Because visual novels are cool and I like them.
A cursory glance at the output of Nigma Box will reveal that I have something of a penchant towards visual novels, as, since 2016, I have made it a habit of putting out a visual novel review on a monthly basis, having put out 65 in a 4.5 year period. While that figure is inflated by 3 reviews of Press-Switch and 8 reviews of Student Transfer, it still shows that visual novel reviews are a significant part of my output. This is because of how much I love the genre, and how willing I am to take a chance on promising titles.
Now, why is that? What about this genre speaks to me so much? Well, I have alluded to the short version of this answer in the past, between reviews and other rambles, but the long version is so long-winded that it deserves its own Ramble!
Part 1 – Humble Historia from Nippon with Dochy
Before diving into the genre of visual novels, I should probably define it for the sake of clarity… but as I did research into the exact terminology, and brushed up on the genre’s unique history, I found this subject so interesting and deep that this Ramble is going to double as a history lesson! …Like most of them do, come to think of it.
In the early days of video games, meaning the early 80s, there was a common conception that games simply lacked stories or complex narratives beyond being some flavor of action-oriented fodder, but that is not necessarily true. While storage space and technical limitations caused these genres to emerge in places like arcades and home consoles, things were notably different in the world of home computers. A side of the industry that frequently gets glossed over in American retrospectives due to how the home computer was not a staple in American households until the 90s. However, it is where the burgeoning adventure game genre first began with the likes of text adventures, which eventually grew and developed into graphic adventures where players could input commands and actions and look at a static or moving image all at the same time.
Early examples of the genre were far from the most impressive fare, particularly on the graphical front, but they laid the groundwork for developers to build off of. And one of these innovative and ambitious developers was Dragon Quest series creator Yuji Horii, who in 1983 developed the NEC PC-6001 title The Portopia Serial Murder Case. A title that, similar to Dragon Quest, took this niche American genre and revised it into something that would better appeal to a Japanese audience. Whereas a lot of earlier western-developed adventure games were centered around exploration and more cryptic puzzle solving, Portopia was more interested in conversations, character interactions, and environments, creating scenes the player could examine in some degree of detail, while also supporting a non-linear structure with multiple endings.
It created a genre of Japanese Adventure games that was looked upon, imitated, and iterated throughout the years, eventually becoming something discernably different from the western idea of adventure games, with regards to visual presentation, characters, artistic sensibilities, and narrative content. However, it should be noted that despite the earlier examples of the genre being very text-heavy, they were not necessarily the most narratively ambitious sort, with a lot of text being explanatory or plain, and various permutations of problem-solving. This focus persisted throughout the lifespans of home computers of the early to mid-80s and the early days of the Famicom, but with technological improvements came innovation. Once new computers hit the market, chips were developed, save systems were introduced, and developers woke up to the possibilities of video games as a medium for interactive long-form stories enhanced with pixelated illustrations, that we really started to see the groundwork for what would become known as visual novels.
It is around this point that the direct lineage and history of visual novels and Japanese adventure games get murky. Partially due to how so much information about the genre is locked behind a language and culture barrier, and partially due to how there was not a list of innovators who worked to refine and formulate what a visual novel is and would be. Instead, you had a lot of small ambitious companies who looked at the burgeoning genre and thought about ways they could change it, and build upon this foundation. But for the sake of completeness, and because I already did the research, let’s talk about some of the more remarkable titles that caused the genre of visual novels to evolve from Japanese adventure games.
Novel Ware: Released by System Sacom from 1988 through 1991, these titles were an attempt at blending together the atmosphere and complexity of a novel with the technical prowess and display capabilities of home computers. While the presentation of these titles is largely derived from Japanese adventure games of their respective eras, their depth, complexity, lack of interactivity or puzzles, and volume of narratively driven text are emblematic of what would become the visual novel genre.
NEC PC-98: This line of computers is commonly heralded as the anime game machine due to their large resolution screens and a library flushed with graphic adventure games that made use of the storage space and display capabilities available to them. It was on these systems when it became possible to transpose and recreate artwork to accommodate the limited resolution, leading to these striking displays with ornate border, detailed character illustrations, and limited yet thoughtful color palettes. All of this was born of technical limitation, yet developed into an aesthetic of themselves as developers for this system, and others continued to iterate.
