Tiny Use Case 1 Part II: Data from vndb.org and the Player’s position

At the end of part I of this blogpost, we were asking ourselves whenever we could use data from The Visual Novel Database to further our investigation into visual novel game characters. First, let us look at the numbers of vndb.org: the site catalogues over 91240 visual novel characters via a system of 2140 traits. These characters come from a grand total of over 27951 distinct visual novel game titles. The Visual Novel Database’s trait system is a rich apparatus with which fans can catalogue characters in visual novels on the basis of specific categories. There are trait trees pertaining to a character’s hair, a character’s eyes, their body shape, their clothes, personal items, personality, their role in the game’s narrative, what they do and what is done to them, with separate trees for sexual activity.

To employ such a system in a meaningful manner, we first decided to consider the position of the player as they play through a visual novel game. During the course of the game, the player is (usually) first introduced to each of the game’s characters, and then presented with the first of many choices to steer the gameplay experience towards one character or another. Intimacy is gradually built through discovery of a character’s personal narrative, which articulates conventional design elements known to fans and producers into the game’s specific narrative context. By knowing the character more and more, the player can make decisions that are more in accord with a specific character.

Before all of this can happen, the player is expected to at least have an idea of what kind of character they are interacting with. While one can point out that every game will have some kind of moment where characters are introduced, as with every other non-avantgarde narrative work, the field of Japanese visual novel games possesses specificities rooted in the moe database we’ve introduced in part I.

The subdivision of characters into distinctly identifiable design elements allows players to derive precise taxonomies of characters, as well as of elements they like, and of ones they do not like. This allows users in the field of Japanese visual novel games to operate selections before the actual narrative of the game is revealed to them. Players new to the field, on the other hand, can be assumed to grow their appreciation for characters and/or specific design elements through experiencing the specific narrative of the game they are playing. This is, of course, not a binary distinction, as old players can grow new appreciations and new players might simply operate decisions based on visuals alone, and not because a character is sporting a specific design element they like.

The position of the player is also important to differentiate visual novel games from titles which employ the mechanical framework of visual novels but do not feature a focus on intimacy. Examples include the Danganronpa (Spike Chunsoft 2010-2017) and the Ace Attourney/Gyakuten Saiban (Capcom 2001-2017) franchises: these titles employ a framework reminiscent of visual novel games to deliver the games’ narratives, but the player is set with the objective of solving mysteries, rather than winning a character’s affection. Intimacy with characters is also presented to the player in a different way: it is not the player as the main character who becomes intimate with the character, it is the main character who is the main actor in the intimate relationship.

While the distinctions outlined above might seem apparently inconsequential, they highlight specific aspects about the experience of visual novel games, which is an experience of intimacy. While there might be depictions of character-based intimacy in Zero Escape and Danganronpa, the main focus of the gamic experience both narratively and mechanically, is on solving puzzles and getting through the mystery. In the case of visual novel games, even though there might be games whose settings and plot suggest the focus to be elsewhere, the mechanics and the true focus of the narratives always revolve around establishing an intimate bond with one or more characters.

With this premises laid out, we can return to the player’s position when they make first contact with the game’s characters. Such a moment can be well before the game is run for the first time, and can take place as the prospective player looks at the game’s cover or is browsing an online store. But even if the first contact takes place after the game is run and the player is either treated to the main menu or the intro animation, they are generally treated to characters which are gazing at them, either as 2D sprites or as part of fullscreen illustrations.

By exchanging gazes with the character, the player garners a first impression of who the characters are and what kind of experiences they offer. On the production side, eye movement, dilatation and variation allow the communication of a wide variety of expressions on a still sprite. Eyes convey lots of information, and this is reflected in specific design elements, like tareme and tsurime. These two design elements refer to the way in which the slant of the eyelid of a character is drawn, and with it, the kind of demeanor they communicate to the user.

Tareme is drawn with an outward slant, and corresponds to a gentler and caring demeanor, suitable for characters in whose relationship towards the player tends to be friendly from the start.

Tareme example from an official character asset from Study § Steady (Marmalade 2019)

Tsurime, on the other hand, is drawn with an inward slant and represents a colder, piercing look, and is supposedly more suitable for characters which have a more distant and non-friendly relationship with the player character.

Tsurime example from a character asset from Euphoria (Clockup 2011)

Both these traits are catalogued on vndb.org, as part of the ‘eyes’ trait tree. It is thus possible to see if such a distinction is reflected in the characters catalogued on the site. Is there a tendency for characters catalogued as having tareme eyes to be kinder, for example? Is there a tendency for characters catalogued as having tsurime eyes to be more aggressive? Can this help us gain insights regarding visual novel characters?

We’ll find out in the third and last part of this blogpost.