Visual novels are like choose-your-own-adventure books that you play on your computer, if choose-your-own-adventures ended not in the Gypsy woman’s curse coming true, but in graphic, porny sex scenes. Your character (usually a pensive, stressed-out dude) has some role of importance in whatever high school/hospital/castle he belongs to, and the story sends him out to interact with a cavalcade of vibrant weirdos, many of whom are vaguely sexy anime girls he/you will have the opportunity to fall in love with, and see naked, at least once each during the novel’s 50,000 lines of dialogue. Visual novels can be gay themed or set in a lusty fantasy world; they can be sweet and romantic or silly and horny. And of course, some visual novels can be very dark—pedophilic, rape-y, full of deformed bodies, or all of the above.
You’ve probably never played a visual novel. Almost all of them are created and released in Japan, and despite a few crossover attempts here and there, the genre never made the jump to the Western world. English speakers interested in playing these games have to get creative, which is where fan-run translation sites like Fuwanovel come in. Fuwanovel is one of the largest non-Japanese websites dedicated to visual novels and it’s run by Aaeru, a 28-year-old Australian woman who got into the games after playing a fan-translated version of Little Busters!, a high school-themed VN. Since Japanese developers are mostly uninterested in trying to break into new markets, Westerners who want to play/read these games are dependent on people like Aaeru, who know Japanese and are willing to volunteer their time to essentially rewrite entire books.
“I know there are people out there who want to play these games badly, but they cannot because of the language barriers,” Aaeru told me. “That's why I wanted to help my community out, and I know I can help them out by volunteering some of my time translating what I can.”
Aaeru said that 99 percent of all visual novels remain untranslated, and the average fan translation usually takes around a year and a half to complete. All of this is pretty illegal. By rewriting someone else’s game in English and putting it on a website for people to download, you’re fairly obviously trespassing on intellectual property rights. It might not matter for some of the more obscure novels, but Aaeru recently received a cease-and-desist letter from a localization company called MangaGamer (localization companies are essentially professional translators who work directly with Japanese developers) that didn’t approve of her ongoing translation of a popular visual novel called Da Capo III.
MangaGamer wasn’t necessarily planning on making an English version of Da Capo III, but since its parent company owns the rights, they can quash fan translations—though it seems like an odd business model that leads corporations to take legal action against the most-passionate consumers of their products.
“It’s an ongoing topic of tension among fans. The opinions split both ways,” Aaeru explained when I asked her whether people were angry at game studios for targeting amateur-translation efforts. “Some believe that if you have purchased the game, you should be allowed to improve on your copy and share those improvements to others, while others believe that some of these rights should take a step back in order to promote commercial localization, which I disagree with. I do know that helping people is not wrong.”
So what’s really at stake here? Aren’t these just weird porn games? If you spend some time browsing the Visual Novel database you’ll find a lot of smut, but will you also find emotional uplift that you’d find in a “normal” novel? Aaeru says yes, of course you will.
“It is very hard for anyone to have even played one visual novel and maintain the position that they are just porn games,” she said. “Nowadays, they are character-focused stories about 'real' characters that you will come to care deeply about… [Sex] constitutes a very small part of the overall game's volume (about 3 percent), in the same way Hollywood films contain short sex scenes.”
I wanted to believe her, so I downloaded a visual novel called Season of the Sakura. It was originally released in 1996, was translated into English in 2002, and is apparently one of the greatest visual novels of all time, which seemed like a pretty good place to start.
The character I controlled/inhabited was a pensive, stressed-out high school baseball star who was surrounded by pristine anime-girl pixies. I clicked through hours of dialogue, which almost entirely consisted of me making incrementally flirtatious advances, with some spiritual motifs about cherry blossoms sprinkled in. There was a lot of cheesy but wholesome Japanese comedy that would be recognizable to anyone who’s watched anime. As skeptical as I was at the beginning, I started to enjoy myself in the same way I enjoy The OC. I talked to the quiet girl, the geeky girl, the crazy girl, the girl in glasses, and while that makes them sound like reductive, obvious stereotypes, they really did resemble three-dimensional characters with agency, personalities, and quirks. Within a few hours, I was actually getting to know these people.
At the end of the game, nearly ten hours later, I got presented with a porn-y sex scene with whichever girl my character fancied the most, complete with a hilariously uncomfortable English translation. (For example, “energizing her body with pleasure.”) This is, unfortunately, the payoff, the reason some players endure all the dippy romance. Even Aaeru admitted that the purpose of these sex scenes is to titillate, not add anything to the narrative. That’s a shame, because it inevitably brings something that could be cool down into the realm of erotica—it’s like ending a pretty good novella with a chapter titled, “Oh Yeah, and Then Everyone Totally Boned. Sweet.” Sure, there are some games that are specifically designed to be rated PG, but you have to wonder how many fans go for the clean versions.
But for all the elements that seem sort of dark and weird and unhealthy, there’s a lot in these books that’s earnest and sweet—Season of the Sakura is basically about young love, after all. It’s a silly game, but maybe that’s the point.
The idea of a first-person, romantic video game is bizarre on its face. There are VN characters who say “I love you” to the reader/player, who is supposed to take that as a seriously emotional moment—and unless you have some pretty messed-up stuff in your head, you don’t love the collection of data and pixels back. Are these games really trying to romance their players? “Yes!” said Aaeru.” And it is preposterous! And that is why they are so ridiculously awesome. There is nothing else like it in any other medium.”
More fun trends from Japan: