Creating, Game Dev Theory, Writing Theory

You Don’t Have to Set Your Visual Novel in Japan, Y’all

Alright English language visual novel developers, I’m going to have a conversation with you, and I really want you to hear me out because I promise I have somewhere I’m going with this.

You don’t need to set your game in Japan or have characters with Japanese names.

Now, obviously, we don’t all do this. But a lot do. And enough do it in a kind of dumb/misguided way that I feel it’s a conversation worth having as developers and players.

I’m going to say something stupid.

Japanese visual novels are set in Japan with Japanese characters…because they’re made by Japanese studios in Japan for Japanese people.

I know. Yes. Duh. No shit.

But I say it as a means to try to explain that the inclusion of Japanese cultural references aren’t inherent to the visual novel medium. It’s simply an artifact of the location in which the game was developed and the audience it was developed for. A Japanese developer making a “Japanese” game isn’t, necessarily, “choosing” to set it in Japan, rather Japan is simply their default. It’s the same as an American sitcom begin set in New York or LA or San Francisco or any other American city. It’s the same as a BBC show being set in England. The same as a telenovela being set in Mexico. It’s where the writers, actors, and producers are from, it’s where the majority of their audience is from or has ties to. It makes sense and there’s an implicit understanding that the people involved have some kind of thread of shared culture. Choosing to place your story in a place other than the one you live, however, is something slightly different. That is an active choice.

An active choice that, intellectually, needs to be justified.

Now, of course, I’m the first to say “because I fucking feel like it” is a reasonable justification for pretty much anything involving writing. So, yeah, just take the gotcha and GO. It’s FINE.

But, if you’re reasoning for setting your game is just “because I want to” then why not just set it in your country of origin where you have the cultural background to more easily develop characters that are authentic to their setting?

Well, what I want to do relies on Japanese culture to be achievable and just can’t be set anywhere else. Okay! Sure! But also, does it? Does it really? I say this as a reaction to a mash of conversations I’ve had over the years with aspiring developers at in-person events.

“It centers around school clubs.”

“We have those in the US.”

“It’s about the idol industry.”

“Is it actually about the IDOL industry, or does it just feature cute boys in a band with some reference to the music industry as a whole? Because boy bands are a thing everywhere.”

“It’s got catgirls.”

“Catgirls aren’t real. They could live literally anywhere.”

Maybe you want to appeal to hardcore JVN players? That’s fair right?

Yeah, no you don’t.

And not because they’re not perfectly…lovely…people…they’re fine…for the most part…

But they’re hardcore JVN to the exclusion of everything else sort of for a reason. There’s an element to the JVN development style and process that appeals to them. While it’s not impossible, it’s a truly Herculean effort to get some of these player to even look at anything that wasn’t written in Japanese first, even if the English language game is a perfect mimic of something a Japanese studio might put out. Realistically, the largest reliable demographic for English language games are players who play both localized Japanese games and English originals, and those people aren’t going to care if the lead is named Isaac or Ichigo.

Obviously there truly are some Japan-specific phenomenon. A story about a Shinto priest is going to seem a little more in-place in Osaka vs Minnesota. And you can absolutely set your English-language game in Japan if you want to. I only really care when it’s super obvious you’ve never been to Japan and are basing your depiction of it on anime. And the most I’m going to do is call it out and move on with my life.

But the English language visual market is growing and doing so quickly. There’s a whole generation of EVN players, now, who didn’t start on Japanese games, instead picking up their first visual novel from the “newest free” tab on itch.io. We don’t have to cling to old formats and templates or adhere to a certain expectation just because our medium came into its own in another country. We have the ability, privilege, and dare I say responsibility, to do what we can to bring EVNs into their own and out of the shadow of their forebears.

So just spare a second thought when making your aesthetic choices.

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