Visual novels are an incredibly popular mode of entertainment in Japan, and they’re building up rapport in the Western world too. Typically, a visual novel’s story is made up of dozens of storylines or ‘routes’, each culminating in of the many ‘ends’ the game has to offer. Perhaps you’ll end up dating a different character, you will die, or maybe there is only one ending in which you don’t die. This is all based on subtle choices you make as the game is played. The possibilities are endless, only, the studio often has no clue where to begin adapting such an expansive world.
Usually, things will end up going one of two ways: either the studio will focus intensely on one particular storyline, ignoring all others completely. Or, they will delve a little bit into every storyline, giving each character the chance to shine for an episode or two. The former of these ways is risky – after all, how will they know which timeline is best to follow? The latter of these outcomes often results in extremely poor character development. Now, this isn’t to say that visual novel adaptations can’t be good. They really can, and you shouldn’t ignore them just because of a few terrible shows.
Perhaps one of the most famous adaptations is Higurashi no naku koro ni. It’s a murder mystery, following unsuspecting protagonist Keiichi Maebara. His town is caught in an infinite time loop, endlessly repeating the same week of 1985 in which people die gruesome, unexplainable deaths – including him. In each loop, he and his friends find themselves unable to stop killing each other or killing themselves. This anime kills two birds with one stone. It is a stunning example of how to get a visual novel adaptation right. It’s also rather unusual. It takes the viewer down almost every single route the visual novel had to offer, giving us slightly different endings and clues as to what Keiichi has to do to get out alive. The time loop is the perfect tool for adaptation – the anime creators had the chance to show the audience every character’s timeline to its fullest extent
Mystery and/or horror visual novels can lend themselves seamlessly to the anime format. After all, there’s the thrill of not knowing which route we’re going down, so the ending could either be great, or it could be tragic
The pitfall of many visual novel adaptations is the romantic plotline. This isn’t to say that it can’t be done right (we’ll get to that later), but often there is outrage from fans. Maybe their favourite love interest wasn’t the protagonist’s final kiss, or maybe their favourite girl didn’t get any attention. Emotions run high within the romance world. In the Steins;Gate anime, the entire show is focused on protagonist Okabe’s desperate attempts to save the life of his beloved friend, only for him to end up dating another woman, whom he has done nothing but fight and argue with. This typical ‘love-hate’ relationship overshadowed all that had happened before. While Steins;Gate is a fantastic show, it could take some lessons from Higurashi on pacing and foreshadowing for the ending. In other aspects, it’s fantastic, with good character depth and an interesting concept to say the least.
Visual novels can be extremely complex, with dozens of interwoven routes and often a huge cast of characters. This is to make the game world dense and rich. Understandably, it’s difficult to translate it into the anime format, since the creators have a limited number of episodes to work with. In the end, it all comes down to what choice they make with regards to the route they go down. A great way of combating the problem within romance is to completely follow the route of a single love interest, and also completely follow the non-romantic routes of all the other love interests. Clannad, for example, almost exclusively focuses on the love interest Nagisa, the sweet and frail girl with a tragic story. At the same time, protagonist Tomoya delves into the lives of all his female friends, evoking the audiences love for the girls, as well as giving them the satisfaction of some kind of complete plot for every girl. Ultimately, his love is for Nagisa, but every other girl received closure
It can be difficult to get your head around the complex world of visual novel anime. Oftentimes they fail dismally, but there are many shining gems out there to explore. Their popularity continues to rise (Prince of Stride came out this January, and it looks like one of the good ones). So, if you get the chance, don’t overlook some of these fantastic shows.