This article contains spoilers for the following visual novels: Clannad, Little Busters, Grisaia no Kajitsu, ef – a fairy tale of the two and Katawa Shoujo.
I love me a good visual novel. Pleasing backgrounds and sprites, writing that ranges from light hearted comedy to heart breaking tragedy, and satisfying endings that wrap up both the emotional investment and plot arc. Those first two elements can be problematic enough on their own (and you aren’t here just for me to complain about poor visual novel writing), but the third one is what I want to focus on today. Obviously ending a story can be incredibly difficult, but it’s the method of ending that I’m calling into question, as opposed to how the story actually wraps up.
For those unversed, visual novels (hereafter called VN’s) are games in which you read a story in short snippets with characters animated above (whether they are shifting static sprites or have animated eyes, mouths, etc. depends on the VN you read) to reflect the tone of the scene. The genre is biggest in Japan, so most VN’s (regardless of country of origin) can be described as “anime-esque” both visually and in their storytelling. Unlike an anime, or really most any story, VN’s give the reader the chance to affect the story through choice systems. These choices lead to branching paths, usually to decide who the romantic choice will be. These choices will also lead to an ending, which is where our topic comes in.
In nearly every VN, there exists at least two endings. More commonly there are two endings for each route, called Good Ends and Bad Ends. This can lead to many games having ending-counts in the double digits, and of course quality will vary there. The Good End will usually be the canon end for that route, although some games have only a single route that is truly canon (True End) and the others are just non-canon fantasies. Without delving to deep into the meta-storytelling methods of visual novels, suffice it to say that Bad Ends are always non-canon and significantly different from Good and True Ends. Different visual novels use their non-True Ends in different ways. Some use time travel, parallel universes or other convenient (or contrived, depending on your level of cynicism) connections to tie all of them together, while some simply go crazy with them and let wild, unexpected events take place outside of the story. I want to delve into this spectrum and try to find some meaning to the choices VN authors make on this subject.
First, we have the games that give their non-canon routes and endings actual meanings. Clannad and Little Busters are two such examples. Both games come from the mind of Jun Maeda, arguably the best and most well-known VN creator and former main scenario writer at Key, arguably the best and most well-known VN studio. Maeda is famous for tear-jerking tragedies, cute girls, and reality-bending conclusions to his stories. The third part is where his games fit into our topic.
In both Clannad and Little Busters, the reader must complete every single route before unlocking the True Route of each game, called After Story~ and Refrain, respectively. Going through each route (distinguished by love interest of choice, as in most VN’s) one might think that they are simply playing through unrelated story lines that do not co-exist. It is only in the True Endings of both games that it is revealed to the player that the entire game was canon. In Clannad, following each character’s route helped them to achieve true happiness, building up a mysterious magical power contained in the town the game takes place in. This magical power comes together to resolve the tragic climax of After Story~ and unlock the True Ending. Similarly in Little Busters, the main character discovers that he and his friends have been frozen in time just before experiencing a terrible accident for the entire game. His friends have been maintaining the illusion of school life in this fantasy, watching him grow as a person while completing the other routes. Once they believe that he is strong enough to live without them, they destroy the fantasy and let him save the entire group from certain death. Both of these games make such good use of the visual novel route-based format with their integrated story lines, and in my opinion make up the pinnacle of the visual novel medium.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have games that I love most of, but utterly confuse and frustrate me when it comes to Bad Ends. The first, Grisaia no Kajitsu is just like any other high school romance VN, except for the main character Yuuji (who can be nicknamed either “Juicy Yuuji” or “Mr. Standoff-ish Man;” these are the types of choices that really immerse you in a game!) who is a trained assassin. This results in some of the routes ending in violent chaos, the most benefitting our topic being Makina’s. At the end of the route, you as Yuuji can choose to spare Makina’s mother’s life or kill her. This choice is tough, seeing as she has tried to kill Makina several times and traumatized her by killing her father in front of her in the past. If you choose to spare her, the Good End, she leaves Makina alone and the route ends with Yuuji and a pregnant Makina enjoying their lives together. This is all well and good, but it is the Bad End that makes me scratch my head. If Yuuji kills the mother, he ends up dying as well. This is sad, yes, but not the part that should puzzle you. The route ends with the same image of a pregnant Makina in the kitchen with Yuuji, only this time Yuuji is replaced with a garbage bag. A strangely human-shaped garbage bag. Filled with Yuuji. I wish I was joking. Who wants to read this sort of thing? I simply cannot imagine a tone for this other than sarcastic.
That Bad End is strange, but my most memorable one from ef – a fairy tale of the two is absolutely ridiculous. After a long love-hate relationship in her route, Kei and Kyousuke are on the verge of confessing their feelings on the roof of the school. If you choose the Good End choice, you’re treated to fireworks and the two teenagers showing their appreciation for each other as only characters in an adult visual novel can. The Bad End, however, does more than prevent that gratuitous and graphic confession from happening. Kei rejects Kyousuke, and so, logically, he strangles her to death. Unsatisfied with that travesty, the writer decided that next, Kyousuke should jump off the roof to end his own life. I’m not sure if this is only due to my reading an unofficial fan translation, but as the screen fades to black this speech from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays. Again, I wish I was joking. The reader is serenaded by Gene Wilder calling them a failure because they committed murder-suicide instead of losing their virginity. One simply cannot make this up. Why do these Bad Ends exist? Who is the target audience? I cannot fathom the motivation to write or read such horrible things. Is there any way to write non-canon endings or routes that don’t disturb the reader?
There is, with the final VN I will cover. It is one that I find strikes a happy medium between the canonical and interconnected endings in Key games and the confusing, seemingly unnecessary endings in Grisaia and ef. Katawa Shoujo is an indie VN created by Four Leaf Studios, a group founded on 4chan. I know, that should be setting off every possible alarm, but this VN is surprisingly charming considering that it came from the website that brought us Gushing GrannyTM flavored Mountain Dew (Google that if you don’t know it and need to smile after hearing about Kei’s Bad End). Each of this game’s five routes involves romancing a different girl and learning about their disability and personality, leading to a relationship and (hopefully) a happy ending. There are Bad Ends in each route, but unlike Grisaia and ef, they are realistic and understandable. Nearly all of them involve misunderstanding a situation with the route’s heroine, leading to a ruined friendship or relationship. There is something bitterly human about watching yourself hurt someone you care about when you could have easily made the choice that leads to falling in love. Katawa Shoujo may not have the intricate route-connecting of Key visual novels, but it illustrates human interaction with its Bad Ends in a way that sets it above games that simply go for outrageous and silly shock moments.
Most games have only one ending. In fact, almost every story that exists has only one ending. The visual novel medium allows for experimental storytelling with the route and multiple ending system, but not all VN’s use it equally. The Key games by Jun Maeda use them to give their grand finales more power, and amaze me with the relevance given to interactions that have nothing to do with the True End. Grisaia, ef, and sadly most visual novels have comically dark and brutal Bad Ends that make me question why the system should exist at all! Games like Katawa Shoujo are sadly few and far-between, but when they strike your soul with both Good and Bad Ends, you know that you’ve found a special story. Despite what I may have said about the bad parts of some of these games, I strongly recommend every single one. Whether you crave the cathartic Good Ends or get some twisted pleasure from the Bad Ends, these five VN’s are all worth a read, so grab some tissues (for the tears, thank you, get your mind out of the gutter!) and see what ending your choices bring you.