There's Only One Route In Life - The Limits of Visual Novels

Guest post by Jeko

This article contains spoilers for The Tatami Galaxy and Angel Beats!.

It’s easy to struggle with indecision when you’re an otaku with a life saturated in media. Got limited free time? You could spend all the hours you have counting all the ways you could enjoy yourself and barely scratch the surface of the possibilities. Maybe you should be productive instead of playing that game all night. Or maybe not – what’s worth your time more? What do you feel like doing? Do you feel like doing... anything?

Choose to sink your time into a visual novel, and you’ll have even more decisions to make. Aside from linear ‘kinetic novels’, VNs promise a story with multiple paths to take, and many endings to reach in the process. To ‘complete’ one of these novels, you can’t just read from start to finish. You need to find every route, understand every turning point, and play through all the possibilities you’re presented with. The good endings and the bad.

Visual novels provide a fantasy of escapism, an ability to replay past memories and mistakes again and again with agency over everything that unfolds. Why choose only one possible outcome when you can choose them all?

Over time, playing VNs can make the reality of life – it’s impermanence, it’s linearity – seem like a drag.

In The Tatami Galaxy, the unnamed protagonist keeps reliving his college days, choosing a different club or pursuit each time. He’s always in search of a “rose-colored campus life” and never satisfied with what he finds, like the hero of a VN whose reader is never happy with the ending of the route they chose. Depressed by the thought that his dream can never be realized, he eventually decides to join no clubs and spend all his time in his four-and-a-half tatami room. Soon he can’t escape into the outside world – the universe around him becomes an endless repetition of his room. He’s trapped until he realizes that each room is slightly different, all of them showing a sign of a life that was good enough to live. He could never find his idealized life, but he can find infinite lives that he’d be have instead of his imprisonment in a metaphor for his indecision.

In the end he resolves to date the girl he’s always been in love with, but never reached out his life towards, and he escapes the tatami rooms. Narrating over the time they spend together, the protagonist explains that the tale of their relationship isn’t worth telling: it’s normal, and boring. The story was always heavy-handed in its foreshadowing of him and Akashi getting together, and there’s no ‘twist’ to be found when this finally happens. The philosophy of The Tatami Galaxy is a warning against chasing after the best version of your life. Settling for what’s in front of you, even if you think you can find something better, can lead to greater happiness.

Visual novels give us the opportunity to find the ‘perfect’ life for a protagonist to have led. Though most readers will want to seek out as many routes as they can, none of them are looking for one that’s boring and anticlimactic. But when the story is done and we have to get back to work or doing the dishes or whatever else feels like a chore, it’s important to be content with these things. If our lives don’t feel as exciting as what we read in visual novels, that’s not a problem: life has to be, to some extent, more boring than art, because people will always try to tell and experience stories that are better than their own lives.

Sometimes the search for more than one path comes from a desire to help others rather than serve yourself. Towards the end of Angel Beats!, protagonist Otonashi believes he can ‘save’ all the students of the afterlife high school he was transported to. But the moment he declares he’ll go through all of them one by one, discovering what they need to ‘move on’, his plans are cut short. The school begins to turn against itself. Unexplainable creatures of shadow appear, and Otonashi and the rest of the SSS Brigade have no choice but to fight for their lives – well, their afterlives – and those of every other student.

It’s well known that Jun Maeda has originally planned for Angel Beats! to be twice the length it broadcasted with. His angst at being denied the creative space he desired can be seen reflected in Otonashi’s struggle. Maeda is no stranger to the route structure of visual novels. Otanashi’s plan, just before the shadows strike, sounds just like the vision of a VN reader. He wants to go down each of the character’s routes, one at a time. He wants to find all their happy endings individually. Only then can he call his part in the story finished. But the cut-short adaptation of Angel Beats! is a reminder that life isn’t like a visual novel. There’s no time to explore every option available. Rarely can we go back and simply try something else. We keep getting older, and we must keep moving forward with the world always changing around us.

It’s vital we avoid replaying memories over and over as though we could choose a different route. We aren’t heroes of visual novels – but it’s the permanence of our decisions, and the impermanence of our time to make them, that makes that medium so fulfilling. So let’s live out that fantasy where it belongs, and remember that our lives don’t have save files. We should be content with the choices we’ve made, even if we think we could have chosen better. We get one playthrough. We should pick our route with that in mind.