What’s a Visual Novel?

Pretty much everyone familiar with Japanese pop culture knows about anime and manga, but you may not be as familiar with another facet that’s pretty big in Japan but just now gaining traction overseas: the world of visual novels. A visual novel is a style of video game that involves more reading than button-mashing gameplay. In fact, it can be helpful to think of them as “choose your own adventure” books with tons of character art and full voice acting rather than games in the normal sense. Although they occasionally come out on consoles, the overwhelming majority are played or read on PC.

There are lots of reasons to pay attention to visual novels. Not only do they have plenty of intrinsic entertainment value, but they heavily influence the anime industry as source material. Fate/stay Night, Clannad, Higurashi: Whey They Cry, Little Busters, Amagami SS, Steins Gate, Ef: Tale of Memories and Melody, School Days, and Shuffle all started life as visual novels, just to rattle off a few. Some of them feature deep, rich plots and characterization most anime would envy. So why is this genre of game so little-known outside of Japan?

Oreimo - Eroge 4

As Kyosuke here found out, a high percentage of visual novels are eroge (“erotic games”), meaning they contain some degree of explicit sexual material. This begs the question: why would visual novels intentionally pigeon-hole themselves in the 18+ market? The answer lies in the genre’s origins: back when they started in the 1980s and early 1990s, pretty much all visual novels were straight-up porn. However, over time more and more developers started adding complex plots and characterization to the games, and nowadays many boast stories you could call “high art” with blinking.

Some visual novels have left the 18+ material behind entirely, and these are advertised as all-ages. In recent years, the emergence of Steam as a PC gaming powerhouse has provided a growing market for all-ages visual novels. It has also created a strong impetus for many companies to remove adult content from some games where its importance was marginal in the first place, creating all-ages versions of titles such as When My Heart Had Wings and Littlewitch Romanesque.

With that said, quite a bit of the visual novel market is still dominated by eroge. Even so, it’s important to note that not all eroge are cut from the same cloth. Eroge is a curious genre in that while it does contain explicit sexual content, that may not be its main focus or selling point. For example, games such as Katawa Shoujo or Yumina the Ethereal do contain sex scenes, but if they were completely removed or avoided, you would still be playing an excellent game. Unlike in Western entertainment where explicit material and deep, complex stories tend to segregate like oil and water, you’ll often find them in unashamed admixture within eroge. Many of these are honestly touching or suspenseful stories where characters just happen to get nekkid and make whoopie.

Yumina - It's that kind of game
Source: Yumina the Ethereal

Of course, many eroge never wandered away from the genre’s original purpose. These games, a subgenre of eroge called nukige, are overwhelmingly pornographic in presentation and content. If you think the distinction between story-based eroge and nukige sounds confusing, I can guarantee it’s probably less confusing than you think. It shouldn’t take more than a quick look at the title or cover art to tell that Princess Evangile and Family Project will be completely different experiences from Amorous Professor Cherry or My Sex Slave is a Classmate.

Haganai - Eroge
If you still aren’t sure, use the test Yozora posed to Sena in Haganai.

The last thing to mention is that visual novels often have very different levels and styles of interactivity. A few, called sound novels or kinetic novels, don’t offer the player any branching choices whatsoever, and the story is predetermined and just meant to be read and experienced. This lack of interactivity raises the question of whether sound novels should be considered “games,” but otherwise the play style is similar to any other visual novel. (Higurashi: When They Cry was a sound novel.)

The most common gameplay style in visual novels by far is the “branching plot” narrative, where 90% of the game is simply reading, but the player will be offered a choice of options at critical points in the story that will affect the long-term outcome. Pretty much all dating sims (visual novels where you embark on a romance with one character among many… usually) use this gameplay style. However, you’ll also find it in mystery, horror, action, comedy, and pretty much any other genre. Note that if you see a game advertised as otome, that means it’s a female heroine picking among a harem of guys rather than vice-versa. Most branching-plot visual novels offer a mixture of good and bad endings, though a few darker games offer mostly or all bad endings. School Days, in particular, is notorious for its many train-wreck outcomes, one of the worst of which was adapted for its anime. But moving ahead…


Finally, in addition to sound novels and branching-plot games, there are also visual novels out there that include a lot of legitimate gameplay more typical of a regular video game than a “choose your own adventure” book. I’m personally familiar with titles that are puzzle games, strategy games, and RPGs of several flavors (turn-based, card-based, and action) that offer dozens of hours of real-time gameplay. What makes these still fall under the heading of visual novels is that the bulk of the game is still spent reading text in the traditional visual novel style (windowed text with character art and voice acting), usually with multiple endings tied to the main character romancing a particular love interest.

So, there’s your two-cent tour of the world of visual novels. Anime Obscura won’t be reviewing any nukige for reasons that I hope will be obvious, but we’ll definitely touch on some all-ages games, and might cautiously explore an eroge if it’s story-based and has lots of redeeming virtues. We certainly encourage you to give this genre a try yourself, because while you might accidentally experience one of these moments…

Oreimo - Eroge 6

… you’re much more likely to simply be bombarded by feels, as in this moment. D’aww.

Oreimo - Eroge 5