Tiny Use Case 1 Part I: Investigating Japanese Visual Novel Characters

The first Tiny Use Case undertaken within the JVMG was about Japanese visual novel games and their characters. Japanese Visual Novel Games are prose-heavy interactive experiences whose main goal is to win the affections of one or more characters. Visual novel games feature situations and interaction proper of Japanese anime and manga, which the player navigates by choosing which path to take through the narrative at specific points. These points are presented as choices between multiple options, each of which will steer the player towards one character or another, or even towards a failure state. The player progress towards a character’s affection through a series of narrative events, until physical intimacy is reached. When intimacy gets physical, it is usually represented in pornographic fashion, with situations proper of pornographic manga and anime.

Japanese Visual novel games present an interesting research object in the form of character design elements. within visual novel works, we can observe usage of moe, shōjo manga and BL (Boys Love) aesthetics as an integral part of the gamic experience. In particular, character eyes and gazes are central to depiction of intimacy between characters. Do the eyes of visual novel characters code some patterned ways of relating to them? How can we employ the JVMG data gathering efforts to garner insights into the characters of visual novel games, especially regarding character eyes and gaze? Can we test this against knowledge from both the researchers and scholars in the field?

Before discussing character eyes at length, it is important to remark Characters in visual novel game are design according to specific practices which call for the usage and re-usage of shared conventionalized elements. A visual novel game character can be immediately compared to another by highlighting the commonalities in character design they possess. This is beyond authors quoting one another, and is more akin to a common system shared by content creators and also content consumers.

Such a system has been outlined by Japanese scholar Azuma Hiroki in 2001 [1] as ‘moe database’, a system of conventionalized character design elements which can be the target of user’s affections and serve as a common language for content production in the field of visual novel games.  These elements range from a purely visual dimension (hairstyles, clothes, body elements such as cat ears, accessories) to ways in which the character behaves towards either the player or other character. The many (hundreds) combinations that can exist between these elements create characters with variance, but also a clear connection to the framework of the moe database.  

Little attention has been paid to the fact that the system originates within the context of video games. By placing the visual novel game back into the foreground, different approaches become visible, and with them, it becomes possible to highlight specific fault lines between Japanese visual novel games and the rest of Japanese visual media. One of such possible fault lines could be found in the experience of interactive intimacy that is offered by the character within the gamic context of visual novel games.

One such example lies in a recurring character archetype, the childhood’s friend (Osanajimi). This character is usually one of the first characters to appear into the game’s narrative and be an object of the player’s decision, they have a naive and generally supportive demeanor towards the player’s character, and often have been in love with the player’s character all along, with many shared memories assuming another meaning once the feeling is revealed. This is one design element which is part of the ‘moe database‘, and provides a specific, ‘homely’ experience of intimacy to the visual novel game player.

However, it is not possible to simply point to the existence of the a concept such as the ‘moe database’ as proof, especially since the character design elements which are so important to it are not codified in any strictly formal way. Against this background the various fan-curated database about anime, manga and visual novel which provide frequently-updated, abundant and detailed information on Japanese Visual Media.

Among the communities that have decided to support the JVMG project, the visual novel database is a community which offers in-depth cataloging and tagging of visual novel games, visual novel game characters, content producers, voice actors, and more. vndb’s descriptive model offers a great opportunity to investigate visual novel game characters. Can we further our investigation of visual novel game character, especially in regards to character eyes, through VNDB’s data? We’ll see in the second part of this blog post.

  • [1] The position comes from Azuma’s 2001 work, Dōbutsukasuru posutomodan: otaku kara mita nihon shakai (Animalizing postmodern: Japanese society as seen from otaku). It has been published in English in 2009 as Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. The JVMG team has undertaken a specific TUC about Azuma’s positions.