Ludology, Narratology, and the Representation of Women in Visual Novels

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Abstract (in English): 

My paper explores the genre of visual novels, a form of digital interactive fiction popularized in Japan. As very little academic work has been undertaken on visual novels thus far, I explore several different methods for analyzing them, and consider what other scholars may find useful and interesting about them in the future. 

One of the few detailed English-language essays on visual novels is Patrick W. Galbraith’s “Bishōjo Games: ‘Techno-Intimacy’ and the Virtually Human in Japan.” While Galbraith does make some insightful points about visual novels’ representations of romance and sexuality, he also misrepresents the medium as primarily a form of romance simulation for lonely heterosexual men. I challenge Galbraith’s assumptions through my first method of analysis: using a java program to distant-read the data aggregated by the website The Visual Novel Database. The results of my study demonstrate not only that visual novels encompass a variety of genres, but also that trends in recent releases point toward an increase in stories featuring female protagonists. Scholars interested in positive representation of women in digital interactive fiction may therefore find visual novels relevant to their work. 

I also consider the debate between narratology and ludology regarding analysis of video games, and explore how both approaches could be useful in the study of visual novels. I first close-read some scenes from the short visual novel Once on a Windswept Night, applying the narratological theories of interactive fiction scholars Daniel Punday, Veli-Matti Karhulahti, and Espen Aarseth. I argue that through unique strategies such as taking a minimalist approach to orienting spaces, using metanarrative to situate itself within a long history of interactive literature, and taking advantage of the medium’s conventions to subvert readers’ expectations, Once on a Windswept Night demonstrates the potential for visual novels to be narratologically complex and interesting. 

Finally, while the core component of visual novels is similar to hypertext stories and choose-your-own-adventure books, many also include elements of other video game genres. Visual novels which engage in this blurring of genres, such as Aviary Attorney, lend themselves to analysis from ludological perspectives as well. I compare Aviary Attorney’s gameplay elements to those that Noah Wardrip-Fruin analyzes in the role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic, considering how they can make the narrative more immersive, yet also open the door to flaws and inconsistencies in the story. I argue that games like Aviary Attorney, which integrate simulation elements into detailed and branching stories, could pave the way for new and exciting forms of game fiction in the future. 

I hope that my paper can provide a good introduction to some of the merits and values of visual novels as a subject of academic study. Exploring visual novels may expand the viewpoints of scholars of interactive fiction and video games, and in bringing more recognition to the medium, these scholars have the potential to help provide visual novel developers with the opportunities to try even more new and experimental methods of expressing their stories.

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Linn Heidi Stokkedal