Books come to life – a brief introduction to visual novels

Gare – Tuesday, July 22, 2014 1:59 AM
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Japanese visual novels – what exactly are they? Allow me to talk about just that for a little while, as the medium itself, to this day, is somewhat of a niche, both in Japan and the West – but more so in the West, naturally. As such, it might need a bit of introduction for most people.

So what is a visual novel?

So let’s start with the “what”. Visual novels (from now on, VNs), simply put, can be imagined more or less as the modern equivalent of the so-called Choose Your Own Adventure books of the old days. You experience a story told primarily through text – detailed narration and dialogue between characters, much like in a plain old novel –, with visuals to help you. Said storyline is quite often told from the first person perspective of the protagonist, whose narrated thoughts and inner monologues often make the experience that much more personal and relatable.

In the case of many a VN, visuals do play a key role as well, with most titles featuring a large variety of still backgrounds, illustrations and character sprites to help paint the picture, and background music as well as voice acting to further enhance the mood. In other words, VNs are books come to life – “visual” novels in the strictest sense of the word. While the stereotype about VNs being nothing more than dating simulators exists – and let’s be clear: many do actually fall under this category –, visual novels can be just as varied as regular novels or video games, dealing with everyday life, fantasy, sci-fi, horror and a myriad of other topics and themes.Some will simply tell you a story in a linear fashion, with a single ending and no input required from you other than advancing text, while others will follow the adventure game formula by presenting the player with a number of choices.

On choices and multiple endings

These choices, in many cases, actually alter the outcome of the storyline in a drastic way, potentially leading to one of the game’s multiple endings. Of course, not all VNs have these choices, and not all of them include several endings, but it’s a fairly common trait – and that’s where things get exciting. Several VNs feature different story branches commonly referred to as routes, where an entire portion of the story – not just, say, the ending – ends up being notably different from the rest, with different storylines to tackle and potentially different characters making appearances. As such, one character that featured prominently in one route may end up taking the backseat in another, and so on. In a way, the story’s potential is basically being explored in full with a series of “what if” scenarios.

Some basic and notable examples

The vast majority of the genre does stay in Japan without ever leaving its shores, although localization efforts are hardly non-existent. While most VNs do actually cater to a mature audience and therefore often contain sexual content, titles suitable for younger audiences also exist – in fact, you may have already played a visual novel without realizing it was one. The Ace Attorney series is one prime example of a VN telling a linear story while also adding some gameplay elements in the form of the famed cross-examinations in court, while the cult hit DS game 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors – or its sequel, titled Virtue’s Last Reward – add intricate puzzles to liven things up between their respective text-based story segments. As far as more “traditional” titles are concerned, the two major companies to look out for – as far as English localization is concerned – are JAST USA and MangaGamer, with both companies selling a decent lineup of titles. One of JAST’s latest additions to its catalogue was, in fact, the time travel visual novel Steins;Gate, the original work upon which the popular anime series was based; while another fan favorite is Saya no Uta (Song of Saya), a story of twisted love penned by none other than Gen Urobuchi of Fate/zero and Madoka Magica fame. Two more upcoming titles worth considering are Grisaia no Kajitsu (by courtesy of Sekai Project, a fairly new player on the field) and Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning, both of which we have covered just recently. Western attempts at capturing the magic of the genre have also been made, most notably by Christine Love and her dystopian AI love story, Analogue: A Hate Story, currently available on Steam.

While VNs, I do admit, will most likely not be everyone’s cup of tea, if everything you’ve seen and read above piqued your curiosity at least a little bit, don’t hold back and give them a try. And gamers that already like books – and reading in general – may even find something new and exciting on the relatively unexplored territory that is the visual novel.

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