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The I-Factor: A Perspective on Intimacy with Characters in Visual Novels

Hello, everyone. This is Garrick, the guy who wrote that Ph.D. dissertation on visual novels—or as I like to call them, character intimacy games—that Fuwanovel posted about a while back. I know that my real name is out there, but I’d appreciate it if you referred to me here as Garrick (pretty please?).

As I’ll be sticking around the site as a contributor for the foreseeable future, I set about writing a think piece inspired by my dissertation. My reasoning for this was primarily that a Ph.D. dissertation is a very specific type of document with its own type of prose, and it follows specific writing conventions and practices that it isn’t reasonable to expect the general public to comprehend. On top of that, it’s quite long and some portions can be boring to read.

To get us started, why don’t we discuss why I wrote the dissertation in the first place, and why I felt a need to invent the phrase “character intimacy game” when the media genre I was referring to was perfectly recognizable by players, game reviewers, and the like as “dating sims” or “visual novels.”

The primary reason was because, if you really think about it, you can’t really use the phrase “visual novel” without presuming that readers have a certain level of knowledge about the term1. Let’s say our definition was: a game that you’ll primarily read instead of play, that will typically have anime-style characters in it, and that may or may not feature pornography. For academic purposes, the range of difference here is too large; the exact meaning of the term is too nebulous to pin down. This issue remains even if you focus on defining “visual novels” by their mechanics. Typically, this takes the form of deciding how much (or how little) interactivity can be present in a game for it to qualify for the label, or other some such vague differentiation. VNDB’s FAQ page is a good example of this.

This is not to say that labeling genres in such a way is not useful for most users; the issue lies in the fact that there is too high of a level of arbitrariness for such a technique to work within the realm of academic research. Especially if you want a term to become palatable across different fields.

Alas, using the term “eroge” is not a solution, because not all VNs feature pornography. It’s also not as if sex scenes can be considered the main focus of visual novels as a whole2, even if collecting them is the game’s only measure of completion. What is the core of a visual novel experience is getting intimate with a character. This can be done regardless of a game’s mechanics, its level of interactivity, the presence or absence of H-scenes, or the layout of its UI. This realization is what led me to feel I might be onto something, and I offer my ruminations and work on the subject below for reflection.

Unraveling Intimacy – Enter Parasocial Phenomena

Experiencing intimacy with characters in visual novels—or character intimacy games, as I shall refer to them for the rest of this article—appears to be something that is taken for granted, so much so that it flies under the radar in discussions of the medium.

Well, duh. Atarimaejanaika. But what is the reasoning behind this phenomenon? Why does the intimacy built between characters and players fly under the radar in the communities surrounding the medium? Part of the reason likely lies at the feet of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. There is a strong precedent for calling these works of interactive software “visual novels,” and if that title works for users, why change it?

Well, at least in my opinion, the shifting of terms gives me the ability to speak about these games without assuming a certain level of knowledge in the reader, which makes my work more accessible for those who read my work but aren’t a part of the niche community of English speakers who possess knowledge of anime/manga culture.3 No longer would there be any need for a newcomer to the genre to possess an understanding of its conventions—i. e. popular story beats, archetypal plots, or common aesthetic choices. Here lies the core point of my decision to use the term “character intimacy games” instead of “visual novel” in my writings.

My hope is that, by discussing the works that I call “character intimacy games” from a culture-independent perspective, these pieces of interactive software can be decoupled from their context. In the process, the importance of character intimacy can be re-exposed, which opens up to us the possibility of exploring a number of directions, including the genre’s blind spots and the places on which it places the most emphasis.

Seems pretty cool, right? So how about we take a second to think on it some more before we progress to the next few sections of this article? First, let’s discuss what intimacy is in general, how it functions within character intimacy games, and why it ultimately matters.

