An Introduction to Visual Novels

By Kaley Connell

A beginners guide to the world of Visual Novels.

Are you the type of gamer that loves good stories in games but just doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a book? Or maybe you love to curl up with a good novel, but you’re weary of jumping into the gaming industry. Luckily, the two genres came together to birth a love child they called Visual Novels that people on both sides of the aisle can adore.

“What kind of witchcraft is this?!” you may be asking. “You can’t play books or read video games!” I thought the same thing when I first discovered the genre. And, as an avid reader and gamer, am I glad I was wrong. Visual Novels (or VN) are games that prioritize telling great and unique narratives, and are accompanied by some wonderful artwork and music. Despite the story and plot itself being the main focus point in the genre, many VN still have game mechanics ranging from simplistic to decently difficult, even for the average gamer, but we’ll get into that later.

Each VN is different in a lot of ways, but the one thing basically all of them have in common is their branching storylines. Have you ever watched a movie, played a game, or read a book where you’re facepalming because the protagonist is making a stupid decision, or went the wrong way? In VN, you are the one making the choices. You prefer the tan guy instead of the pasty one in a love triangle? You can go for him! Maybe you have a good idea who the killer is and want to pursue that route. You can do that, too. While there are games and books that have some branching storylines depending on character/reader choices, no genre does it quite as well as Visual Novels. Each dialogue choice you make can change the entire course of the story, and you might be surprised at how dark a ‘bad end’ can be if you make the wrong choice too many times.

Genres

Like with any new game or book, the first thing a player or reader looks into is what genre their potential purchase falls under. Is it a First-Person Shooter, Hack-and-Slasher, JRPG? Is the book Non-Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical? Any massive form of media will have genres and branching sub-genres, and Visual Novels are no exception. If you’re the type of person that enjoys a good scare, check out Corpse Party or Higurashi. Both games involve young children and murder galore. As the protagonist, you must try to find a way out of your crazy situation while avoiding being the next one on the butcher’s block.

For the mystery fans, there’s the Danganronpa and Zero Escape trilogies. In Danganronpa, you and your fellow classmates are stuck inside your school and the only way to escape is to successfully murder someone without anyone learning it was you. The catch? If you’re caught, you die; if you get away with it, everyone else dies. Similarly, 999 (or 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors), the first in the Zero Escape series, places you and eight other people inside a sinking ship, and the only way to escape is to solve all the craziest escape room puzzles you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t help, though, that some people in your group are going stir crazy and a dead body or two start to appear.

Monokuma kicking off the Killing Game in Danganronpa V3.
Monokuma from the Danganronpa series

If mystery and murder don’t intrigue you, don’t worry. There are slice-of-life VN that just want to tell you a story. Some VNs mean to put a smile on your face, others try their hardest to make you cry, and then there are those that are somewhere in-between. Ef, A Fairy Tale of the Two is a slice-of-life that’s at times sweet and other times heartbreaking. Himawari is another example of this with a sci-fi twist.

Hopeless Romantics have an entire genre that was basically made for them: Love Sims. There are a few subgenres that fall under Love Sims that cater to a wide demographic. If you want to play a male protagonist and be surrounded by cute girls, you want to look into Bishoujo, or Galgames. Princess Evangile, Clannad, and the upcoming Song of Memories are all Bishoujo. For people who want to be a female protagonist and have a reverse harem, then Otome is what you’re looking for. Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~, Period: Cube, and Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly all involve a female lead surrounded by boys ranging from cute and sweet to hot and spicy. The best part? In Bishoujo and Otome, almost all the girls and boys around you can be your love interest and you can romance them to your heart’s content. There are also Boy’s Love (or BL) games–check out No, Thank You!!!–as well as Girl’s Love (or Yuri) games–A Kiss for the Petals is an example–if you’re into same-sex romantic relationships.

Artwork for Code: Realize featuring Cardia and Lupin
Cover art for Code: Realize

And for those 18+ enthusiasts, Eroge and Nukige might be what gets you hooked to Visual Novels. You can choose almost any genre you’re interested in and find games that have–what some might call–the added benefit of uncensored sexual encounters. Fairly often a game will release and have two versions, or a patch that will allow 18+ players to enjoy all the content if they wish. Thus, anyone underage (or anyone who doesn’t want to see those explicit encounters) can play though the story without having to worry about someone walking into their room at the exact wrong moment.

Gameplay

You may be saying, “This sounds great and all, but I’m a gamer. I need more than just dialogue choices to keep me entertained.” I said that Visual Novels were part game, right? While this isn’t always the case and mostly depends on the genre, many VN have integral game mechanics that play a big part in the experience. In the Zero Escape trilogies, you have to interact with and investigate locked rooms in order to escape, just as you would if you were in a real locked room scenario. Danganronpa has you exploring the school you’re trapped inside and examining crime scenes for clues to pinpoint which of your classmates is a murderer. You have to use the clues you’ve gathered at the right time during your class trial, and a mess up can result in everyone dying. And Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly makes you shoot enemies that are trying to possess you during a timed encounter. While some VN are more story focused and will have little to no other mechanics besides dialogue choices, others rely heavily on their gameplay to help tell their story.

One of the best things about Visual Novels is how widely available they are. While there are tons of titles available on platforms like the PlayStation3, PS4, PS Vita, the Nintendo Switch, and Steam, there are also quite a few on Android and iOS that you can play on your phone or tablet, many of which are free to play. I personally love being able to play these games on the go using my handheld devices. Just like with a book, if you’ve got some time between commuting or sitting at the doctor’s office, or you’re waiting for class to start, Visual Novels are great to just pick up since you can pause them anytime. They’re friendly to new gamers, and veterans will find that most of their control schemes are very familiar. Whether you’re a gamer or a reader, fifteen or fifty, a lover or a fighter, there’s definitely a Visual Novel out there for you.

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Kaley Connell

Kaley Connell, First of Her Name, Player of Games, Reader of Books, Writer of Words, and Mother of Cats. Find her on Instagram where she mostly posts pictures of books and her fur children.

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