I know we’ve all seen the memes. There’s one in particular where the extravagant plots of many eroge are listed, with a simple dismissive “College Students Like To Have Sex” in regards to Western games, specifically those of the AVN or Western adult game variety. I won’t say that Summertime Saga and Being A DIK didn’t influence this trend, but they’re also coming from an extreme bias towards someone who prefers eroge and is actually expecting Western game developers to write a Japanese story.
Let us be honest here: as far as EVNs in general are concerned, even if a well-crafted and nearly authentic EVN was made, it would still get judged for simply not being Japanese. Even the term “OEVN” (Original English Visual Novel) has a negative connotation for many puritan readers. So there are just some people that will never be interested in this genre and it will forever be a pointless endeavor to try to get them on board.
However, this can’t be said for the rest of you, who have at least read this far.
So let’s take you on a ride into the world of AVNs!
What is an AVN?
Adult Visual Novels (or AVNs) are used to describe the vast market of Ren’py (some are now incorporating RPG Maker) novels with 3D rendered sprites, as opposed to 2D animated drawings. Although these can have a Japanese-inspired cell-shaded look like Eternum or Harem Hotel, most of them do not. As has been noted and heavily criticized by the eroge community, many of these games are made in the Daz3D engine.
AVNs are different from EVNs, as those games can be for all ages of readers, but AVNs aren’t and they do not advertise themselves as such. Most—if not all—are branded with the 18+ warning, discouraging minors from playing these games.
In the past, many AVNs looked terrible. They would barely pass for PS2 games with an uncanny valley effect that took a lot of people out entirely. With time, however, came improvements in technology. Not only were people starting to move from Daz3D into engines like Blender and Octane, but new effects allowed higher quality scenes that would have only been capable with much stronger CPUs. However, since the scene is pre-rendered, it doesn’t take nearly as much computing power to showcase it.
A good example of this would be some of the dazzling scenes in PhillyGames’ City Of Broken Dreamers, a cyberpunk story that certainly shines with the same rendering quality that Cyberpunk 2077 was praised for. Of course, you can do much more in this game and have a story that actually matters.
Wait a Minute… AVN Stories Actually Matter?
Now before I get too far ahead of myself, we have to be very clear about the following: AVNs are more sexual than other VNs and could be likened to nukige at their most extreme. A game like Fetish Locator may have a plot, characters and some lines to connect the sex scenes together, but let’s face it—you’re going to be doing a lot of fucking.
On the other hand though, you have stories like the already mentioned City Of Broken Dreamers, the tear-jerking Leap Of Faith and Tales From The Unending Void, where decisions greatly matter and can affect the outcome of the story. There’s even an in-development game called How To Fix The Future from an Ukranian dev and in the most recent update, the developer declared that he didn’t want the flags in the story to determine how the story will go and is more interested in letting players play the game their own way. In other words, there are no consequences. Risky, but it just goes to show how much developers in this sphere are willing to experiment.
What About the Sex Scenes?
Sex scenes in AVNs have always seemed to be geared towards an optional path. Whereas in eroge they’re completely scripted, here the player has the choice of what acts they’d like to participate in and doesn’t have to risk seeing something they would not be comfortable with. In Lust Academy, you can make some of the characters gay or straight, plus you can turn a succubus into a futanari if you so desire. The game doesn’t force any of these decisions on you, but if you are an LGBTQ+ player, they are available so that you can explore the game your way.
Additionally, in Fetish Locator I recently came across a scene where one of the girls asked me if I wanted a rimjob. I was actually given a choice and I simply checked both options by mouse-wheeling back to the original selection. The option to have the sexual act performed went straight into the scene. The option to not have the sexual act performed resulted in the character saying, “No, I am not into that and will never be into that.” In my opinion, fetish choice goes a long way in an adult story. But what about the rare instances where you do have scripted scenes?
Although I have only come across this once so far, I found a scene where you can make love to the daughter (while sleeping next to the mother) in Chasing Sunsets to be brilliant. Not only is it a very drama-driven story, but this scene displayed to me the power of a strong narrative in an AVN. Yes, you are still allowed some choice, but instead of just seeing the animations, we are narrated through it in a way that feels like classic erotica. While reading that scene, I felt passion between the two characters. We had a young woman who had more or less grown up with the protagonist and longed for him for years, finally getting to experience him taking her virginity. Surely, when this game reaches completion, it will be one of the best in the entire genre.
Aside from that though, most scenes in these games (even the lauded Being A DIK) still have a choice pool during the sex scenes. I’m not sure if the genre totally wants to move away from these, especially when devs spend countless amounts of time rendering every animation to be perfect; nor do I feel that they should.
I am Queer. I Notice a lot of Cis Women With Unrealistic Bodies and Very Little Options!
It is a fact that several of these games can adopt misogynistic tropes. You generally play as a rather handsome man, while many beautiful women throw themselves at you. That isn’t very different from classic dating sims or even nukige, where one man helps himself to several gorgeous young women.
