A screenshot from ‘Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc’ via Steam
The gaming genre of visual novels has been popular in Japan for decades, but only in the 21st century have more frequent translations helped the genre find a home in the West. These games are exactly as they sound: heavy with text and supplemented by artwork that acts as a background and context for the story.
Many act as illustrated choose-your-own-adventure affairs of the video games world, featuring multiple paths leading to various endings, the player’s decisions determining the protagonist’s course of action. Some are highly dense with text, while others spread it out with puzzles and traditional gameplay. Some have sci-fi themes, and some are mysteries. Others are all about ogling women and their scantily clad bodies.
Typically called “eroge,” the more adult market-focused visual novels feature Japanese-drawn pornography, which has become known globally as the catchall of hentai. If you’ve ever browsed Steam for so long that you’ve stumbled into its darker corners, you’ve undoubtedly seen some of these games. Gravity defying breasts, school uniforms, girls that appear to survive on the attention of the player: eroge games, for better or worse, have attributed to the rising popularity of visual novels and the related dating simulators, for reasons that should be fairly obvious.
But beyond the smut and the grot, there’s so much more to visual novels. It doesn’t take long for the curious to discover masterpieces that have finally been translated into English in recent years, and to move onto further interactive fiction that has been inspired by the visual novel genre. Dip just a toe and you can be rewarded with phenomenal writing and gorgeous artwork, both underpinning intricate stories with twisting paths controlled by the player. Gone are the days of the genre being a small corner of gaming exclusively for those who could read Japanese: here are some of the best gateways into the world of visual novels.
A screenshot from ‘Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc’ via Steam
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc / Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
(PS Vita, PSP, Windows, OS X, iOS, Android)
Recently popularized again by its release onto Steam in February 2016, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, first released for the PSP in 2010, is for many players the gateway visual novel. The original game follows student Makoto Naegi as he’s accepted into the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy. But not all is as it seems: he, along with 14 other students, is locked inside the building by a bear called Monokuma. The only way to escape is brutally simple: murder another student without getting caught.
It acts as a good introduction to the genre, mixing as it does text-heavy segments with perplexing gameplay, during which the player must try to work out where other characters are lying, or how they’re contradicting themselves. The game features point-and-click style segments where Makoto searches for clues, to find out who the murderers are. By balancing its modes of play, from reading the story to solving the puzzles, the game never feels like a constant stream of text. Because there are these other things for experiences like that. You know, books.
A screenshot from ‘Virtue’s Last Reward’
The Zero Escape series
(Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors: DS, iOS; Virtue’s Last Reward: PS Vita, 3DS; Zero Time Dilemma (upcoming): PS Vita, 3DS, Windows)
Less popular than the Danganronpa games, but perhaps with more welcoming gameplay, is the Zero Escape series. Each title plays on the previous one in some way, but each is written to be standalone, and they could be played in any order.
Each game centers on a core theme: nine characters are locked in a facility where they must solve puzzles to escape rooms and, eventually, return to the outside world. If they fail, or if they make the wrong decisions, people die in gruesome ways. That bunny might look cute, but don’t be fooled: you’ll soon enough be hearing quips like, “Have a nice tragedy!” Throw in a little sci-fi and you have the dark, complex story of the Zero Escape series.
We Know the Devil
(Windows, OS X)
Onto visual novels that focus solely on text now, and an incredibly enjoyable short game is We Know the Devil. It’s a gorgeous little title about the weird kids on a very religious summer camp, and the relationships that form there.
In some ways, We Know the Devil is unsettling, and there’s something uncanny about the characters, every one of them being very human in their interactions. There’s no single player character—instead, you’re a fly on the wall as the story unfolds. There are multiple endings, based on the few decisions you get to impact upon, each one representing a relationship status between different characters. For something unsettling without any sign of physical violence, We Know the Devil is fantastic.
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Related: Watch our film, ‘Digital Love Industry’
(Windows, OS X)
One of the breakout hits of 2015, SC2VN managed to capture interest from an incredibly wide audience, despite its might-be-niche subject matter: South Korea’s eSports scene. Specifically, the game is heavily centered on StarCraft II. Don’t panic if that game’s as alien to you as they come, though, as SC2VN includes a primer on Blizzard’s strategy hit, getting you up to speed on its history, and some of the phrases you need to know.
Playing as Mach, you move to South Korea to join a professional StarCraft II, meeting other players and fans of the game along the way. You’ll have a rival, friends, foes, and meet all sorts of people in the eSports industry as you climb the ranks in StarCraft II tournaments. Sounds a little dry perhaps, against the escapist fantasy of other visual novels, but in practice it’s anything but.
(Windows, OS X, Linux, PS4, PS Vita)
If SC2VN really does seem too mundane for your tastes, though, how about something that really is unlike any other gaming experience in any other genre? Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel essential. It’s a game where you date birds. Obviously.
As the only human attending St. PigeoNation’s Institute, you get an insight into the world of the intelligent birds that attend this prestigious school. In many ways, it parodies the expectations you might have of dating simulators, focusing not on inflated busts but the characters you get to know. On top of that, the game gets pretty dark pretty quickly, with bad endings that result in the player character’s death, as well as a whole second game mode revolving around St. PigeoNation’s deepest secrets. It’s all a lore more menacing and unsettling than a game about dating birds has any right to be. (Unless, you know, the core concept of only ever hanging about with feathery friends gives you chills.)
A screenshot from ‘One Night Stand’
When you choose to go deeper down the rabbit hole of visual novels, look to the communities that both make games for and support the genre. Itch.io is chock-full of indie visual novels, from somewhat traditional titles like One Night Stand, a story about the aftermath of a drunken night that ended in sex, to the weird and unique adaptations of the genre, such as Digital: A Love Story, that takes place on bulletin board systems, the chatrooms, and forums of the 1980s.
Both of these games were born at NaNoRenO, an annual jam that brings together the English-speaking visual novel community to create their own games. The event has been going for ten years, and there are some true gems produced every year.
Many other titles combine visual novel storytelling with traditional gameplay, such as Long Live the Queen and Magical Diary: Horse Hall‘s RPG elements that blend into the story and the consequences of your actions. There are more respectful visual novels that revolve around dating, too, such as Amnesia: Memories. There’s a whole database of games made in the Ren’Py visual novel engine on their site. To reduce visual novels down to anything other than a wonderfully diverse genre is to do it great disservice: there really is a story out there for everyone, in styles to suit even the wildest tastes.
Stereotypical assumptions about visual novels will persist so long as the games that comprise the reason for such thinking exist: the one-dimensional dating sims, featuring fast girls sometimes quicker still to shed their clothes. But there’s so much more to the genre, as the above outlines. And with the likes of Danganronpa finding a home on a massive platform like Steam, you can bet that the genre is only going to grow in visibility and popularity. So get stuck into a great visual novel, and see where it takes you. Hopefully not into the less-than-cuddly arms of a psychopathic teddy bear, but I can’t promise anything.