by Marie Yamamoto, November 8, 2021
Visual novels are video games with a heavy emphasis on narrative. They are usually text-heavy, aided by visuals, and allow the player to interact with the story to some capacity, but beyond these elements, they can vary greatly in terms of gameplay, art style, and writing style. Likewise, visual novels encompass a broad range of genres from dating simulators, in which you play as a character romancing another character, to horror, in which you play as a character in a setting or situation meant to elicit fear. Some even take advantage of the player’s position or expectations to subvert genre tropes and break the fourth wall. Doki Doki Literature Club!—one of the most discussed visual novels of the 2010’s—is a great example of this.
Video games can be a powerful storytelling medium, and as the world pushes towards social progress, more people are turning to them to see themselves reflected in the narratives they tell. Disappointingly, those in the LGBTQ+ community still often find themselves poorly depicted by game developers. For example, Atlus, a video game developer and publishing company most renowned for the Megami Tensei and Persona series, has spawned countless controversies for its mistreatment of gay and transgender-coded characters in games like Persona 5 Royal and Catherine: Full Body. Fortunately, in recent years, game developers have made a plethora of visual novels that put queer people—specifically queer people of color—in the limelight. Indie visual novels like Butterfly Soup, which follows two Asian-American girls as they bond over baseball and fall in love; one night, hot springs, which follows a Japanese transgender woman as she tries to navigate an outing at a public hot spring; and Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, which follows a single father that the player customizes as he tries to romance a colorful cast of other dads living in his neighborhood, tell heartfelt, authentic stories. Because of a number of factors, the visual novel format remains one of the best ways to highlight LGBTQ+ perspectives in video games.
The overwhelming majority of the visual novel community is welcoming towards queer game developers and fosters an inclusive, encouraging environment around the content they make. From a historical perspective, the first overtly, canonically gay character—the lesbian detective Tracker McDyke—is actually from a visual novel published in 1989 called Caper in the Castro. This game, made by nonbinary artist C.M. Ralph, was charityware that pays homage to the queer community in San Francisco and was received with praise in the underground LGBTQ+ bulletin board systems it was distributed in (Shaw). Other visual novels featuring same-sex romantic relationships were published as early as the 1990s in Japan (Chan). However, over the past thirty years, visual novels that feature queer people and stories have drastically rose in both quantity and popularity both in the United States and overseas. Places like itch.io, an online storefront for indie game developers, have hosted annual queer-themed game jams since 2015, and Steam, a cloud-based video game distribution service, highlight games with LGBTQ+ themes, many of which are visual novels. While other sectors of the gaming industry are beginning to have been taking steps towards inclusivity on this front in recent years, queer people have always had a prominent presence in this particular space.
On that note, making a visual novel is arguably one of the easiest types of games to make. A game developer is not required to create stunning graphics or intense, innovative game mechanics to create a good visual novel. Likewise, there is a plethora of software available specifically for making visual novels that require minimal to no background knowledge of coding like Ren’Py, Tyranobuilder, and Suika2. Therefore, while making one’s own game comes with its own obstacles, there are fewer barriers for people to tell the stories they themselves want to read. Queer people who may not necessarily have money to spare or experience with game development can still make affecting content and represent themselves through their work.
The story-driven nature of visual novels also gives creators the opportunity to humanize and flesh out their characters. Although many mainstream video games have gay and transgender characters, the genre of the game or the game’s writing may sideline these aspects of them. While it is not necessary for good gay and transgender representation, focusing on how the specific identities of LGBTQ+ characters affect them can be a great way to explore individual experiences. Likewise, should they wish to, queer game developers have the power to tell messier LGBTQ+ stories and highlight flaws of LGBTQ+ characters, which is not often seen in mainstream media.
Historically, the sphere of visual novels in gaming has been a safe space for queer game developers to express themselves and continues to be so today. For gamers who are seeking to understand the LGBTQ+ experience, visual novels that are written by queer game developers may be a good place to start. As mainstream gaming continues to diversify across its sectors, game studios should look to queer people to tell their stories, for they have been telling them through this medium for years. Regarding this visibility, Christine Love, a renowned indie game developer known for her romance visual novels with queer themes, notes that “by an outside perspective, you’re making art that is different and is interesting and isn’t just representing the same sort of well-off white male nerds with a certain history…. You are getting perspective outside of that and as a result, you get better artwork—because I feel like art is just always elevated by being able to pull from different influences and different people’s perspectives” (Wade).
Chan, Harriette. “The History of LGBTQ+ Visual Novels.” TechRadar, 23 Jan. 2021, www.techradar.com/news/the-history-of-lgbtq-visual-novels.
Shaw, Adrienne. “Caper in the Castro.” LGBTQ Video Game Archive, 22 Jan. 2021, lgbtqgamearchive.com/games/games-by-decade/1980s/caper-in-the-castro/.
Wade, Jessie. “Christine Love on Creating Visual Novels – Humans Who Make Games Episode 3.” IGN, 30 Jan. 2019, http://www.ign.com/articles/2019/01/30/christine-love-on-creating-visual-novels-a-humans-who-make-games-episode-3.