A widely skewed image of the visual novel genre. and a commonly incorrect usage of the term “dating simulation,” keeps people from trying out an otherwise excellent method of storytelling.
Take the rather recent “Katawa Shoujo,” for instance. Many people went in thinking it was a “dating sim” about disabled girls. While the story is about disabled girls, it is not a dating simulation game. It’s intended to be an emotional visual novel that will break even the most wicked of souls (it’s actually rather average). Calling it a dating simulation game is as correct as calling Half-Life 2 an RPG. Or Eiken a “good anime” (ha ha). Which is why I felt like making this post, “Visual Novels vs. Dating Simulation Games.” For all you savvy folks out there, this post isn’t to put down one or the other, but to educate.
Within this post, I will post both the similarities and differences between visual novels and dating sims, and hope to take down any misconceptions about the former by forming a clear description of what the latter really is.
Lots and Lots of Girls/Boys
One major and recurring attribute that’s prevalent in many visual novels and all dating sims is the cast of non-playable characters of a specific gender, and of course, the methods used to get onto their “path” and trigger their “story flags”. In Japan, games (regardless of genre) that revolve around romance for a specific gender are called otome games (games aimed at girls) and gal games (game aimed at boys).
However, while dating sims have to be about the dating aspect, visual novels aren’t limited to just romance with a bunch of optional characters. Ace Attorney, for example, is a visual novel, revolving around mysteries. Saya no Uta (written by Gen Urobuchi, the same guy that wrote Puella Magi Madoka Magica) was a Lovecraftian horror-styled visual novel that has such a terrifying plot, and a nightmare fuel-induced romance, that it couldn’t possibly be called an gal game.
Another common source of misconception is the fact that CERO 18+ visual novels, dating sims, and plain ol’ sex games are collectively referred to as eroge (erotic games) in Japan. This leads to people thinking that erotic visual novels = perverted dating sims. Or visual novels in general being just porn.
It’s kind of like if a person came across a hentai manga, and then just assumes that manga in general is just erotic content. Or if someone came across Bible Black and assumed every anime was about ritualistic and horrifying sex.
It should be noted that there is a difference between an 18+ visual novel, which may have a small percentage of pornography and focuses more on story, and a nukige, a visual novel that specifically focuses on erotic content and other sexual fetishes. Also note that not all dating sims are porn either (Sena’s beloved LovePlus comes to mind).
Stats, Stats, Stats, REBERU APPU
One major difference between a visual novel and a dating simulation game is the fact that dating simulations are more… sandboxy and statistics-based, so to speak. In most cases, you may have a choice of point distribution between any of your MC’s attributes (charm, physique, etc.), getting at girls/boys in any location of your choosing, getting their numbers, raising their “affection”, and depending on whether or not it’s one of those games, you may freely engage in sexual activity with that character any time you like.
Visual novels, however, are exactly what they sound like. They’re stories with visuals that accompany them, and usually they’re like choose-your-own-adventure books. They’re no different than anime, manga, or novels, except there’s no unfortunate artistic restrictions in the medium except for budget.
Unlike anime, there are no time restrictions. Unlike novels, there are plenty of pictures. And unlike manga, there are usually voices. So if you’re afraid to try out visual novels because you think they carry the same “I’m getting virtual girlfriends!”-stigma as dating sims, don’t be. Depending on the story, you’re getting into an experience with entertainment value that’s just as artistically viable as TV shows or comics.
Remember, some great anime like AIR, Steins;Gate, and CLANNAD were originally visual novels! =)