This is what I would call the hard part, but let’s start with how I envision intimacy. Firstly, I see it as a line—a progression, from one point to another. This line is what connects the beginning and the end of a character intimacy game, and is what, most importantly, drives the game forward. In this way, intimacy is unavoidable as a player of character intimacy games, even if you are going through the motions and not emotionally engaging with the content you are interacting with. Whether you choose to lean into it or not, these games are asking something from players in a way—there is an unspoken urging to use your imagination to get involved in a game’s content enough to develop a bond between yourself and the game’s fictional characters.

The development of this bond has a specific name (parasocial phenomenon) and this interaction between player and character is embedded within character intimacy games to the point that it is a foundational—not optional, not skippable—element of the game’s experience. This holds true regardless of the game’s mechanics, narrative, or aesthetics.

A screenshot from Sankaku Renai: Love Triangle Trouble. I have very bad taste in the character intimacy games I play, I admit. Nevertheless, it is this image that conveys what I mean in the best way.

The most important, clear-cut signifier of the bond I’ve been speaking about might lie in all the various meters, bars, and other sorts of counters that allow players to keep track of the degree of affection—which could also be referred to as emotional intimacy—they have built with a character. In focusing on raising the degree of affection they have with a character, players often develop an attachment to said character and are more likely to have an emotional response to what happens to them in the game, how they behave, and how they treat the protagonist (or the player, as the protagonist oft serves as a self-insert character).

It is this feeling of intimacy, I believe, that ultimately motivates (or at least, is intended to motivate) players to progress within the game.4 This is not to say that intimacy is always meant to be of the “good” kind—ie. consensual, gradual, positive, and mutual. Intimacy can also be forced, like instances of Stockholm syndrome, not-so-savory scenarios where players are unwillingly placed at the mercy of a so-called “mistress” or “master,” and so on. The term “character intimacy games” encompasses all the different facets of intimacy, both good and bad, and that’s the point.

But, back to my work. The ability of the term “character intimacy games” to contain such breadth and width but still discard the need for clunky specifications is what allows me to discuss them at length in academic circles. Still, I hope the topics at hand can reach outside of academia to VN players, and be the source of some spirited conversation.

That said, how exactly does intimacy actually develop between players and characters? What happens behind the scenes to cause this phenomenon?

My answer would be: both a lot and nothing at the same time.

The way I envision the process is that players sit down to play a CIG with the knowledge that they are playing to romance characters, or at the very least, do something intimately-charged with them. Why this specific setup, which presumes a specific disposition by players (very hard to verify on a regular basis) and specific assumptions in the game development process? This is a problem of focusing on the ideal reader/player, while actual readers/players differ as much as real people. Because of how character intimacy games are consistently structured: to win the game is to associate with a character. You cannot not associate with any characters, or, if you do, is a conscious decision that comes because of intimacy, not despite of it. The example I bring to the table to support my position is Silky’s Plus A5 Wagyuu‘s Butterfly Seeker.

Butterfly Seeker: Chitose trying a cute outfit as a character with low self-esteem, in the player and the protagonist’s view. This is a disclosure of vulnerability, or the feeling thereof. And is presented as a sign of progress through the game.

Putting the definition to the test – Butterfly Seeker and Evenicle

Butterfly Seeker is a murder mystery set in the fictional city of Shiraori, located in an indistinct but northern location in Japan, likely inspired by the prefectures of Aomori and Hokkaidō. Players are placed in the shoes of one Toono Keisuke, a high school student with the power to visualize death and its cause as it happened. He is part of an improbably named Insect Gourmands Club [Konchū Bishoku-bu], where he is joined by the game’s cast of romanceable heroines – Himuro Chitose (best girl), Saotome Haya and Tendō Yui, each with a specific power – Chitose possesses eidetic memory, Haya has superhuman strength and Yui can determine a person’s thoughts and intention through observation. The four are, in fact, a secret unit set up by the local police to deal with bizarre murder cases. The player must catch the mysterious killer known as “Spider”.