It was also during this system’s run that developers realized that these games did not necessarily need to push interactivity to the forefront. The artwork, stories, and characters were appeals in and of themselves, and once this was established, many developers began to phase out or de-emphasize the puzzles, navigation, stats, or contextual interactive sequences that had become commonplace. Because they were no longer the core appeal to a significant enough portion of the audience.
Chunsoft Sound Novels: While the visual accomplishments of some titles brought the genre forward and helped establish the merits of visual novel storytelling, Chunsoft, the developers of the first five Dragon Quest titles, decided to shift things around in the 90s by creating a series of what they dubbed sound novels. Video games with branching novel-length stories, oppressive daunting scores, atmospheric sound effects, and understated visuals, casting characters as silhouettes and using backgrounds to establish place and atmosphere.
The big success story of the first run of sound novels throughout the 90s was Banshee’s Last Cry, whose lack of any deliberate interactivity and stylish presentation proved to be influential to developers. Imitators and copycats cropped up around this time, given how well the game was selling, and it did a lot to establish and normalize the idea of putting out a video game where the only interactivity from the player is found in pressing a button to make text move across the screen and selecting choices at predetermined intervals.
Tokimeki Memorial: Originally released by Konami in 1994, this title is commonly cited as the true beginning of the dating sim genre. Its unremarkable school setting, multiple romanceable heroines, and focus on developing the protagonist into a well-rounded person are all staples that carried forward and caused this game to be widely loved in Japan. However, beyond broadening the appeal and audience of adventure games, this title also pioneered the presentational style of most contemporary visual novels by placing character sprites with multiple poses and expressions over static backgrounds. A stark contrast to the fixed or barely animating images of most earlier titles, and a more economical approach that did not necessitate new pixelated illustrations be made for every scene. Oh, and it was also a huge success in its day, meaning it further helped increase the draw and appeal of more text and visual oriented games like this.
YU-NO: There exists some contention on what the true first modern visual novel was, but YU-NO is consistently mentioned as a title that really did push the genre forward with regards to the emotional depth, branching storylines, and complex subject matter that, while present in the world of Japanese adventure games up until this point, were never executed quite like this. It was a combination and culmination of everything that was done before, and everything that the genre could be, and while the original PC-98, Windows, and Saturn versions are a bit archaic by modern standards, it is still easy to look at the game and, aside from the somewhat clunky navigation system, see how it led to the modern visual novel.
Eroge: You cannot talk about the world of visual novels without talking about erotic visual novels and adventure games. In Japan, the laws regarding sexual content are a bit squirrely, and developers making games for the lawless world of home computers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted and whatever they thought would help their game sell. And you know what sells really well? Porn. If you thought that porn would help your game sell better, and there were no cops to stop you, why the hell wouldn’t you? That is the mentality used by a lot of early Japanese adventure game and visual novel developers, who were also probably just horny anyways, and it became common for the genres to feature sexually suggestive content aplenty, and clumps of explicit content for good measure.
Did this really affect the storytelling of these games? Not really. The sex scenes in these games were often supplemental pieces that were based around a larger narrative, and for a lot of the bigger titles, they were either re-released with sex-free all-ages versions or console ports, indicating that the developers did not feel that sex scenes were a truly crucial aspect of the game, to begin with.
At least that was some developers. Others just decided to make porn and prolong the experience with narrative trappings, using the format and structure of visual novels and graphical adventure games to make the sex scenes all the more gripping. That way the player is not just reading about and looking at two people having sex, they are watching characters with names and personalities having sex. And that… that is way, way hotter.
After the genre was established and had permeated itself by the latter half of the 90s, it kept going, it kept evolving, and plenty of developers kept doing ambitious innovative things. Between developers like Leaf, Key, KID, âge, Nitroplus, 07th Expansion, and Type-Moon, there were a lot of people who did so many amazing things with the genre, toying around with video games as a means of storytelling, as a platform to bring their visions to life. Throughout the 2000s, their popularity was only furthered, due in no small part to a number of successful anime adaptations of many seminal works, and the genre only continued to grow in popularity after the rise of visual novel ports for the PSP, Vita, mobile, and now Switch. The genre gradually became a staple of the Japanese games industry, both for developers and consumers, but what about the rest of the world?
