It goes without saying that visual novels have become more popular than ever within the past couple of console generations. Before the Nintendo DS, visual novels were an obscure genre in the west. Few of them left Japan, meaning the only ways to play them were to fiddle with fan-made translation patches or learn a new language. Today, visual novels are far easier to come by and have even seen high profile releases like Phoenix Wright and the Zero Escape games.

Especially popular are the sillier visual novels that people have been writing in the past four to five years. While humor has always had a place in video games, there’s something more specific going with these visual novels that I think is worth acknowledging. They operate on outlandish premises, usually something like “humans romancing animals.” Visual novels like Hatoful Boyfriend, Paca Plus, and Kokonoe Kokoro play with genre conventions and may be helping to bring visual novels to a wider audience.

That first point about genre conventions cannot be stressed enough. As easy as it is to dismiss these games as shallow gags, I think there’s more going on beneath the surface. Yet before we can see what these games are doing, we have to understand what came before them: dating sims. (While dating sims and visual novels are by no means synonymous, the visual novels I mention all parody dating sim tropes.) Dating sims first showed up in the early 90s, with games like No-Ri-Ko, Tokimeki Memorial, and Angelique. Gameplay in these titles consisted of managing various stats, going out on dates with girls, and picking the right dialogue option to make them fall for you.

Because these early games emphasized the dating process over the specific person you were dating, the characters in these games tended to be flat. Their personalities were one-dimensional, either ripped from contemporary anime or based on school clubs or extracurricular activities. You could date the hotheaded girl, the calm and collected girl, the perky energetic girl, the snotty rich girl, the girl from the science club, the girl who plays track and field, your best friend’s cute little sister, or the ideal everygirl at the center of everything. Outside a few minor details about their lives, this is all you’d ever see of them. Despite this, dating sims and the tropes they rely on have remained popular for years. Even as the genre started to abandon its complex number games to reach a wider audience, the characters didn’t change.

HATOFUL

It’s this legacy that recent visual novels like Kokonoe Kokoro are lampooning. Rather than just making you date animals for the sake of a cheap gag, they use these silly twists as a lens to critique dating sim tropes. Looking past their animal motifs, the protagonists of these stories adhere amazingly well to said conventions. They go to school like any other character, and they date their classmates like any other character. While the script might exaggerate things for comedic effect, the protagonist generally reacts as though these situations are normal.

So why should we treat their love life as completely ordinary if the rest of their life isn’t? Therein lies the crux of these games’ argument. For them, it’s outlandish to assume that reality could work as neatly as dating sims say it would. Real people aren’t that simple, and romance isn’t always so straightforward. Any reality that orderly would have to be far removed from our own. These games use humor to illustrate that absurdity.

That’s why their ludicrous features are so important: it’s through them that these games get anything done. Consider Hatoful Boyfriend, the pigeon dating sim and perhaps the most well known example of these visual novels. It asks why these character archetypes behave the way they do, and the answers it finds are ridiculous. The shy bookworm Nageki Fujishori can’t leave the library because he’s a ghost who will fade away if he does. Meanwhile, Yuuya Sakazaki, the suave pigeon from another country, turns out to be a spy for a radical political organization. These explanations make no sense, but that’s part of what makes Hatoful Boyfriend so much fun: you want to see what freaky resolution the game has in store for each romance.

Or consider Paca Plus, the surreal visual novel equivalent to Beauty and the Beast. As your girlfriend awakes one morning, she finds herself transformed in her bed into a gigantic fluffy alpaca. Nobody else sees her as an alpaca, though. To others, she’s the same human girl as always. Kafka-esque transformations aside, there’s not much to set the game apart from other romance stories. True love and destiny are common in a lot of these stories, and Paca Plus doesn’t do a lot to contradict them. The main characters are fated to be together, and true love wins out in the end. Yet this only happens through events too outlandish to occur in real life.

I admit, I might be over-intellectualizing these games. It’s equally likely that these visual novels have become popular with writers because they don’t have much experience working with the genre. After all, humor-driven visual novels have started becoming prominent as tools like Ren’py have made working in visual novels easier than ever. And while their authors have played a lot of visual novels,  I can’t find a single game where the developers had prior experience making them. Hatoful Boyfriend was the first visual that Moa Hato ever wrote. Before that, she was primarily a manga artist. Purrfectly Ever After‘s Sue Anne C. isn’t that different, seeing how she lists herself as an aspiring visual novel producer on her Kickstarter.

The authors’ relative newness to the genre might also explain why humor is so prevalent in these games. They don’t work with any serious reality, meaning something that would be considered a mistake in other visual novels can easily be written off as part of the joke for these ones. Physics sandboxes like Kerbal Space Program and Surgeon Simulator use the same tricks. These games come out of student projects or game jams, and they share a similar sense of humor.

Likewise, players who are new to the genre consistently engage with humor-oriented visual novels more than with any other kind. I see these games reported on more in news outlets, discussed more on game forums, and played more on YouTube. And the numbers back this up: where Analogue: A Hate Story has around 1500 reviews on Steam, the comparably priced Hatoful Boyfriend sits at about 2500 reviews However, this does leave me worried about what’s attracting people to these games. Is it just because of the novelty? If it is, then people risk misunderstanding the dating sim genre, and both the games and their players may potentially reinforce negative Japanese stereotypes. My own experiences don’t help much. My first exposure to romantic visual novels was through Katawa Shoujo, the dating sim where most of the characters have a physical disability. Given the game’s origins on 4chan, it was all too easy for people (myself included) to interpret the game as comedy gold.

Ultimately, visual novels like those I’ve described put the genre in an odd place. On one level, they consistently satirize a genre that’s been re-using the same tropes for decades. This challenges writers to explore alternatives, or at least to apply greater scrutiny to the tools they’re already using. Yet that facet of these visual novels is only visible to people with experience in the genre. For those whose first introduction to dating sims is through a praying mantis in a school uniform, their image of these games will be completely different from what I’ve described. In any case, people are playing these games, meaning they’re exposing themselves to games they might not otherwise play. So while there are very real problems with silly visual novels that we have to look out for, perhaps it’s best that people are paying any attention at all.