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Where have we been? Where are we going?
- Early eroge largely consist of still art (what we call pixel art now), very short dialogue/narrative elements, and some primitive interactive elements, while spanning many genres.
- The point-and-click adventure game, which has its roots in 1980s video games, establishes itself as one of the most popular genres of eroge. Many games emerge which have interfaces that are visually similar to those of most point-and-click adventure games, but with gradually differing gameplay. These games are all collectively called "adventure games" or "ADV" in Japanese. The general style of having an interface which consists of a rectangular text box at the bottom of the screen, and a collage of visual elements meant to serve as a guide for what the main character sees, is also called "ADV". In other words, ADV becomes a genre that embodies a style of presentation.
- The non-adult game company Chunsoft puts out Otogirisou, a kind of illustrated story in which pictures are placed in the background as visual aids while the full narrative is conveyed as overlaid text. This style of presentation is called a "novel game" or "NVL" in Japanese. The gameplay of Otogirisou purely consists of the player making choices on where to take the story, similar to "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, a simple yet powerful narrative tool which would prove influential to ADV as a whole.
- Two major eroge brands that specialize in ADV, elf and Leaf, create popular games like Doukyuusei and To Heart. These games stand out from their competitors by the way they utilize talented artists and writers to focus on the personalities of charming heroines, rather than treating pixel porn as what matters and the characterization as an afterthought. This character-centric evolution is called a charage (character game) and encompasses both NVL (like Kizuato) and ADV. And with the release of YU-NO and Kamaitachi no Yoru, two ADV/NVL games that have well-written stories, the term scenarioge (scenario game) becomes more popular.
- Kanon is released by Key. It's the first time a large number of players became very emotionally moved by the story of an eroge, or any ADV at that. Even someone like Baba from Visual Arts, who was just a businessman without much personal interest in ADV, became interested after Kanon. Aside from inventing the nakige (naki game, which means "crying game") genre, it awakened in players a desire for longer scenarios as necessary to deepen their attachment to the heroines. But its most significant role is being the first major moege (moe game) at a time when the term "moe" wasn't even very well known.
- The doujin NVL Tsukihime comes out, and its quality lets it rank among the very top, if not at the very top, of both scenarioge and charage. See Popular Views on What Defines the Chuuni Genre for more info on the influence of Type-Moon's works.
- Now that Kanon and Tsukihime have come out, it seems like a dam bursts and a flood of popular and influential ADV/NVL are released. There are comparatively fewer in 2001, with the most notable ones in my mind being Kiminozo and Kazokei. But in 2002 you have Ever17, Higurashi, Kusarihime, Baldr Force, Hello world, Da Capo, and others. And every year after that just has more and more top quality ADV/NVL. The biggest year is 2004, which sees the release of both Clannad and Fate/stay night (successors to Kanon and Tsukihime, respectively).
- Around the middle of the decade, the term "visual novel" is invented among English speaking fans of these games, and basically refers to any game which has an ADV/NVL-style interface and a strong and constant narrative. Since the rest of the world directly bypassed the early history of Japanese eroge and ADV/NVL, they didn't bother with the origins of these styles of games, and just chose a term which seemed to more naturally describe the most famous and representative ADV/NVL. Since then, the term "visual novel" has been recognized by the Japanese too, although the broader Japanese playerbase still commonly thinks that VN is synonymous with "adventure game". In any case, the term is excellent and I like it.
- Over the course of this decade, the major tropes and popular genres of VNs, which were mostly foreshadowed in the late 1990s, are firmly established and standardized. They include TIPs, unlockable routes/end, true ends, bad ends, hidden heroines, time loops/leaps, moe, chuuni, nakige, utsuge, imouto games, and many more. The diverse and awkward gameplay of the 1980s and 1990s more or less disappears.
- Meanwhile, many of the most successful eroge companies like Key, Type-Moon, and Leaf/Aqua-Plus successfully rebrand themselves and reduce their focus on adult content for the sake of marketing their works to the rest of the Japanese "otaku" industries. They adopt the label of "bishoujo game maker". Many of their most popular IPs (intellectual properties) receive anime adaptations or evolve into multimedia franchises, with "Fate" being the most famous example. On the other hand, as these industries embrace VNs, they also learn from them and try to emulate that same appeal within their own IPs; Fate/stay night is especially influential as a progenitor of the "chuuni" genre.
- Statistically, eroge sales begin to decline. The industry itself doesn't immediately begin to decline, though, because investors take time to notice and react to such trends, companies are still in the midst of developing games, and they will try to shift strategies to fight the trend. The decline in sales won't slow down until 2012.
Causes of the trend? This was fiercely debated for years and still hasn't been completely settled. But it's more or less clear.
VNs served as a creative outlet without rivals for several years.
