Repost – What is a visual novel?

This blog has been going on for a long time so I’ve decided to repost some of the old blog entries for those who may have missed them the first time around.

What is a visual novel?  Visual novel (aka. sound novel, depending on whether the focus is more on the art or music) is a video game genre.  They’re extremely popular in Japan, though mostly unknown in the US.  There are a lot of reasons for why visual novels rarely make the jump overseas, but one of the main ones is that visual novels are often made by small indie studios without the knowledge, connections, funding, and the like to translate and successfully market their games in foreign countries.

Over the last few years, visual novels have made a little bit of headway in English speaking countries.  Both JAST and MangaGamer license, translate, and release a number of visual novels in the US, with XSEED and NIS releasing the rare title as well.  There are also a number of translation groups creating free translation patches for popular visual novels that have yet to see an official localization (which is most of them).  Though it’s still rare for anyone other than hardcore fans of Japanese anime, manga, and/or games to know about them.  However, even if you’ve never heard of visual novels, you might be familiar with some of the many popular anime and manga series based on them, such as Fate/Stay Night, Higurashi, Umineko, Kanon, Clannad, and Stein’s Gate, just to name a few.

But enough background.  As the name implies, a visual novel is in many ways similar to a regular novel.  The player spends most of his or her time reading text, though visual novels are typically written in first person present tense in order to help the player identify more with the main character.  Despite that, the main characters are rarely blank slates, and tend to have distinct personalities and backstories.

But visual novels are far more than text.  The “visual” portion comes in the form of high quality drawings of the characters and locations featured in the story.  While they often stop far short of true animation, your typical visual novel tends to include a considerable number of illustrations, which change to match whatever the player is currently reading.

Then there’s the sound.  In addition to the art, visual novels contain sound effects and background music to further enhance each scene.  Some go a step further and include voice acting for some or all of the characters.

But visual novels are more than just extra fancy ebooks, they’re video games. And, as such, there’s gameplay involved.  If you’re familiar with the old kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure book series, you already have a good idea of how a visual novel plays.  As the story progress, the player will often get to choose what the main character will do, with those decisions changing the way the story progresses.  Some visual novel have only a handful of choices throughout the course of the story while others have dozens.  The effects of a choice could be minor, only making a small adjustment to the current scene, or they could completely change the rest of the story.

But, compared to Choose Your Own Adventure books, the stories in visual novels are considerably longer (often on par with one or more full length print novels), with deep plots and well developed characters.  In my opinion, they provide some of the best examples of player driven storytelling to be found, and some of the best stories I’ve seen in any medium are visual novels.  So, inspired by my favorite Japanese titles, I decided to make one of my own…but that’s a story for another time.

A few side notes to further clarify things…

  1. Text heavy adventure games (such as the Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and Zero Escape series) are occasionally classified as visual novels here in the US. While they are text heavy and contain various choices for the player, they also have a heavy focus on puzzle solving, something you won’t find in a traditional visual novel. That said, the visual novel genre is occasionally combined with others such as adventure, RPG, and strategy.
  2. Visual novels are not to be confused with dating sims (another mostly Japanese exclusive genre). While some visual novels have very romance heavy plots, dating sims focus primarily on time management and learning the likes and dislikes of the various characters so you can win their affection with the proper words, gifts, etc. Visual novels lack those elements, and tend to have much more complex plots.
  3. A number of visual novels are decidedly “adult” in terms of content, and can be quite graphic. In some games, such events and scenes are the main focus on the plot. In others, they’re simply tossed in because it’s expected (such as the token sex scene in most R rated movies), and have little importance to the story.  However, it’s important to note that many visual novels are appropriate for all ages and even a lot of the more popular adult games go on to get an all ages rerelease.  For the record, Aurora’s Nightmare will not contain any such content and will likely have a T rating.