Out of all the different mediums out there, the visual novel is unique in its dedication to exploring erotica within storytelling. And, while this is true of visual novels in general—and of all otaku media, one could argue—nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the eroge sub-genre, defined as it is by its inclusion of long, detailed sex scenes (otherwise known as “H-scenes”).
For the uninitiated, “eroge” is a Japanese portmanteau derived from the English words “erotic” and “game.” Of the top 20 most popular visual novels on The Visual Novel Database (VNDB), half are eroge. You get the same results if you order VNs by score instead of popularity as well. And that isn’t even including a number of works which are not eroge themselves but have eroge spin-offs, such as CLANNAD.
While the Western film-buff community is busy throwing handbags on Twitter (sorry, “X”) over Florence Pugh’s breasts in Oppai—ahem, I mean Oppenheimer—those who are members of the visual novel scene continue on full steam ahead, having decided to venture deep down the
rabbit hole long ago.
This is not to say that hearty debates aren’t present among the VN community as well—I thoroughly believe good art should be daring in how it expresses itself, and that inevitably creates waves and inspires conversation. Indeed, H-scenes are a rich well of such conversations, as there’s much to discuss around their various aspects. There are nearly endless topics about them one can dive into, from how H-scenes are implemented in a game, to what purpose they serve in said game, to the even more general topic of what sort of value they contribute to the art of storytelling.
It is my hope to touch on each of these topics and more in this article. And so, let us start—from the very beginning.
There’s Nothing Like The First Time
My first eroge was also my first visual novel. The year was 2019, and I had just got back from a trip to Japan where I’d spent a lot of time just walking around Akihabara doing what is impossible not to do in Akiba—notice all the gorgeous anime figures.
At that time, Fate/Grand Order was still dominant in Japanese otaku culture, and the figures that stuck out to me the most were related to Fate. I had been an anime-only otaku for a few years, so I’d heard of Fate many times, but it had always seemed like this impenetrable monster of a franchise, so I’d stayed away from it.
However, after seeing how important Fate was to Japanese otaku culture at the time, and becoming enamored with the general art style that seemed to be associated with the franchise, I told myself that as soon as I got home, I was going to get into Fate, and I was going to do it properly. I didn’t care if it was going to take me 100 hours—I was going to read the VN that started it all.
I found Fate stay/night to be an awe-inspiring masterpiece of storytelling. I won’t get into all the reasons why, as that would take up the whole of this article and more, but suffice it to say I think FSN excels in many areas, perhaps most noticeably at the conceptual level. It’s truly original in so many ways. There’s nothing quite like the world of Fate.
But while FSN does a lot of things well, there was one thing in particular that stood out to me, something I’d never experienced before. In the midst of this sprawling, epic narrative, there were these infrequent pockets of explicit sex. It was the first time I’d seen such detailed erotica included as part of a larger work of art where the point of the work as a whole wasn’t simply to be pornography.
I’d seen plenty of movies and TV shows with “sex scenes,” of course, and plenty of porn, but never before had I come across anything like this. This was a completely different experience. The fact that sex was taking place in a carefully crafted fantasy world with its own lore and complex characters made the H-scenes in FSN feel so much more immersive than even live-action pornography. The visual novel’s text-based narrative structure was a huge aspect of this, as I was able to know the most intimate inner thoughts of the characters through the prose, and the writing added lots of extra detail while giving weight to the art’s aesthetics.
Sure, the H-scenes could be slightly awkward to varying degrees, and they interfered with the flow of the story at times, and when it came to the writing… Well, I read the unofficial English TL, so maybe the less said the better. But even though the implementation wasn’t perfect, the effect that this newly discovered, bold storytelling technique had on me cannot be understated.
Including sex—properly including sex, in intimate detail, from start to finish and everything in between—made the work feel so much richer. It made the characters feel more complete. It deepened my bond with the characters, as I was able to see them at their most exposed, their most raw, and their most human. And, yes, it provided me with an extra, more physical avenue to enjoy a work of art.