However, there are a few games where the focus is on gay relationships with burly male characters as well as a few lesbian or more butch women (How To Fix The Future/City Of Broken Dreamers.) As I’ve stated, some female characters also have the futanari option. In addition, if you’re looking for a game that explores more of the history behind non-binary people, then you would definitely have to give How To Fix The Future a look. There is one such character in this future world who asks a great deal about transgender people and the history behind them during the 2020s. She’s also one of your professors.
Being A DIK also deals with a lesbian couple that I would say is portrayed in a positive light. The same applies for Leap Of Faith, featuring a biracial lesbian couple, which is presented rather well and has a back story that can be further explored if you choose their path in the game. Leap Of Faith also has a slightly less ideal body shape in the form of your childhood crush. I believe this to be a good thing, as she is a possible path in-game and it shows an alternate view on these kinds of games. It explores a woman who is not exactly built like a fashion model or a porn star and it explores how she has to learn to love herself.
We’re probably not going to get out of the feminine beauty ideals for a long while, just as with most eroge–but we do have to consider the whole “fantasy” aspect of these games and shouldn’t expect someone we love to look just like one of these fictional characters. I’m not saying that it can’t happen, but there’s simply more to a person than appearance alone.
They can Make you Cry too…
I’ve mentioned one novel quite a bit throughout this piece and that would be Leap Of Faith. I finished it just recently and it is a brilliant novel that uses every element available to tell a compelling story. The most important thing that I need to say about it, is that it involves a character with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and not in some sketchy “I want a BPD Goth Gurrrlfriend!” kind of way either. No, folks. Parts of this game are hard to watch, especially if you’re dealing with someone who has a mental condition or are dealing with one yourself. Not to spoil the story, but Leap Of Faith goes from a story about love and having fun into a story about immense pain, sorrow and grief. I’m not crying, you’re crying. When you discover the crux of it all, I guarantee that you might be looking for a tissue as well.
I’ve played through Higurashi and Umineko and I’ve experienced some very sad, depressing scenes. Though nothing in my entire span of reading these novels has ever hit me like this one did. I’ll make it clear that this doesn’t involve the death of any single character and is something far, far heavier. Feel free to look it up, but you’ll run the risk of spoiling the entire story for yourself and the reason why it was written in the first place. Additionally, dev DriftyGames decided that this might be too heavy for some readers and made the scene optional. However, I just can’t in good faith tell you to skip it. If your mental health can’t take it, then just read the game some other time.
Maybe There’s Merit to the Stories, but the Characters still Look Weird!
I’ve heard this over and over again, so quite simply put: AVNs just might not be for you. If you can’t get over the uncanny valley effect (which still might appears from time to time, even for recent releases) then you might be better off avoiding the genre entirely.
However, I will say that new styles of art are coming into play, like LlamaMann Games’ Sexbot, which has a weird, almost cartoonish style that doesn’t quite fit the common Daz3D-inspired look that many expect. Once again, City Of Broken Dreamers also has highly detailed cyberpunk characters, giving it a look and feel that is all its own. Of course, we still have a few being made in the Honey Select engine, if that might be more your taste.
The Wild West of the AVN Market
Unlike the heavily regulated eroge sphere, the AVN market is the Wild West. It is not surprising that piracy of these games is not only rampant, but is sometimes encouraged by players and (in rare cases) developers alike. There’s a certain piracy website that features dozens of these on a weekly basis, even featuring the devs offering their games for free in the hopes that players will choose to support their Patreon or SubscribeStar accounts. It isn’t that they want to give out their hard work for free, but the AVN market is so incredibly saturated that this unusual method is sometimes the best way to get their name out there, especially if the novel is good. People won’t pay for the game nor support the developer’s Patreon account if they don’t know what they’re getting into. Alternatively, several chapter demos are on itch.io on a “name your own price” scale, so that you can try a little of the game before you buy it. However, I do say that rather foolishly, some devs are only publishing the game on their Patreon because it is often in a very early development phase that is not completed enough for a Steam release. Hence, the desperation attempts to market their games on these certain websites and forums.
The AVN market ultimately thrives on Patreon and SubscribeStar donations. Although these games are sold in several storefronts like Steam, Itch, and GOG, the real meat of the funding is in their subscribers. Some developers make untold amounts of money per month, while others simply make enough to keep it moving as a side-hustle of sorts. In addition to that, subscribers usually get access to early access versions of the game, special renders or even Patreon Exclusive versions of these games with added scenes.
One might wonder, “Well, if the Patreon version has more content and the sold version doesn’t, then why should I waste my time buying it from the storefront when I’m missing content that I could get from the pirated version of the game?” This is where the disconnect comes in and developers need to realize that people who pay for your game in any sense, especially if you’re charging quite a bit for it, should be getting the same version of the game as the people who support you. It is a bit of a scummy practice, but only a handful of devs that I know of engage in this. The same applies for keeping their game pages in storefronts up to date, which is a big complaint over on Itch. These are the kinds of things that happen in an unregulated market.
