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Visual Novels and the Bechdel Test


Darbury

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As I was drinking my third cup of coffee this morning, it occurred to me that most non-otome or yaoi visual novels I can think of pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel Test requires that a work of fiction:

  1. have at least two women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man.

With obvious exceptions (Planetarian, etc.) most VNs have little trouble crossing this threshold — the casts are almost entirely female, and slice-of-life scenes are a staple of the genre. Meanwhile, nearly half of all American-made films don’t meet this same standard.

So to make things a little more interesting, I’d like to propose the Darbury Test™ (full name: “The Darbury Addendum to the Bechdel Test”). To get this particular merit badge, the VN in question must:

  1. have at least two women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man,
  4. neither of whom ends up having sex with the main character.

That’s right. If either one of them ends up with a red-hot ramrod crammed in one or more meat holes, crying out, “OH, YOU CAME SO MUCH!” — fail. Even if the action happens off-screen (e.g., in an all-ages version) — fail. Even if the woman in question is actually a demon/robot/vampire/catgirl/taco — fail.

Steins;Gate? Even that fails.

By the end of her route, Luka and Okabe have a child.

I can also think of a bunch of VNs that pass. Either way, it makes for an interesting thought experiment while you’re waiting for that next pot of coffee to finish brewing.

EDIT: Looks like the forum upgrade nuked all the styling of this post for a while. Sorry for the temporarily uncloaked spoilers.

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How do sequals/fandisks figure into this?

They don't. Each individual VN is considered on its own merits. So even if the fan disc features a 5-hour orgy with every single man, woman, animal, and teapot in the cast, the original VN can still pass the test.

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na people talk normally, the whole "they have a secret language" is a way to get people to laugh at how true it happens. basically its another comedy trick that everyone likes.

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I can think of ever 17 and a few examples on rewrite too (no sex in this vns  :P ) and of course last but not least narcissu second, all girls protagonist and for the entire vn they do not talk about men, but yeah it's hard to find examples, whatever you do don't tell Anita Sarkeesian about this lol

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I wonder how many nukiges will pass this test. Prbly not so many, considering most girls would partake in the orgy. 

Although prbly many normal vn's will pass the test. As it has side character girls never getting a route, so not getting to have sex with the protag. Although I doubt that would make the h-scenes still anything feministic. #kyaaa #Stop~~ #(Don't stop)IreallyLikeIt

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So I'll have to reject your test.

Oh yeah? Well I reject your rejection of my test. Bet you weren’t expecting that, huh? HA! :)

Everyone’s experience with a work is going to be subjectively different, of course. “I was pressed for time, so I only read the main route of Steins;Gate.” That’s completely valid — but it doesn’t change the content of what you didn’t read. “I was tired and had a head cold, so I started skipping over those bits in A Song of Ice and Fire where the author started geeking out about characters’ genealogy.” That’s also completely valid — but it doesn’t mean those sections weren’t there. (And boring as all hell.)

There’s a definable corpus to a VN text. There aren’t infinitely possible outcomes that need to be interpolated. The VN has a limited number of branching plot lines — usually a half-dozen or so — each of which read like short novellas. Taken as a whole they comprise the body of the work. And it’s that work to which the world-renowned Darbury Test™ can be applied.

But keep in mind, this test proves nothing. It’s an interesting thought experiment in how narratives are constructed and populated, nothing more.

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neither of whom ends up having sex with the main character.

What if they have sex with the antagonist who steals them away from the main character?

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With obvious exceptions (Planetarian, etc.) most VNs have little trouble crossing this threshold — the casts are almost entirely female, and slice-of-life scenes are a staple of the genre. Meanwhile, nearly half of all American-made films don’t meet this same standard.

 

 

Partly due to comparative time constraints - packing a story into a 2 hour time frame means a limited time for characters to meander around. There'd be a greater percentage of American television shows that pass this test when compared to American films, for example. Of course it indicates a problem with Hollywood, but you can't really use the test to compare two different media.

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How do sequals/fandisks figure into this?

They don't. Each individual VN is considered on its own merits. So even if the fan disc features a 5-hour orgy with every single man, woman, animal, and teapot in the cast, the original VN can still pass the test.

