Visual Novels, the Books of the Digital Age
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Today I will be focusing on visual novels, a genre that has emerged in the digital age. Visual novels are interactive narrative driven genre games that are text based and use limited animation in their presentation (often anime style sprite visuals or just backgrounds). Other common features include first person perspective, decision making and multiple branching timelines for replayability.
Visual Novels were born in Japan and most people probably visualise steamy romances or mundane slices of Japanese students’ lives when they think of the genre. Suprisingly, the first visual novel was actually a murder mystery story. Portopia Renzoku Satsuji Jiken, created in 1983 by Portopia was a game where players had to gather clues by exploring areas, talking to NPCs and solving puzzles. The game was focused on puzzle solving rather than dialogue. In an interview, Yuji Horii the game designer said it was inspired by american graphic adventure games like Mystery House (1980), Cranston Manor (1981) and Mission Asteroid (1980). This game was very different from the visual novels to come but one key element influenced the genre: the presence of visuals. Other significant pioneers of the genre were J.B Harold Murder Club (1986), Famicon Detective Club (1989) and Snatcher (1988).
These games did not swap assets between scenes like today, instead just like mangas, they used individual shots in sequential order. The transitions always beginning with a wide shot of the decor before showing the action were also very similar to mangas.
The key difference with VNs and conventional games is that you spend most of your time reading in visual novels instead of actively engaging in a task. The gameplay can vary greatly, leading to a difficulty in defining the boundaries of the medium. Today I will present different types of Visual Novels I stumbled on in my research.
Kinetic Novels are visual novels completely devoid of interaction. Essentially, it's like reading a book but with visuals and sound effects. One of the best example is Planetarium: The Reverie of a Little Planet (2004), a post apocalyptic story where you befriend Hoshino Yumemi, a companion robot and decide to repair the projector of her planetarium.
Born from the Eroge (erotic Game) such as Night Life (1982) and Lolita (1982), the Dating Sim (Sim for simulation) is one of the most famous forms of visual novels and the reason behind its girly reputation. In these games the goal is simple: to find love. It often includes fairy tale romances, a large number of suitors that are obsessed with you to choose from, world altering events and a tsundere (japanese term to describe a character that is initially cold or hostile before gradually showing a warmer, friendlier side as the story progresses).
One of the most popular examples is the Tomikeki Memorial series. Anime visuals? check, many suitors that love you very intensely? check.
In Tomikeki Memorial, which girl will you choose?
The examples are countless. My favourite examples are those that play with the genre and its tropes. Why not swap the romantic partners for monsters? (Monster Prom) or orcs? (Tusks) or pigeons? (Hatoful Boyfriend), why not use this cute platform to share a horror story? (Doki Doki Litterature Club).
These visual novels are 95% porn and 5% plot. They are primarily aimed at a male audience.
Science Fiction VN
Sci-fi Visual Novels are on the rise especially because of the recent rise in popularity of science fiction in young adult books. One of the most popular examples is Steins;Gate. It has an average of 10/10 on steam!
Steins: Gate follows two tech savy students who discover how to change the present by travelling to the past. This game has a very minimum amount of player interaction.
Another Sci-fi game with a much more realistic feel that I recommend is Eliza.
Nakige (The Crying Game)
Nakige (or the crying game) put heavy focus on emotional catharsis and their primary goal is to make you cry.
Clannad is the best exemple. In this game you take the role of Tomoya Okazaki, a young delinquent student in high school who is struggling with the death of his mum and an abusive relationship with his alcoholic father. He meets up with a mysterious girl and together they try to give meaning to their lives.
Clannad was and is extremely popular. The game was ranked as the best-selling PC game sold in Japan for the time of its release. It has been adapted in successful mangas, anime, art books, music albums and audio dramas.
Another notable example is The Fruit of Grusaia.
Hybrid Visual Novels
In these games the visual novel style is mixed with an RPG, puzzle game elements or story exploration elements. They are often more visually interesting.
Ace Attorney has a nice mix of puzzles Visual Novel elements as you play a young attorney who is solving all kinds of bizarre court cases. The gameplay is all about searching for clues at the crime scene, getting information from other characters and yelling "objection"! inside the court room.
Another game with similar gameplay is Zero Escape: 9 hours, 9 person, 9 doors.
OPUS is a small series of exploration games. Players explore space as they make their way through the game’s main narrative plot. It mixes the visual novel style with world exploration features.
Found phone games
These apps tell fictional stories, often with a thriller, crime, or horror slant, in which you're given access to one of the lead characters phones. Messages are alerted with notifications on your phone and the messages come through as if you're using instant messaging services making this experience fell extremely realistic. Most of these games can be played "in real time" meaning the people you text will not be available at night or when they are busy working for example.
My favourite game of this style is Bury me my love.
Many horror story have been written in this style with more realistic approach than bury me my love with actual videos and voice calls made by real actors instead of drawings. The result can be especially scary with games such as Simulacra.
In a similar vein some games imitate computer interfaces such as Emily is Away.
O.K, I'll admit I just invented this expression. I wanted to give a name to the "Slice of Life" Visual novels that take place in one location where you meet numerous characters. It's not through actions but through your conversation with the characters that the story unfolds.
In Neo Cab you are a taxi driver in the near future. Each character you meet has their own story to tell and secrets to share, if you can figure out what they want to hear.
One particular clever type of visual novel is VA-11 HALL-A. You are a bartender and your clients will open up to you if you serve them the right drinks. You are no choosing words but bottles.
Finally why not play visual novels with your friends! Here is one multiplayer VN that looks fun: The Yawgh.
All these examples are a tiny part of actual existing visual novels. Most Japanese visual novels never get an official release outside of Japan, though this is beginning to change with companies such as MangaGamer, JAST and Sekai Project licensing more and more visual novels. Still, the bulk of visual novels are translated by dedicated fans if they are translated at all.
These games have largely influenced other form of games such as the telltale games, Life is Strange and Heavy Rain. If you would like to learn more about the genre, VNDB is a database dedicated to visual novels, in the vein of IMDB. It also lists any existing translation a novel may have. And if you would like to create your own Visual Novel, a lot of Western-produced VNs are developed in the popular Ren'PyGame Maker.
Tomikeki Memorial: https://www.giantbomb.com/tokimeki-memorial/3025-717/games/