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Those who have been reading this blog for awhile know that I like classifying things. What follows is an attempt to ingest a genre of games, break it down with argumentative stomach acids, leech out its nutrients and release the remains as neatly compartmentalized excrement in the toilet bowl that is Heisei Democracy. Compared to the painfully amorphous definition of “moe” this one should be a breeze, although I’m sure there will be plenty of loose ends to chew on when all is said and done.
Eroge (エロゲー, “erotic games”) have been around almost as long as the personal computer. Their sordid history is worth a lengthy treatise in itself, but I’ll be setting that task aside today in favor of what the genre has become: a hive of scum and villiany far more diverse than the premise of explicit relationships with two-dimensional women probably warrants.
Though eroge run the gamut from RPGs to FPSes, they all share one thing in common: sex. The same could also be said of the human experience (the part of it that doesn’t involve playing eroge, at least), and as with the human experience the place sex takes in the life of an eroge ranges from incidental to front and center.
It is this relationship of sex vis-a -vis narrative that provides the basic distinction between various subgenres of eroge. On one end of the spectrum are games where the primary focus is the story, with adult content playing a minor role or added arbitrarily to attract a certain audience; on the other are sex simulators lacking even a shoestring plot. The gradual descent of the former to the latter is what we’ll be exploring here today as we try to identify some concrete landmarks on the road to perdition.
Before we begin, a bit of disambiguation: despite the prevalence of storycentric Choose Your Own Adventure-style ADV / AVGs and SLGs in eroge, its titles do find (spotty) representation in virtually every standard PC game genre. This is well established, and isn’t the meaning of the term I want to address here; instead I want to look at the various ways sex and the narrative (and “gameplay”, such as it is) intersect in a variety of what are considered standard, seminal, or paradigmatic works in the genre. For purposes of this article, the only games that factor into our discussion are eroge. Fortunate, perhaps, given their general inability to compete with “real” games in terms of graphics, mechanics, or any other quantifiable vaguely game-like characteristic. But I digress.
The first category of eroge I want to look at today is what we’ll call the Visual Novel. This is perhaps the genre’s most elevated form, in which the quality of the story told is the primary factor in the game’s overall quality. The term “visual novel” describes what it is pretty well: a long, involved narrative with accompanying images, basically a massive computerized picturebook. The sex and sexualized / objectified character representations in a visual novel occupy roughly the same place they would in an R-rated movie or equivalent volume of fiction in print; that is to say, they are almost exclusively cosmetic and their removal wouldn’t change the substantive content of the work.
Visual novels differ artistically from other eroge in that they often depict the unshadowed face of the protagonist whose role you, as the player, are taking in the story. Due to their length, cast size, and narrative complexity, they are also often unvoiced. Given the limited scope of the media what musical and graphical production value they have otherwise is typically above par, and visual novels that find themselves animated invariably omit any graphic sex scenes. Recent visual novels of note include:
Skipping directly to the opposite end of the spectrum we have what are euphemistically known as yaruge (ヤルゲー) or “do it” games. While they may have plots that are quite entertaining, even sophisticated, in the end the story is nothing more than window dressing for simulated sex, and lots of it. Yaruge sex comes in every form imaginable and some that aren’t, but in the end the quality of one of these games is directly linked to the stimulation it provides. Take the sex of a yaruge away and you have nothing; take the plot away and you have Jinkou Shoujo.
Artistically, the yaruge aesthetic prioritizes the graphically visual and aural above other production values, typically focusing the most effort on event CG and female vocal direction and letting other elements (story, music, GUI, gameplay if any) slip into mediocrity. They are occasionally advertised as being “playable” either with one hand or hands-free with the auto-text progression feature deemed essential to the majority of eroge. If the first scene of a game involves graphic sex you can bet it’s a yaruge, and if it’s animated it will invariably be as an 18+ OAV. Recent yaruge of note (infamy?) include:
Now that we have the boundaries of our little escapist fantasy world defined, it’s time to fill in the rich, creamy center. Into the breach steps what for purposes of this article I’ll be calling bishoujo games (美少女ゲーム ), meaning simply “pretty girl games”. This is a land of stylized school uniforms, bittersweet promises, thrilling dramas and raucous love comedies. It is the most prevalent and iconic of eroge genres, hiding several subcategories beneath its voluminous skirts and petticoats; it is also the bulge on the bell curve of “moe” that brought us Suzuran, Multi, and countless other heroines of fame.
