Dynamics of Visual Novels Going Mainstream

A decade ago I got myself into an internet fight with an editor of a games magazine that still holds considerable influence in the small part of the world where I’m from. It was over this editor’s critique of eroge, which he based on his experience with half a dozen low-quality G-Collection and Peach Princess games. In that exchange I was the knowledgeable otaku, outlining great stories such as Fate/stay night, ToHeart and AIR, questioning his decision to publish the article when he, admittedly, shoehorned himself into the narrow world of English-translated nukige at the time. The following quote, which I’ve translated, was his conclusion on the medium.

“People that play eroge are most likely lacking things (a lot of things) in life. I don’t understand why this observation would be construed as offensive. It’s just the way things are. A huge part of the entertainment industry, be them anime, hentai, music, movies etc., serves to fill a void in people left over by the contemporary way of life. To deny this is to deny reality. It’s simple; we indulge ourselves in simulations of erotica because that’s what our lives are missing. In my opinion, eroge offer the sort of alternate reality that’s pretty pathetic, and it only increases the frustrations that it feeds upon, because we forever become prisoners of its idealized representations.”

Sounds pretty bad, right? This story has a nice ending though. The editor noticed that I was preparing a reply, and before I could hit Send he offered me to pay for a writeup on the brighter side of the eroge world. He published my short primer on eroge in one of the upcoming issues of the magazine, I was rewarded for being an obnoxious little nerd. All in all a pretty cool guy and an experience to remember.

Over the next decade access to quality translated eroge increased by a few factors. A contemporary English-speaking eroge fan will have a hard time reading every translation available; that’s how good being a fan is these days. Before we had to either learn Japanese or use machine translation to be able to play any of the games that were hyped in Japan. Fan translations were scarce, the market for quality titles was practically non-existent, still the process of popularization steadily continued. The recent boom in visual novel popularity in the West came from Sekai Project’s innovative approach of releasing games on Steam. Tons of new people jumped onto the visual novel hype train, YouTube producers and Twitch streamers marketed the hell out of them. The future is looking bright for visual novel fans in the West, but it comes at a price.

Being exposed to a wider audience, the games had to clean up their act. Nekopara vol.1 got a censored release on Steam, as well as an adult-only release, with all the sexually explicit tidbits left in, via other channels. While Steam releases were conceived as marketing gimmicks designed to lure consumers into repurchasing adult versions elsewhere, it quickly became apparent Steam was the dominant sales driver.

Now publishers are faced with a decision. Should they continue releasing games in the current double-dipping fashion, or should they completely focus on the Steam publishing model? The more interesting case here is that of the upcoming Maitetsu release. Maitetsu is for all intents and purposes a lolige. Obviously the game can’t be released on Steam in adulterated form, but can Sekai Project release it uncensored through other channels? This is where things get a bit tricky.

We all know of a legal precedent in the United States set by the courts in which they convicted a man for possessing lolicon material. In case of Canada, simulated child pornography is punishable by law and can quickly land you on the country’s list of child molesters. The question then becomes how risky is it for a reputable company such as Sekai Project to release such a game uncensored? Obviously not through Steam, but through their sister company Denpa Soft, for example. The whole reason anybody even buys lolige is to virtually screw little girls. Take that away and you have a game on your hands that makes watching paint dry far more exciting.

Maybe I’m wrong about Maitetsu. Maybe the little train girls will drop some sick train-ota knowledge bombs. Besides, dedicated people will most likely find a way to either release a restoration patch or extract the translation and release a pirated version for those that really want to screw the loli. Censorship really isn’t something that would affect a singular title, after all censorship is merely a tool for profit maximization. Sekai Project censors these games because it recognizes that Steam is the more profitable distribution platform. We can’t fault a company simply because it wants to make money, right?

But we can fault it for changing perceptions of the visual novel medium.

I’ll be completely honest, I got motivated to write up this little essay by people who don’t mind or even prefer that publishers strip out sexually explicit content. A game like Grisaia no Kajitsu having certain scenes taken out can be seen as a necessary evil by some in order to bring a great story to a wider audience. Just a few days ago somebody on Reddit posted a discussion thread titled What VNs MUST be read in an 18+ edition to get their full impact? The title implies that many visual novels have sexually explicit scenes that can easily be skipped without much hindrance to the overall experience. While the level of disturbance experienced in doing so largely depends on the player, from my perspective it’s a really twisted position to take.

What’s worse is that certain Japanese creators endorse removal of sexually explicit scenes, saying they don’t bring any real value to the characters or the story. These accounts have validated a framework of thought that proposes most sexually explicit scenes are just literary excess that we can do without. But the real scariness of this line of thought is its logical maximum, which is that their removal brings us closer to the creator’s true intentions. The argument being that the realities of the Japanese visual novel market forced publishers to include sexually explicit content when they didn’t really want to do that.

The whole reason why we have literary works of art being published in the visual novel format is because consumers of sexually explicit games started demanding more intricate plots. The 18+ label meant there weren’t many artistic freedoms one couldn’t take, leading up to a point we now have nakige selling alongside nukige. Contemporary attitudes that ride the wave of popularization would have you believe that porn games are just a subset of the visual novel medium, but history suggests our perceptions should be more evolutionary than holistic. For that reason I’ve always viewed all-ages visual novels as an offshoot of eroge, instead of the former.

Besides, creators jumped into the porn gaming niche out of the same reason that visual novel publishers are now aiming at a Steam release with each title – profit optimization. They couldn’t find work at big gaming corporations such as Nintendo, so they looked into the seedy back-alleys of PC game development where they could make easy money making porn, with the added benefit of unrestricted creative freedoms.

We should by all means be wary of watering down creative diversity. I will reluctantly admit that the first visual novel that I played was Virgin Roster by ZyX. A typical nukige by any measure of imaginative overreach. Still, what I saw even in the first hour of gameplay shocked me. The protagonist’s nasty, rapist attitude was too much for this Christian-raised boy to handle, even though I saw content that would be considered far more shocking by the majority years earlier as a curious teenager. Everything about that game was so preposterous that I wanted to find more content with the same creative spirit behind it. Even though it was just a porn game, it was that kind of exoticism that attracted me to the genre, the type of “creativity” that couldn’t come from anywhere else other than Japan.

And, honestly, what’s Nekopara without the porn? DLSite’s surprisingly big download numbers on the 18+ version suggest not much at all. If Japanese publishers liken up to the idea of publishing their games directly to Steam, will this lead them to produce less experimental and less risqué content? If that’s what the future has in store for us, I’ll have to wonder whether the downsides of going mainstream will have outweighed the positives.

We may regard G-Collection and Peach Princess games as mindless nukige for lonely and delusional people, but their functions of being sex simulators may not be so useless if all Steam does is takes the porn away. Sure, you can brag to your Steam friends that you are indeed a person who is sexually curious, it’s just that you’ll still be a lonely person in the end. Without porn to fap to.

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