This is the power of the H-scene. At its best, it is a vehicle to broaden and deepen our experience of the art of storytelling, and a way to create richer stories that more effectively reflect and explore the human experience.
A short while ago, I brought up some criticisms of the H-scenes in FSN, but I just want to make myself clear—I think they’re decent. I feel it’s important that I voice that, as for some reason FSN has been disproportionally targeted by unfair criticism for its sex scenes.
This has included spreading lies such as the rumor that Nasu was forced to add the erotic content to FSN to make sales, and that the game was not originally meant to be an eroge, despite the fact that Nasu has gone on the record defending the inclusion of said content as an artistic choice. If anything was produced just to grab more sales, it was the neutered console version, Realta Nua.
That said, it’s true that FSN’s H-scenes aren’t perfect. However, a lot of the criticisms aimed at FSN can be—and often is—applied more generally to H-scenes at large. Some of these criticisms are fair and deserve to be looked at in more depth. Others…not so much.
Let’s first dispose of one of the most common critiques of H scenes. It’s low-hanging fruit, but it deserves a moment’s attention simply for how often it’s repeated.
Royale with Cheese
“H-scenes are unnecessary because they contribute nothing to the plot.”
I would be surprised if the majority of people reading the title of this section didn’t immediately think of Pulp Fiction, given the impact the referenced scene has had on cinema, and that the line is one of the most iconic in the history of film. That said, it’s just another one of those classic scenes of a conversation between two friends in a car, and it contributed absolutely nothing to the plot, so… Clearly Quentin Tarantino is a poor artist and Pulp Fiction needed some of its “unnecessary” content pruned.
You get my point. Not everything needs to be of service to the plot. It’s not some holy be-all and end-all of storytelling. The best format for a story is not an efficient, Wikipedia-plot-summary-esque retelling of the key events.
There is an art to crafting a story; value in writing nuanced character interactions that are interesting and engaging. There is worth in taking the time to observe characters going about their normal human lives. Both of these things add extra dimension to a story and its characters, giving the reader the necessary context to form a solid bond to them. And a sex scene? It has the potential to give characters flesh out characters even further.
Of course, many H-scenes actually do contribute quite nicely to a story’s main plot. For example, in a romance-focused VN, the lead-up to the physical consummation of a relationship is often a focus of much of the story’s tension. In FSN, the transfer of magical energy that takes place during sexual intercourse gives the H-scenes meaning and weight beyond how sexual intimacy might alter the relationships of the characters in question.
Everything an artist chooses to communicate to their audience through their art is necessary if they are creating it purely, with the intention to express themselves. Whether certain content is necessary for any one individual to enjoy said art is an entirely different subject. But people rarely phrase their use of the word “necessary” in such a humble and subjective way.
With that understanding, let’s move on to our next piece of criticism about H-scenes—one that has no perfect solution, and that I believe is the biggest genuine hurdle an artist needs to overcome in their implementation. In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting aspects to discuss, as there are a lot of legitimate points being made to take into consideration.
Don’t Lose Your Way
“H-scenes feel awkwardly shoe-horned in and interrupt the flow of a story.”
Earlier, I spoke about my first eroge, and now, I’d like to bring up my most recent one: Lose’s Gothic Delusion. At the time I played it, I was already familiar with Lose’s more well-known VNs—Maitetsu and Monobeno—as I’d read them in the past. I remember them both fondly, and love them for their high production quality, great art, and the numerous extra little features and interface options available that improved the overall playing experience and made them feel like truly modern visual novels. Needless to say, the presentation for both of them is quite well done.
On top of all that, Lose puts a lot of effort into their H-scenes. Maitetsu and Monobeno have a plethora of long sex scenes for each character with the same slick production quality that runs through every facet of both titles, from the music and voice acting to the art and writing quality.
Gothic Delusion is no different. Unfortunately, however, the method of H-scene implementation is also the same. It’s not something I thought about much when I picked up the game, but when the realization hit, I couldn’t help but feel a touch disappointed.