At first, in the early 1990s, nobody expect much from eroge. But as we entered the later part of the decade, that changed. Eroge was always a venue for weird and exciting scenarios that wouldn't be accepted elsewhere, and it was easier than ever to make quality audiovisual experiences, with multiple free or cheap VN engines available. Writers like Maeda Jun and Nasu took advantage of the medium's ease of entry, along with the freedom of expression it afforded. It was a fresh, mature alternative to the LN industry. However, that didn't last forever. Major publishers in other mediums distilled the parts of eroge that appealed most to players: the nakige components, the moe components, the fanservice and unapologetic harems, the handy sci-fi tropes, the balloon breasts. Everything except the deep emotional and mental investment that's only possible with literature. And of course, the mature themes and content.
Above all, what VNs brought to the table was no longer as fresh to people. Without a sense of excitement, the fact that VNs require people to sit down and actually read continuously for hours became... problematic. The era of smartphones and social media also heralded the era of low attention spans. People came to think that "adventure games" = "boring". This was coupled with the fact that more and more people play bishoujo games on their smartphones, and who wants to play eroge in public?
Waifu/husbando social games like Fate/Grand Order and Granblue Fantasy dealt especially heavy blows to players' interest in VNs. They let players pick between countless more waifus and husbandos than VNs, have more exciting plots to engage casual players (not some ordinary school life drama), have the slutty outfits and exaggerated figures of nukige heroines, continually put out new content for the most popular characters, let you put your waifu/husbando in your home screen so you can constantly look at her, and tap on the portrait of her/him to hear some flirty line voiced by a popular anime seiyuu. They even copied the feature of some VNs where you can give your favorite hero or heroine chocolates on Valentine's Day or White Day. The proof is in the recent anime Chuubyou Gekihatsu Boy where the "guy who's only interested in 2D girls" stereotype no longer involves VNs on a PSP, but rather depicts a social game on a phone. To be frank, even the latest Fire Emblem game probably makes VNs less appealing by comparison. The main draw of VNs was always the cute and flirty heroines and romance, but these elements have been thoroughly exported.
The exact same situation arose with Japanese web novels on the site Shousetsuka ni Narou. An initial wave of authors pioneered new genres with certain distinctive tropes, most of them related to isekai, and started a trend which has dominated the Japanese web novel scene. But the mainstream LN industry quickly learned and started to put out its own isekai LNs, as well as aggressively recruit these authors (who naturally didn't object to being paid for what they'd initially put out for free online). A few years later, Narou's talents have more or less moved out, and the stories at the top of the popularity charts haven't been supplanted by any new talents. In any case, the major difference between Narou and the VN industry is that Narou authors are overall much better off with editors, whereas the transition from VNs to LNs/anime is absolutely a creative downgrade.
1. Copy FGO.
Social games are a natural evolution of the appeal of many VNs. Unfortunately, they're also largely vapid experiences with have less voice acting, silent protagonists, a massive cast of heroines who receive little character development, a disjointed narrative, a story that's mostly dialogue and constantly interrupted by battles, and many other flaws that prevent them from achieving literary excellence.
These games have invariably underestimated how popular they'll become and worked with cheap art assets and flimsy storytelling, only to fix this by hiring better artists and writers for the more recent arcs of their ongoing main storylines. However, even those recent arcs are still shallow experiences compared to VNs. The best they can do is have good comedy--no one will ever feel as empathetic toward the characters as they do in VNs.
But of course, despite the problems with social games' storytelling, they are still... inevitable. They will still successfully rake in cash from people with personalities prone to gambling addiction. So one VN company after another has tried to become the next FGO. Eushully, light, August, Key, Lilith, Frontwing, Nitroplus and many others have pursued social games, virtually all of which failed to really take off like FGO--in part because they weren't very well-made, and in part because the Fate franchise is more popular with more devoted fans.
Frankly, this solution has been thoroughly pursued by all sorts of VN companies, and we know exactly what happens: it fails unless they're very lucky.
2. Give up.
This is a wise and fine choice. The river of life flows ever onward. Sometimes it's best to accept defeat.
3. Make NOT a visual novel.
Be Kodaka Kazutaka. Start from the idea that you want to make an adventure game. Then to appease your producer, call it a detective game instead, and add a 3D world with gameplay that takes place within it while occupying a lot of the player's time, so it in no way feels like a pure ADV. Make the narrative largely dialogue-driven. Write in a way that wastes less time on subtlety and imagery and takes more advantage of humor, twists, and action. Then call it Danganronpa and be successful, while feeling that you tricked the world by making an adventure game with the quality storytelling of an adventure game that doesn't feel like an adventure game.
Too Kyo Games plans to water down a full-fledged ADV-quality scenario with meaningful realtime gameplay, by partnering with studios that actually know how to make fun games. It's a long-term experiment on tricking people into playing adventure games.
4. Make a visual novel, but be better.
Find a slightly new angle. Gather the A-Team. Target non-traditional markets. Cultivate one's prestige. In short, reorganize and rebrand. But still make a visual novel, with ordinary 2D art and probably little to no gameplay.
