Even in the crazy and bizarre gaming world, the visual novel (VN) genre stands out as a particularly interesting platform. With the narrative as its backbone, VNs bring about a type of gameplay that’s perfect for story-focused gamers, as well as those who prefer a more relaxed, non-competitive atmosphere. Although they’ve flown under the radar of many hardcore gamers, they’ve become more visible and dynamic than ever before.

What is a Visual Novel?

Think of a visual novel as a novel that’s been adapted into a video game. They can range from kinetic novels to the standard visual novel. The former refers to non-branching, straightforward storytelling, while the latter is the one with many different routes and pathways a player can take to reach an ultimate result.

They usually have visuals such as backgrounds and sprite characters, voice acting, and sound effects that engross the player and immerse them into the game’s setting. They can look something like this:

“Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc”

More likely than not, you’ve seen or played one! Some notable examples from the pre-2010s era include the Phoenix Wright series, the Fate series, and Steins;Gate. More recent examples are Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Monster Prom, and VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action, with countless others sprinkled in between.

A Brief History

Believe it or not, they’ve been around for over thirty years. Many credit The Portopia Serial Murder Case as the first visual novel, released in 1983. However, they didn’t gain traction in the West until 1988, when Snatcher was released for the Sega CD by Konami.

This story about body-snatchers utilized visual novel techniques to drive gameplay. Furthermore, Snatcher was much more mature and dynamic in its storytelling than its cohorts at the time. These qualities helped VNs get their big break in the West.

Visual Novel

“Snatcher”

For the most part, though, VNs stayed in Japan, either due to a lack of localization efforts or an abundance of… interesting subject matters. However, that would all change in the early 2000s, when fans began to band together and form fan translation teams.

One such team was Oasis, a Dutch translation duo that worked on projects such as Snatcher and Rune Master. The goal was to provide gamers with access to Japan-only content and to help provide Western gamers with a new style of play.

However, many gamers initially rejected the visual novel due to their text-heavy nature. While there were aspects to bring the novels to life, they were also very much just that: novels. Many people preferred the well-established adventure and role-playing games. It took something new and innovative to get people into the VN genre.

Enter Phoenix Wright.

Western Releases

“Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney”

Capcom released Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney in 2005 for the Nintendo DS. Fans raved about the storytelling, as well as the quirky and unique characters and the particularly interesting investigative aspects. The interactive gameplay piqued many fans’ interest in the genre. It absorbed players into the narrative, and this style of the visual novel became an expectation.

VNs started to see much more playtime here in the US. Soon, they were more than mere video games. They were multimedia franchises, spawning merchandise and anime television series that gained massive followings. However, this was not their most recent development. The next and latest step in their evolution is the indie game scene.

Visual Novels and Indie Games: Modern Day

Indie games are famous for being created by non-corporate individuals. Before a couple of years ago, you’d never see them on store shelves. To many gamers, there was something appealing about their non-commercialized nature. They didn’t need to be mainstream, and therefore didn’t particularly care about those standards. They were free to just be games, and highly creative ones at that.

The best part was that anyone could start creating them.

Visual novels, in particular, had amazing accessibility in that their engines were incredibly simple to learn. Programs like Ren’Py became much more popular in that they run on a simple-to-learn language called Python. It’s a language that has something for everyone, from the Day 1 beginner to the Year 30 veteran. These programs allow the creator to be as simple or as complex as they want.

“Doki Doki Literature Club”

Thanks to this, content creators were emboldened. They created more visual novels, and with more visual novels came more players. Youtubers swarmed to these games, doing playthroughs that inspired more people to try out VNs, both creating and playing. One visual novel in particular, however, caused a stir in the game community: Doki Doki Literature Club, by Dan Salvato.

A game about a high school literature club, Doki Doki Literature Club was popular not only due to its narrative and unique characters but also because of its distinct attention to puzzles. This game, at times, requires accessing internal files in order to advance the plot. This created an interesting new challenge for a visual novel and pushed the boundaries of what one could do with the genre.

The Takeaway

VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

The visual novel genre has gone through a lot of changes. It went from being simply a library of multimedia books to being games of unique storytelling and dynamic gameplay. Thanks to the anime and gaming community, VNs became a comparable genre that’s captured the attention of gamers worldwide. It’s also thanks to these communities that VNs can continue to evolve and excel as a viable gaming platform. Try one out sometime; there’s something for everyone.