What are Visual Novels?
If you’ve seen enough anime or played enough video games, you’ve probably heard of visual novels online at least once in your life. But what are visual novels, exactly? And are visual novels anime??? Well, technically speaking, a visual novel is an interactive fictional game where the actions and choices of the main protagonist affect the outcome of the game. Just like in life, your choices affect your path in the video game, but while it may seem simple, visual novels are a bit more complex than that!
Generally visual novels tend to be text heavy, which allows for easy narration and describing the events as they occur in the game. At certain intervals in the game, the player will be given a few choices that will ultimately affect how the plot will unfold and how the game will end. When you opt to play a visual novel, be prepared to go through a lot of text before you are given a a chance to make a choice!
It is not good to play by halves. The play is fun because I do it seriously. You should do what you decided seriously.
— Kyousuke Natsume, Little Busters!
Although it’s not a criteria of a visual novel, many visual novels tend to involve a romance between the player and one of the eligible bachelors/bachelorettes that are made available in the game. You may have seen this scenario plenty of times in an anime. It’s called the harem or the reverse harem! Both situations involve a courtship between the main character and several others. Choices…choices…
If you are looking for a harem visual novel to play, you may want to check out Cross+Channel, which has had several different adaptations including a sequel for the android! Or you’ll want to consider playing Muv-Luv, probably the most popular visual novel in Japan with an English release in the works! Now, for you reverse harem fans out there, the Amnesia visual novels are one of the top games in Japan and recently had an English release in North America! Luckily there are a lot of translated english visual novels for you to sink your time into.
There are two types of plot structures in visual novels: multi-route and single route. A multi-route visual novel will allow the player to make their own choices so that they can experience different plot lines. Take into account the Story of Seasons franchise in which you can court multiple characters to see their romantic cut scenes and rival cut scenes before finally deciding on a partner. A multi-route game will allow you to see more plot lines in a single play through. If you’re interested in a multi-route game, you may want to consider the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Series which allows you to create social links with multiple people to build better relationships. You can actually form several romances, but in the end, you do have to pick someone for the important events like Valentine’s Day!
Then there’s a single route plot line which locks you into a single plot from the start and no matter what choices you make, the story stays the same while the ending may differ from bad, normal, or good. Your choices still matter in this style of gaming, but you can easily see all of the events for a single character this way. Amnesia: Memories is a good example as you choose what route you want to play at the beginning and are locked onto that route, although your choices may change the outcome of the game.
Eroges vs Vanilla
Just like in the world of anime, fan service is key to selling a visual novel. This has resulted in two types of visual novels: Eroges visual novel (erotic or adult games) and Vanilla visual novel games. Technically, a single game can be both an eroge and a vanilla game because there could have been two versions released of the same game. If you wonder what I mean by two versions, consider taking a look at Cross+Channel, which is an eroge for PC, but when it was ported to the PS2 and PSP, a vanilla version was created for the port. As you can see, a game can have an H version and a vanilla version. Who says eroges can’t be family friendly?
Of course, just because a game is an eroge doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to play. Don’t be scared of all the fan service. There’s a lot more to eroges than boobs and sex, though you might enjoy that too.
Visual Novels vs Similar Games
Typically, visual novels have the same graphic design as anime and may have similar animations, but that does not mean an anime game is the same as a visual novel. Anime game is a category for games made based on an anime or manga such as the upcoming Himouto! Umaru-chan PS Vita game, the Naruto game franchise, or even Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon video games. These are all games that were created based on the anime or manga.
Another thing to note: although visual novels do involve a courtship between two or more of the characters, it does not mean that all dating sims are visual novels. The dating simulation is just one aspect of a visual novel! Visual novels play out more like novels while dating sims are more RPG-like gaming giving the player many more choices to pursue their desired route than any visual novel. If you’re wondering what counts as a dating game, take a look at Love Revo! which is a dating sim that allows you to freely pursue any character and spend your free time as you like. The story unfolds as you get closer to other characters, but aside from that, there is no other story telling elements to Love Revo!
You also can’t forget indie games. Indie games tend to change the world of gaming and it’s no different in visual novels. If you want a visual novel with no boundaries, you may want to consider a few indie game designers! It’s always fun to try something different.
Visual Novels in Anime
As stated earlier, if you’ve watched anime, you’ve probably come across a visual novel at least once. What you may not have known is that a large number of anime on the market are based on visual novels. This is different from an anime game because the anime are made based on the visual novels rather than the opposite.
