The notes I took while playing Muv-Luv [official site], a 2003 adult visual novel that’s just been released in English, tell a story. They start out bemused. Despite knowing a chunk about the game beforehand, it’s clear I’m not entirely sure what I’m getting into, and the notes continue in that vein for a while as the story unfolds. For a while it’s clear that I’m being carried along, in a sense, by what’s happening. And then, bullet point by bullet point, they start getting shorter, sharper. Reading back through them, there is a very specific note at which everything goes downhill, and it just reads “ugghhhhhhh”.
Muv-Luv is gigantic. It’s sprawling. It’s full of surprises. It’s not very good at all.
Muv-Luv is a game told in two parts, with a third, standalone part set to be released later this year. The first, EXTRA, tells the story of Takeru, a student at Hakuryo high school in his final year. Set across the winter term, it is ostensibly a sort of high school romance as he gets to know, and falls in love with, the various members of his class. There’s the bossy Chizuru Sakaki; his childhood friend Sumika Kagami; the quiet and vaguely terrifying Kei Ayamine; cat-like Miki Tamase, and Yoroi Mikoto who is constantly being dragged on misguided and disastrous holidays by his adventurer father. And then there’s Meiya Mitsurugi, a transfer student who takes one look at the traditional structure and conventions of a high school romance and throws every possible spanner into every possible work. Meiya’s presence transforms Muv-Luv into something deeply and inexplicably weird, and, at first, interesting.
Let’s start with her arrival. Takeru wakes up one morning, near the beginning of term, to find Meiya lying next to him in bed. No immediate explanation is given for her arrival, and after the initial shock wears off, nobody is tremendously concerned about what’s taken place. It transpires that Meiya is the heir to a vast family business capable of almost anything, and over the course of EXTRA, she wields that power in a variety of increasingly bizarre ways. One of my notes says “a helicopter full of chefs just arrived”. Another says “Meiya’s car is 60 metres long and nobody can work out how it turns corners”.
In contrast to the sheer implausibility of her actions, though, Meiya is remarkably cool-headed. These things are merely day-to-day for her, and it’s the far more mundane actions of the “commoners” that give her pause. For a long time, I hoped that the game would give me a compelling reason for Meiya’s near-magical abilities other than her vast wealth, but as it progressed it became clear that I wouldn’t be receiving one. As far as Muv-Luv is concerned, helicopters filled with chefs are simply meant to be received and not questioned.
And to an extent, that’s fine! The game has a rich streak of absurdity, and so often absurdity works best unquestioned. Nobody stands up midway through a Monty Python sketch and asks “but why did they hit that man with a fish”, just as nobody is tremendously interested in the exact physics of James Bond’s jetpack. At the same time, however, the game positions Meiya’s nature and appearance as a mystery to be solved, and, set in the midst of an otherwise ordinary school term, I found it impossible not to ask questions. When the game decides to answer a few, of course, it does so perfunctorily; events resolve themselves predictably and without any of the flair of their initial setup. Without exception, each of Muv-Luv’s punchlines fall flat, each falling flatter than the last, until by the end, all of the bizarreness and high-flying antics have been reduced to nothing at all.
I said Muv-Luv was two games and it’s probably time to talk about the second one (spoilers for the concept, though not the plot specific, follow). I’ve been putting it off, because to begin to talk about it requires me to engage again with what could have been Muv-Luv’s standout moment. It is entirely squandered. Where EXTRA was a high school romance, UNLIMITED tells the story of a parallel universe in which Earth has been almost entirely destroyed by alien attackers. In this world, Hakuryo isn’t a high school, it’s a vast military base used to train “surface pilots”: highly specialised units capable of piloting gigantic “TSF” mechs. The twist, of course, and the point at which Muv-Luv could have made something really special, is that the entire cast is carried over; Sakaki is no longer the Class Rep but the Squad Leader, Tamase is a crack sniper, and screwball physics teacher Yuuko runs the base with an iron fist. Takeru, however, is still Takeru, transported mysteriously into this parallel world and suddenly forced to fend for himself.
In theory, it’s brilliant. Spend the entire first part of the game getting players used to the characters and their relationships, and then push it to new, powerful heights in the second part. I’d known this was going to happen before starting the game, and I looked forward to it as I played through EXTRA. Events would take place, and I’d wonder how UNLIMITED would reference them, and offhand comments were transformed in my mind into ominous foreshadowing for what I knew was to come.
