If there's one genre that has struggled for many years to catch on in the west, it's the visual novel. Containing primarily text, still images and music, visual novels feature limited amounts of gameplay that oftentimes involves little more than making a choice. Some would argue that these experiences don't qualify as games due to their limited interactivity, but I think that's entirely subjective.
The other argument that one often sees is that with film, books and games, is there any reason for something like a visual novel to exist? Why play a VN when you could simply read a book, watch a movie or play a "real" game?
The answer is not quite as difficult as some would make it out to be. Follow me after the break as I talk about visual novels and the strength of narrative.
It's imperative that I clarify just what I am referring to when I say visual novel. This particular genre is perhaps the most common of them all in Japan for a very simple reason; they're cheap and easy to make. Voice work is optional, so anybody with artistic talent and a mind for programming can go out and create a game, quality notwithstanding. In the case of the porn industry, pornographic visual novels are king. Walk into any anime store with an adults only section and you'll be surrounded by boxes of visual novel games with little to differentiate one from the other. Within this mountain of hundreds upon hundreds of games, only a handful ever transcend their own sexual content to become a worthwhile experience. In those very few cases however, the sex is often times either extremely forced and unnatural, or it fits the tone and actually serves the narrative; very rarely does it walk the middle line. Many people with little knowledge of the genre sometimes fail to see past the mountains of erotic games, unaware that there's a bountiful amount of non-pornographic visual novels on the market. It is those games (and their rare 18+ equivalents), that I refer to below.
For those of you who have never played/read a visual novel before, the basic concept is as follows: games are composed primarily of text with a static image in the background. Music is a key component in this genre and you'll often come across games that have huge track lists. Every so often, you'll have to make a decision which will alter the narrative. Depending on the visual novel you're playing, these can be frequent or few and far in-between. The bigger budget projects will be fully voiced, though even big names like Type Moon sometimes skip this entirely (see Witches in the Holy Night). It should be noted that while great artwork is certainly a plus and can improve an experience, bad artwork doesn't necessarily ruin a game.
In a visual novel, narrative is the center of the entire package and if it doesn't function properly, the entire thing comes crashing down. Unlike any other genre in gaming save for perhaps sports, visual novels have nothing else to fall back on because they're already incredibly stripped down experiences. An action game can still be praised for its amazing story even if the gameplay or visuals aren't quite up to par (see Nier). If the writing in a visual novel is weak, there is no reason to continue playing. Even the pornographic subgenre can function without a solid narrative if its focus is primarily on the sexual content.
It is because visual novels focus on narrative that they have substantially more time to introduce characters and develop the in-game world; the average VN is quite long. Take for example Aksys Games' upcoming Vita/3DS adventure game, Virtue's Last Reward, the sequel to the DS game 999. VLR starts off relatively slowly, taking the time to properly introduce each character enough so that you begin to care about them early on. This connection provides the basis for a player finishing a VN, as one would naturally want to see where these characters end up. Virtue's Last Reward took me approximately 48 hours to complete, but by the end I was ready to see where the cast ended up next. I'm aware that VLR isn't purely a text adventure game, but the puzzles make up a small portion of the experience.
Visual novels benefit from their small budgets because it allows the developers to focus their energies in other areas, particularly the music. Take Umineko no Naku Koro ni for example (PC version). The artwork is average at best and there is no voice acting whatsoever. Perhaps even more interestingly, there are no choices to be made; the game instead compels you to try and figure out the mystery along with the main character Battler. What this means is that the game is entirely dependent on its narrative and score. This is where visual novels truly begin to separate themselves from novels, film or TV.
Music sets the tone of a sequence and has the ability to make something read completely different than it did before. It's akin to listening to a certain piece of music while reading a book and having it fit perfectly; scenes can be greatly enhanced through correct use of audio. At the same time, visual novels can be as descriptive as the average novel. A well written story when combined with the proper music can be a deadly combination, creating an incomparably clear image of a sequence in the player's mind. Steins;Gate is another solid example of the power of audio, using subtle musical tracks to create a sense of mystery and dread even as the game takes hours to build up to its first real plot beat. Arguably not all visual novels take advantage of this, but that's what separates the good from the bad.
While it's a genre that may never be fully accepted or appreciated in the west, visual novels have unlimited potential to tell rich, nuanced and fascinating stories because of their ability to combine some of the best qualities from each type of media. Unfortunately the VN market is overly saturated with poorly made titles, making finding the great stuff more difficult than it should be. That doesn't change the fact that there's a lot of great out there and I highly implore you to give the genre a try if you've ever been on the fence.
You might find yourself surprised after spending 30 hours with your first visual novel. I know I was.
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