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The long-awaited Digimon Survive has finally made its debut, only to be met with controversy. The game was review bombed, mainly for one reason: it was a visual novel (VN) a genre that despite seeing a number of titles in recent years, is often seen as off-putting by much of mainstream gaming.
Survive was marketed as a hybrid between a VN and a tactics RPG however it was later confirmed by the producer that the game was primarily a VN which was reaffirmed by later marketing. Regardless many people who didn’t follow the game as closely assumed it was RPG and were put off when that wasn’t the case.
It’s interesting considering Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was also a VN/RPG hybrid and skewed more on the VN side but it was praised when it came out. This is likely because it was a standalone game while many who went into Survive assumed it would play like Digimon World and were put off by it simply being a VN first and foremost.
Why Don’t People Like Visual Novels?
The surface-level reasons for disliking visual novels are pretty simple: many people don’t consider them to even be games but rather fluffed-up books. They’re long, wordy, boring, use still images and sprites, and overall don’t have that high-octane thrill that other genres have.
My response to this would be that visual novels can often be far more immersive experiences that feel very unique from regular novels. The expressive character art and serene music work with the text to create an atmosphere that feels distinct and interactive in a way that the text on a page may not. I can also talk about how many visual novels do have more ‘gamey’ elements like the puzzles in Zero Escape or trials in Ace Attorney.
Ultimately though is an issue of preferences. People who don’t like VNs got mad that a popular IP like Digimon decided to make one because it’s not a genre they like or are used to. I‘d encourage everyone to give VNs a chance and feel Survive is a great example of the effectiveness of VNs for player engagement but if people just don’t like the genre then fair enough. There’s not much I can say that will change their minds.
This recent controversy however has brought a certain trend to my attention however in how we as gamers view certain genres. A recurring complaint I saw from people about Digimon Survive is that people felt that a visual novel shouldn’t be given the full price of $60. People made similar retorts about Metroid Dread for being a 2D platformer.
In recent years there’s been a growing divide between certain genres that as viewed as “triple-A” like FPS games, RPGs, and open world games, and “lesser/lower budget experiences” like VNs, platformers, and Metroidvania. The latter genres, at least in The West, tend to be worked on primarily by indie developers, have lower completion times, and tend not to be as graphically intense. Once again I can understand that some games are more popular than others but it’s interesting that these games getting a higher pedigree can be met with such vitriol. Part of this stigma however is likely due to the history that visual novels have outside of Japan.
The Bad Reputation of Visual Novels
In the case of visual novels, the genre also had a rocky history thriving outside of Japan. Many of the most well-known titles not being translated on release until the 2010s and even then, many still haven’t made it over (Tsukihime Remake pls).
Japanese VNs also tend to be associated with eroge which the genre had its roots. In recent years, many popular VNs have drifted away from their lewd past, but it’s still a stigma that follows the genre to this day. There’s nothing wrong with eroge mind you, but for those on the outside looking in, it may stop them from wanting to try out the non-eroge VN based on reputation. Even Fate, which hasn’t been an eroge series since 2005, is still associated with its badly written h-scenes.
It also doesn’t help that a lot of western media and even developers treat VNs as a bit of a joke. Some of the most well-known visual novels are only known that their strange premise and nothing else. ‘I love you Colonel Sanders’, made rounds for letting you date the KFC founder chock filled with anime stereotypes clearly selling itself on “wow isn’t this wacky?!” and that’s it. There are also games like Hatoful Boyfriend, which actually has a well-written story but is generally only known as “that weird game where you date birds”.
Nowadays, many gamers put emphasis on the traditional triple-A experience. Top-end cinematic graphics, long run times, and high replay value which visual novels tend to not fit, or at least not in ways that are deemed acceptable. This view however is based on a lot of stereotypes and assumptions about a genre that many might not be familiar with.
The Strengths of Visual Novels
Visual novels have their own strengths and can defy this more negative image. If game length is the issue, yes an indie VN like Doki Doki Literature Club can be about 3 hours but one route of Digimon Survive is about 30, with some VNs like Clannad pushing up to 60+ hours.
If it’s an issue of budget, yes most of these games involve portraits and key art as opposed to highly detailed worlds and models, but that art still takes time to make. Survive and the Tsukihime Remake have multiple sprites and art for each character that feel incredibly pristine. Even indie VNs like VA-11 Hall-A can have some gorgeous sprite artwork that set them apart from their contemporaries.
There’s also the fact that some of these games are fully voice-acted, a production that requires a fairly higher budget in its own right, combined with multiple music tracks that create that perfect sense of immersion that VNs strive for with their storytelling. I’m sure most Fate/Stay Night fans would tell you that many of the fight scenes would not be the same if ‘Emiya’ didn’t start to kick in.
Finally, I’d say the final strength of VNs is the ability to have different routes. Without being bound by more complex gameplay, each route of a visual novel can be wildly different in terms of cast, tone, and scenarios. One route of Hatoful Boyfriend is a simple romance, and another is a horror murder mystery. Each route of Fate/Stay Night could be a standalone game all on its own.
If you’re looking for replayability, a VN has the potential to give you a different experience each time.
I understand that certain people simply don’t like certain genres. I’m certainly not that interested in playing sports games or roguelikes but this recent controversy with Digimon Survive has been sort of eye-opening about how general gaming audiences see visual novels and how many people seem to write them off.
The video game industry is a big place. Big enough to feature a wide number of different games with different strengths and weaknesses. Visual novels are just another way of interpreting how the medium can engage the player and one that certainly has an audience even if it lies outside the mainstream.
The best thing about this controversy is that it’s actually brought out many Digimon fans in support of Survive, posting over social media about their love for the game and how it harkens back to the beloved Digimon anime of yesteryear.
Like any genre, VNs are not bound to the base assumptions that many have of them. They can come in a number of different art styles, tones, and gameplay styles. To write them off as low-budget books with pictures is like the writing of every FPS as a microtransaction-ridden Call of Duty clone.
If we can accept that FPS games can have a range of titles from COD to Doom to Portal, we can give the diverse range of VN titles on offer a bit more credit as well.