Visual novels are a uniquely Japanese fusion of video games and prose, that although gradually gaining popularity as a genre in the west, are still very much a niche interest. Vast and confusing franchises like Fate found their humble beginnings in these often lengthy tales, before finding international success via adaptations into other media. Steins;Gate, one of my top 3 favourite anime of all time, started as a visual novel. Gameboy Advance loyalists may recall the Phoenix Wright series as a relatively “mainstream” example, or latterly the Danganronpa games that edged outside of the Visual Novel ghetto in terms of cultural recognition.
One of the major Visual Novel genres is romance, often of the High School subtype. As with all genres, there are conventions that many games follow, often in common with anime shows with similar subject matter. Typically, the protagonist is a teenage boy and he must progress through a web of story choices, structured in a way not dissimilar to those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels that I used to devour from my local library as a child. Each choice leads the player-insert character towards one of several “routes”, each usually focusing on one of the main heroines. You could call them “dating sims” but that would be somewhat reductive, as often these stories are detailed and complex, sometimes including fantasy or sci-fi elements. By their nature, one playthrough is never enough to see even a fraction of the game’s story, so multiple playthroughs are not so much encouraged as mandatory to fully experience everything the game has to offer.
One could argue that Visual Novels barely even count as games at all - mostly, the limits of the player’s interactions comprise reading lengthy descriptive prose sections and conversations, only occasionally making dialogue choices to steer the story in the desired direction. For many fans who treat VNs as primarily another form of the traditional novel, this minimal interaction is fine. Some VN developers push the very concept of the VN to its limit, and in these cases, to characterise them as merely branching stories would be unnecessarily reductive.
I would not class myself as a Visual Novel veteran - I’ve only read a handful, but I feel I have enough of a grasp of the basic tropes and conventions to read a more... advanced specimen. Hence on the recent AniTAY podcast when Kinksy discussed JAST USA’s recently released YOU and ME and HER (Japanese title: Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi, shortened to Totono), I knew within his first couple of sentences I had to read it. And now I feel I must share the profound PTSD that Kinksy caused, as I have since finished it.
Kinksy is a bastard.
This is an incredibly difficult game to discuss without horrendously spoiling it, so I’ll start with a basic spoiler-free discussion of the game’s premise before delving into the depths of madness. If you are ever likely to play this game, PLEASE DO NOT PROGRESS PAST THE UPCOMING SPOILER WARNING. Seriously. You will hate me, and hate yourself.
YOU and ME and HER starts with the most generic possible setting. Main player-insert character Shinichi is a bland, average student who doesn’t stand out in any meaningful way. He’s grown apart from his childhood friend Miyuki Sone, a sterotypically Japanese smart and popular schoolgirl with long, straight hair and a reserved personality. One day, on top of the school roof (Japanese anime and VN teenagers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on school rooftops) he meets a dazed, spacey, pink-haired girl called Aoi Mukuo who propositions him for sex just before Miyuki appears.
Oh, did I not mention before? One of the other massive Japanese Visual Novel genres is the “ero-game”, often shortened to “eroge”. There’s a lot of crossover with the High School romance genre, obviously. I’ve never played a single eroge before, mainly because I find porn in general a bit creepy, even more so when it involves animated descriptions of minors. Anyway, the game goes out of its way to confirm that all of the characters are very definitely over the age of 18. Uh-huh.
Shinichi finds himself in the middle of a love triangle where he struggles to rationalise his thoughts and feelings. He’s pretty down on himself, seeing Miyuki as “out of his league” and he’s terrified of confessing his buried desires for her out of fear for ruining their friendship. Aoi sends him mixed messages, as although she propositions him, she also seems to be cheering he and Miyuki on to declare their (obviously mutual) attraction to one another. Like any visual novel, it’s best to save at each decision point so you can go back later and re-load to see what happens if you choose a different path. So far, so normal. You can pursue a relationship with Miyuki, or Aoi, or even neither. None of this is really a spoiler. The game introduces some fairly meta concepts very early on - Aoi believes she is a character in a Visual Novel game, and her phone connects her to “God”, who can apparently provide save points. Often, Aoi is pictured with her arm raised to the heavens, her voice mimicking a ring tone. (In the English version this is translated quite cutely as BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP - no idea what she’s actually saying in Japanese. This isn’t dubbed into English, but it is fully voiced in Japanese, apart from the player-insert character.)
