Historically, visual novels have been a non-entity in the West. Until the turn of the century, their popularity remained almost entirely contained to their native Japan, with only a few exceptions making it through the localization process. It hasn’t been until the last few years, with the unexpected success of titles like the Danganronpa series and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward — the latter of which was surprisingly more popular on this side of the ocean — that the genre has made any headway with Western audiences. With the highly anticipated Steins;Gate making its way to the Vita this week, let’s take a look at what exactly makes this genre tick.
Even if you’re a fan, the visual novel’s niche status probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In many ways, the genre seems an order of magnitude apart from what most people play video games for: it’s slow, text-heavy, generally offering only a few choice opportunities for interactivity. In fact, it’s different enough to make some people wonder what exactly the appeal is, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the changing tides of the industry are really the answer to that question.
As the universe of mainstream games continues to grow and adapt to the times, it often sends out an anomalous ripple effect that somehow pulls the niche a little bit closer to center stage. As an example, storytelling has found new importance as an essential part of AAA titles, particularly as it’s made use of the medium’s interactivity. This probably accounts for at least some of the success of the visual novel, which often allows players to change the outcome of the story being told. In the best examples, it even makes players feel like they’re an active part of the narrative — no small order for anything that involves reading oodles of text.
Part of what helps keep visual novels part of the wider world of video games, rather than just being semi-interactive fiction, is the way the games find unique ways to take player input. Obviously, interactivity is the central part of gaming as a medium; allowing players unique ways to shape their version of the story is crucial to any game’s effectiveness. This isn’t the simple stuff from the days of text adventures, like choosing which room to visit or what item to pick up. These are choices and experiences that bring players right into the narrative itself to help feel like they’re influencing its outcome — even if, as is true in many cases, it has been predetermined.
Here are seven different ways that visual novels have let players dive beyond the text to make important decisions. Please note that not all of the following titles have been explicitly labeled “visual novels”; many of them cross genres in ways that benefit the aforementioned interactivity, but all are at least known for possessing significant elements of the genre that make them part of its niche.