Visual Novels: Why They Are Worth Your Time!

The first visual novel I ever played was a fan translation of One: Kagayaku Kisetsu e (literally meaning One ~To the Radiant Season~). This visual novel (or simply VN) is from 1998 and follows the life of Kōhei Orihara, a high school student who lives from day to day while gradually being drawn into a mystical alternate space known as the Eternal World. I never got to finish each storyline of this VN but the ones I did finish completely and utterly absorbed me. I was hooked, and with most things I was hooked on back then, I usually went and bent the ears of my friends about it. But did I go to school and tell my friends all about my experience with this VN? No, no I didn't.
To give you some context, first we must look at what a visual novel is. In a way you could say that a VN is Japan's answer to one of those old-school text-based adventure games - it's an interactive game that features static graphics, most often using anime-style art. As the name suggests, it is a novel, but instead of putting all the words on the page of a bound book, it is presented with graphics that accompany the text on your PC or game console. Here, let me show you an example.

From the visual novel Clannad.

The story of a visual novel is told from the first person point-of-view of a (commonly male) protagonist as they go through their day to day life. Although some VNs feature plots focused around science fiction and horror, the most common genre of story in this medium is romance - in particular a sub-genre referred to as 'nakige' (literally meaning "crying game"), which often follows this simple formula (thanks Wikipedia for the copypasta): "a comedic first half, with a heart-warming romantic middle, followed by a tragic separation, and finally (though not always) an emotional reunion". A lot of the VNs I have played fall under this subgenre, and although this same formula is used time and time again, each VN I've played found a way to use it in a refreshing way to hold my interest and tap away at my feels.
Of course you couldn't have romance without a love interest, and typically each of these visual novels will feature 5 characters, all complete with character artwork, different facial expressions, voice acting, and their own branching storyline that you are sent down depending on choices you make in the storyline and responses you give to questions (like some kind of romantic Choose Your Own Adventure book). Below is an example of a female character talking to her game's protagonist.

From the visual novel Kanon.

All branching paths must reach a peak though, and this is where I finally get to discuss one of the common traits of visual novels, and ultimately why I held back from discussing my love for VNs to my friends at school: they are commonly marketed towards adults, and when I say adults, I basically mean many VNs include sex scenes.
Some VNs are all about the blue and are basically all based around erotic happenings - I've been at anime conventions where VNs are sold and some of the front covers of these games are obscene (at least by my standards) - while some, like the nakige VNs, use the inclusion of these sex scenes simply as a selling point in order to market what is a beautifully-written story to who I understand to be the typical purchasers of VNs in Japan - people who like hentai (erotic anime). But over time, as some VNs have become more notable for their stories over their sexual content, the developers must have taken notice and realised that there is indeed a market for people like myself who want non-pornographic VNs, because, believe it or not (I know it seems hard for some to believe), I really just want to read these wonderfully-written stories, make choices and interact with the characters

From the visual novel Steins;Gate. 