Aoi claims that as a game character, she has a battery that will run dry unless she recharges by “getting zappy” with Shinichi, and this is her vaguely endearing term for sexual activity. Aoi comes across as cute, in a puppy-like way, but also kind of brain-damaged. She’s a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl type, although one who’s almost perpetually stoned/ingesting hallucinogenics. Miyuki is more of a standard tsundere anime schoolgirl. The characters are very deliberately created using these cookie-cutter tropes in preparation for the stuff that comes later. The first few hours of the game are very standard for this genre, and there are some extremely explicit sex scenes with your chosen heroine in the main routes. Apparently in the West we’re lucky because we don’t have Japanese censorship that covers everything in blurry/pixellated filters. So if you want to see lovingly detailed (hairless) engorged genitalia dripping with fluid, then this is your game. I... could have done without that. Again, these details are not terribly spoilerific for this genre, but I will say that as gross as I found the graphic sexual scenes, they are utterly integral to the story this game wants to tell. Note - nothing is animated, but the still artwork remains very very very NSFW, hence I won’t be including any of those images here.
MASSIVE INSANE SPOILERS FOLLOW.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
SERIOUSLY IF YOU THINK YOU WILL EVER PLAY THIS GAME STOP READING NOW.
YOU’RE ONLY GOING TO RUIN IT FOR YOURSELF.
IN FACT WHY NOT JUST GO BUY THE GAME, PLAY THROUGH THE 15 OR SO HOURS IT WILL TAKE TO COMPLETE IT, THEN COME BACK AND JOIN ME WALLOWING IN ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, REGRET AND ENNUI?
LOOK, I REALLY DON’T LIKE SPOILING PEOPLE BUT I FEEL I NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS.
ARE YOU STILL HERE?
OK. THAT’S YOUR CHOICE. YOU CAN’T SAY YOU HAVEN’T BEEN REPEATEDLY WARNED.
BUT SERIOUSLY DON’T READ THIS.
I didn’t want to mention this earlier, as in itself it’s a spoiler, but the closest analogue I can think of to YOU and ME and HER is the free short American indie VN Doki Doki Literature Club!, which is a fairly problematic title that I absolutely love because I am a bad person and enjoy mental suffering and extremely black humour. DDLC was released in 2017, while Y&M&H was originally released in Japanese back in 2013, but was only became available in English translation in 2020. Both games go aggressively meta with brutal horror, existential dread and not so much breaking the fourth wall as demolishing it, dancing naked on the rubble while pissing on the shattered pieces of structure and order. Their success at igniting this cavalcade of burning chaos relies upon the reader’s intimate familiarity of the tropes and expectations baked into the romance/eroge Visual Novel subgenre. Of course you’re meant to romance every female character in turn. Of course you’re meant to load and reload save points and follow every branching path. It’s not like you’re meant to pick a single route and stick to it, right? FOMO - the Fear of Missing Out is real.
Small hints about the true narrative are dropped early on, specifically by Aoi in her meta-commentary about being a VN character, and mentions of reloading/updating the world and following either her own or Miyuki’s route. The characters even play a phone game that directly mirrors the events of the VN’s “real world”. The first run through the game is pretty straightforward. You’re steered into either a lonely ending alone or a happy ending with Miyuki. Aoi is not an option here and she will disappear. This route is very short. It ends with an almost sweet scene where Miyuki offers Shinichi her virginity on his 18th birthday. I say almost sweet because the spewing semen and loud, uncomfortable moaning made me nauseous.
You can choose to let Aoi ask God to update the world in this first route (in fact you must in order to progress to the second) and it all goes temporarily a bit weird, you get the birthday happy ending, everything is fine. Should you choose to close and reload the game, you’ll notice a sinister touch - the game’s splash screen transforms from an image of the school rooftop bathed in sunlight beneath a blue sky to the same scene drenched in red from apocalyptic Hell Clouds. The second run-through starts similarly to the first, some subtle changes appear in the available dialogue choices and this route is longer with more options for different endings that are mostly just variations on a theme. Pursue a relationship with Aoi, though, and things eventually get... uh... quite out of hand.
