If you’re a fan of visual novels—even if you’re still pretty new to the medium—you’ve probably read at least a few that star amnesiac protagonists. It’s a popular trope in all kinds of things, but it seems to be especially prevalent in VNs. I think part of the reason might be that since many visual novels are interactive fiction with branching storylines, it’s easy and convenient to write a blank slate character whose personality can be defined by the player’s choices as they go along. And if you also give that character amnesia, it’s a nice justification for why they don’t seem to have any strong feelings or opinions yet when the story begins—not to mention that it also leaves the door open for a big twist later on about who “you” really are, which can be very impactful if it’s done well. I’ve certainly enjoyed a lot of amnesiac protagonist visual novels, and even written one myself. But like all popular tropes, it can get old sometimes, and it can be a fun experience to discover something that puts a unique twist on it, like the classic yaoi VN No Thank You!!!. This post will analyze some of the interesting ways that No Thank You!!! plays with the typical expectations of an amnesiac protagonist (which requires spoiling a lot of the plot, so if you’re already interested in NTY, I’d recommend reading it first and then coming back).
At the beginning of No Thank You!!!, the protagonist saves a stranger named Kouichi from a car accident, but sustains a head injury that gives him amnesia in the process. Kouichi offers him a job and a place to stay until he regains his memories, and so he begins living in a small and bare apartment and working at Kouichi’s bar, where his new coworkers decide to name him Haru. It quickly becomes clear that the bar is really more of a front for some kind of extrajudicial private detective agency with yakuza ties, and so Haru’s new life consists of pretty much equal parts serving drinks, helping out with investigations, and joking around with (okay, mostly sexually harassing) his boss and coworkers. So if you go into it having some familiarity with the trappings of a typical amnesiac protagonist VN, you probably already have some idea of what’s going to happen: you’ll learn a bit more about whatever’s going on with the yakuza through a few different romance routes, and reading them will unlock the true route, in which you’ll learn about Haru’s true identity as some kind of major yakuza leader or something like that, and he’ll be conflicted about whether he should return to his old life or stick with the new one. Right?
Well, as it turns out, not exactly. I was already kind of hoping that NTY wouldn’t take the obvious route when I started it, especially since Haru is a wacky, happy-go-lucky guy who doesn’t even seem to care that much about losing his memories. My two hopeful theories about potential funny and interesting endings were either that he does eventually recover his memories but he’s just some random guy and no one of consequence to the yakuza plot, or it turns out he doesn’t even have amnesia at all—he’s just very forgetful and not especially smart. Fascinatingly, the truth turns out to be somewhere in between the latter idea and the typical expectation, and what’s especially unique is the way that the story reveals that information. Haru does turn out not to have amnesia; he’s been faking it in order to investigate Kouichi’s involvement in drug manufacturing and report back to the yakuza. But instead of finding this out as a big true route reveal, there’s absolutely no enforced route order in NTY, and you can discover the truth in several different ways, some with more or less foreshadowing than others, depending on which of the potential love interests you choose to pursue first. And once you’ve done that, the next route you play will have some additions to the narration, providing you with more insight into Haru’s thought process and giving you the rest of the game to come to terms with what you’ve learned.
There are four routes in No Thank You!!!, so if you play them all—and you really should—you end up spending more of the game knowing Haru’s secret than you did not knowing. And it’s through reading the rest of the routes with that knowledge that you might come to an understanding of what I see as the game’s second, more subtle twist: it doesn’t really matter. Sure, Haru doesn’t really have amnesia, but he really is a weird, quirky, forgetful guy who often doesn’t really know what’s going on and just goes with the flow. None of that was an act he was putting on to try to gain anyone’s trust. He also seems to have had a strange and traumatic childhood being raised within the yakuza, so his confusion about a lot of aspects of normal life is completely genuine too. And sure, he’s dishonest with the men he can get romantically and sexually involved with—he keeps a lot of secrets from them, and he’s always aware that their relationship is temporary and will end when his job is done. But he’s not trying to manipulate anyone into bed in order to get information from them or anything like that. He’s just doing what he sincerely wants to do on the side of his investigation. The more in-depth narration you sometimes get once you’re aware of his true identity rarely provides any revelations that massively recontextualize major scenes. It mostly just gives you a little bit more detail about a complex man living his unconventional life.
And that’s what I think is most interesting about No Thank You!!!—the way that its non-linear structure subverts the expectations of the amnesiac protagonist trope in multiple ways, letting you find out about the inevitable twist on your own terms instead of at the end of a predetermined path, and giving you time to come to your own conclusions about how that twist influences your interpretation of the story. I personally feel like its unique handling of something that’s so common in other VNs encourages readers to question whether other big reveals about characters’ true identities are necessarily as significant as they seem. The message I took from my time with No Thank You!!! was that even if someone has a lot of secrets about who they were in the past, it doesn’t always matter nearly as much as who they are today.