The only problem is that people don't like VNs anymore because smartphones shrunk their brains until they had flea-sized attention spans. So at best, such "better" VNs will simply exist in the top tier of modern VNs, able to survive and maybe make a little profit. These are VNs for the sake of creators who want to stay in the VN industry despite how comparatively little it pays.
Aniplex.exe, a new VN brand started under Aniplex that Makura staff like Sca-ji are involved with, seems to fall under this category. They're identifying as makers of "novel games" probably because that sounds more respectable these days than bishoujo game. I'm frankly more interested in Sca-ji's other still unannounced projects (but that's just because I'm not personally a fan of Konno Asta or Umihara Nozomu).
5. Copy FGO, but EVOLVE.
Before Light's "Pantheon" mobile game died mid-development, Masada planned for it to have a substantial scenario. That kind of story would fatally clash, like matter and dark matter, with social games as they exist today. Unless they rethought the entire premise from scratch, I assume they'd have to at the very least dilute such a lengthy narrative into segments with constant breaks, rewards, and mini-games. And they'd have to make a tough choice about whether they seriously want to market it for smartphones, or stick to PC like Granblue Fantasy.
It's easier to not evolve or just give up. But moreover, I think industry veterans are just pissed off and unable to accept that something as amazing as VNs can't find its consumers anymore. So they will struggle. Visual Arts will struggle, for sure. Key pretended to be half-dead in their 20th anniversary message, but they were actually hard at work. They've let Maeda take on the scenario of a high budget smartphone game called "Heaven Burns Red". Will he be able to do for social games with "Heaven Burns Red" what he did for VNs with "Kanon"? I'm not too optimistic, since I haven't seen any indication that the overall story concept was Maeda's.
To quote Sca-ji, a writer who's qualified to talk about the unique worth of eroge, from late October: "People across various otaku industries have said, 'I want the wonderful culture of eroge to stay alive.' They're going out of their way and doing many things to make that happen. If I'm pessimistic, this might be our last chance to revive this industry, so I'm cheering them on. Do your best. ... People around their late twenties to thirty years old have started to take positions of power in society, praising eroge and doing many things for us."
「Kanon」や「CLANNAD」「Angel Beats!」など…「泣きゲー」からアニメ原作まで、美少女IPを仕掛け続けた28年！ ビジュアルアーツのユニークなブランド戦略と経営思想を馬場隆博社長に聞いてみた
A new decade is upon is, and we're in the midst of a wave of 20th anniversaries that inevitably prompt retrospection.
What I'm keeping an eye on, out of concern for the industry, as we enter it:
- Too Kyo Games
- Heaven Burns Red (unveiling on February 28) and Visual Arts as a whole
- Sca-ji's Twitter account
- Aniplex.exe as a whole
- Any news from Masada about new publishers for Pantheon
- Major non-adult scenarioge companies like Spike-Chunsoft and Mages (they may absorb some talent or try to carry on eroge culture)
- Any actual new VNs from Nasu, like the Tsukihime remake
ADDENDUM I: A Note on Death VS Decline (added 1/28)
I just read an interview where Yoshimune responds to claims of the "death" of VNs. His response minimizes people's concerns, and I understand why he said it, but it still triggered me a little, so I want to talk about this.
Yeah, there is no immediate indication that the VN niche will die out completely in favor of other types of otaku media like social games.
For example, there are at least 2 mainstays of the VN industry that I personally consider very secure:
1. Lighthearted moege like Yuzusoft's VNs (because the kind of deep sexual and emotional intimacy you find in these VNs has earned itself a loyal consumer base)
2. Labors of love (typically scenario-oriented games put out by talented teams who have a history working in the industry and don't want to leave it)
Death and decline are different. But when people say "death" it's really only hyperbole for "decline". And the industry is undeniably in decline. The absolute top tier of VNs, the most culturally impactful and wonderful works out there, were only possible because for a brief time the entire otaku industry seemed to revolve around VNs, but that time has ended (due to, as I just outlined, shifts in the rest of the otaku industry and in consumer interests).
Even intuitively you can't deny the VN industry has declined, because in the past VNs were popular and prestigious, and now that enthusiasm has waned. Companies like Key, that benefited most from prestige, suffered the steepest relative downturn.
Many major writers around the end of the 2000s had ambitious plans for new VNs, but those plans went up in smoke and the VNs never materialized, in part because there was no money anymore, in part because the writers were seduced into other industries. Taiyou no Ko, Shoujobyou, Conquistador, and Occultum are the names of just a few of those now-mythical high-profile projects.
Muv-Luv Alternative would not have been funded, if someone wanted to make it in today's VN industry. That's also why Muv-Luv Alternative 2 never went anywhere (until recently, when age suddenly seemed revitalized). In short, you simply can't create in today's industry what you could in 2004's industry, even if there are creators who want to do so. The funds aren't there, and many of the major creators aren't there, because VNs don't sell as well anymore. That's what it means to have declined. And it's a serious issue, because the whole point of VNs is play kamige. Ten thousand average manga aren't worth a single One Piece.