Visual Novels: Completion And Internalization

Firstly, I’d like to credit the blog Intermittent Mechanism. I was perusing the WordPress Reader this month looking for interesting articles and lo and behold, I saw an article about Katawa Shoujo. Cited in it was the academic article by Emily Taylor which kicks off the post you’re about to read. Apparently that KS article was written by a university student in Ian Bryce Jones’ class where Katawa Shoujo was, in part, a required read. That alone should interest you and so I encourage everyone to explore that site.


I read an article by author Emily Taylor titled Dating-simulation games: leisure and gaming of Japanese youth culture (2007). It’s a fascinating article which talked about the popularity of dating-sim games in Japan, what it says about the culture and playerbase, and why that popularity hasn’t translated overseas. I’d love to talk about the findings of her peer reviewed article and compare it to what I wrote early on about VN popularity, but not today. Instead, I want to chime in on a particular few sentences she puts forth about game completion in dating-sims. 

“Intuitively, one would think that players would aim for good endings, but such is not always the case. The only way to ‘beat’ the game is to play it numerous times, experiencing all the endings. After playing through the game, players can go to the main menu and check their ‘status,’ which shows how much of the game is finished. To reach a status of 100 percent, signaling completion of the game, all endings must be reached. Essentially, the only way to ‘lose’ when playing a dating-sim game is not to get a bad ending but to get the same ending twice, since doing so prevents players from making any progress toward game completion” (Taylor, 2007, p. 195).  

Overall, I think that’s a brilliant explanation. In fact, when I reviewed VNs, I adhered to this concept of full completion before writing a review. Each segment of the story, irregardless of whether it’s a good or bad end, tells you so much about the characters. In fact, bad ends are fascinating in that they often portray the side of a character you may not see if you’re aiming only for the happy ending. Take Katawa Shoujo (KS) for example. Hanako is perceived to be a shy and timid girl. During her route, one could name a number of things that would cause her anxiety or distress, but what about anger? It’s a magnitude more difficult to picture and it’s not portrayed outside of the bad end. Furthermore, on a simpler level, bad ends may also contain exclusive CGs. Therefore, a game completion stat of 100% based on both good and bad ends is perfectly reasonable and should contemporarily be considered what beating a VN means.

After all that, what if I told you that I believe completing a VN isn’t getting that 100% stat? You beat the game, but you didn’t complete it. How does that sound? Obviously I’m referring to completion in a different context to Taylor. In this case, I’m talking about something more akin to internalization. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of internalization is this: “the nonconscious mental process by which the characteristics, beliefs, feelings, or attitudes of other individuals or groups are assimilated into the self and adopted as one’s own” (n.d.). 

To continue using Katawa Shoujo as an example, there are five routes encapsulated by five different questions on the KS webpage

“Can you face your fears?”

“Can you seize the day?”

“Can you see what I see?”

“Can you stand up for yourself?

“Can you tell me what you think?”

The correlation might be loose, but if you read KS’s story and choose options based on how you feel versus which character you want to romance, you’re led along to about where you should be. By the end of each route, the main character will have found an answer to the corresponding. More than that, you yourself will begin to think more about the question and its relevance. You may not have an answer as Hisao and his romantic partner do, but you’ll be one step closer to finding out. Thus, the ending of a route is a pivotal moment that marks you, the player, further reflecting on what has transpired. In truth, this self-reflection begins somewhere along the route itself when you begin to draw parallels, but I believe this step of realizing what you don’t know fully manifests near the end. This is further magnified as you complete each route and continue to reflect on the other thing you don’t know. 

The next step, after you’ve completed all the routes [and found all the bad ends], happens away from the game. A few days after, you’ve finished it and are off to do something else. Maybe you’ve transitioned to another game, VN or otherwise- Perhaps you’re driving along in your car to work or taking a shower. Nevertheless, you begin to think about the themes of that game unprompted. You begin to apply those themes to other aspects of your life, aspects that are different from the context of the game. The application has then shifted away from only applying to direct parallels. [I think this is the optimal time to write a review.]

The last step is the unconscious application of those themes. At this point, you might not even remember the plot of the game in full. Nevertheless, what you’ve learned from it has seeped into your life. That said, to phrase it like such is a bit of a misnomer. Stories, in my mind, don’t teach you; however, you still learn from them. 

So, where does that leave us? I’d say you’ve completed the game at step two, but is a game’s journey truly completed when it reaches this step? Actually, I’d argue that some are never completed, even when application is unconscious. This is due to how ideas fundamentally travel. If it truly did seep into the facets of your life, you’re more than likely to spread it via your own writing or other work. Take these two screenshots from a VN called Campus Notes – forget me not below. What really underscores the point is the state of the developer group 4th cluster, disbanded since August 10, 2018. Nearly three years since their disbandment, I’m referencing their work originally released on April 6, 2016. 

What’s the point of this article? Think of it as a bit of a mental exercise. What are some things that have influenced you- especially works that you haven’t thought about in a long time? I talked about visual novels and games in this article, but the sentiment spreads to any artform really. Whatever you’re doing, keep that question in the back of your head. You might rediscover something.

If you liked this article, I recommend the VN Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation: Time After Time. It’s a kinetic VN with Japanese voice acting which is centered around a group of three girls tasked with actively finding the answer to the question, “What makes a wonderful life?” 

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