With the recent release of Tears to Tiara 2: Heir of the Overlord, the gaming press has been throwing the word “visual novel” around quite a bit, which may lead you to ask yourself: “What is a visual novel?” Well wonder no longer, imaginary Everyman, for I will be walking you through this medium that is slowly but surely gaining traction in the west!
Unlike traditional games, which rely on gameplay to convey enjoyment to the player, visual novels are all about the story. Offering up complicated plots and characters accompanied by color artwork, character sprites, music, and backgrounds that serve to offer an experience very different then that of reading a traditional novel. On top of this, visual novels very often also offer the player a degree of choice, offering up multiple choice segments in which the player can determine what their character does or says from a number of different options. These choices often lead to different responses from other characters, and can even lead the story down an entirely different path, or “route” as they are often called in the visual novel community. This is best compared to the old “choose your own adventure’ series of books that were popular in the 80s and 90s, in which a reader would be given directions at the bottom of a page to flip to particular segments of the book depending on how they wished to advance within the confines of the story.
Much as “Video Game” is a broad category that encompasses a variety of genres and titles, so is the term “Visual Novel.” While the term often conjures up images of so-called “Dating Sims” in the west, a sub-genre in which the story is heavily tied to romancing several possible heroines, this is not the only type of visual novel; far from it actually. Aside from romance games, we also have more typical games that tell a story: kinetic novels, which are much the same as a normal visual novel but lack choices, eroge, games with erotic elements but that are not necessarily smut, and Nukege, a type of game more or less created as a high-tech form of pornography.
Within these types there are just as many types of stories as their are stars in the sky. From dark horror novels like Song of Saya, to science-filled adventures like Steins;Gate, there is a something for everyone provided your willing to look hard enough. It is hard to say which is the “best” type of visual novel, but I’ll give you a few recommendations to get started. All of these games are available legally in English and represent some of the best the medium has to offer in the west.
Song of Saya (2004, Nitro+)
A romance/horror game inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft and written by Gen Urobuchi, writer of Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero and Psychopass. In this game a young man is afflict with a horrible disorder that causes the world around him to appear as if it was made from rotten meat, and to percive human beings as terrible blob monsters. Unable to cope, he finds solace in a mysterious young girl named Saya, who is the only person he still sees as human. From there things spiral into a vast web of mysterious happenings, violence and other awful things.
A great story, but odd sex scenes and excessive gore may turn off some gamers.
Steins;Gate (2010, Nitro+)
In this science adventure game, players are dropped into the shoes of Rintaro Okabe, a 18 year old college student who fancies himself a mad scientist. Together with his friends, Mayuri, a cosplayer, and Daru, a highly skilled hacker, he forms the “Future Gadget Lab” a society devoted to creating new and cool inventions, most of which are useless but interesting nonetheless. One day, after a freak accident, Okabe discovers a mysterious phenomena that allows him to send text messages to the past. With this new technology in hand, he soon finds himself accosted by mysterious organizations and a conspiracy to alter both the past and future.
It also ranks among the shorter visual novels on this list, with a mere five story lines to play through, making it ideal for newcomers and veterans alike. A great visual novels in terms of story and presentation, Steins;Gate is awesome overall.
Clannad (2007, KEY)
Tomoya had a dream of playing basketball at the high school level, but an injury to his shoulder dashed his hopes and set him down another path entirely. Now, finding himself alone at a new school, he must find how to interact with the people around him and create a life for himself in a world with an uncertain future.
Part of KEY’s romantic comedy/drama series, which also contains the likes of Kanon, Air, and Little Busters, Clannad is a emotional story about growing up and what it means to be a family. In fact the title is actually the Irish word for family, and also the name of a band but shhhhh…
Clannad is notable for being one of Key’s longest visual novels, sporting an absurd 15+ storylines. But is well worth the time and effort. Also, just as a warning, keep some tissue on hand while you play. You’ll be crying quite a bit.
That should keep you good people busy for awhile, feel free to let me know what your favorite visual novels are in the comments and maybe I’ll mention them in my next article! And, as always, you can find us on Twitter @APGNation and me @Fluffyharpy.