The meaning of “OELVN”

For the unaware, OELVN is an acronym for “original English language visual novel.” However, as an acronym, it is a bit artificial in the sense that you’re unlikely to find the phrase “original English language visual novel” appear in any context other than to explain the definition of the acronym OELVN.  Unlike most acronyms, which are spawned as abbreviations of common phrases, OELVN is actually a combination of two acronyms, “OEL” and “VN.”

The “VN” abbreviation should be relatively common and intuitive for those familiar with visual novels, and it’s common to see it employed for the sake of brevity. “OEL” is a bit of an oddity, though. The earliest usage of the acronym OEL is to refer to “OEL manga,” or “manga written in English (by non-Japanese authors).” However, by commonly-accepted definition of the word “manga,” this alleged “OEL manga” is not truly manga at all. “Manga,” being the Japanese word for “comics,” is used outside of Japan to refer to Japanese comics, and to use it to describe non-Japanese works is misleading. (Non-Japanese comics, according to that commonly-accepted definition, cannot be manga!) However, because “manga” is hip and trendy among younger consumers while traditional western comics have struggled in recent years to reach a younger audience, the fictitious term “OEL manga” was invented so that western comic book artists could market their works to fans of Japanese comics.

Visual novels, however, are different. Unlike Japanese words like “manga” and “anime,” “visual novel” isn’t language-specific. There are visual novels written by authors of a multitude of nationalities in variety of languages, including Japanese, English, Russian, and Korean, just to name a few. There’s no need to divorce non-Japanese works from the term “visual novel.”

OEL is a term that exists largely for the purpose of allowing the use of the word “manga” to describe works that are not actually manga. In that sense, I feel that applying the same qualifier to visual novels actually undermines non-Japanese visual novels, because unlike OEL manga, which is not actually manga, OEL visual novels are visual novels. “OEL manga” and “manga” are actually exclusive terms, but “OELVN” is just a subset of “VN.”

The term “OELVN” becomes especially cumbersome when you consider applying the same qualifier to Japanese visual novels. The idea of referring to Japanese visual novels as “OJLVNs” seems silly, so why do the same with English visual novels?  Moreover, in the context of an English-speaking community, many common uses of “OELVN” become redundant. You wouldn’t announce to your English-speaking friends that you are writing an “original English language novel.”

Another reason to avoid the OELVN distinction for your own work is that it puts you into a smaller pool of works. Rather than being compared to visual novels (including those of Japanese origin), you are inviting users to place you in the same category as all those other projects made by English-speaking devs. For the unambitious, this may not be an entirely bad thing, since the current pool of non-Japanese visual novels is relatively starved for quality, and you may benefit more from a comparison to other works not particularly renowned for their quality.  But do you really want your work to be associated more with the (sometimes negative) connotations that the term “OELVN” may carry?  Do you want people to look at your work and say it’s “good for an OELVN?”  Or do you want people to critique it as a visual novel, without undue regard for the original language?

All that being said, I don’t expect the term “OELVN” to leave the vocabulary of the visual novel community any time soon. At this point, its definition is pretty well-established within visual novel communities, and it’s the most laconic way to refer to visual novels originally composed in English (as opposed to non-English visual novels which were later translated into English).  However, those within the visual novel community may want to consider the connotations the term may carry before using it as the default term to describe certain works, especially their own.

The unrealized potential of western visual novels

One of the things which I find most disappointing about the state of western visual novel development is that with overwhelming frequency, western visual novel developers choose to closely mimic the style of Japanese visual novels in terms of setting and genre conventions, as well as art style.  High school romances (and all of the storytelling tropes associated with them) constitute the visible majority of visual novels in the west just as they do in the east.  Many western developers have even chosen to use a Japanese high school setting (or facsimile thereof), apparently too daunted by the prospect of blazing trails unexplored by Japanese visual novels before them.

To be fair, there are several regards in which western visual novels commonly diverge from their Japanese counterparts.  Western-made visual novels tend to shy away from pornographic content, and oddly enough, also tend to cater to female audiences with greater frequency.  Although female-oriented visual novels do exist in Japan, they are fewer and farther between, while it seems that female-oriented titles almost constitute a majority of western visual novel releases.  The more female-oriented nature of the western visual novel market is, to some extent, the effect of a largely female-dominated development community.  However, the market that these developers have cultivated is one which seems to be equally favor females, as evidenced by the commercial success of many western-made otome games.  Although the unfortunate side of this becomes evident when it drives commercially-successful English novel developers to  use Twilight for market research, it does suggest that western-made visual novels stand to reach an audience beyond the stereotypically male audience associated with Japanese visual novels and most electronic storytelling mediums.  Certainly, the lack of pornographic content broadens the potential audience of western visual novels, and allows them to explore non-romance genres with greater ease.  Yet, despite having the advantages of a much broader potential audience, most western visual novels have failed to break out of the niche genre utilized by the Japanese, continuing to retread the same tried and tested tracks already worn deep by previous visual novels.

In the Japanese market, adherence to genre conventions is understandable.  Japanese visual novels can be high-cost endeavors, with some commanding production costs on the scale of tens of millions of yen (hundreds of thousands of dollars). ((Canned Dogs has a highly informative post which details the costs associated with Japanese eroge production, for those with an interest in the details.))  Games with high development costs command similarly high sticker prices, sometimes exceeding prices as high as ¥9,000 ($112 US). ((For a look at what the most popular visual novels can cost in Japan, take a look at some popular Key releases, such as Little Busters and Clannad.))

Western visual novel developers, conversely, tend to work with much smaller and more limited budgets, sometimes less than a hundredth the size of Japanese productions.  Furthermore, the sale price of western-made visual novels tends to be much lower, generally not exceeding $20.  Rather than relying almost exclusively on an otaku fanbase who are willing to pay inflated prices for products conforming to a specific set of expectations, the lower price point allows commercial western-made visual novels to reach beyond their “usual” audience to those who may have only a passing interest in most visual novel releases.  The cost of visual novel production in Japan and the nature of the otaku market discourages tinkering too much with a proven formula, but western visual novels have no such restriction.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in game development (mostly in the west, though not exclusively), where larger game studios tend to be more conservative in their production choices, resulting in less innovation in many cases, while smaller indie developers have the ability to take more risks and try out new ideas.  Some indie developers even rely on novelty and innovation as a selling point, as it can be difficult to outperform high-budget studios when competing at the same game.  Indie game development has become a more viable business proposition in recent years, in part due to the greater availability of development tools and digital distribution platforms.  Fortunately, visual novel development already enjoys both of these advantages, arguably more so with regard to development due to the lower barrier to entry.

Western visual novels should be more innovative, not less. They have the freedom to experiment and try new and ambitious things that could rock the foundation of the current visual novel community.  Some ambitious flops are bound to result, but the consequences for failure are much less.  Some interesting ventures have already been made in this direction, such as Digital: A Love Story, whose presentation is atypical to be sure.  Although experimental works like this are currently but a small sliver of current western visual novels, I suspect it is western developers who will be blazing new trails and taking the medium in new directions as it matures.