When I was a kid, I wanted to change the outcome of my books. I would talk to the characters, but they never listened to me. Little Courtney was convinced she could make better decisions than they could. Then I was introduced to a group of books called Choose Your Own Adventure. If you are unfamiliar with these children’s stories, they feature choices throughout the narrative, allowing the reader to determine the ending. I realized I did not make better choices than the main characters; usually, I wound up dead on my first readthrough. Now, there are many books (especially for kids) with this choice mechanic. It keeps readers engaged and gives them some say in how the story goes.
Visual novels work the same way. There is much debate about whether visual novels are truly games or whether they are glorified e-books. Googling that question will bring up numerous Reddit threads and reviewer opinions. Urban Dictionary’s definition calls the genre “a Japanese game-like application played on a computer,” as opposed to a true game. Either way, visual novels are a great gateway, either for gamers wanting to read more or for readers wanting to play more games.
What is a Visual Novel?
A visual novel (VN) is a game featuring screens of text with music, backgrounds, character sprites, and sometimes voice-overs. The genre is popular in Japan, but America has begun to translate and create VNs as well. Some of the most popular ones have been turned into anime series so successful people forgot they were originally games.
VNs have a similar layout, but the details differ in many ways. Some have text across the whole screen while others show text only at the bottom. Gameplay mechanics can range from no interaction at all (known as kinetic novels) to a point-and-click exploration of a given environment. Almost all of them utilize static background art and character sprites.
The most well-known visual novels are dating simulators. They have been referenced on shows like Gravity Falls and are marketed to lonely people looking for a harem to complete them (although, according to King Solomon, a harem doesn’t fill that void in your lonely heart. He would know).
Here I have to issue a slight content warning. Eroge (erotic game) is a subgenre of visual novels, and those are meant to be used for pornographic purposes. While not every visual novel has explicit sexual material, many do. I recommend checking the rating and reviews before committing to a purchase. Steam often removes these scenes, and some games have an option to turn off sexual content, similar to Cyberpunk 2077. Lucky for us, VNs are much more than their bad reputation.
While dating simulations are one of the more popular types of visual novels, the concepts are endless. The narrative is even more important in games with little to no interaction. Players/Readers must be invested enough to continue reading, even if they only get to “play” every few hours. Did I mention some of these games can be over 100 hours long? Gamepedia compares the longest video game scripts to works of literature, such as the Bible, the Iliad, and Harry Potter. Some of the games on their list are RPGs with complex stories, like Final Fantasy, but the majority is made of visual novels. Without a compelling story and three-dimensional characters, it is unlikely players will be willing to read such a lengthy script.
Features Beyond a Book
Visual novels do have some advantages over classic books. Because of their status as games, VNs give the reader a multiple sensory experience. They can not only read what is occurring but see it on their screen through backdrops and character interactions. Most visual novels come with special artwork when players reach a certain scene, called an event CG. Part of the fun of playing a VN comes with perusing multiple endings to collect all the event CGs.
The games also feature music and voice-overs. This adds an auditory component books can only achieve with an outside source. Even most audiobooks do not mix background music, special effects, and a full cast. Audio dramas are nice, but not every publisher can afford that. With visual novels, an independent developer can add a score to the game, even if there are no voices.
For the most part, books are linear. Some experimental works, like those of Mark Danielewski or the aforementioned Choose your Own Adventure, play with the idea of audience participation and nonlinearity. However, this is not the norm for paper or electronic reading material. Visual novels allow the reader to step inside the story and choose what happens, and how they do that is completely dependent on the particular game’s mechanics.
Merging of Mechanics and Storyline
Choice-making is the basic idea behind the mechanics of all visual novels. Different decisions create paths leading to a variety of endings, which increases a game’s replay value. The way players make those decisions are rooted in the type of VN they play. Some, like most dating sims, rely on multiple-choice questions. Your responses to character interactions are what branch the storyline. With those aforementioned dating sims, most of the choices are romancing certain characters, and the endings involve becoming their significant other.
Other games have drastically diverged from this dynamic, though. The Danganronpa and the Zero Escape series take the idea of a visual novel and merge it with a point-and-click game. While the majority of in-game time consists of cut scenes, both feature deadly competitions players must win. In Danganronpa, players investigate murders, interrogate friends, and present their evidence in a courtroom. While the ending does not change (unless you lose), the player is sucked into the world by the choices they are forced to make.
The Zero Escape trilogy plays like more of a virtual escape room. Players must navigate an increasing number of rooms finding clues and using typical objects to escape captivity. Unlike Danganronpa, The Zero Escape series has multiple endings per game. Each unique choice leads to a different set of evidence, and players cannot continue until they have traversed every possible timeline and collected it all. This is a staple for many visual novels – finish the game multiple times in multiple ways before getting the “true ending.” It increases the game’s replay value while making it difficult to faithfully adapt to a television series (although, as stated earlier, some VN adaptions have gone on to be very successful: Higurashi When They Cry and Steins;Gate are two of them).
Games like Steins;Gate take a more subtle approach to choice. Steins;Gate is a game about a group of friends who accidentally create a time machine in their microwave. Without getting into spoilers, things go wrong, and they are forced to set the world back in order. Their time machine works by sending or receiving texts at the same time the microwave is going. These texts are the only interaction players have with the game world. On my first playthrough, I reached a bad ending (after 50+ hours) before realizing I had no idea where the choices were or what I had picked. There is no obvious “right answer” to any of them; they are innocent texts. The player, like their character Okabe, has no idea which emoji will end the world, save it, or neither. It took a walkthrough and another 20-30 hours of playing before I found the true ending.