Well, visual novels have been making their way to western audiences since the genre cemented itself in the late 90s. But due to the economics of publishing niche Japanese games for the western dominated PC market, the majority of the ones that came over to the west were handled by distributors who favored the more perverted end of things. Companies like JAST USA and MangaGamer recognized a market for this stuff and published erotic visual novels, which gave the visual novel genre a bit of a negative reputation. This could have been adverted by other companies bringing over non-erotic visual novels and finding success, but the early to mid-2000s PC market was not in the best shape, and efforts like those of Hirameki International’s PC and DVD AnimePlay visual novels proved to be unsuccessful.
However, it was during the era of the Nintendo DS and PSP that smaller publishers would once again begin taking a chance on quirky Japanese adventure games and visual novels. Capcom gave the Ace Attorney series a shot in the west, and it did fabulously all things considered. Nintendo did Cing a solid and began bringing over the Another Code and Kyle Hyde games to the west, none of which sod very well. And Aksys Games got the wild idea to localize Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which probably marked the first time in history that a Japanese visual novel did better in the west than it did in Japan.
This helped mark a paradigm shift that went hand in hand with changes to both the games industry and the world around it to provide this brilliant opportunity for visual novels to explode in popularity through the 2010s. There are… so many factors at play here, so I’ll just list the ones that come to mind. The rise in digital distribution made it possible for these games to be sold to a wide audience and freed publishers of the risk with manufacturing a physical product. The rise in social media made it easier for people to share and learn about… basically everything, including visual novels. The advent of crowdfunding gave publishers the capital and confidence to localize grand and expansive titles they otherwise might not be able to. The rise in publicly available developer tools made game development easier than ever and led to a momentous rise in the number of Original English Language Visual Novels, or OELVN, released over the past decade.
This gave rise to a new voice, a new take on the genre from western developers with different goals, objectives, and a willingness to, in some cases, allow their games to be distributed widely and freely, as is the case with 2012’s Katawa Shoujo and 2017’s Doki Doki Literature Club. These games introduced so many people to the genre, and it has caused the genre to enter into something of a renaissance, and it does not look like things are going to go anything but swimmingly going forward, as there is very little impeding the genre’s growth. Developers are still getting creative, people are still buying games, and every day it seems like the genre gets a couple more fans.
The only real problem that faces the genre is… pretty much a problem facing every genre, but with visual novels, it is exaggerated. Visual novels are, relative to other genres, easy to make. You can go on Steam and easily find dozens of quickly produced, poorly written, and visually sparse titles, and even more that are just middling or uninteresting average. But that is more a Steam and general quality control problem plaguing a lot of storefronts.
Part 2 – D.S. ~Definition Segway~
…Right, I was supposed to define what a visual novel is, wasn’t I? Well, that is a bit tricky to definitively state, and despite looking elsewhere for alternative definitions, I do not feel that any of them are quite right or fully acknowledge the history of the genre, and how it came to be, effectively being an offshoot of Japanese adventure games.
Part of this confusion stems from the naming conventions of video games genres as a whole, and how you should ideally be able to determine a game’s genre using just a screenshot. When operating on this principle, it is, theoretically, very easy to pinpoint what is or is not a visual novel. If you see a bunch of character sprites, or models, standing against a background while a textbox is in the center, you must be playing a visual novel, right? Well, yes and no.
Visual novels are strange because of how many games use the presentation of visual novels, or effectively become visual novels during story segments. You see this a lot when certain games, especially mobile RPGs, cut away from the in-game footage and tell their stories using character art against a backdrop with a text box along with the lower third of the screen. To an observer who is just seeing a screenshot, they could easily assume they are looking at a visual novel and one might ask if, during that one section, the game becomes a visual novel?
Well, no, not necessarily. The core focus of a visual novel, and what is meant to differentiate it from other genres, is a focus on continuous long-form storytelling through the abstract presentation. Visual novels are not games that are predicated with a lot of cutscenes, and one of the core visual traits of the genre is characters with a limited number of poses, expressions, and outfits, moving along various backgrounds, none of which is necessarily meant to be interpreted literally. If a game features characters on a background, fidgeting their sprites about, changing expressions, without moving a whole lot, while most of the context and description of what is happening comes from the text box, and this is a primary or predominant section of the game, then that is a visual novel.