Boobs, boobs, and more boobs! You’ll be surprise to find that many of your favorite ecchi anime are based on visual novels. What should you look out for? Harems! Since harems are common in visual novels, it’s no surprise that a good amount of the harems on the market are actually based on visual novels. This would include anime such as Amagami SS, Amnesia, and Kimi ga Nozomu Eien.
Amagami SS is a rather uncommon anime because unlike other anime based on visual novels, it shows you many different routes you can choose from and the outcome rather than creating a situation in which all the characters fall for the protagonist leaving a more ambiguous ending like in Kimi ga Nozomu Eien.
Can’t lie though, the ambiguity makes it more appealing to buy the game so you can get your own happy (or sad) ending!
Of course, not every harem is a visual novel and not every visual novel is a harem.
Types and Features of Visual Novels
Now, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more common types of visual novels that you’ll come across! (With the added benefit of a visual novel recommendation list~)
Slice of Life
Games are games. Reality is reality. Those who try to link them together are the ones who can’t tell the difference.
–Keima Katsuragi, The World God Only Knows
A genre that you’ll only find in Japan, slice of life is a common genre describing life in general such as school life, work, or even life as a NEET. While they may seem mundane, many visual novels and anime fall under this category and many of them are made into actual anime. Never underestimate Japanese genres!
To Heart and The Fruits of Grisaia are great visual novels to play for those who want to try out school life anime. They both are harem visual novels centered around school life, but don’t worry, there’s enough to the plot that you don’t feel completely repelled if you haven’t been a student for some time.
Just like in novels, another popular genre of visual novel would be science fiction. Science fiction usually deals with alternate realities, fantasy, and technological advancements in society, which makes them more complex than other visual novels in many ways. Science fiction visual novels bend reality providing a more rich take on what we know to be slice of life. You’ll love this genre if you’re a fan of fantasy novels, time travel, and multiple dimensions!
Now, you should try playing Stein’s Gate or Chaos;Head and you’ll get what I mean. The plots are pretty intricate, but it makes them so exciting to play! Dangan Ronpa is another popular one that actually doubles as an RPG hybrid.
Life was not born to give up.
— Kagari, Rewrite.
Nakige literally means “crying game“. It’s a subgenre of visual novel with the sole intention of creating sympathy in the player for the characters of the video game and evoking tears from the player.
Typically, nakige contain dramatic plots with a great amount of tragedy surrounding each character. The deeper you delve into a relationship, the more you find out about a character’s past, but you can’t stop once the secrets start to divulge!
A huge company that makes nakige would be Key, famous for its games Clannad, Air, and Kanon. Heard of them? Bet you have! They also had their own anime adaptations that tugged on the heart strings of hundreds of thousands of fans all over the world! Hell, Clannad managed to outsell Call of Duty: Black Ops III on Steam for a short while.
Horror & Mystery
If you’re looking for visual novels with a bit more umph, you might want to check out the horror and mystery genre. Like most novels, horror and mystery include gore, shocking scenes, gruesome deaths, complicated plots, and unanswered questions. There’s a lot that goes on in this genre! Plus, the companies that produce them really like to add to the shock value of their games so it’s hard to find a game that won’t at least surprise you, if not terrify you.
Many visual novels in this category may contain puzzles and mysteries that need to be solved. Nine hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is a Nintendo DS visual novel with numerous shocking outcomes and puzzles to be solved, if you’re looking for a little horror fun. You can also try the ever popular Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni which will definitely shock you with the horrific events contrasted by their cute faces. If you’re also feeling up to it, School Days is a game that is famous for its shocking endings. There’s over 20 endings and believe me, most of them are bad!
Taking all of the other suggestions into account, you may want to consider an RPG-hybrid game if you want something that has more interactive features rather than a text based story.
RPG-hybrids will employ a fairly detailed plot with interactive features such as a battle system, mystery solving, and puzzles or mini games. Many of them have a dating sim feel to them, but for the most part, the plots are adventure based.
When considering an RPG-hybrid before you dive into the world of visual novels, you may want to try out a game like BlazBlue, which is extremely popular both in and out of Japan, Daiteikoku which is a game that parodies WWII in space. These games are great if you’re looking for a cross between an RPG and a visual novel.
With those in mind, there are a lot of different types of visual novels available out there. They aren’t all boobs! Some have intricate plots, exciting mysteries, bloody homicides, and much more! Now, go on and try out a few. I know you want to.