According to a freelance editor that I spoke with regarding this industry, there are thousands of these out there in some form of development. He also added that the ones that get the most promotion are not always the best quality games, nor do they have the best quality developers. I’ve even heard that some of the folks in this industry may not be in great mental health either, putting it mildly. This is just what happens when anyone can simply start making a game in Ren’py.
The Seasonal Wallet Grab: Is it a Grift?
Another part of this that I want to address, because I’ve seen the dismissive memes about it, is the seasonal model that AVNs have. They usually release in seasons and sometimes parts of those seasons are strictly relegated to Patreon supporters. For instance, Being A DIK has released two complete seasons on Steam, but Episode 8.5, 9, and soon to be 10 will be completed as well as a roll into Episode 11 next year. According to updates, many hours of content went into the tenth episode alone.
Visual novel readers, since I mentioned these before, think of how Higurashi and Umineko were released. Ryuukishi07 would release each chapter as he finished them, keeping fans anticipating the next one. This is what AVN devs are doing as well. I don’t consider it a grift, because you are getting a full chapter of content to explore in whichever way you choose—especially if it’s a long chunk of the game that takes several hours to work your way through.
In that the meme there were some ridiculous updates like 0.3.1.5, which made it seem like it was selling small portions of one chapter instead of releasing the full chapter itself. This I think is an awful way to do it. I’m more than happy to wait for a new chapter to be completed than to have it divided to me like slices of pizza. I’ll give a few developers like mr.moonmi some credit, since he split the second chapter into two parts, rather than releasing it all at once: the reason for this is because he’s made chapters that last almost as long as full-length games, so he needs time to work. For these cases, it’s understandable.
My honest advice for those of you who are unsure of what devs to support would be to look at their Patreon, observe their models and try to contact them online if possible. If they seem like decent people and you can tell from the updates that they release that “this person is really working hard on their game and I think they’re worth supporting” then you’re good! Realize that these novels take a long time to make and that some of the developers are doing this completely by themselves. They have obligations, families, just like us. They also like to do other things in life besides working on the game. Philly Games once posted that he was going to take a break after working to play Diablo 4 around the time it was very popular—that’s perfectly fine. The chapters have been coming along well and I’m in no hurry to finish City Of Broken Dreamers. I can wait, you can wait, we can all wait. The issue comes with waiting too long for a product and not getting any information as for the delay. That’s when you start to worry and consider that it may be time to withhold your donation entirely. Conversely, you can just wait for the eventual storefront release.
The Ugly Side of the Genre
Because I am expecting it, I also want to discuss some rumors as well as a few awful things I have experienced in this genre. According to a popular YouTuber (we’ll go into deeper discussion on this later as it may contain criminal accusations, detrimental to AVN developers) there is an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that these developers are engaging in a form of money laundering with their games. That’s completely baseless conjecture, especially with how cheaply sold the games are. There’s much easier ways to launder money than spending all of the time and effort rendering and writing scenes for AVNs. There is also an extreme personal bias with said YouTuber towards these games which factors into it. I’ll discuss this further at a later date.
There is also the rumor that several of these developers pirated their assets to make these games. While that might indeed be true of some of them, there are thousands of these games either in production or completed outright and it is very difficult to tell. Sure, there may have been some stolen assets in the early days of development, but I can assure you now that several devs actually not only pay and create their own assets/models, but work with teams (e.g. FreshWomen) to design specific pieces directly for these games now. We’re not in the early days of AVNs anymore and structures are growing a bit more corporate with every passing year. Especially when large sums of money are involved.
In contrast, the same can be said for the influx of Japanese doujin games made in the RPG Maker engine, which could also be accused of either using base assets and/or possible pilfered assets to begin with. Certainly not all of them, right? Exactly my point. This isn’t a black and white issue and independent adult games from any culture will have their expected grey areas.
Putting a cap on this for now, I will just say that I recently came across one major mishap in the handling of Milfy City, a game where the developer simply took the money and ran to the next “cash cow” after a period of five years. The game was left unfinished and released on Steam anyway. Unfortunately, slimy people exist in the gaming industry and it is important that we avoid and do not support thievery. Thankfully, in my experience, this is rare to find.
Are You Ready To Take The Plunge?
AVN are truly a different breed from the Japanese eroge market and other JVN out there, as well as EVN. They have a more western look and are written by older people with possibly different ideas and values than you might hold in your own life. However, they are coming around to more progressive ideas and are trying to get the best of both worlds into one large and steadily growing genre. Many of the novels I have mentioned here are fantastic starting points. I could’ve gone on to talk about the soundtrack and why it is so important, as well as the royalty-free mess that is going on right now (with some musicians not wanting their music to be featured in “porn games”). Let’s just save that talk for another time.
I hope this has been an interesting and informative introduction on AVN and why they are seeing a growing level of importance in the visual novel world.