You see, Lose doesn’t try to fit the H-scenes into the story of its games at all. Their solution to the question of how to smoothly integrate H-scenes is to say, “Let’s not.” That’s not an exaggeration—Lose’s H-scenes are all non-canon. They unlock once you reach certain parts of the main story, after which you can access them at your leisure from the main menu.
Certainly, this approach has its benefits. For starters, there are no limitations on what can be included with this approach. If all H-scenes are non-canon one-offs, then that affords the writers all the freedom in the world to write whatever they like, and include all kinds of things that would have been impossible otherwise. You can have the hero and the villain have sex, for example, or have the hero participate in a threesome or foursome between characters that they’d otherwise have no romantic ties with in the main story.
Another benefit—although I hesitate to call it such, since it’s one for Lose as a company, and not the consumer—is that this method of H-scene implementation makes it easy to produce a neutered version of a game to sell on Steam and other platforms that censor sexual content. I admit I used to think, perhaps cynically, that Lose chose their implementation system purely for this reason alone, but perhaps the easy removal of H-scenes for Steam and co. was only a minor consideration, and the aforementioned point regarding artistic freedom was more in their minds. For sure, Lose has demonstrated a great deal of passion and creativity within their H-scenes, fully taking advantage of the aforementioned benefits afforded to them by their non-canon method, and it’s not hard to see why an H-scene writer might prefer such freedom.
Lastly, Lose’s method has its most massive benefit of all, which also happens to be the one I’m most interested in discussing—it makes it so that there is never a single time, in any of their titles, that an H-scene feels awkward due to appearing at a bad time in the story or feels shoe-horned in.
Unfortunately, the downsides are equally massive. One could argue the whole point of erotica within storytelling is how the sex actually integrates into the story. By having the H-scenes so far removed from the actual narrative experience, they feel more like tacked-on porn which happens to feature the characters, and like they’re not even part of the work at all, but something superfluous.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say my best experiences of erotica in visual novels have come from H-scenes that were well-integrated into their stories, involving characters with whom I’ve spent a great deal of time and come to empathize with on a deep level. As you might expect, this most often takes the form of a climax to a romance narrative, with the MC and their lover having come to know each other through the story, and us, the player, having shared those emotions through observing their interactions.
Actually, I just recently came across an amazing sex scene of this sort from an unexpected source, in a game I started a couple months back and have been playing alongside Gothic Delusion. And the way the game implemented those scenes is starkly different from Lose’s method, in almost every possible way…
Whatever You Do, Don’t Use the Acronym
When I picked up Cyberpunk 2077 a few months ago on the recommendation of a friend, it had been close to a year since I’d played anything with gameplay. Turns out that after the game’s terrible launch back in 2020, CD Projekt Red have apparently been hard at work making it not only playable, but a real blast. I would go as far as to say Cyberpunk is the best unmodded open-world video game experience I’ve ever had (you simply can’t beat a well-modded Skyrim).
Part of what makes Cyberpunk so good is that CD Projekt Red have made it a proper, raw experience that doesn’t feel toned down to appease those who would censor it. They didn’t hold back on the language, the violence, and—most importantly in my opinion—the sex. Cyberpunk feels like a believable world where humans are humans.
Sex features in Cyberpunk in a number of different ways, from little things like advertisements for sex toys, to the existence of strip clubs and prostitution. But the highlight is the sex scene that greets us in the finale to each of the romance sub-plots.
The scenes are very short and not terribly explicit, showing some nipple and plenty of bare skin but no real money shots. Also, Cyberpunk features no text narration as seen in VNs, so there is no insight into the inner thoughts of the characters, or the possibility of high-quality prose to enhance the scenes. However, despite the aforementioned limitations, I thought the scene that I saw at the culmination of the romantic route that I chose was fantastic. The direction, lighting, subtle voice work, and music combined to excellently conjure up an incredibly sensual atmosphere.
Compared with Lose, who got around the awkwardness problem by removing sex scenes from the plot entirely and went buckwild in terms of length, explicitness, creativity, and number of scenes, CD Project Red went the opposite route, choosing to instead make shorter, subtler sex scenes which cater more to the plot in which they are so deeply integrated. But despite these stark differences, both Cyberpunk and Gothic Delusion are very similar in that they both take safe, low-risk approaches to the problem of how to smoothly integrate sex scenes into their stories.
