime wasn’t going to have sex scenes, but someone at Type Moon figured it wouldn’t move as many units without them, and so the world was subjected to Nasu’s idea of erotica. In a self-reinforcing loop, it doesn’t matter what type of story a VN is, sex has to be in it somewhere because that’s the way things work, like how nobody in America votes for third parties because nobody votes for third parties. And the end result is an inferior product. With sex as an expected feature, it’s easy to see why the market skews so heavily toward dating sims. Even western imitations of Japanese VNs, like Katawa Shoujo, follow this lead, even though it is absolutely unnecessary. Of all the directions they could have taken a story about a disabled kid adjusting to his new life, they decided to go the safe route of making everything about predictable story paths centered around whichever girl is most sexually appealing to the reader. Collect all 5, get a bonus image in the gallery. Unlike Type Moon, there was no commercial pressure forcing them to take things in that direction, they just did it because it’s the path of least resistance. Analogue – which is a commercial product – leaves out the sex itself but still centers its story around trying to “sell” a female character to the reader, as if it’s impossible for men to relate to women who aren’t intensely interested in their dick (and undercutting Analogue’s attempted feminist narrative in the process). The key choice in the story is which of two girls the reader wants to save, but it’s also feasible to save both and get a harem ending. In a sci-fi detective story about a lost colony ship, the absolute last thing I’m interested in is earning arbitrary relationship points with a virtual girl. But doing new things is challenging from a creative standpoint and risks alienating an audience that knows what it wants.
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