Just to make sure, since I got worried now for a second. If my VN contains sex with a teapot, does it then fail to pass this rigorous test?

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I'd think seeing how many VNs fail the reverse bechdel test would be interesting as well. It wouldn't be that many because main characters tend to have sidekicks, but random stuff like Autumn would fail simply because of how minimalistic they are.

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That's not quite how it works. Each VN has a different way to approach its own content - consider the difference between Steins;Gate and Everlasting Summer. In both cases there is a true route, one route that trumps in validity all other routes and seeks to answer every question all other routes only partially cover.

Hmmm. I agree with many your points about the structure of those various VN ... *and* I think that’s all outside of the scope of my silly little blog post. I’m not worried about whether seeing a certain piece of content constitutes “success.” Or whether a particular title railroads you toward or away from content as part of a “true” route. Or what it means to have “read” a particular VN. I don’t even care about “player experience.” (Well, I do. Just not as part of this post.)

My one and only criteria — I’m the one creating the test, so I get to set the criteria — is: does the situation described exist in the body of the work? Can it be experienced by a reader? That’s it. Nothing more. And this is a definable set of things. If a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte has not been written somewhere into the script of the VN, it cannot be experienced by a reader. The VN fails my Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte Test. If a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte has been written somewhere into the script of the VN, it can be (but doesn’t necessarily have to be) experienced by a reader. It passes my Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte Test.

If VNs offered emergent gameplay, or dabbled in true nonlinear narrative theory (no set beginning/middle/end, just text that can be infinitely recombined), then we’d start to move into murkier waters ... but they don’t, so we don’t.

The principle is to never, ever ever ever put corpus before player experience. A visual novel isn't the story that is written but the story that is read.


What you’re describing is fairly classic reader-response theory (Stanley Fish, etc.) but I’m not entirely sure it applies here. Reader-response deals more with meaning rather than content — i.e., it doesn’t change the fact that word “elephant” appears in a book; it simply says the reader’s experience trumps the author’s intent in determining what that word means to the work.

 

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Just to make sure, since I got worried now for a second. If my VN contains sex with a teapot, does it then fail to pass this rigorous test?

It passes. But whatever you do, don't drink the tea.

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I've never much cared for the Bechdel Test, all it really does is take story/characters out of context and judges them for it. It's even worse when people use it to determine if something is sexist. By the tests logic Shadow of the Colossus is sexist, and anyone whose played that can tell you why that's bullshit.

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Partly due to comparative time constraints - packing a story into a 2 hour time frame means a limited time for characters to meander around. There'd be a greater percentage of American television shows that pass this test when compared to American films, for example. Of course it indicates a problem with Hollywood, but you can't really use the test to compare two different media.

Oh absolutely. We're comparing apples and oranges here without a doubt. And I'm applying zero academic rigor to the whole exercise. :D

It's merely something that struck me as funny over coffee: a genre whose entire narrative structure revolves (mostly) around getting women into the sack does a better job at passing the Bechdel Test than a broad selection of American movies. That's in large part for the reasons you mention, but it's still delightfully ironic.

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I've never much cared for the Bechdel Test, all it really does is take story/characters out of context and judges them for it. It's even worse when people use it to determine if something is sexist. By the tests logic Shadow of the Colossus is sexist, and anyone whose played that can tell you why that's bullshit.

Agreed and disagreed.

Agreed because people who use the Bechdel Test to brand things sexist or not sexist are bloody idiots. :D

Disagreed because the test doesn't do any judging at all. It just asks whether or not a set of conditions is met, nothing more. In fact, the "test" is just an extrapolation from dialogue in one of Bechdel's comic strips. Essentially, two female characters wonder if there are any movies out worth watching. The three conditions are what they set for something they'd find interesting. Not sexist or not sexist, just interesting.

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It seems we ultimately see VNs in different lights after all.

Yup, and I think that's pretty damn awesome. I have a background in literary theory — quite nearly ended up pursuing a doctorate in non-linear narrative theory before I changed course — so I always tend to view VNs through that narrow lens. Getting a view from a games-as-narrative perspective is a refreshing (and much-needed) change of pace. 

So yeah, as long as we can agree that VNs are good and pumpkin spice lattes are crap, I think we'll get along fine. :D

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