Y&M&H does some interesting things with story structure and foreshadowing that I kicked myself for not noticing earlier. There’s a Chekhov’s Baseball Bat and multiple Chekhov’s Mobile Phone Numbers plus even a Chekhov’s Transvestite (plus a blink-and-you’ll miss-it reference to a groan-worthy plot contrivance from Steins;Gate at the end regarding this). A couple of little twists did get me gasping “of course!” Aoi’s route ends with a horrifying trio of scenes. Miyuki acts subtly out of character during much of Aoi’s route and during Shinichi’s birthday party in this timeline, she confronts Aoi with evidence that she’s been cheating on Shinichi with his best friend’s brother (who Shinichi thought was a girl because... well... he looks and acts very girlish and there’s a gross side plot about him pursuing a relationship with his brother which may have been played for laughs... but I’m not sure.) Anyway this is a very uncomfortable scene where Shinichi’s life comes crashing down around him and leads to further horror.
So it seems Aoi is “an avatar of God” and is designed to be the archetype of all visual novel/eroge heroines. She is “designed to be fucked”, apparently. Repeatedly. By men, women, children, animals... And if she doesn’t meet her quota of regular, transgressive sexual intercourse with every available character, she’ll disappear and she’s terrified of this. She also genuinely loves Shinichi - she’s glitched - this has never happened before and though she desperately doesn’t want to disappear, she doesn’t want to betray him either. It’s a truly existentially horrifying concept. Depending on your choices, Shinichi can either send her away, or make a compromise - and that leads to an utterly gross, disgustingly explicit threesome sex scene between Shinichi, Aoi and Haru the female-presenting male (with an obviously enormous penis). I could not click through this scene fast enough. I don’t know if people really get off on this stuff, or if this was done mainly for the horror of the situation, but for this one scene alone I cannot recommend this Visual Novel unreservedly to anyone. It is unskippable and integral to the plot.
Of course Miyuki was hiding under the bed the entire time(!) and understandably loses her sanity at the sounds of her beloved Shinichi engaged in a lengthy, noisy, wet threesome. She fetches the aforementioned Chekhov’s Baseball Bat and beats everyone (including the pet cat) into a bloody pulp, ensuring first to beat Shinichi’s head in, then break each of his four limbs in turn before finally smashing his genitalia. That... kind of came out of nowhere, but the seeds of her reaction were planted much earlier.
There follows the part that reminds me most of DDLC in that Miyuki then force-closes the game, reboots it with altered code, deletes all of your save files, purges Aoi from the game and removes your ability to create new saves. She traps Shinichi in an eternal purgatory, reliving the same few scenes over and over again, drugging him into a stupor, all the while instead addressing YOU as the player, rather than Shinichi. Yes, Miyuki has had enough of YOUR shit because YOU promised to love her eternally in the first route then reloaded and proceeded to have sex with Aoi in the second route instead. (By the way, that scene included some very gross anal sex for those who might be interested in that sort of thing. Also this game has a real fascination for improbable multiple male orgasms. Weird.) Miyuki exerts her control over YOU as the player on this side of the screen, restricting YOUR ability to make choices. The game completely changes genre and tone, leaving all pretence of linear structure behind and instead it transmogrifies into a very clever puzzle that a walkthrough will be useless for. Certain elements of this game are randomised and require the player to really pay attention to what Miyuki says in a multitude of situations. Yes, Miyuki Stockholm-Syndromes you into caring enough about what she says that you memorise it. This section of the game excels at provoking anxiety and confusion. I admit I had no idea what to do and repeated many scenes more often than were probably necessary in order to solve the logic puzzles. Thank God for the skip button. (Though Miyuki calls you out on your use of it... And also compliments you on viewing the sex scenes enough times to unlock all of the variants. I... was not not proud to have unlocked this achievement.)
