Do you like video games, but find yourself more drawn to the narrative than the gameplay elements? Do you appreciate great characters over tricky or difficult puzzles? Are you content to have a game with minimal involvement if it means that you can enjoy a great story? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then visual novels might be for you!
What Is A Visual Novel?
A visual novel is a storytelling medium that occupies a spectrum between a video game and written literature. It is often characterized by static character sprites and backgrounds, with text boxes giving dialogue and narration. In most VNs, the player clicks through the dialogue and makes pivotal choices that direct the flow of the story, with gameplay beyond that being minimal.
It is easier to understand visual novels if you look at them not as video games, but as digital versions of choose-your-own-adventure novels. They are more story-heavy than most casual games, and yet do not have the puzzle or exploration elements so integral to adventure games. Even this isn’t hard and fast, as there are some VNs with puzzles as well as linear VNs in which you are never given choices at all.
There is some fluidity in the format, and sometimes the line between visual novel and video game gets blurry. For example, The Stanley Parable is a game characterized by limited agency and multiple outcomes that can be reached by making choices at specific points when choices are presented to you. It has much in common with the accepted definition of a visual novel, but is not itself a visual novel.
Where To Begin
If these definitions seem imprecise, it’s because there are a lot of works out there that fall under the heading of “visual novel.” To add to the confusion, many visual novels can also fall under common entertainment genres: So there are comedy, romance, horror . . . the list goes on and on.
So it can be difficult to know where to begin. Here are a few visual novels that are easy to find, have English dubs or translations, and are good enough on their own to be worth the time and money!
The Ace Attorney Series (Nintendo portables, Wii, PC, iOS)
If you’re looking for a visual novel that is easy to find, well-translated, and has colorful characters and engaging plots, the Ace Attorney series is a good starting point. This well-known and well-regarded series is one of my top recommendations for players who want to experience a visual novel that has great plots, characters, and art.
You play as various members of the justice system throughout the series as they investigate various mysteries and search for the truth. The English localization is particularly good, and its widespread availability make it an ideal starting point for someone who wants to get into visual novels.
The series’ bright art style and rather cavalier interpretation of the justice system are part of the charm and belie a surprising depth, both of character and plot. As courtroom dramas go, Ace Attorney is clearly done more in the style of Perry Mason than Law & Order. If you like a whodunit story told in the framework of the legal system, check out the Ace Attorney series.
Hey, who doesn’t love a good Jane Austen pastiche? Don’t answer that. See, visual novels are, by-and-large, made in Japan and for Japanese consumers. This means that certain preferences and genres have developed and most of the visual novels available fall within those parameters. But let’s be honest: Those genres are niche, and if your interests don’t fall within those niches, it can be difficult for you to find a point of entry into the art form.
Matches and Matrimony is still pretty niche in its own way, admittedly. It’s a Jane Austen-based romance VN, two-thirds Pride & Prejudice and one-third everything else she ever wrote. You play the second Bennet daughter (because of course you do) and you have your pick of several romance paths with multiple Austen leading men.
M&M has manageable stats in addition to dialogue options, making it a sort of dating sim/visual novel hybrid. Nevertheless it’s a fairly easy VN to play, and it has much in common with the popular otome romance genre while still being easy for Nihongo neophytes to absorb.
As with every medium, there is a specific subgenre of visual novels that are designed to make you cry, and Planetarian falls into that genre. This melancholic tale is a post-apocalyptic science fiction story. The human race has almost completely died out and the world is desolate. You play a nameless scavenger who shelters in an old planetarium that contains a still-functioning robot; the adorable Yumemi. She is still active and awaiting the return of human staff and guests to the planetarium, and asks for the scavenger’s help fixing the place. It’s a very wistful tale, and the music is beautiful.
Game makers Key Visual Arts are perhaps more well-known for CLANNAD, a popular visual novel-cum-anime about the bonds that form between a loner high school student and his fellow classmates. As appealing as that is, I chose to include Planetarian instead because it’s available on Steam and iTunes.
This is an example of a linear visual novel, one which never gives you the option to decide the outcome of the story because there is only one to reach. You make no decisions, but merely follow a single path to the story’s conclusion. It really emphasizes the “novel” aspect of the format.
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (Nintendo DS, iOS)
Most of the VNs I’ve brought up thus far have little-to-nothing in the way of gameplay and are fairly light fare when it comes to story. 999 isn’t light, nor is it lacking in gameplay. It’s a thriller story with locked-room puzzles and branching storylines within the novel sections.
You play Junpei, an ordinary person who has an encounter with a man in a mask and wakes up to find himself on an early 20th century cruise liner. He is told that he has been selected, along with eight other people, to play the “Nonary Game.” He must escape from a number of locked rooms and team up with the other people on board the ship in order to escape before the nine-hour time limit runs out. The price for refusing to play? Death by implanted bomb, naturally.
999 is basically a visual novel with puzzle elements spliced in. During the room escapes, you can move about freely and investigate your surroundings like you’re playing a first-person adventure game. The story segments are filled with choices that lead to branching storylines and multiple endings. If you are used to playing video games and want a visual novel that won’t put you to sleep, 999 might be right up your alley.
Tell Us What You Think!
What are your favorite visual novels? What would you recommend for those unfamiliar with the genre? Make some recommendations in the comments below!