Such a setup could not be further from how I intend a character intimacy game to be: the goal is about solving murders. The way in which players proceed into the game is through the use of a deduction system, where players must connect keywords. While those sections are skippable, their presence disrupts the flow of the game, and shifts the focus of the experience significantly. And yet, endings are centered on one of the romanceable characters, the true end is centered on all of them (or none, depending on the way you look at it). And the way players progress in the investigation and onto a specific story path is, ultimately about mutual engagement, discovery of and healing from trauma. In particular, Keisuke’s own trauma, which I will avoid mentioning to avoid spoilers, arguably acts as a conduit for players to engage with the past, the inner world and the trauma of the other character. And while the trauma is Keisuke’s, it’s the player who does the discovery. And when intimacy happens – kisses, intercourses – the illustrations, erotic and pornographic they might be, are set up for consumption by an external viewer.

This is the key of character intimacy games. While players might be playing as a specific character, the way rewards are set up in visual novel and visual novel-like games are as such that intimacy becomes the reward – discovering hidden depths, another side to a character’s personality, having one’s expectations confirmed or disproven. This kind of feedback loop is one where players put their own affection for characters on the line. Why? Aren’t Butterfly Seeker’s heroines showcased to players on the game’s cover, before we interact with them as the protagonist characters? Players have met them already. They have seen them on the cover and during the game’s opening movie. As players progress through each character’s story, they, should the navigation through the game be successful, are rewarded with increased details on the character’s story – for example, Chitose was the subject of abuse early during her childhood, and this conditions how she views the world, and how she views Keisuke.

Butterfly Seeker: she’s looking at you. The Image is for you, the player. Not Keisuke.

In filling Keisuke’s shoes, the player (hopefully) starts to produce emotional responses to Chitose’s plight and journey through life. It is those feelings, those responses, which should be spontaneous, that have the lion’s share of motivating players to move through the game. Combined with the game’s structure – one ending for each character, one true end that requires a deliberate avoidance of character-specific paths, the nature of Butterfly Seeker, and of VNs at large as character intimacy games becomes clearer. The player must have gained access to each character’s inner world – past, present, aspirations, desires, dislikes – for them to feel the painful feedback that is implied by the true ending of the game. It complements, not, it completes the painful, bittersweet tone that the true end assumes, and it pushes players to feel the same tone not out of empathy, but rather because the player has been directly involved in feeling for the game’s characters. The player has been invited to feel and develop parasocial phenomena.

This is the point of character intimacy games as I have envisioned them. This is the crux of the matter. Because if players are not personally involved with the game’s characters, what I detailed above cannot take place. It is because of this the game is deliberately inviting players to develop parasocial attachments. In the Evenicle series, this is even more evident with the game’s wife events: the reward is knowing more about one of the game’s wives, and it’s not always (far from it) a reward that results in pornographic content. While the game is as close to a traditional JRPG as it is, the game’s story places the player in the position of a seeker of character intimacy. The passage from one chapter to another is as much about discovering new characters to romance as it’s about saving the world. And players, forced to romance multiple characters, if they accept the game’s invitation to intimacy, will (hopefully) become more attached to characters, at least for the duration of their playthrough.

Evenicle 2: it’s hard to state intimacy as a reward for player progression anymore than this…

Conclusions

So, this is where my very very long rant ends. I was initially skeptical of how this thinkpiece might have turned out, but nevertheless, I hope I provided some food for thought for Fuwanovel’s readers. This proposal of terms is an experiment, a way for me, an academic firmly entrenched atop the Ivory Tower, to try and speak with many people, many players, about what I decided to study and engage with during my long academic journey. This is evident in the clash between “Visual Novel” as a term, which serves its purpose for players, and its unstable nature when gazed at from an academic perspective – the term becomes ferociously ambiguous when looked at from more neutral ground, as I have introduced. This, however, has started a long process in which I hoped to re-expose what I had written above. So, in my eyes, it has been worth it. What about you?


