“Why aren’t VNs more popular?”
This is a question that deserves more attention that you may think. When casually talking about any show or game, it’s a common thing to say. Often times, the answer is one of the following: (1) It isn’t actually “good,” (2) It hasn’t gotten exposure, or (3) It’s actually rather popular but the commenter doesn’t realize it.
More often than not though, it’s a combination of (1) and (2). It hasn’t gotten exposure precisely because it isn’t what most people define as “good” or “entertaining.” Could this be the reason why visual novels aren’t popular? Well, it’s safe to say that, at the very least, it’s not the combination.
Within the stories of visual novels are a myriad of brilliant and original ideas I’ve had the joy of reading. The artwork is often beautiful, serving both as accompaniment and a meaningful piece in its own right. The same can be said for the OSTs, many songs originally composed for the sole purpose of the VN. Although, keep in mind that we’re talking about the entire genre of VNs. Superb quality in all three major areas defines a VN as a masterpiece, sure. However, there are an even greater amount of VNs which are frankly low quality. This isn’t just in budget, but in passion and effort.
Is the mass of subpar visual novels the reasoning for a relatively small audience? Of course not. The same thing can be said for TV shows, movies, and contemporary games. The best rise to the top and are appropriately popular, that’s normal. Let’s then cross off (1) from our list while noting Clannad, Steins;Gate, Eden*, and Planetarian as objectively “good” due to their exceptional renown and positive ratings.
So we circle back to the question of “why?” Since we crossed off (1), let’s move on to (2). VNs don’t have a large audience because they simply haven’t gotten exposure. Is that true? This is considerably harder to prove and I’ll agree only in part.
By their nature and origin, VNs are mostly Japanese based. Since their release, they’ve gotten the connotation of being anime-esc in both art style and writing. This is so imbued into the medium that it significantly affects sales. Many developers will testify that, even with their already established consumer base, their VNs with more western art will pale in comparison to the ones with the traditional anime style. From these facts combined, we can safely establish that VNs themselves are a subdivision of anime culture. I won’t discredit those who did, but I’m confident that few discovered VNs without having prior knowledge of anime in the first place.
The subdivision they are, those who wander into them first must be fans of anime. This hurdle isn’t too difficult, especially seeing as western audiences have been introduced to anime from a young age through English dubs. Still, a connection must be maintained with the viewer so that they see anime as more than a child’s cartoon. Thankfully, anime has become more and more accepted on a wider scale. Being a fan isn’t that uncommon and multiple conventions strive to provide a place for them. However, what’s next? Most will be content with watching anime and there’s nothing wrong with that. Those ardently devoted will look to the source material. The majority of anime are based off of manga and light novels. Others are anime originals or are from texts similar to manga, e.g. manhwa. Not many actually stem from visual novels. Nevertheless, this is certainly one route people may take.
Another route people will take is similar. Again, you have to pass the barrier of being an anime fan. However, instead of looking to the source material, you instead transition to reading VNs by proxy of participating in the gaming community. Spend enough time on the digital distribution platform of your choice and you’re bound to see the occasional VN pop its way into your recommended section. While a decent amount of them can only be found on JAST, MangaGamer, Denpasoft, etc., those that aren’t are good gateway VNs for the uninitiated.
Regardless of how VNs are found, there’s yet another barrier for entry. This is why I said I only agreed partly with the idea that VNs weren’t so popular due to exposure. Most anime episodes are 24 minutes including the OP and ED. These days, outside of long running shounen, anime are frequently 12 or 24 episodes. Moreover, many shows like to separate the plot into arcs which has the effect of grouping episodes. Even if there is an additional season or two, these are usually aired over a significant length of time.
Games have a similar problem. While many gamers do play for extended periods of time, they’re occupied by the actually gameplay. The worlds of RPGs can lead players wandering for hours, having fun in a sandbox and not actually completing objectives. The same can be said for other singleplayer games. You never put down the controller until you finish the game or are forced off by some outside force. Multiplayer games are criminal for this, their very design is based on keeping players constantly engaged. Whenever a match ends, the next begins soon. Despite all that though, there is an ever greater amount of flexibility to pause and come back. The save/load feature of single player games allows the player to return whenever they want. In the case of multiplayer games, matches are still segmented. You’ll be kicked back to the menu, a perfect chance to take a break.
Can you see what I’m trying to get at? Both games and shows have artificial gaps for their audience. This allows them to catch their breath and avoid any possible burnout. VNs don’t explicitly have this. Surprisingly, they’re more like novels than games or shows. You may argue that novels are also segmented by chapters and that VNs have the save/load feature [Which is in every VN worth playing]. I’d say that’s a very good point of contention. Yet, there’s a nuance, see. Once more, I’ll have to speak in generalizations. You have my apologies for that. Most VNs aren’t explicitly segmented into chapters or arcs. They’re undoubtedly there, yet writing techniques and visual transitions cleverly help them flow into one another. As such, when to stop reading a VN is solely at the discretion of the reader. This freedom can actually be negative. Readers can read for too long or for too brief a duration. If that argument isn’t convincing for you, consider once more the length of shows and the time spent playing games. The return for time spent happens within half an hour. Meanwhile, novels and VNs demand much longer.
Increasing how many people are exposed to the medium of VNs will increase the playerbase. However, the percentage of people who actually play VNs compared to those who are aware of them won’t have changed drastically due to these factors.
Hopefully you can now see why the VN audience is small. So, how do we increase that audience in the long-term? How do we make VNs truly popular?
Should we even make VNs popular…
Find out soon.