Ultimately, however, this was not the case. There are thematic, (and at times, direct) links between the parts, but it rarely moves beyond Takeru bemoaning his place in this new world, or outright commenting that “things are different here”. All of the potential of a setup/punchline structure is wasted. There is a chance that ALTERNATIVE, the third part, will wrap all these things up, but that’s not the game I’m reviewing here. As it stands, the parallel universe framing is mostly used to retell the same events I’ve already seen. I spent a substantial amount of time in EXTRA defusing the tense relationship between Sakaki and Ayamine, and then I spent a substantial amount of time defusing the tense relationship again in UNLIMITED. Nothing substantial is different. I can use no knowledge I’ve already gained, other than “boy, Sakaki and Ayamine are at each other’s throats everywhere, huh”.
A note about the form. Muv-Luv is a classic visual novel, in the sense that the majority of the game is spent reading. There are thousands upon thousands of lines of dialogue, and frequently scenes will play for twenty or thirty minutes without player intervention. The moments in which you’re given a choice as to how to proceed are designed mostly to push players towards certain endings; you’ll be given a choice as to whether you want to go talk to Meiya or Sumika, for instance, and then off you go towards the inevitable conclusion. I want to be clear that my problems with this game are not as a result of it being a visual novel; I’m perfectly content with long periods without choices, with lines upon lines of dialogue. The issue here, then, is not with Muv-Luv being a visual novel. It is with it being a bad visual novel.
Whenever it tries to be funny, it falls flat. There is no lightness to the dialogue. In 21 hours of play, I laughed aloud twice. I wrote both times down in my notes. I felt they needed to be marked somehow. Whenever it tries to be tense, it lacks urgency. There is no speed, there are no palpable stakes. Events that are supposed to be surprising, or produce tension, are so flatly predictable that I was able to conclude their storylines in my head hours before I saw the game play them out. Characters become likeable purely through exposure, the overall impression being one of having been stuck in a lift with these people for days; upon release from the lift, a sort of camaraderie is formed, but no more than that.
I closed my eyes and wished for the game to surprise me. I opened them and it gave me a 20 minute lecture on the importance of staying together as a squad that I had already seen twice.
The game is powered by the incessant, coughing engine that is the male gaze. Physics teachers don’t wear shirts. Of course they don’t! Why would they! Takeru takes every opportunity to feel up his friends. In UNLIMITED, while Takeru’s flight suit is “not too skimpy”, all the female characters’ are, uh — look, here’s a picture.
This is an adult game. I’m fully aware of that. But there are two things to be addressed here. Firstly, the game as it stands is not the 18+ version – that patch is coming later. As such, anything that is meant to be titillating feels weirdly defanged; it is as if a teenager who’s definitely heard of sex has been asked to write a 20 hour game about it and has, panicked, spent most of it describing a lacrosse tournament instead.
The second thing, far more importantly, is that it is entirely possible to have a game about sex that doesn’t take almost every opportunity to denigrate its female characters. The argument that this is simply how the genre works is not good enough. We can ask for better. We can ask for sexy games that treat their characters as people, rather than as one-note figures in impossibly flimsy shirts. It is possible. We can ask for games that paint pictures of actual relationships between the protagonist and their characters, rather than a whiny, puerile boy who just happens to attract the interests of literally every female character he ever meets. We can ask for games in which our protagonist doesn’t oscillate between being infuriatingly paternalistic and eye-rollingly gross. We can ask for games that don’t sexualise their characters in moments of distress or panic. At several points, UNLIMITED leans hard into transphobia, and it’s there that the tone of my notes changed. For a long time, I wanted to like Muv-Luv despite itself, but at that point I’d had enough.
Games are capable of ridiculous, absurdist stories. This is not one of them. Games are capable of intense, character driven dramas. This is not one of them. They are capable of being sexy, which this isn’t. They are capable of being funny and respectful and human. Muv-Luv is none of these things. It is flat, and it is tedious, and it is often gross as hell.
It does have an extended sequence about a lacrosse tournament, though, and that was alright for the first couple of hours.
Muv-Luv is available now, for Windows.