PS. While I focus on male, heterosexual-oriented works, all my positions are fully applicable to any other game where intimacy with characters is the fulcrum of gameplay, no matter their sex, gender orientation and preferred audience.

  1. There’s also the fact that I was doing my Ph.D. on bishoujo characters and politics and drove myself into a corner, but that’s a story for another day. ↩︎
  2. Outside of nukige, of course, where there is little to do before getting into H-scenes. ↩︎
  3. This is not to say that in Japan the issue of overlooking player intimacy with characters is not an issue as well. The situation does differ, however, as the terms used to refer to the genre we most commonly call “visual novels” do not fully align with those that hold the most clout with English speakers. ↩︎
  4. The promise of pornographic action is a motivator as well, but I think the desire to develop intimacy is just as powerful a driving force. ↩︎

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Tulip
8 months ago

In what sense is the character-intimacy thing you’re describing actually meaningfully restricted to visual novels, as a category? While I agree that it seems like a thing that most well-written visual novels do—at the very least, no obvious counterexamples jump out at me when I browse my list of currently-installed VNs—it doesn’t seem to me to be at all unique to the medium. What makes reading forward in, say, Higurashi, and being rewarded with character-relationship-development alongside the mystery’s development as the story progresses, meaningfully more centered on parasocial character intimacy than, for example, playing onward in a non-novel-shaped video game with relatively-high character focus, such as Dragon Age: Origins, or reading onward in a non-visual prose novel with relatively-high character focus, such as Warbreaker?

I’m somewhat worried that your definition here is, despite its efforts to gesture at visual novels in particular, ultimately just gesturing at character-focused fiction as a whole, across all media, and isn’t actually substantially more unique to visual novels than, for example, the thing where most well-written visual novels have themes. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that most well-written visual novels do have themes! On the other hand, so does most well-written fiction in other media; “games with themes” might be a category which *includes* visual novels, but it’s not one which distinguishes them particularly uniquely.

So, while I agree that character intimacy games are an interesting category to think about, and I even agree that the percentage of visual novels which focus on character-intimacy-of-the-relevant-sort is noticeably higher than the percentage of non-VN games / books / shows / etc. which do so, I don’t agree with your treating character intimacy games as a category *approximately equivalent* with that of visual novels. There are non-VN games which also focus on character intimacy; if you want to try to filter them out of your character-intimacy-game definition, you end up right back at the demarcation problem you started this post trying to avoid; but, if you instead bite the bullet and say “yes, Undertale is a visual novel”, then you’ve stretched your definition of the visual novel medium sufficiently far beyond ordinary VN-fandom norms that few others are likely to follow you. Either way, I’m not seeing any way to succeed at drawing that equivalency; as far as I can tell, overlapping though they may be, the two are ultimately distinct categories.

Tulip
Reply to  Garrick
8 months ago

I looked through pages 16-18, and they do somewhat clarify your model for me, but I don’t think they leave me much more convinced of its effectiveness at capturing visual-novels-but-not-non-VN-video-games. It seems to me that it would be a very strange player who looked at Fate/stay night on the one hand—with its protagonist whose psychological issues are very much at the forefront of the narrative, in ways unlikely to overlap with the psychological issues of most players, and are central to the relationships he forms with all three of the main routes’ love interests—and Undertale on the other hand—with its player character whose independent existence as more than the avatar of the player is heavily downplayed through most of the narrative runtime, which deliberately blurs the line between player and PC in such a way as to *specifically emphasize* the bond between the player-as-opposed-to-PC and the various characters who the player has gotten to know over the course of the game—and concluded that Fate/stay night was the one of the two doing more to build direct player:character relationships without the player character serving as an intermediary. Fate/stay night certainly does make *any* gestures in that direction—it tends to deemphasize Shirou visually in many of its CGs, for instance—but it seems to me that it gestures far *less* in that direction than Undertale does, and thus that Undertale really ought, if that’s the core differentiating principle you’re relying on, to be counted as a character intimacy game too.