Key is a Visual Novel developer which is an subsidary of the publisher Visual Arts, usually in the Romance genre, whose works became very popular in the late 90s-2000s. They are especially well-known for creating heartbreaking stories that appear perfectly normal at first but always contain some thread of the supernatural from the beginning, which becomes more obvious as time goes on.
The company began after a lot of workers broke off from Tactics after the creation of the game One: Kagayaku Kisetsu e, which has been adapted into a 3-episode hentai OVA as well as a 4-episode all-ages OVA. They then created Kanon, which was incredibly hyped before its release and even today is considered one of the best romance games, as well as the game that made the plot-heavy eroge just as commercially viable as its Porn Without Plot counterparts. Most of Key's games are of the utsuge variety, with a lot of emphasis on melodrama and sad storylines.
Later games got more popular, more tragic, and more adventurous. planetarian: Reverie for a Little Planet and the last two segments of AIR venture into Kinetic Novel territory as well as… well, we won't spoil it. CLANNAD, Planetarian, Little Busters!, and Rewrite are entirely clean, though Little Busters got an Updated Re-release as "Little Busters: Ecstasy" that included H-content along with its other additions.
Most of its games have been adapted into animation. They seem to have had overlapping deals with Toei Animation and Kyoto Animation, as both studios have adapted the same works. In 2002, Toei made a 13-episode anime of Kanon; four years later, KyoAni made their (much better received) 26-episode series. Toei's theatrical version of Air – which cut out many of the characters and changed the dynamic to a more overtly romantic story, but was directed by anime legend Osamu Dezaki – came out in early 2005 while KyoAni's 12-Episode Anime was running on TV. In Fall 2007, Toei's CLANNAD movie – again directed by Dezaki, in what would turn out to be his final project – premiered less than three weeks before KyoAni's highly-praised TV seriesnote hit television. In general, Toei's versions are compressed adaptations that aim to alter plot elements to focus on a single plot, while KyoAni cuts less out and is much more faithful to the games' stories. The KeyAni partnership seems to be over for now, as P. A. Works did the animation for Angel Beats! in 2010, and the Little Busters! adaption was made under the direction of J.C. Staff.
Key is also known for its seasonal imagery in the first three games, collectively the "Seasonverse" or "Season Trilogy," which share a universe and common themes. Kanon makes full use of Snow Means Love and may have defined the modern Sad Girl In Snow; AIR does the same for Summer, and CLANNAD for Spring, though snow appears and plays a darker role. They're not limited to seasonal settings, though; for instance, planetarian was set in a Dystopia where robots had taken over the world and one good Robot Girl without a purpose hid in a planetarium with a refugee, and Angel Beats!! is set in what appears to be a world where no one can die (affectionately dubbed as Purgatory).
Many of their anime titles and anime adaptations traditionally get English dubs at Houston with Sentai Filmworks and ADV Films (AIR, Kanon, CLANNAD, Angel Beats!, and Little Busters!). Charlotte and Planetarian are the only exceptions to this rule. For the former, it is because it's the first title that is dubbed by Bang Zoom! Entertainment, but that is mainly because it was licensed by Aniplex USA instead of Sentai Filmworks. note For the latter, it is licensed and dubbed by Funimation. note
Since they've made a strong impression and changed the genres they write for, Key is cited as a major influence on a lot of writers and studios. When They Cry and Megatokyo are both outright stated by their creators to be strongly inspired by Key's works, even if they go in completely different directions from Key's Signature Style.
One key name (mind the pun) in Key's history is Jun Maeda, co-founder of the studio, writer for most of the studio's works, as well as the composer and partial performer for most of the music for the games and their derivative works.
On July 2023, Takahiro Baba, the president of Visual Arts, announced his retirement and subsequent sale of his shares in the company to Tencent Games.
Key's works include:
- Kanon (1999): Adapted into two TV series, light novels, and a manga.
- AIR (2000): Adapted into AIR and AIR in Summer, as well as a movie and a manga; the setting was used for the Kanon/AIR crossover manga, Kanon & AIR Sky.
- CLANNAD (2004): Adapted into CLANNAD and CLANNAD ~after story~, as well as a movie, manga, and 2 Alternate Universe bonus episodes following Tomoyo and Kyou's routes.
- Tomoyo after: It's a Wonderful Life (2005): Adapted into a manga called CLANNAD ~ Tomoyo After: Dear Shining Memories.
- Planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ (2004)
- Little Busters! (2007): Adapted into manga and an anime.
- Kud Wafter (2010): Like Tomoyo After, it's a spinoff sequel based on a minor heroine.
- Angel Beats! (2010): An Anime First project, but it was later announced that there would be a Visual Novel adaptation of the anime split into six volumes. The first volume was released on June 26, 2015 as Angel Beats! -1st beat-. The others were not released.
- Rewrite (2011): Adapted into a manga with an anime adaptation airing during Summer 2016.