The most tricky distinction to make here is between a visual novel and adventure game. From what I have been told, every visual novel is classified as an adventure game in Japan, yet not every adventure game is a visual novel. So, what makes an adventure game a visual novel? Well, that is subjective, and things become even more confusing, as there do exist hybrid visual novels, visual novels that feature more gameplay oriented segments but are still classified as visual novels. A small list of hybrid visual novels would include Zero Escape, due to its escape room puzzles. Danganronpa, due to its investigation and class trial sequences. Ace Attorney, due to its investigation and courtroom sequences. And also Utawarerumono, because it is a strategy game half the time and a visual novel the other half.
As for things that seem like visual novels but are not, I would not consider AI: The Somnium Files to be a visual novel, as it does not present itself as a visual novel, giving the player the freedom to visually explore the world, nudging them to examine things constantly, and generally lacking a prolonged section where the layer just sits back and watches the story progress with no input. Actually, that’s not a half-bad metric.
A visual novel is a game where the story plays out for long stretches of time without asking much involvement from the player and is presented abstractly, forgoing fully detailed cutscenes. Instead, the story is typically presented with character sprites or models, backgrounds, and a dialogue box. While this presentation style is common throughout games, what determines whether or not a title is a visual novel depends on the length and prevalence of these story scenes. This genre can be combined with others and may involve mechanically deep sections, but its classification should be reserved for games where a significant percentage of the player’s time is spent engaging with a story.
…Also, I would like to say that, for the record, genre categorization is a foolish endeavor, as games can be whatever the developers want. They do not always nicely comply with your criteria and commonly become so marred in subgenres that it becomes difficult to determine what the hell something should or should not be categorized.
Part 3 – This Ain’t No Game
Now that we have an idea of what a visual novel is and how they came to be, let’s talk about a bit of an issue that has plagued the genre since its rise in prominence in the west. One of the most common reactions towards somebody not familiar with the genre of visual novels is to question whether or not what it is they are playing or watching in the case of somebody looking at recorded footage, is a game. The reason why this comes up is that visual novels typically are less interactive than most other genres, and in some titles, commonly referred to as kinetic novels, they do not involve any interaction beyond hitting a button in order to make text progress, which can be avoided by using the genre-staple auto-read feature.
This raises the question as to what one classifies as a game, what is and what is not a video game, and what is the minimum level of interactivity that something needs to be classified as a game. I have seen this debate play out several times, and it has always devolved into a battle of differing perspectives and definitions that does not result in any greater insights or a change in opinion from either party.
Personally, however, I see no reason to not treat them or view them as video games, both because of their history and because of the fact that they are a staple, they have been around for about 25 years in their modern format, and they are treated as video games in just about every possible way. Visual novels are made by game developers. They run on video game engines. They are developed for video game systems. They are sold, marketed, and distributed as video games. They rely on hardware to render or display objects and characters, to play music, and to keep track of variables based on player inputs. They have saving and loading systems. And at no point in the evolution of the genre, even after adopting the occasionally used moniker of “novel games”, has anybody made a significant or impactful effort to splinter visual novels into their own medium.
It does not matter if the only gameplay is choices, it doesn’t matter if there are no choices, it does not matter if the game has navigation or puzzle sections. One’s definition of what is and is not a game does not really matter, because the industry has already decided on this matter. They have, and most likely will, continue to treat visual novels as games, as the majority of people who use the term seem to like it, and when you stop and think about it, it is a pretty good indication of what you’re getting.
Part 4 – C;C: Crest of Creativity
Now that we detailed the history, definition, and primary criticism I see levied towards the genre, let’s talk about why I like it so much.
Throughout various reviews, I’ve sporadically discussed three common points that draw me to this genre, and the first reason is the content itself, the creativity seen throughout the genre.
This might raise an eyebrow to some as, to an outsider, the genre is flushed with dating sims, lightly veiled pornography, and is just another permutation of that dirty stinkin’ Japanese anime. Which, in all fairness, does represent a massive chunk of visual novels that hit the market. But to write off the genre as only various permutations of erotic and wish-fulfillment fantasies would be akin to writing off video games as being interactive male power fantasies. You would not be entirely wrong making that claim, but you would be making a sweeping generalization there, mon chère.
Visual novels can be… anything. They can be used to tell literally whatever story you want, the medium is versatile enough to accommodate just about any story idea I can think of, and just to show the variety of this genre, let’s just go through a dozen I’ve covered in the past, in completely random order.
