A few days ago, I came across this article posted on the website VNs Now!: “The Ten Worst VNs of 2018.” And I found reading it to be a very frustrating experience, because I disagreed with so much of it—not only because it mocked some visual novels I personally enjoyed, but because its overall tone was antithetical to my beliefs about how best to interpret and criticize art. Realizing that made me reflect and examine those beliefs of mine quite a bit, and I decided to write my own post in response, exploring what I thought was wrong with that article, and how it differs from the kind of criticism that I think VN reviewers like me should be striving toward.
I want to make it clear that I don’t have anything personal against JP3, the founder of VNs Now! and author of the top ten list. And I’m also not trying to say that there’s anything wrong with criticizing VNs or other media you don’t like. Criticism of art can be very productive, important, and entertaining. But I think this particular kind of criticism can do a lot more harm than good to developers and readers of VNs alike. Throughout this post, I’ll try to explain what I mean by that. Also, I’ll break up the wall of text with some positivity, by showing screenshots from a few VNs that I might list among the best of 2018.
With a few exceptions, I tend to shy away from being overly negative about the VNs I review on this blog. VNs are already very niche, and there are still a lot of people in the world who either haven’t heard of them, or haven’t given them a fair chance. Steam reviews and other online discussions about even the best VNs are full of people complaining that they’re “not real games,” or assuming that all VNs have to offer is porn, and using one or both of those ideas as an excuse to dismiss them entirely. If those of us who care about VNs want more people to recognize them as a legitimate art form, I think we should spend a lot more time promoting the ones we love and a lot less time publicly mocking the ones we hate.
The VNs Now! article’s introduction includes a disclaimer that the list avoids “easy targets” like machine translations and shallow fanservice, in favour of focusing on VNs with “a bad story.” But in my opinion, the “easy targets” JP3 alludes to—VNs that often give the impression of not even trying to be particularly good or interesting, because they’ve found a formula that makes money and they’re sticking to it—are the ones that deserve criticism much more than the ones on the list do. The developers of VNs Now!’s “Ten Worst VNs of 2018” had creative visions they genuinely tried to bring to life. There may be some flaws in their finished products, and they may benefit from some constructive criticism. But labelling them worst of the year, and claiming they have “bad stories” as if that’s something that can be objectively measured, strikes me as mean-spirited and potentially damaging to the budding English visual novel industry.
One of my major problems with the article is that several of the VNs included are low-budget projects by indie developers, and I think the tone JP3 takes when discussing their work is too harsh. For example, Red Embrace, which he dismisses as “every single bad fanfiction that has ever existed rolled into a single game,” is available on steam for only $5. And while I’m not sure of its specific budget, a few years ago developers Argent Games completed a kickstarter for a different VN with only $1 943—and that’s before paying kickstarter’s fees and fulfilling rewards. Their latest kickstarter, for Red Embrace’s sequel, received $15 600, which shows a lot of progress from their first one, but still isn’t nearly enough money that I can imagine anyone is quitting their day jobs. Similarly, Her Lie I Tried To Believe, described in the VNs Now! article as “like something a moody teenager would write while processing their first breakup,” was the first full release by developers Hangover Cat Purrroductions and is available for free. And unlike Argent, Hangover Cat has not yet found success with attempts to crowdfund different projects, both of which failed to meet their modest goals and clearly demonstrate that this small studio isn’t working with big budgets either. I just don’t think it’s right to be so hard on inexpensive, independent projects like this, especially in such a niche genre.
And from discussions I’ve seen in English VN communities, it seems to me that these kinds of developers—who work hard at other jobs during the day, and then come home and work on their creative projects at night—are the norm and not the exception. VNs like Red Embrace and Her Lie I Tried To Believe aren’t made by big corporations; they’re made by determined and passionate groups of friends who are doing their best in what little free time they have, with what little money they can save up or earn from small crowdfunding campaigns. Criticizing them the same way you would a major studio release isn’t fair, and criticizing them with such an overall negative and dismissive tone is unkind and unhelpful. Those of us who want to see developers like this improve should be encouraging them instead of tearing them down.
I also want to get into a bit more detail about one entry on the list—Heaven Will Be Mine—because I think it will provide a good example of how misleading the kind of overly negative criticism in this article can be. First of all, I take issue with JP3’s presentation of this screenshot:
He sardonically captions it “And yes, that is official art from the game. I shit you not,” implying that its rudimentary nature is a flaw. But I think it’s pretty clear, especially in context, that it’s an intentional artistic choice. The game’s art temporarily adopts the style of a child’s crayon drawings as the narration states, “The simplest, childish thought grasps Pluto, bubbles up within her, and she says it before she can stop herself.” It represents the characters embracing childishness, simplicity, and innocence. Showing it with no commentary except an implication that it’s simply bad art seems like a major misrepresentation to me.
JP3 also asserts that this self-described “queer science fiction mecha visual novel” has no message except “girls are hot,” and that it fails to be the subversion of the mecha genre that he was hoping for. And I think that this demonstrates another one of the big problems I have with the article: that its harsh and judgmental tone leaves no room for considering that its author might not be the target audience of every VN, or that other people’s opinions of a work’s quality might be different from his. There are a lot of LGBTQ people in the world who like seeing ourselves represented in media, and sometimes that representation can be the only subversion of a genre we need. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the world needs to praise stories they didn’t enjoy just because they’re diverse and progressive, but it is something a reviewer can consider when they’re debating whether or not to recommend something. It’s a major reason that some people might find more personal value in a certain story than others, and I think our job as reviewers is not only to tell people whether we liked something or not, but to let our readers know whether they might like something, even if we didn’t. I’m using the example of LGBTQ representation here because that’s something that’s important to me, but the same sentiment could be applied to any elements of a narrative that might appeal more to some people than others, such as different genres. I almost always lean towards encouraging readers to try something for themselves, because I know that a lot of people with a lot of different preferences might really love things that just aren’t to my taste. And personally, I thought Heaven Will Be Mine had a message encouraging readers to break out of narrow societal expectations and be open about being themselves, which just goes to show how much two people’s opinions on the same work can differ.
None of this is to say that my opinions on Heaven Will Be Mine are in any way necessarily better than JP3’s, or that it’s wrong to criticize it. Even though I personally enjoyed Heaven Will Be Mine, I can understand why some people might not. But I think that this kind of criticism, that takes such an aggressive and vitriolic tone, and exaggerates and distorts and disregards the possibility of alternative viewpoints, is much less productive than criticism that’s more open-minded and forgiving and aware of its own subjectivity. And I think that in the case of such a niche and often stereotyped genre as visual novels, it can be seriously harmful. For one thing, it runs the risk of reinforcing the viewpoints of people who are prejudiced against VNs. And when it’s applied to low budget releases by indie developers, it can deprive them of potential readers who might have liked their work if they had given it a chance, but who might now avoid it because they heard it was bad enough to be on someone’s list of the worst of 2018.
I think people like both JP3 and me, who review visual novels or otherwise talk about them publicly, should make sure that we aren’t doing anything to make it any harder for aspiring VN developers to succeed than it already is. That doesn’t mean we should never write a negative review, but I think we need to be a little more careful about our tone than reviewers of more established and respected genres do. We should try to make suggestions for improvement, and we should emphasize that our judgements of a VN’s quality are based on our own subjective opinions, and that other people with different tastes might find value in things we don’t. And if we do read a VN that we honestly think is trash and we can’t come up with anything nice to say about it? Maybe we should just laugh about it with our friends in private and move on to review something else. I’m trying to be a more positive person in 2019, and I’d like to see a lot of others doing the same.