- Rewrite: Harvest Festa (2012): A Fan Disc set after the events of the first game. Similar to Tomoyo After, but each girl has a story instead of the game focusing on just one.
- Charlotte (2015): An Anime First project.
- Harmonia (2016): 15th anniversary project.
- Summer Pockets (2018)
- Summer Pockets Reflection Blue (2020): An Updated Re Release of the original games featuring a new heroine and new scenario.
- The Day I Became a God (2020): An Anime First project.
- Kaginado (2021): A Gag Series crossing over most of their previous works.
- Loopers (2021)
- LUNARiA -Virtualized Moonchild- (2021)
- Heaven Burns Red (2022): An Eastern RPG co-developed with Wright Flyer Studios.
- Prima Doll (2022): An anime based off from Key’s multimedia project.
- Stella Of The End (2022)
- anemoi (TBA)
Tactics' works with the original team include:
- ONE ~Kagayaku Kisetsu e~ – adapted into two OVA series, one general-audience and one hentai version. Ironically, the shorter hentai OVA has a more coherent plot.
Their favoured tropes include:
- Artistic Age: Due to the art styles in most of Key's works, many of the characters tend to look younger than their intended age.
- Baseball Episode: Key seems to have a thing for baseball. Little Busters! centres around it, a story arc in CLANNAD shows the main cast playing baseball, in Angel Beats! one character's backstory heavily features baseball and the characters play it on occasion, Charlotte had a Character of the Day who was a baseball player, and a Kanon drama CD references baseball often as well.
- Bittersweet Ending: Several character routes or game endings aren't that happy, but not too much of a downer.
- Bleached Underpants: To a minimal extent. All the visual novels come in clean versions, which in some cases are better for the lack of a shoehorned sex scene.
- Bromantic Foil: It's usual for protagonists to have just one male friend, almost always a Butt-Monkey, whose plot relevance is somewhere between moderate and very low. Angel Beats! and Little Busters! both had multiple male friends, many of whom were very plot-relevant, but they often filled this role.
- Character Development: A lot of their works, but even moreso with Angel Beats! and CLANNAD. Also, it's the whole point of the story in Little Busters!.
- Chick Magnet: Ya think?
- Cloud Cuckoolander: It's rare to find a Key girl that isn't at least a little odd.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Key seems to have a colouring scheme to determine what year a character is in. Green is freshman, red is junior, and blue is senior.note Appears in Kanon and Little Busters! in the form of ties on the uniforms (though Litbus went for pink, not red) and in CLANNAD as a patch on the uniform.
- Darker and Edgier: Rewrite. Full-stop. Having Romeo Tanaka and Ryukishi 07 on staff (in addition to Yuto Tonokawa) probably contributed to that.
- MOON. is this for their Tactics era. We go from a simple story about high school sweethearts moving in together (Dousei) to a story about a girl investigating a murder in a creepy psychic sex cult.
- Deadpan Snarker: The male leads are usually this, though a few have branched out.
- Deus Angst Machina: Most plots involve this.
- Diabolus ex Machina: You'd think God has it out for these guys when you see the kind of stuff they're put through. Especially when the downers happen. With all that happening, it was almost inevitable that there'd be Rage Against the Heavens in one of their works.
- Disney Death: Often happens with minor heroines and occasionally main ones, and in Little Busters! everyone except the protagonist and main girl undergoes one in Refrain.)
- Downer Ending: Not at all uncommon.
- Dulcinea Effect: The lead characters tend to feel compelled to help every pretty girl they lay eyes on, even when it would be easier to leave them alone.
- Dysfunction Junction: No Key character is without a Dark and Troubled Past, save for maybe the odd comic relief side character. Justified in Angel Beats!, where a tragic childhood ending in premature death is one of the requirements for living in the particular Purgatory that makes up the setting.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: It will be hard, you'll be put through Hell, but when you get there, it WILL be worth it.
- Eroge: The company in general seems to go back and forth on this, with some games getting H releases and others not, which is quite odd considering practically none of the sex scenes in them impact the plot anyway.
- The Gadfly: Half of their work has one of these as the main protagonist. The other half just has at least one as a secondary or minor character.
- Joshikousei: Well, considering most of their work involves a high school in some way…
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Most of the protagonists, with the main pairings tending to have the guy trolling the girl fairly often. Strangely enough, in Angel Beats!, Otonashi isn't the jerk, it's Yuri.
- Killed Off for Real: Usually reserved for major heroines, although again, this isn't a hard-and-fast rule.
- Kinetic Novel: Key Visual Arts is notable for lending the name to the term for non-interactive novels, but has since then been used to describe novels of a similar nature.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: Common in their work. Most often happens to male leads, Kanon and Clannad being prime examples.