The House in Fata Morgana is a romantic epic involving magical sub-realities, heartbreak, and breaking away against the cyclical cruelty of humanity. All told over the span of a millennium and using some of the most gorgeous painterly artwork and booming score spanning various languages and genres.
Zero Escape is about a gaggle of people shoved into a dire situation where they need to deal with their own suspicions of each other while accessing latent abilities by solving complex puzzles and discovering revelations that aid them in other timelines.
Angels with Scaly Wings is a sci-fi dragon dating sim isekai where you fight against a dimension-hopping terrorist for like half the game.
Danganronpa is about getting to know and associate with a cast of loveable characters, high stakes that drive individuals to do the unthinkable, and prevailing mysteries that culminate in giga-brain uber twists.
Four Horsemen is about a group of immigrant kids trying to find happiness and fulfillment in a nation that hates their very existence and denies them the privileges offered to their native peers.
Lamunation is a dank little morsel writhing with memes, references, and cornball humor contextualized through the lens of a bunch of twenty-somethings enjoying their halcyon summer days by screwing around in more ways than one.
World End Economica is a visual novel about economics, space, space economics, the fickle nature of the stock market, the fragility of relationships, and why you should never trust old white men who praise Donald Trump. Because they’ll physically disable you to make a quick buck!
Higurashi: When They Cry is a legendary saga that blends joyous carefree summer days in rural Japan amongst a group of friends with daunting dread, unrest, paranoia, and gratuitous violence involving underaged anime girls.
Crystal City is an isekai about some dork who bangs a hot girl and lands in a pseudo-utopia where everybody is hot, sex is free, and rampant barely referenced future nonsense is literally everywhere.
Sickness follows a teenage boy down on his luck who takes up the mantle of an assassin in order to protect the prosperity and innocence of his younger sister, but teeters on the brink of his own identity in the process, with a sickening darkness gnawing away at the core of his being.
The Muv-Luv Trilogy is one of the most outlandish bouts of ambition I have seen in media, being a 100-hour epic that goes from a hyperactive and joyous romp that represents an apex for the romantic comedy genre and transitions into a startlingly well-devised and emotionally gripping tale of fighting a losing war against an alien menace.
Saya no Uta is about some young man who gets in a car accident and begins seeing the world as this festering mass of flesh and viscera. In this new arduous existence, his only respite is what he thinks is a little girl, but is actually an eldritch abomination hellbent on the destruction of mankind… not that it stops him from sticking his dick in her.
Do a lot of things overlap in this list of games, like young men and sex? Yes, yes they do. But the sheer volume of things that can be in visual novels, the excess of ideas that can be funneled into this genre, and have it work, is one of the many things that I find so endearing about them. No other genre in gaming can boast this much diversity or can boast this much narrative creativity, and this keeps me interested in the genre no matter how many I go through.
It is home to an excess of creativity, but it is also home to a lot of potential depth due to how the story is the key focus, granting the genre additional room for detail, for character interactions, for minor bits of world-building, and for the story to billow and evolve into something greater. None of this needs to be restrained or balanced against gameplay mechanics, combat, or something that can detract and distract from the story.
If you have long cutscenes in an action game, it sucks, because the core appeal, the player-controlled action, is being broken up by something where they do not have any control. If you have regular combat encounters in a story-driven game, it can be a detriment, as the player might just want to get on with the story and not bother with the combat, especially if the story is at a crucial or suspenseful point.
Visual novels, meanwhile do not feel the need to break up gameplay and story just for the sake of it. They can just be a story, or save the gameplay for when it makes sense contextually, without the player waiting for the gameplay or expecting there to be a gameplay segment every X minutes. To give an example, in the Zero Escape series, the game only switches from its regular visual novel mold to indulge in escape room puzzle solving at set intervals. The game is technically paced around these puzzles appearing after a set amount of time, but never during the game does the lack of escape rooms come across as a detriment, as they are a mechanic dependent on the ebb and flow of the narrative, and come up when it is narratively appropriate.
Or, in other words, one of the reasons why I like visual novels is because they can explore creative and deep stories without needing to compromise to a primary gameplay system or pre-determined gameplay loop. They only need to focus on telling a story, which they can do with the detail, complexity, and prose you seldom see outside of… novels.