There are all-ages visual novels available such as Clannad and Steins;Gate (a science fiction VN) that contain no pornographic content and are absolutely fantastic reads, but some of the best visual novels aren't all-ages. There are several fantastic adult VNs that I would recommend to anyone who wishes to experience wonderful storytelling through the medium of visual novel, as long as they are fine enduring the naughty parts. But I do wonder if the VNs I have played really benefit from the erotic scenes placed in them at all. I might even say that these scenes serve to hinder the credibility of these creations - at least in the eyes of those that don't understand - and potentially alienate a large audience of potential fans who may be younger or just not at all into the erotic bits. Companies like Key re-release their story-dominated VNs like Kanon and Air with all the adult content removed - but not all VNs get this treatment.
For example, the snowy, rural town setting and art of Snow Sakura is beautiful, the atmosphere is cosy, the humour is funny and the branching storylines and characters are all varied and really interesting. It's the kind of stuff that could be appreciated by any romance anime-loving young adult... but an all-ages version of Snow Sakura was never released. Another VN, KiraKira is like a VN version of the anime series K-On! but without the immaturity and all the time-wasting (the characters actually play shows and go on a tour), but the all-ages version of the game was only available for the iPhone/iPod Touch and has since been taken off the app store. Imagine recommending any of these great visual novels to a friend who is a fan of romance anime and getting them hyped for a good story and the ability to take control of the main character's choices and responses only to then add 'but there's this one little thing that might put you off - there's porn scenes'. A more closed-minded friend's thought process will go from, 'wow, my friend is such a connoisseur of great alternative storytelling mediums!' to blurting out, 'holy shit that's really creepy, you pervert!', to which you will respond, 'but I don't care about that bit! I just really love the story!' to which they will respond: 'yeaaaah, sure. That's what they all say.'
But like everything I talk about on Alt:Mag, and one of the things I always stress in these articles I write, is that you should never feel ashamed to love something that isn't necessarily loved by the masses. Watching anime, playing obscure retro games, buying Lego as an adult... there is nothing wrong with loving any of that. You should chat away to your friends about the things you love to your heart's content. But I always find myself not talking about visual novels in regular conversation due to their heavy association with erotic content, in the same way (I am sure many of us) wouldn't recommend a porn movie to a friend. I want to recommend visual novels in the same way I recommend people a good book, or a video game with some excellent storytelling. I think Visual Novels deserve to be seen as art just as much as any of these do.  
With the success of some all-ages VNs and RPG-visual novel hybrids like Persona, this style of gameplay - in all its choice making, dialogue responding glory - is being brought to the masses, making VNs more understood by those who may not have given them the time of day before. It's a really positive step for the genre and hopefully this will bring forward a change, and more money will be invested into getting more VNs translated. In the past many visual novels have sadly not made it over to English speaking terroritories. Some (such as Kanon) made it over in the form of a translation patch, but some that are considered greats in Japan haven't been translated at all, such as Studio Mebius' 2003 visual novel Snow. Hopefully we'll see less gems confined to Japan in the future.

From the (sadly not translated) visual novel Snow.

It took me many years to properly put into words why I adore playing visual novels but I finally explained it properly in my article about Blue Breaker: "I like romance stories and [...] I like the idea that I get a choice over how the romance between the protagonist and the chosen love interest of a story pans out."
I myself am a fiction writer and although my stories are usually comedy-based, there is always some kind of romantic love interest that I'll throw in for good measure, because there is nothing more rewarding to myself as an author than weaving love stories between my characters. On the other hand though, I have watched romance films like Four Weddings and A Funeral and (dreadful) romance anime series like Mashiro-iro Symphony: The Color of Lovers (which, coincidentally, is an adaptation of a visual novel) where the romance just fell flat on its face and wasn't executed well. In these situations I wish I could dive into the plot and have some kind of control over the outcome of the events, or even have the protagonist chose a different character as their love interest, making for a much more satisfying love story. Although the narrative is restricted to some extent in VNs, they do give you this kind of power over a storyline. It's just like playing an anime - with you as the main character.
In the case of the visual novel Kanon, I was such a huge fan of the anime series it was adapted into that I just wanted to live it. I wanted to immerse myself into the plot and chose my direction. Kanon even gives you the option of naming the protagonist (an uncommon option in VNs, but not unheard of), meaning that you can immerse yourself even more into the events that unfold - and of course because the protagonist is not voiced or shown - there is no reason why the person who gets to live in the beautiful snowy city of Kanon can't be you.

From the visual novel Katawa Shoujo.

So, that's my discussion, and my defence of visual novels - an incredibly niché, but absolutely wonderful medium of storytelling from Japan. Hopefully anyone who reads this article who is yet to experience a VN will now have their interest piqued and go check out one of the VNs I have mentioned throughout this article (some are easy to get hold of, while some require some deeper searching, and then possibly a translation patch) or maybe you read this article and it changed your mind about something? Maybe you didn't understand the appeal of playing a visual novel over watching its anime adaptation or maybe you had been misinformed about VNs and simply thought that they were just straight-up porn. Either way, this article really reminded me of how much I enjoy playing these obscure Japanese treasures, so if you don't mind, I'm off to go load up Steins;Gate on my PS Vita.

Have you played a visual novel before? Which one? Do you have a hard time convincing your friends that they are actually a credible style of storytelling and not just cartoon smut? Let us know in the comments below!

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2020 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.