- Magic Realism: Very, very present in their works, as while the focal points of their stories are character interactions and school life, the framing for the story usually ends up being something supernatural. Depending on how much foreshadowing leads up to the eventual reveal, the magical element is used to either greatly explain or handwave many of the story developments. How the magic itself works is rarely explained. Rewrite takes this trope and runs wild with it to the point where it becomes a straight-up Urban Fantasy.
- Mundane Fantastic: The stories that seem to be set in completely normal worlds are, every single time, actually overrun with magic.
- Nice Guy/Nice Girl: Many of the visual novels usually have kind-hearted characters the audience can sympathize with when tragedy strikes on them.
- No Antagonist: Generally speaking, none of their works contain an antagonist in some retrospect and even their work does, it's usually very minor and doesn't play a big part into the plot. Angel Beats! does have an antagonist, but it's a different kind of antagonist. Rewrite comes the closest to featuring true bad guys, but even that turns out to be a severe case of Grey-and-Gray Morality.
- Official Couple: Even though they are visual novels where you can end up with any of the heroines, there is always a girl the protagonist is "destined" to be with in a True End.
- Though Little Busters! is something of an exception – Riki and Rin are only shown to be together in a bonus epilogue scene that only plays after finishing Refrain for the second time. The first time, the game goes out of its way to make it clear that he likes someone, but that 'someone' could be anyone.
- Only Six Faces: Or less of the characters in the same game, especially girls. The art changes each game, but this trope does not.
- Pretty Freeloaders: Used straight in Kanon, inverted in AIR where the male protagonist is freeloading off of the heroine, and twisted in CLANNAD where the male protagonist freeloads off his male friend when he can't stand to be at home and one of the minor heroines freeloads off the major heroine.
- Questionable Consent: A lot of the sex scenes have a bad habit of employing this, and then acting like nothing went wrong. Particularly infamous examples include Makoto's sex scene in Kanon where Yuuichi elects to have sex with her when she's already well deep into her mental regression back to the fox she once was (they even use the doggy style position!), and Komari's sex scene in Little Busters! Ecstasy where Riki coerces her to have sex with him while she's still in the middle of her mental regression and breakdown after remembering the death of her older brother. The scenes are often Out of Character on the part of both participants at least a little, too, and much of the fanbase ignores them. It's gotten better over time, though, or at least the studio seems to be recognizing it; the unhealthiest sex scenes in Little Busters! Ecstasy, including the one mentioned above, are relegated to the bad endings, and despite a spike in fanservice, the company announced that Rewrite will never get an 18+ release.
- Reincarnation: AIR might be the most prominent example since it focuses heavily on this trope as well as Angel Beats!, but the other works of Key have shown this in some way. It should also be noted that all of them do not view death as something that would fit in a linear timeline and there have been several cases and implications of certain characters being reincarnated into the past.
- Ridiculously Cute Critter: If the work has a mascot, it's one of these, usually belonging to (or a stray that attaches itself to) one of the minor heroines.
- Sex Starts, Story Stops: Don't expect a Key game sex scene to impact the plot in any way, with the notable exception of the sex scene in the Summer route of AIR, in which Yukito's ancestor is conceived.
- Snow Means Death/Love: Whenever snow is used, expect either a corpse or a kissing couple soon after. Mostly the former. Note that Summer will not save you.
- Straw Nihilist: AIR and CLANNAD have drawn criticism for their endings being overly nihilistic and cynical, even if you factor in the latter's Reset Button Ending.
- Tearjerker: Key specializes in Utsuge, so all of its works are well known for their tearjerkers.
- Theme Twin Naming: Lots of pairs of siblings, usually twins, have names that rhyme, swap out one character, or have the same meaning. About half the time, this is used for foreshadowing as the characters' relation is a spoiler.
- There Are No Psychologists: A number of characters – male leads and the girls – have significant mental issues and should probably be in therapy at least, or on meds. Note that this is par for the course in real-life Japan, where a longstanding culture of stoicism and not involving outsiders in "family problems" prevails. Psychology is not looked kindly upon there, is what we're saying.
- Utsuge: All of their visual novels. For the most part they're very optimistic, cute, (usually) have happy endings in spite of the struggles faced to get there, have plenty of comic relief scattered about, and are especially lighthearted towards the beginning of the game. But once you start a girl's route, expect the tone to darken quickly as you learn more about her life and/or as bad things begin to happen in the present.
- Verbal Tic: Abused to no end in Kanonnote , and there's usually at least one per game, wafuu~.
- White-and-Grey Morality/Good Versus Good: Many of the Key works rarely feature villains. If any of the works have any antagonists, they are usually Jerk with a Heart of Gold or Well-Intentioned Extremist at worst. And even if there are villains in some of their works, the only role they play is establishing tragic backstories for the protagonists. Many of the novels highlight the positives qualities of some of their less sympathetic characters while highlighting the character flaws of some of their "good" characters. The exception is Rewrite, where both sides of the conflict have good intentions and a few good people but the war works out largely to Evil Versus Oblivion and the true end means Kotarou has to play both sides and win with the neutral path.