Part 5 – A²: Audiovisual Ascension
‘Why would I play a visual novel when I could just read a book’ is yet another criticism of the genre. This, much like claims about visual novels not being games, and them being supposedly misclassified for decades, come across as a mix of ignorance and missing the point entirely. The appeal of visual novels is twofold. Story and presentation. Novels, generally, have a uniform presentation. They are text. The format, font, and physical/digital medium may differ, but at the end of the day, they are text. But visual novels are… visual. They are auditory. They involve more mediums. They can utilize the strengths of all of them, rather than solely relying on the strengths of a novel. If anything, they can be far, far more.
Am I saying that visual novels are inherently better than novels? No, it would be daft to place one medium over another. But would I say that most novels would probably be better if they were visual novels, meaning novels with pictures and music and stuff? …I mean, yeah, at least for the most part. Whenever you mix mediums together, you inherently gain associations that would not exist if you were to experience the medium in its rawest form. Such as how, if one were to simply listen to a song, their impression of it and opinion about it would be different if they were to watch the corresponding official music video of the song. It may enhance their experience, it may detract from it, but it will, almost certainly, result in a different experience, because it is based in a different medium, because it is an inherently different work of art.
What I am saying is that a story can be enhanced by seeing the characters, hearing them talk, having their dialogue presented before the player in isolation, while giving them the ability to read and understand it at their own pace, and not potentially overwhelming or distracting them with a wall of tightly condensed small text. Soundtracks can establish tone. Backgrounds can establish a setting. Sound effects can establish actions as they happen.
These little details can do a lot to make a story more engaging. Giving a character a face with expressions makes it easier to feel for them. Playing appropriate music accentuates the emotion of a scene, and by having sprite-based, or model-based, representations of characters move along a small stage-like environment, fidgeting around as the narration informs the player of the actions they perform, makes said actions feel more real and tangible than they do just by reading the text. Just a little of this can do a lot, and when you throw in CGs, a shorthand for artwork that depicts scenes or events without using the usual sprites and backgrounds, this effect is only more pronounced.
That being said, this presentation style can be criticized for being very simple, barren, and far less visually stimulating than other genres. This… is not an incorrect assessment. The standards imposed on the genre for vibrancy, animation, expression, and overall presentation are not particularly high. It is common for even higher production value visual novels to only bother giving each character a handful of outfits and two poses to go through. While a significant number of these higher production value visual novels feature full voice acting, which does do a dramatic amount to help the presentation, it is common for them to falter on other fronts.
Why is this the case? Well, it was due to technical and budgetary limitations initially, but it has remained with the genre as an accepted style over the years, and I guess the core visual novel audience, myself included, does not necessarily demand these things. That is not to say that it is not widely appreciated when visual novel developers decide to push the envelope with the genre.
This can be seen in the Danganronpa trilogy, whose stylish character designs, gameplay systems, and vibrant UI all mix to create a game that likely has sold itself just through screenshots in the past. Lily’s Night Off, a visual novel whose asset and quality per minute ratio is among the highest I have ever seen in the genre. Press-Switch and Student Transfer, two cobbled together freeware games that manage to somehow look better than the games they’re borrowing assets from. And, of course, the OG god-king ubermensch known as Muv-Luv.
The energy, expression, and motion seen in Muv-Luv blew me away when I played the first 2003 entry in 2017, and god damn does still impress me to no end. The way characters jitter about, occupy 3D space, fluctuate between a wide spectrum of expressions, and are given extra life through the passionate performances of the voice cast represents a high point in the genre for me. Through the refinements and improvements made in its sequels and spin-offs, all of which retain the same visual flair, it continues to represent the high point of the abstract expression of visual novels, and represent one of the best looking series I have ever gotten invested into.
Now, that might sound like an odd sentiment to share as, from a certain perspective, the presentation of a visual novel is inherently limited. Characters in a visual novel occupy what can loosely be described as a stage. The world lacks depth. The characters do not animate with the fluidity and detail found in motion-captured characters. And when compared to the cutscenes and real-time animations of most modern cinematic AAA games, their presentation can be seen as startlingly dated by comparison.
This is a valid criticism to levy towards the genre… but it is yet another that is missing the point of visual novels. Visual novels are presented the way they are for two core reasons. The first of which is that when details are limited, when one needs to only focus on a few things, and when one is looking at something that is mostly static, they often appreciate the movements and details more. When watching a live-action video or an animation, the typical person does not recognize and internalize all details as they play out. They focus on the broad sweeping movements, the big actions being performed, and the background of it all fades away into noise meant to convey and provide context.
