Editorial: Why Visual Novel Censorship Is A Good Move
Andrew supports censorship as a way to make VNs appealing to more gamers.
04.20.14 - 12:01 PM
If you've had any experience with the western visual novel community, you'll know what a hot topic this is. Before we go any further, let me get my thesis statement out of the way: I support censorship of visual novels if it will make them more accessible to a wider audience. I would love the genre to grow outside of Japan, but the only way that's going to happen is if they stop being stereotyped as a perverted form of entertainment. Because, let's face it, this stereotype has truth to it. But is it representative of the genre as a whole?
No. That was easy, wasn't it? Like almost every other genre, the words "visual novel" describes exactly what this type of game is: a virtual picture book. If you're unfamiliar with the genre, it's easy to think of visual novels as choose-your-own-adventure books. You read the story and pick choices that determine the outcome. They're most often drama or romance stories, but there's certainly no shortage of action-packed adventure tales. More than any other genre I have played, good visual novels know how to pull at my heart strings and intimately involve me in a story. And, questionable content aside, they feature stories that people of all ages and backgrounds can love.
Now, here's where it starts to get tricky, especially for those who aren't as experienced with these types of games. Within the broader visual novel genre are a specific sub-category known as nukige (sometimes referred to or grouped in with eroges). In terms of game mechanics, they're identical to the rest of the genre. The difference? Sexual content. Strong sexual content. And it's these titles that the visual novel genre is perhaps most famous for. Where eroges feature some adult scenes, nukige titles focus on the sexual elements as a primary part of the game. I won't be focusing on that here, since it's a discussion for another place and time.
What I do want to address is visual novels where the racier elements feel tacked on to begin with, much the same as the "obligatory" Hollywood sex scenes. When removed, the story loses nothing. Some titles do benefit from them in small ways, but they could still be tackled more tastefully than they are. Taking simple steps in either localisation or development to reduce their intensity would open many outstanding, beautifully-written games to a much wider audience.
In fact, many fantastic visual novels are "all-ages" to begin with. Titles by KID, such as the brilliant Ever 17, contained nothing that needed to be censored from the beginning. Other popular titles in Japan such as Chaos;Head or Clannad are also free of questionable content right from their development, not to mention others that include additional gameplay elements such as 999 or Phoenix Wright. In my experience, it's these visual novels that are, on average, the best, since they take time to focus on the story and characters without ulterior motives.
Just recently, a game called If My Heart Had Wings suffered criticism based on its censorship. It was localised by MoeNovel last year, but with all sexual content removed. Even before its release, the game was decried by the community as garbage (to put it lightly). On its release, zeroes were given on Metacritic and other locations by readers who had not even played the game. Not only do I find this frustrating, but disappointing and unfair to the localisers. Of those I spoke to who actually played the game, almost all enjoyed the story, even without the racier elements. In fact, many players hadn't even realised it was originally an 18+ rated game.
And let us not forget the growing market of indie western-developed titles! Few of these contain strong sexual content, but still remain interesting, exciting and innovative – the latter of these being an area where Japanese-developed titles are stumbling. MoaCube's Cinders or Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story are two outstanding visual novels that manage to avoid relying on "sex sells." Well, you could argue Analogue gets pretty steamy in its text, but for important story reasons.
Soon after writing this editorial, 5pb's Steins;Gate will be released by JAST USA. The game is an all-ages title and one of the biggest western releases for the genre. This is a fantastic step for localisers, and I truly hope it will sell so that other Japanese developers can see there are opportunities to make their games more widely available. As it stands, publicity is still a far bigger problem for the genre in the western market than whether or not to censor a particular game. But, before shaking your fist angrily at censorship, consider why the company might be doing it, and what positive benefit it may have in the long-term. The more visual novels released, the sooner Japanese developers will realise there's a hungry market over here for their games.