That said, no one’s ever won big with low stakes, and I think both games could have benefited from being more daring. I would have enjoyed Cyberpunk more if it featured longer, more explicit scenes that revealed all the intimate details of the encounters. Likewise, I would have enjoyed Gothic Delusion more if the scenes took place canonically in the actual story.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I think the ideal implementation for both games would look the same. I do think, however, that it would look more similar to how things are handled in FSN.
When it comes to implementation, I’ve often wondered why more eroge don’t make two versions of their H-scenes, with one of them being similar to the short, subtle, to-the-point scenes featured in Cyberpunk, and the other being a traditional, full-length sex scene. Frankly, players are not always in the mood for a long sex scene, or we’re more interested in seeing what happens next in the story than clicking through one. It would of course be ideal if the player is in the mood when a sex scene comes along, so the story all comes together perfectly. Anyone who has played a lot of eroge will, I’m sure, attest that this is when H-scenes work the best. But that is something that’s mostly beyond a player’s control, and certainly beyond the control of the people who made the game.
Thus, I think there are certainly times that giving the player the option to choose a more Cyberpunk-ian version of a sex scene—which still feels sensual without being too long or too explicit—would feel welcome. They could even give you an option to choose which you’d like to see in-game, either when the scene occurs in the story or in the game’s settings, with the option of viewing the full-length version always available at a later time through a menu. This would be a neat way to circumvent the aspects of the integration problem which are down to the player and not anything inherent to the work, assuming the sex doesn’t have important plot elements attached. Still, hopefully those could be covered well enough even in a shortened scene.
As I said when I first brought up the implementation problem, there is no ideal solution. The best the author can do is create the best H-scenes they can for the story they want to tell and try to integrate them as well as they can.
The rest is up to the player. If we’re not ready to see an H-scene, perhaps it would be best to pick up a different game in the evening that isn’t an eroge. If you are in the mood, then make sure you’re going to have enough time and privacy. These things are entirely within our control, unlike the last point I’m going to bring up. It is something we, not just as individuals, but as a society, need to fight to get over. This is not at all easy, however, because we are talking about a mindset that is deeply buried within the psyche of society and we are all influenced by it to some degree.
I’m Not Just Sure, I’m Sex-Positive
“Erotica isn’t art.”
This is perhaps the biggest obstacle sexual content of all kinds faces in the art world, and so has a huge amount of facets to cover, of which I am only going to scratch the surface here. There’s a whole lot of nonsense to unpack due to thousands of years of religious sexual repression. That said, we don’t need to get into how we got to where we are today—I think simply refuting the notion itself is quite easy.
The definition of art is tricky. Some would go so far as to say that all human expression that is meant for an audience is art, which would ergo mean that even the most basic scene of a porno would count. That, however, would be reductive when the core of the real issue isn’t that people think that “Erotica isn’t art.” It’s that they think “Erotica isn’t high art.” But knowing that sex is the multi-faceted, intriguing, and vital part of the human experience that it is, it seems patently false to say anything other than that sex deserves inclusion in both categories. It seems obvious that it has a place in art—and an important one, at that.
Sex brings people together; it literally holds the magical power to create new life! If we are to value art based on how deeply it reflects the human condition, including emotions and the bonds formed between people, then surely sexuality must have a huge role to play. Frankly, after playing so many eroge, I’m at a point where whenever I read or watch a romance story and it doesn’t even hint at sex—which is surprisingly common once you start looking for it—it feels incomplete.
And so we’ve reached the end. I hope that what I’ve written here has effectively made my case for the idea that the inclusion of sex scenes is a valuable storytelling technique, and that I’ve clearly laid out some of the barriers that hold writers back from utilizing them.
I truly believe in the validity of erotica as art, and if my talking about it in this open and honest way helps spread that message even a tiny little bit, then that would be swell.
Thanks for reading.