I personally much prefer looking at something, taking my time to analyze and understand it, and then moving onto the next thing, as I know my comprehension ability is not the best, and it is easier for me to understand something when I can interpret it at my own pace, or exists in a less detailed environment. This applies to everything from how I learn or retain technical or academic information and how I prefer my media. It is why, as I detailed in Natalie Rambles About Anime, I tend to prefer reading manga or playing a visual novel over watching an anime. Because I can appreciate the details of something that is simpler, something that lacks the production, speed, and ‘noise’ of animation. While visual novels can be animated, they, as a rule, let the player progress the story at their own pace, and do not overwhelm the player with stimulation and details they are not meant to notice.
So, yes, one of the reasons why visual novels are presented this way is to make players appreciate and enjoy the detail that is there, to allow them to sit and notice the careful work done on the character portraits, to let the background sink in, and to admire the expressions on the faces of the characters they are interacting with. What’s the second reason? Well, to give you a short answer: Money.
Part 6 – EƎ: Economic Excellence
Art is ultimately the result of vision and reality clashing together in a manner that ranges from glorious to disastrous, and the one thing that drives all artistic endeavors, regardless of what you have been told or think, is time and money. You cannot make something without the currencies of time and money. It takes time to make a game, it takes money to sustain oneself over time, and in a fantasy ideal reality where those things are infinite or beyond plentiful, then you have a point, everything should be as good as possible… in this fantasy scenario …but we are not in a fantasy scenario.
Everything must compromise with the economics of reality, and I recognize this, I live this, I try my damndest to understand the effort and dedication that goes into making shit, and I am routinely baffled by how much obsessive little detail is thrown into AAA games. How they need to ensure that everything is of this level of excellence when so little of it really matters when so many man-hours are being spent on textures and model details and making animations as realistic as possible. I can respect it, but I view it as a tremendous endeavor that is lousy with diminishing returns— a pursuit unworthy of the resources invested into it. What every AAA developer is doing in creating these gobsmackingly amazing cutscenes, is worthy of praise, but god damn do I wish those resources were used to create something with a more optimal value. And I do not believe there is any game genre where the resources invested in it are better appreciated and more noticeable than visual novels.
Visual novels are one of the most economical ways to tell a story because, at their most basic level, you need four things to make a visual novel. Music and sound effects, a lot of which is just free or cheap depending on what you need. Art assets that can be commissioned from the millions of talented and lovely freelance artists scattered across the internet. A basic understanding of programming, most likely Python in order to use the popular freeware visual novel engine, Ren’py. And a story that is written out and formatted appropriately.
Now, you could look at this and criticize how there are cheaper options. You could just write a novel, make a text adventure, or text-only game. You could just compose a novel. Or you could pair up with an artist to make a comic book. And yes, those are all cheaper ways to go about things, but they lack the same audience, scale, and expression value of a visual novel.
I do not want to break down and compare these mediums against each other, as they all naturally have their own pros and cons. However, visual novels can be literally as long as you want them to be, with many of them exceeding well over the length of your typical novel. The expected level of production values limits the costs of producing or acquiring art assets, as once a developer has a scattering of backgrounds, sprites for every character, a morsel of CGs for key scenes, an album of music to utilize, and a functional framework for animations, expressions, and so forth, you are pretty much good. It can all be done incredibly cheaply, can be sold for significantly more than independently published comics or novels, and is introduced to a potentially wider, and more profitable, audience by being on a video game storefront.
There is a reason why so many developers have turned to visual novels as a way to make a modest profit. Because the design work, mechanic development, and balancing that needs to go into most other game genres is not a requirement when developing a visual novel. You just need to be a writer with a couple thousand dollars who can commission people for art and knows how to find royalty-free or dirt cheap music from places like oo39.com or SLOS. So this and your work will likely gain much more expression and allure than it would have if it was presented only as a piece of writing, or as sequential art. And don’t get me wrong, I love comics, I love novels— I am an amateur novelist for crying out loud. But visual novels have additional benefits, and if you were to assess the economic value of a work as quality*content/costs, I think visual novels are the best bet if you want to tell a story.
