I’ve been doing this thing for years. Dozens and dozens of video games have crossed my desk, and I’ve covered them all in some way or another. And I like to be thorough – that means if I’m playing something I’ve never heard of before, I take the time to read up on it, especially because there could be useful historical context to be discovered.
Of course, when you’re getting games you’ve never heard of before, there’s a good chance they come from Japan, and from publishers much smaller than the likes of Capcom, Square Enix, so on and so forth. Most of these games are RPGs, fighting games, and visual novels, or sometimes combinations thereof. Many of them are low-budget, but just as many are fun and have plenty of merit. But one thing that may not be apparent when you’re playing some breezy strategy RPG is the reason it was prolific enough to be localized in the first place. There’s a non-zero chance that reason is porn.
It’s easy to crack jokes about it, but when you look into it, there’s a pretty deep history of several popular video game and anime properties coming from straight-up porn, or “eroge.” A lot of this happens in the PC market, where visual novels are much more prolific and successful. But unlike over here where pornographic material gets isolated, it’s a big part of the pop culture umbrella in Japan. I don’t mean to “other” Japan and its culture too much, but the proof lies in the PlayStation pudding, if you will.
Tons of games, such as super popular works like Fate/Stay Night, started originally as games that go way further than having some nudity in them. But real talent can often be involved with these games, that takes them well beyond the “smut” category, and often into “I read it for the articles” sort of vibes. And audiences respond to good writing! Many PC visual novels that have actual sex scenes are often ported to other platforms (heavily so in the days of the PlayStation 2 and PSP), with the adult content removed entirely. What that means is these games were responded to in such a way, publishers were confident they could sell without the easy boob bucks. And sell they did.
Series like Fate/Stay Night, Koihime Musou, Tears to Tiara, Utawarerumono, and School Days all have roots in eroge, and have since exploded into various spinoff projects, anime series, manga, books, and of course video games that have even been localized and released in countries like ours. From there, the pornographic history of these properties actually fades into the past, and nobody really even acknowledges it outside of the super knowledgeable fans. And even then they don’t revel in it, it’s more of a “don’t try to hide it, because it is what it is” deal. And in cases like Fate/Stay Night, which is probably the most far-reaching property (hence why I keep falling back on it), it’s the only way to experience the original work without leaning Japanese due to fan translation efforts.
It would be presumptuous to suggest it without having sources to back it up, but I do wonder if that was the track creators of these stories needed to take in order to get noticed in the first place. Visual novels and lower-budget fighting games/RPGs that don’t have sexual content are much more prevalent and internationally viable today, but they wouldn’t have happened without those earlier eroge titles. It’s always tough to stand out in crowded markets, and when you exist in one of the geographical origin points of famous video games and other media, it’s not easy to stand out if you’re an unknown. Then, when it worked out for people, it became a sort of fad all on its own.
Whatever the case, if you’re into things like anime and related games, it might be worth stopping by wikis and other fan resources to look into the history of what you’re playing. You might find more than you bargained for, but you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the medium and industry as a result.