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Introduction to Visual Novels

Interactive fiction games have been around for some while now: the original grandparents being the old-fashioned, non-linear game books and their more recent, upbeat offspring called text adventures. Whilst the latter only allows software-based text to forge your own path (most often through puzzles), and game books require the reader to choose set options to shape the flow of the story, there is also a third, foreign relative: namely, visual novels.

Gameplay of a Visual Novel

Popular in Asia, these games can be found in almost any genre ranging from romance to horror, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, and tear-jerker melodramas. Minimal gameplay, massive amount of texts, high-quality artwork, sound effects, full voice acting, and background music tend to define them rather well. The idea behind presenting a ‘novel’ in this medium is that the players get to choose between different options in the story by reaching multiple-decision points, which, as a result, triggers different endings of the same plot. The frequency of these choices and the number of different endings varies greatly too. Some visual novels require the players to participate a bit more actively in the game, for example by stat raising, learning different skills, or gathering items.

Sakura Wars - So Long My Love (screenshot)An additional benefit is that ‘re-reading’ or ‘re-playing’ need not be tedious and can actually be hugely rewarding. Options like fast-forwarding help the players skip recurring parts of the story, and saving can be quite useful to avoid bad endings and discover new ones.

Stories are usually narrated in first person, helping people feel more immersed and part of the game. From a visual perspective, these novels offer more than text adventures. Backgrounds change by location, and other characters also appear on screen when they are around or whenever they are talking. One can also unlock detailed CG images at turning points and events, which are also general collectibles with a gallery being built in-game. Animated openings and endings are also not uncommon.

The History of these Visual Novels

Sakura Wars (cover)The first visual novels were developed in Japan in the 1990s. Sega published the Sakura Wars game, which then spawned sequels, an anime, a manga, and various merchandise. Soon after, Leaf announced a number of mystery games and the simple love story, To Heart, which went on to become a massive hit and set the bar for upcoming entries into the genre. In 1999 Key emerged and released Kanon, which also got adapted into different forms of media. Key have been using the same recipe that one them success with Kanon ever since. Generally their releases are dating sims with memorably depressing stories that rarely fail to leave a lasting impression on their audience.

Originally, these games were released on PC, but with time, consoles became an alternative, and by now you can find hundreds if not thousands of different games on any platform of your choice. (Most of these, however, have not been translated into English, so I am merely rambling about the bigger picture here.)

Popularity in the West

Professor Layton (cover)English translations started emerging after 2000, and most of them were PC-only games. After the release of the Nintendo DS, visual novels like Capcom’s Ace Attorney and Level 5’s Professor Layton become pretty big cult-sensations, and these days it is not too difficult to find a visual novel on pretty much any console of your choice.

Another source of English visual novels are the fan-translations that can be installed using an add-on. These patches and updates have been popping up in the world of fan-made contributions for quite some time now, much to the delight of fellow VN-lovers. If you want to stick with games that work ‘out of the box’: MangaGamer, JAST USA, Aksys, and Idea Factory are a few of the companies to watch, as they continue to distribute titles in the West. However, officially localised games are still rather few in number compared to the mass of visual novels available overseas.

Indie Creations

Not sure where to start? There are plenty of free or cheaper indie games out there, many of which compete, in terms of quality and enjoyment to play-though, with those produced by the bigger companies.

Zeiva Inc. have got you covered no matter what type of game you are looking for (romance, adventure, mystery, etc.) and their topics range from time-travel to fantasy worlds or even to questions about the afterlife. With excellent stories and stunning artwork, there really isn’t much more you could ask for from your visual novel experience.

Phoenix Wright (screenshot)SakeVisual is another one of my personal favourites as they are similarly versatile and continuously release high-quality productions. I think these two will have you covered, but if you want to delve further into the world of indie visual games, there are a few websites listing (new) releases out there.

Finally, if you’re feeling inspired and thinking of making your own visual novel, the (free) open source Ren’Py engine is probably the best place to begin. It is the first choice of most indie studios. Ren’Py also supports various operation systems, and there is a lot of help available, should you get stuck or have any questions. Have fun!



  1. Avatar Christopher Keene says:

    You should really check out the aniblog community, they love VN reviews.

  2. […] It didn’t feel quite as detailed as I would have liked it, which is why I’ve decided to write a longer piece on its origins, popularity, and naturally, the gameplay itself. Earlier this week my article on visual novels was published on Fantasy Faction, and you can read it here. […]

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