On Visual Novels, One in Particular

One form of electronic, specifically interactive, literature that isn’t discussed in this class is the Visual Novel (VN hereafter). This isn’t without cause: the medium is virtually exclusive to Japan, with very few being exported and few being made in the United States. In recent years, the medium has caught on and a small industry of amateur to semi-professional VN developers, including programmers, writers, and artists, has sprung up via the Internet. The most well-known collective of VN developers can be found on the Lemmasoft fora, which are hosted by Lemmasoft, developer of the most commonly used VN engine, Ren’py. Ren’py is famous for its user-friendly interface, requiring a minimum of computer programming knowledge to use for creating games. This makes it very conducive to low-budget and non-commercial production, hence the popularity.

Katawa Shoujo (Japanese; literally “crippled girls”, more commonly “disability girls”) is one example of a relatively low-budget, non-commercial VN created using Ren’py. The game was inspired by a sketch sheet drawn by a 4chan poster known only as “Raita” and posted sometime around January of 2007. The sketch sheet, which may be viewed here, contained a description for a dating-sim type game (referred to in Japan, VN fandom, Raita’s sketch, and here as “ren’ai game”, roughly “romance game”) featuring love interests who were disabled in different ways. The idea took hold immediately and spawned extensive discussions on 4chan’s image boards. Several users, both from 4chan and from other internet communities, formed a team to develop Raita’s idea into a full VN, calling themselves Four Leaf Studios after 4chan’s four-leaf clover logo. Katawa Shoujo‘s first act was released as a preview on 29 April, 2009. The full game was released on 4 January, 2012, and was an underground success, being free to play and a novel concept to many people who had not heard of VN’s before. It earned a large fan community focussing on discussion of the story, fan-fiction, and fan-art.

Katawa Shoujo cannot be honestly classified as a game, as there is no real gameplay (though that does not stop me from calling it a game on accident sometimes). This image from early in the game is representative of most scenes in the game. Narration and dialogue are displayed in the text box at the bottom of the screen, while digitally drawn backgrounds and sprites are used to dramatize the action. There are several individual “sprites” for each character for various emotions and facial expressions. Some higher-budget VN’s have voice acting for the dialogue. Occasionally, a “CG Scene,” or an individually drawn piece of art, will take the place of background and character sprites to depict special scenes in a manner that the standard engine precludes. This is often used to highlight particularly dramatic or important moments in the story.

So there is no gameplay, in the sense that at no time can one directly control the actions of the protagonist. But there is an objective, and a way to achieve it. At certain times during the narrative, choices will appear, and those choices will affect how the player proceeds through the story, including how it will end. Each of the potential love interests in this game has a “good ending” and a “bad ending,” but some of them have a “neutral” ending. The goal, obviously, is to get the good ending, where the protagonist and love interest are together. However, an aspect of uncertainty enters into this. In the case of Katawa Shoujo, unlike in some other ren’ai VN’s, there is no “true” love interest. Each of the storylines have similar themes related to disability and inner strength, but there is no indication that any story is any more “real” than any other. Ergo, there are five possible stories, each with at least two possible endings and numerous dialogue branches within. Attempting to read every line of dialogue in Katawa Shoujo can be a daunting task, and many VN’s are even longer. Some even force the player to play every route to unlock a secret “True Route”.

Of course, it is possible to have a VN without any choices or alternate endings. These are called kinetic novels, and they are less common than branching VN’s.

Katawa Shoujo‘s release was a watershed moment in VN history, as its success resulted in a flurry of interest in VN’s, Ren’py, and VN development, leading to the present underground scene. Because of this, Katawa Shoujo deserves recognition as an important work of interactive electronic fiction. It is an excellent introduction to the medium as well as the ren’ai genre.

Please be advised: Katawa Shoujo contains scenes of nudity and explicit sexuality. This is common in some VN’s, which are sometimes termed “eroge” (erotic game).  However, this warning should not dissuade the reader from interest: the story is primary, the sexuality secondary. There is an option to disable all explicit content, which results in virtually no lost story or characterization. Other VN’s with explicit content will have an advisory on the box art or in promotional material stating the game is for “adults only”, so use this to be informed of the content of a VN before starting it. There are many entirely “clean” VN’s out there as well, if the reader prefers.


  1 comment for “On Visual Novels, One in Particular

  1. February 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    So is this distinct from a “dating sim”? And I’m curious about how disability figures here. You refer to inner strength, so is that a “despite-their-disability” kind of story of overcoming?

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