Visual novels are interactive stories which often take the forms of click through story books with large amounts of text or linear adventures in which the main features are the stories and character interactions. Visual novels can be kinetic meaning that they are linear and feature only one ending or they can have a branching plot and multiple endings which are often determined by the actions the player chooses to take in the game. The history of visual novels dates back to the early 80s in Japan but they did not become popular or well received in western culture until more recently perhaps due to the differences in culture as well as translation issues. During many of the early attempts to make visual novels mainstream in North America the genre was often refused by gamers due to the fact that many would not accept it as a game genre at all. One of the most unfortunate and unforgettable failures was during the western localization of the beautiful and highly immersive visual novel Ever 17. The game was released in physical format which is rare and sought after format for most visual novels nowadays. Unfortunately, at the time of the game’s release their were not enough gamers who were willing to pay what was considered a high price for a genre which many did not consider valid despite its high quality. It wasn’t a complete failure as the beautiful graphics and immersive world were enough for the genre to be considered an artistic and emotional experience for those who did give it a chance. We still do not receive physical releases of most visual novels but it was inevitable due to a large portion of the gaming industry changing and going digital.
During the early 2000s a new virtual gaming platform known as Steam was introduced to gamers who enjoy gaming from their computer. The platform gave audiences world wide access to great games that were previously unavailable to audiences outside of Japan save for expensive imports. Many of the great visual novels we can find on Steam would have otherwise been difficult for us to obtain in languages other than Japanese without having to download them illegally and obtain language patches that are often of low quality. Not only are we able to access far more visual novels thanks to Steam but we are able to legally purchase them in digital format and many of them are cheap especially during sales. As further incentive Steam versions of the visual novels and other games include many bonuses such as achievements and virtual trading cards. One of the earliest visual novels to make it to Steam was a dark science fiction indie visual novel titled Analogue: A Hate Story. It took several years until Steam had finally received a visual novel from a more renowned visual novel developer. The very first visual novel from a large Japanese Developer to be published on Steam was the dark and beautiful post-apocalyptic visual novel Planetarian. While It was not as popular or well known in Japan as many other titles developed by Visual Arts/Key it was still one of many beautiful and emotional visual novels that pulled many visual novel fans into the genre. Key is a sub-brand of Visual Arts and has also played a “key” role in the creation of visual novels as we them today.
Most of the character art in tradition visual novels tend to remain static with occasional facial animations to bring more life to the characters. Some of our more modern visual novels give characters more movement and might even allow you to move the character around freely while you play through the story. Visual novels such as To The Moon and Cherry Tree High allow you to move the characters freely as you follow through the story. To the Moon features a linear story in which there are no branching paths and there is only one achievable ending while Cherry Tree High allows you to choose who the character interacts with and what the do in turn allowing the player to effect the ending. The number of endings in visual novels an vary greatly from one visual novel to another. The deceptively cute visual novel titled Season of 12 Colors features only two achievable ending which are the normal and true endings. Visual novels with only two ending often have simple yet hard to discover requirements such as clicking on a specific object or in some cases just playing through a second time. Many other visual novels such as X-Note or Clannad have larger numbers of routes which often require you to maintain a relationship with a single character over all others. X-note is a dark science fiction raising sim with otome elements while Clannad is a cute slice of life dating sim but both visual novels allow you to determine the character’s ending based on the decisions you make in the game.
With so many visual novels to choose from what makes some higher quality or more mainstream than others? To answer this question we must take a look at some of the most important qualities that are necessary in any visual novel. The most important thing is that every visual novel must have a story that is both immersive and meaningful in some way or another to pull the player in. A visual novel also must have interesting and well written dialogue which also properly conveys the correct emotions for each of the events in the game. If the dialogue is not properly translated or does not properly convey much emotion the reputation of a visual novel can be significantly damaged despite the quality of the story or graphics. If the story is uninteresting or lacks depth there is far less of a chance that a player will want to continue through the visual novel. While the graphics might be enough for a small hand full of visual novel fans if the dialogue or story is low quality a visual novel loses most of its value. Some visual novels go above and beyond as they have great dialogue, a high quality or in depth story, and beautiful graphics which are also complimented by an emotional soundtrack. Some of the effective visual novels when it comes to invoking specific emotions are Narcissu and Ame no Marginal. Both of these games have tragic stories that make you feel sympathy for the characters but the emotional music in both of the games further strengthens the emotions the player feels toward the characters and their tragic stories. Music is an important addition to any visual novel and can be a great tool to further set the mood of the game. There are many other qualities that go into the creation of visual novels but it is important for each of us to determine which ones are most important for ourselves.
For the longest time I had trouble finding reasons to deviate from only playing games from the role playing genre. Role playing games have high quality stories, extensive gameplay, intriguing dialogue, vast worlds, and interesting characters. I had an incredibly hard time finding many of these important qualities in other genres of video games and was even skeptical at first of trying visual novels. I was convinced to try out the visual novel Narcissu after it sat in my Steam library for months. Since playing the first in the Narcissu series I have taken an equal interest in visual novels and have since enjoyed many other beautiful and emotional titles such Planetarian, Ame no Marginal, and Season of 12 Colors. I tried many other visual novels which all had tragic stories and interesting characters that further pulled me into their deep and meaningful worlds. Visual novels feature stories which are often equally immersive to those of role playing games and graphics that are often even more enchanting. The quality storytelling, immersive worlds, well written dialogue, intriguing characters, and emotional soundtracks all play important parts in the creation of many of the high quality visual novels that exist today. With so many different types of visual novels to choose from there is practically something for everyone.