I am not the only person here at GUG who enjoys visual novels. The Video Game Department has reviewed multiple titles in the genre, and I will include links to those at the end of this article. Further demonstrating how VNs manage to cross boundaries and defy expectations, here is a contribution from our resident movie editor about her favorite games.
Detective Visual Novels (Juliana Purnell)
I no longer describe myself as a gamer, though there was a time in my life when I played regularly. When I was growing up, the Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Spyro, and Tomb Raider franchises were my standard fare. From them, I learned I tend to shy away from “stressful” gaming experiences where success is governed by the frenetic dexterity of my fingers and thumbs (like most action and first-person shooter games). Instead, it is the strategic planning, pouring over statistical data, exploring, cerebral engagement, and collecting that provide the most satisfaction for me.
When Pokémon became too formulaic, I looked around for something else to play on the Nintendo DS, preferably a game that had a decent plot – something which most, if not all, of the Pokémon games lack. Despite its obscurity, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 had great reviews, so I gave it a chance. Literally requiring the player to hold the system like a book, its film noir story was reminiscent of the movie Identity, where a detective needed to solve a crime set in a hotel. Even though the game didn’t require much from me as the player, it was thoroughly engaging. Up until that point, it was the fastest game I completed due to the fact I found it hard to switch off.
This encouraged me to seek out other titles that strayed from my typical gaming franchises. I had seen a few episodes of Harvey Birdman and heard the game adaptation was utterly hilarious, though unfortunately, it didn’t release in my country, Australia. So I decided to settle for the series it spoofed – Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
Following a number of quirky characters in the legal profession, the gameplay in the franchise is typically split into two parts: the investigation and gathering of evidence, and the ensuing courtroom drama. The former is where colorful characters are scattered about the landscape, where the titular lawyer must interview each and every one. Sometimes this portion gets a little tedious, particularly when backtracking between areas and characters is required. Whilst it still operates as a nice change of pace, by far the courtroom scenes are the most entertaining aspects of the game. Several minutes can pass where nothing is required from the player aside from reading the plot, yet it’s wonderfully charming.
It’s not so much the “whodunit” aspect that is engaging. Rather, it’s the twists and turns of logic that alter stakes that keep me tapping through. It’s mentally rewarding when you’re completely in-step with the narrative, screaming “OBJECTION” (sometimes literally if you’ve opted to use the mic) and slamming down exactly the right piece of evidence to make those intimidating prosecutors recoil in fear!
The downside, of course, is when you find yourself either leaping ahead or lagging behind in the story’s logic. There are one or two times in each game where I admit I’ve taken a trial-and-error approach, systematically offering each piece of evidence and resetting if it wasn’t correct. I “lost my place” within the story’s plot and had no idea what the game wanted from me. Books or more passive styles of narrative storytelling are certainly more forgiving in this regard!
Like Pokémon, all the Phoenix Wright games follow a similar format, but each offers four or more crimes to be solved along with an overarching narrative. Despite lacking replayability, the games don’t lose their appeal because their plot is so strong. You know it’s a strong storytelling concept when it can be easily thrust amongst other intellectual properties, and there are many fan-made crossovers that exist either in literature or film form. The game’s even got a movie adaptation!
Of course, its most famous crossover is with the Professor Layton series. The result is a wonderfully paced, entertaining, and gorgeous blend of puzzle-solving and legal drama. It caused me to check out others in the Layton series, though I found the story was more of a thinly-veiled excuse to jump from one puzzle to another. In my eyes, if a game seems pointless to speed run because it mostly involves tapping through text, then it’s a visual novel. Layton tends to lean more into the puzzle genre. Though it would be remiss not to mention Detective Pikachu, which feels like Pokémon’s love letter to the Phoenix Wright series.
Plot heavy and reminiscent of the investigatory aspect of the Ace Attorney games, Detective Pikachu is essentially as close to a Pokémon-based visual novel as you’re going to get, albeit for a young audience. They’re typically easy to save, and on a portable gaming system they begin to operate as a virtual book — I played most of Detective Pikachu while traveling into work on the train. It’s possibly the least cost-effective subgenre in gaming (if one judges it by replayability), but due to their necessary focus on plot and character development, I find they rarely disappoint.
Visual novels are the gateway game. For readers, they expand the world of books. By giving characters voices and putting pictures to places, readers are immersed in the world. They become the main character by watching his/her/their decisions in first-person and impacting events. They have a say in how the story ends, and sometimes that story sweeps them so far into the game they feel like they are there.
Gamers who want simple completion can rest easy with visual novels. Because of the nature of most “true endings,” walkthroughs abound on the Internet. For those who want to figure out the path for themselves, finishing a route is simple as changing your choices. There are few VNs with time limits (although they do exist, like AI: Somnium Files), making for fairly stress-free gameplay. Some visual novels are even made to challenge stereotypes by breaking them apart in-game. Those are best appreciated by gamers (or readers!) who are already familiar with the stereotypes (although I have to admit, I cut my VN teeth on Doki Doki Literature Club, and it’s still one of my favorites).
In short, visual novels are a mix of games and books. They can be enjoyed by all: anime lovers, gamers, avid readers, movie buffs, and more. I mentioned many of my favorite visual novels throughout the article, but GUG has reviewed others. If you have other recommendations (or want to know some more of my favorites), let me know in the comments!
Miscellaneous Visual Novels Reviewed by GUG: