To start writing this piece, I googled "yuri" and "eroge", two words I was reluctant to put into the title of this post. My experience with sex games is limited to making fun of some bad prose, and I didn't want to mischaracterize anything. It's easy for the internet-at-large to take potshots at other cultures' sex rituals: a mistake I made in my feckless youth that I'm trying to mitigate now.
I also ran into a question for which I don't have an immediate answer: who are these games for? I know I'm not the target demographic for literally any game, but is there inherent consumer value for a woman who likes inclusively making out with women?
Short answer: no. Post finished, yay!
It's impossible to characterize either of the games I played—Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke o and Lonely Yuri—as a "lesbian visual novel." While the games both featured lesbian relationships, it was pretty clear in the playthrough that the intended audience was not created for
- any human with a passing knowledge of female anatomy
- any human remotely interested in the concept of consent
- any human who does not specifically fetishize schoolgirls
A theme emerges.
I want to stress that these are observations that apply specifically to these two games. We live in a glorious world where any kind of media can exist, and probably does. If you know an extant visual novel where interesting women have sex, I'd be happy to give it a try. No—I want to find something in this genre that I love and doesn't make me feel creepy and alienated.
A Systematic Loss of Innocence Charade
There are, to date, 17 Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke o ("A Kiss for the Petals") games, all set in one all girls' high school, and each focused on one couple. (It is astonishing that with all of these lesbian pairings, being with a girl is still taboo, but okay, let's roll with it.) There is one more coming in 2015, and one in the works, so if you're the kind of person who likes to binge-play sex games, this is probably the franchise for you.
Authorial aside: Okay, if you don't like graphic descriptions of watersports that are fully voice-acted, some fairly garish sex art depicting girls with doll-like, featureless genitals, and simplistic-but-obvious emotional manipulation, this probably isn't the franchise for you.
The first entry of the series (released 2006) focuses on Nanami, a freshman, and her ambiguously older "sempai", Yuna. We learn quickly that Nanami is cute, naive, and plucky, and Yuna systematically manipulates her into a sexual situation by
- declaring her love immediately for her naive new friend,
- ignoring her qualifications and getting her to join a student council group,
- stealing her gym clothes to jerk off with,
- openly molesting her against her protests on school grounds,
- demanding to refer to Nanami without an honorific and that Nanami call her "onee-san"—"big sister",
- entreating the other student council members to keep watch while she does so, and
- dressing her up in doll-like lingerie.
You and me both, Nanami.
Lonely Yuri, by contrast, features two girls who are both freshmen in high school. Fusa, a lonely girl with an implied sick sister (she spends five? days at Seri's house and is never contacted by the family with whom she usually lives) delivers school papers to her classmate, and accidentally falls asleep on her couch. When she wakes up, Fusa is—surprise!—in her classmate Seri's bed, and being made out with.
Despite never touching ladyparts, Seri's "romance" of Fusa includes
- declaring her love immediately for her naive new friend,
- entreating her to stay over by insisting that there's no other choice,
- dressing Fusa in a maid's outfit,
- demanding that Fusa eat cake off of her finger, and
- playacting as "mistress" and "servant", in a scenario that has no parameters and does not end until Fusa declares her love.
Hahahaha it's a funny joke get it Fusa?
Let's go ahead and register our relief that these are fiction and not real situations, which would clearly be vile, sinister, and illegal in the U.S. But in terms of fiction, it also illustrates several tropes of the two games I played, and according to some cursory and horrified research in the Visual Novel Database seems to be a trend in a lot of erotic games where two girls kiss.
C rightly pointed out that these are, in fact, sex games, and their set-ups are just that: the Japanese schoolgirl-on-girl equivalent of a sorely misjudged pizza delivery. It shouldn't be a surprise to me that a sex game puts you in the express checkout lane for sexual acts. It's the nature of the acts that is confusing, distressing, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Sexuality vs. Sensuality: Infantilism Edition
Let's throw a wrench into the discussion of sex: love is a necessary and critical component to intimacy. And not just any love (the way I love you if you've made it this far into what amounts to a grotesque critical reading of pornography): capital L LOVE love. Love that excludes and detaches the child protagonist of the game from her peers—Nanami's classmates are fully voice-acted, but only refered to as Girl A, Girl B, and with an occasional cameo, Girl C.
Hey, Nanami, don't be a jerk about this.
But it's not that this genre minimalizes love: Japanese dating sims have a hallowed tradition of making you work absurdly hard to create the feeling of love, and this is just a shortcut. Instead, these two games are fetishizing sweetness by emphasizing its three easiest ingredients: youth, innocence, and devotion.
Let's ignore for the moment that we're ostensibly watching imaginary 14 year olds get that. Youth is important to manifest the sweetness of these girls' sexual lives: the protagonist (always the naive beginner) is labeled "cute" and "sweet" in a way that made me feel yucky and I had to declare them off-limits for a full 24 hours.
This is why, for the record, I can't in good conscience call these "lesbian games," or "games with lesbians," or even "games with lesbian acts." Sexual identity is just that: a recognition of a specific interest. The protagonists of my sample set of games are innocent not only to their sexual identities, but to the fact that they're performing sexual behaviors: their innocence extends even to an understanding of their own desires.
Not included: an illustrative screenshot of Nanami referring to her nipples as "the little nubs jutting out from my chest."
Which brings me to devotion. These two games feature a fetishized monogamy that a sociologist might take a better stab at. Especially if you've given some thought to, say, heterosexual porn, the actors rarely need to be in isolation for the scenario to play out. In these two examples of yuri eroge, parents are conveniently gone, authority figures absent, and the two characters are friendless (but popular!) This creates an idea of a world with only two people at all—and sexuality is explored only at the boundaries of those bodies.
Yes you have proven yourself to be worthy of my trust up to this point.
This Can Be Helped
If I got anything out of my thousands-of-dollars tuition and my triumphant BA in English literature, it's this: it's not enough to point out a trope, but you have to say why the trope is relevant, or else you cannot pass this class and spend several carefree years slamming shitty wine into your body with good pals who are doing the same.
So here's some final thesis statements that you can plagiarize, if you too want to pretend to have a higher education experience:
Female sexuality is tied intrinsically to a notion of innocence, and sexuality between females is the sharing of experience—without corruption.
The relationship between love and physical intimacy, in the female space, is necessary to elevate the perceived magic of a sexual or sensual act, but really only alienates the player of the game.
Youth can be read strictly as a metaphor for innocence, and isolation can be read strictly as a metaphor for dedication.
Don't play these two games, and stop writing games like them.
Again, I understand that these are works of fiction, and I really hope that my analysis has focused solely on their metaphorical significance rather than HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS: DOWN TO CLOWN. If you have any visual novels that portray a female relationship in a non-exploitative way, I'm happy to entertain (English language) suggestions via Twitter @jozerphine.