And if you want to make a lavish story with more production values? If you want more fluid animations, voice acting, gameplay segments, and
all that cool jazz? You can do it. A lot of people already have. And it turned out great for them. Or if you want to do this on your own, in your free time, as a hobby with no intention of making a dime off it, then you can, and you can make it something fucking amazing if you try hard enough.
Part 7 – Press-Switch & Student Transfer Love Chu Chu!
One might have gotten this far and been wondering what game really and truly caused me to fall in love with the visual novel genre. What opened up my mind to the endless possibilities it held and made me such an unabashed mark for it? Well, while I could cite that playing the first two Zero Escape games in 2012 did a stellar job of introducing me to the genre or how Danganronpa’s winding storyline and loveable cast inspired me greatly as a writer and showed me just how marvelous the genre can be… that is not why I love visual novels. Don’t get me wrong, I love those series. I adore them. But the game that made me realize the true potential and versatility was a title known as Press-Switch.
I have reviewed Press-Switch several times, praised it even more, and made my love and affection for the title abundantly clear. But it also represents something greater to me beyond the content of the game, beyond how it inspired me as a writer, and how much I enjoyed the various permutations of its stories. To me, it is a testament to the versatility and developer accessibility of visual novels. How a person with a degree of technical craftiness, a knack for writing, and a lot of determination managed to create something more expressive and detailed than many professional-tier visual novels.
If it was harder to create a visual novel, these stories might have never been told. These characters might have never been brought to life. And this game likely would not have generated and maintained the following it has today. So much of that has to do with the presentation, the production values available to the developer, Skiegh, and how he took advantage of them. This was the game that made me really acknowledge and appreciate what could be added to a story by taking what could have just been text and developing it into a visual novel. And what furthered that, what helped cement this in my mind as something that anybody could do, was a game inspired by Press-Switch, the collaborative visual novel known as Student Transfer.
Student Transfer is yet another visual novel that I have talked about excessively in the past, praising its approach to its respective subject matter, the quality seen in the story produced by the dev team, both with regards to the actual writing and the increasingly ambitious presentation. With pilfered assets, a functional base established and refined by talented programmers, and a team of dedicated writers who have come and gone over the years, they managed to create immense and expansive in addition to being approachable enough from a technical level to draw in a sub-community of fans who make their own storylines, known as Scenarios.
The creativity, dedication, and production values seen in Student Transfer Scenarios has been amazing me since I explored them in earnest a year ago, and the fact that so many people have a platform like this and can turn their ideas into something greater, manifest them together into a visual novel, is an amazing detail feat. Especially when you consider how many developers have little if any programming experience. The assets, the coding base, everything you need is right there, and anything else you want to do, anything else you want to implement, is well within the realm of possibility.
Part 8 – Make Your Own Damn Visual Novel
Okay, so I love visual novels and I love writing. But I have not written a visual novel or even so much as attempted anything of the sort. I write novels, I write short stories, I write game reviews, I write about video game news, and I write these introspective, personal, and lengthy essays, but not visual novels, even though I know it is easier to do so now that it has ever been. Why is this? Well… it’s because I’m lazy. Because I’m busy with studying and work. And because I am writing a bunch of other stuff.
Assuming I don’t take my hammer and go ♪Pon♪ ♪Pon♪ ♪Pon♪ on my noggin until I can’t think no more, or fall into crippling debt, I will do it. I will write a visual novel, commission the assets, and release it for the world to enjoy. But the visual novel I want to make, my dream visual novel, would be a momentous effort that I am not willing to take at this moment, and before I take that on, I want to finish The Saga of Dawn and Dusk, my regular non-visual text-only novel series. And between Psycho Bullet Festival 2222: The Permutations of Abigale Quinlan, Psycho Shatter 2000: Black Vice Mania, The Dominance of Abigale Quinlan, and Psycho Shatter Alternative: Maples Loves Senpai Kiwami, it’s gonna be a hot minute till I’m through with all that shit.
Once that is done, then I will hop on the visual novel bandwagon with a project I’ve tentatively named (as if everything I’m discussing here isn’t tentative) Psycho Shatter: Vice Novus, or Psycho Shatter VN. Until then, however, I’ll just keep playing the things other people have made.
Kamaitachi no Yoru (Banshee’s Last Cry) (1994)
YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World (1996)
Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet
Corpse Party: Book of Shadows
Highschool Romance: The Magic Trials
My Arch Nemesis Scenario for Student Transfer