Miyuki makes a fantastic, tragic antagonist. My feelings towards her were incredibly conflicted, as she reveals what led her to become so unhinged and controlling. Her motivations are tied tightly into the plot of the first half of the game in a pleasing, clever way. I could almost believe some players would be content to remain her eternal companion in her claustrophobic heavenly white apartment, her eyes boring into their souls, removing their volition, replacing it with soothing, obsessive love. Miyuki turns everything around onto YOU as the player, for the choices YOU made. YOU agree to allow Aoi to rewrite the world to prevent Shinichi from ever being “cucked”, thereby damning Miyuki to a life alone if Shinichi chooses Aoi. Miyuki has already explored every possible ending to the game, and if she’s not with Shinichi, it’s a bad ending for her. Miyuki states that she’s fallen in love with YOU, the gamer, and this relationship climaxes in what is one of the most unsettling scenes I have ever witnessed in a game where the apparently fully sentient Miyuki, crouched in front of the screen starts to masturbate while encouraging the player to do the same in the real world while she begs for your semen to impregnate her and give her a baby. So that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Uh... WTF?
A censored version is available to buy on Steam, but I purchased my uncensored digital copy directly from the publisher JAST USA. So integral are the sex scenes to the story, tone and character interactions, I don’t see how the game can function effectively without them. The final number puzzle requires you to find out how many times YOU have ejaculated either inside or onto Miyuki’s body. That’s... quite a game mechanic. Most of these things made me laugh rather than be titillated by it, and I’m sure the developers were aware of the intrinsic ridiculousness of their concept. I stuck with it because of the fascinating metanarrative, but if this had been a basic romance/eroge I would never have continued. I’d have turned it off at the threesome scene halfway through the game and never looked back.
So successful is the game’s attempt to make you empathise or even “fall in love” with the digital characters, when it came to making the final, tragic choice between the two main girls, I found myself hesitating. It truly was a difficult choice. On one hand poor Aoi will re-sync with God and lose her memories and individuality, or poor Miyuki will be destined for a life of eternal loneliness and emptiness. It didn’t quite move me to tears, but I did find it very affecting and thought-provoking. Even the player-insert character Shinichi, finally finds his own voice and disparages YOU for ruining his life and causing this ghastly situation. In a final, very mean, but thematically consistent piece of game design, the developers refuse to allow you to reload to make a second choice. You must choose your girl and live with it. The way that Y&M&H game-saves function is in a similar way to Undertale and DDLC, in that the individual “save files” are really just dummies. The game tracks everything you do in real time and stores it elsewhere. The only way around this is to uninstall, delete all the associated files (that are not deleted by mere uninstallation) and then install a fresh copy, with newly randomised information that will make a second run-through even harder to complete. Essentially you are forced to make as permanent a choice as this type of game can enforce, short of igniting your PC’s hard drive. It very effectively drives home the permanence of your choice.
I’m team Aoi, by the way. I can’t stand manipulative girls like Miyuki who try to gaslight you into doing what they want. She drugged, imprisoned and abused poor Shinichi and I could not absolve her of her behaviour. I felt sorry for her, and responsible too, but in the end, no-one is responsible for anyone else’s happiness. I didn’t want Aoi to disappear because that ending would be too sad. Aoi’s ending itself is incredibly meta, in a very bittersweet way. I had to resort to Youtube to watch an unsubtitled version of Miyuki’s ending (with a translation in the comments) and I definitely prefer Aoi’s ending. All Miyuki’s talk of “destiny” and “eternal love” left me completely cold. I guess, as my daughter often reminds me, I really do love the pink-haired crazy chicks after all.
Overall, I’m glad I played this game, even though I really did not enjoy the horrid porn aspects. The characters themselves and the painful final choice will stay with me a long time. I don’t think I’ll explore the eroge VN genre any further. This was quite enough. I’ll stick to slightly less... moist VNs from now on.
YOU and ME and HER: A Love Story (Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi)
Produced by: Nitroplus
Localised by: JAST USA
Released: May 5th 2020 (JAST USA), May 25th 2020 (Steam)
Time to completion: Probably 10-15 hours, depending on how obsessive you are about exploring every single choice.
Is it worth the asking price? I think so, but only if you’re unlikely to be offended by the very strong violent and sexual content.
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