This hard-coded moetic appeal is what sets bishoujo games apart from visual novels and their harder yaruge counterparts. The fantasy world of an idealized, fictional Japan populated by stock character types comes to reinforce or even replace the erotic content of the narrative, allowing all-ages console versions of bishoujo games to flourish and even outgrow the PC market for some titles. Stylistic traits of the bishoujo game include simple, distinctive designs, ideal for reproduction in animated form or doujinshi, and a greater focus on romantic character interaction than the other two genres. Animated versions of bishoujo games can be either ero or all-ages, and occasionally both. Notable bishoujo games include:
- Leaf’s To Heart and Comic Party
- Key’s Kanon and Air
- Elf’s Kakyuusei and Kakyuusei 2
- KID’s Memories Off series, Suigetsu, and much of the rest of their catalogue
- Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial series
- Age’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien and Muv Luv
The majority of the titles just mentioned fall into the bishoujo game subcategory of dating sims or “renai games” (恋愛シミュレーションゲーム ), with renai meaning “pure love”. This is the middle of the middle of the road when it comes to eroge, emphasizing cutness/”moe” above overt sexuality, where the plot is neither an epic novel nor a series of hormone-driven conquests but the steady attempt to guess the whims of a girl’s heart and win her over in the end.
Dating sims are most often either comedies or dramas; when they shift to tragedy mode they tend to veer toward the novelesque and into the subgenre known as nakige (泣きゲー) or “crying games”, aimed at that segment of gamers who love it when it hurts so good. This could also be called the “sad girl in snow” genre, recent entries of which include Studio Mebius’ appropriately-named SNOW, Silky’s Flutter of Birds, and Le Chocolat meets FlyingShine’s Swan Song.
Rounding out our ad hoc analysis today is the harder end of the bishoujo game genre, what I’ll arbitrarily term galge (ガルゲー) because I’ve used up all the other related jargon I know. These are games that are a combination of dating sim and yaruge elements, typically leading with the former and developing into the latter as the plot progresses. G.J?’s Akibakei Kanojo and Shichinin no Online Gamers fit this mold, as do Terios’ Ikinari Happy Bell and Natsuiro Communication.
If we were to peg all of these eroge subgenres to a continuum, it would look something like this:
Now to make with the preemptive caveats, disclaimers and defenses should anyone who knows more about this than I do happen to stop by (and I know there are plenty of folks out there who do):
First off, I should note that the majority of the eroge I have played fall into either the galge or yaruge camps. I haven’t played a single one of the dating sims I linked, and only a couple of the visual novels, so there are bound to be holes in the rotund midsection of this analysis; I hope to recieve feedback and encourage discussion to make it a more accurate and complete representation of the facts on the ground. One immediate problem I can see is where to place higher production value RPGs such as Alice Soft’s Rance VI, Eushully’s Meishoku no Reiki, Escude’s Eiyuu x Maoh, Leaf’s Tears to Tiara, and etc. on the spectrum – given their actual value as games independent of narrative or sexual content, do they deserve their own genre?
I’ve been playing fast and loose here with terms like “game”, “genre”, and “sex” in this piece, not to mention the persistent lack of a quality definition of “moe”. I anticipate (dread) the confusion this will inevitably cause and may try to iron things out in a second draft; we’ll see what happens in discussion, should it occur. For now I’m going to back slowly away from the keyboard lest I cause any more damage than the horrible train wreck this has already become. Did I mention discussion?