Visual Novels are a very interesting form of media to me. Why would anyone make one? It’s not as easy as making a light novel from a man power standpoint but at the same time it doesn’t allow for the visual experience a full anime would. It seems to exist halfway between the two.
So in my mind Visual Novels are almost always made because the story they tell can only be done so through the medium. I think this is the general reason anime adaptations of VN’s tend not to be very good. There are exceptions of course but even most of them come with asterisks. The Fate franchise, even when some installments are praised, is said to pale in comparison to it’s source, Clannad really only becomes good in After Story.
Let’s take a look at why VNs don’t translate well to the small screen.
This is the most obvious reason one could give but I’ll mention it anyway. A 12 episode anime series gives a total of about 4 hours of content, this is paltry compared to the 30-50 hours a lot of Visual Novels can take up. There’s only so much that you can convey visually to shorten that time and as such many adaptations can feel rushed or might be missing crucial info that drags the series down.
A particular instance of this would be in The Fruit of Grisaia. *slight spoilers* In the anime version Amane’s backstory is told in three episodes. This might seem like a lot but the story is about her and her classmates starving to death in a ravine over the course of 2 weeks, every day told in painstaking detail. It’s so long that it could’ve been a 1 cour series unto itself. It should have been one in fact. This part of the story works because of the long and detailed descriptions building up the sense of dread. Even though the show took far more time with it than I thought they would, it still felt far less impactful than it did in the full novel.
This extends to the medium in general, many stories don’t have that same impact when they are stripped of the extra detail they possessed and no amount of visual storytelling can make up for that.
This really applies to a certain type of visual novel, the “dating sim”. Really any game where the goal is to meet a cast of girls (or guys) and to choose to be with one of them. This usually ends with sex although not always. Clannad is a good example of one of these games that has no sex, I think it’s part of the reason why After Story translated so well. You see, when you take out the sexual aspect of ones relationships with these people, you fundamentally change them. By taking away the sexual aspects of a story you change how it’s characters are viewed and in cases like these, where sex is a major (if not the only) plot element it can lead to very bland and uninteresting anime.
These games stories are about the relationships between characters, take away part of those characters and you may be left with almost nothing.
The Main Character
This one can be a difficult one to overcome. In most VN’s the main character is not given too much of a personality and almost never are they given a described or visible appearance. This is so the player can project easily onto that character.
When translating to anime however not having a visible main character is not really an option. You have to bring that character to life in a way they may not have been meant to before. You could leave them as a blank slate but that wouldn’t make for very good TV.
This does leave most VN protagonists as very boring when they are adapted into anime.
Focus And Choice
Visual Novels’ big distinction from regular old novels are the fact that you can influence the events of it. This of course makes you really feel like you’re the protagonist of said story but also presents two major problems when one tries to adapt them.
Firstly, you have to try and fit all of the branching story paths into one in most cases. This again fundamentally changes the story and trying to fit differing paths into one can leave a confusing mess. Typically one can see this in harem adaptations. The main guy has to have moments with all of the girls on offer because people want to see their favorite characters from the game come to life. Obviously however having this guy go out with 7 odd girls simultaneously would make little sense, a problem which is often ignored. School Days has parodied this in the past but the real problem it presents in my mind is the lack of focus that come with it.
I talked before about Amane’s route being too short in the anime and this is partly because the show has to fit another 4 stories into the run time. By trying to fit so many stories together, you can end up robbing them of what made them work in the first place.
The other problem this brings up of course is the absence of choice. VN’s are hard to gauge when attempting to analyze them as you are in effect getting multiple different stories. A game I might love because I chose one route might be despised by someone else because they chose a different route. Combining all the routes dilutes the quality of it’s best one by default.
Just think about it, a writer isn’t going to write stories that are equally good all of the time. Some may be good, others may be decent and some may even be alright awful. Think about it this way, take the Animeography of Urobuchi Gen. Let’s pretend his works are routes in a visual novel.
If you choose the first route you watch Psycho-Pass, the 2nd you watch Madoka and the third you watch Aldanoah Zero. The first 2 are well regarded but would appeal differently to different people and the 3rd was not so well received. Any given person would have a 33% chance of experiencing a bad story.
This is why Clannad After story works so well. The story focuses on just one love interest, Nagisa, and as such we get the focus required to fully flesh out the story. When adapting shows can dilute quality when mixing routes and lose focus on each individual story in the process.
Many Of The Good Ones Will Never Get Adapted
This is the most disappointing one to me. The above points are all challenges faced by any VN lucky enough to get adapted many VN’s will never get an anime adaption, even if they deserve it.
Most of the popular dating sims will get an adaptation but they almost never have fantastic stories to begin with. The Steins Gates’ of the world can get an adaptation because they are not too offensive.
But there are a whole plethora of fantastic stories out there that will never get adapted because the content would not be deemed suitable for a wide audience. Sharin no Kuni is a story about a dystopian society that will never get an anime because it’s protagonist is can be a pretty shitty person. Euphoria is a game that few people would have the stomach for and will never get an adaptation because it’s sexual content is far too grotesque. Even though it’s narrative is actually quite interesting, the sexual content is so intrinsically tied to the narrative that it could never be made into a TV broadcast anime. We don’t get many good VN adaptations because most of the good ones aren’t suitable for adapting.
This of course brings me back to my original point, the reason VN’s ultimately don’t translate is because the stories told in them only really work as a VN. Content that is too “offensive” or is built upon the choice mechanic. There is a reason they were written as a visual novel and not something else.
It’s a shame to see that VN’s aren’t receiving much attention or many adaptations as of late as there are some great stories out there in VN form. Hopefully one day they can reach a wider audience some way but until then we are left with a lot more misses than hits when it comes to Anime adaptations of VNs.
Thanks for reading,