I'll admit, I didn't think I'd become a visual novel fan. I have a Master's in English, so I'm used to reading lengthy books without pictures in them. Since I've done so much reading for my education and profession, I've struggled to read anything for pleasure. But recently, I've been reclaiming my love of reading because there's nothing quite like it.
I started with short stories because I've had trouble finishing novels before being pulled away. I would set a book down and have trouble reconnecting with it by the time I picked it up again, and starting over rarely felt worthwhile. But I finished short stories easily and felt a sense of accomplishment. I made my way through Lovecraft's Mythos tales and had a great time. The experiment was a success!
Then my husband reminded me about the visual novels he reads. I'd seen him play and we'd talked about some of them, but those stories hadn't drawn me in. But he insisted there were so many different kinds, there was bound to be something out there for me. So I checked Kickstarter and found three demos to try, and before I knew it, I was hooked.
If you're a tabletop roleplayer, a comic book fan, an anime lover, suffering from reading burnout, or just a busy person, I think you should give visual novels a try, and I'm going to tell you why.
A big draw of visual novels is the artwork, which can be quite lovely. Instead of imagining locations entirely on your own, you get to see them and let your mind fill them in further. Over these backgrounds, character sprites are placed to show you who's speaking; they move in and out of the scene as the main character (MC) focuses on them. Sprites usually appear in a few poses and show a small variety of facial expressions but generally appear the same.
Many VNs put you in the first-person perspective (taking on the view of the MC), so you don't see the MC unless they look in the mirror or they're in a special scene that's rendered in more detail (called a CG). CGs are full-screen pieces (without sprites) that highlight an impressive or impactful moment. (They're often made available in a special gallery once you've unlocked them during play) Most visual novel descriptions will tell you how many CGs you have to look forward to.
A number of visual novels have some kind of animation, even if it's small (like characters' eyes blinking at intervals or background elements rustling). Some have animated sequences where only the characters move. These add a bit more life to the art and can be a nice change of pace.
And if you like maps, you can find some nice ones in VNs. Some are purely for reference, so you can see the kingdoms characters are talking about. Others have clickable elements so you can choose where the main character will go next. Either way, as a tabletop RPG fan who can never get enough of well-made maps, this has been a bonus for me!
Visual novels (commonly abbreviated to "VNs") come in a few basic forms. Some are linear: also called "kinetic," you click through the story along a single path until the end; these tend to be the fastest to navigate. Others present choices for you to make because they have branching dialogue and storylines (also called "routes") and usually feature multiple endings. Some VNs also have limited game mechanics, like resource management; these are called "hybrids." Visual novels also vary widely in length and the time needed for a single "playthrough."
If you aren't able to be in a regular tabletop game, a VN could give you the dose of fantasy you crave, not just in its story but in its art and music.
If you're not up for a long, complex video game, a visual novel could be the way to go; it won't have so many things to keep track of.
If you love Choose Your Own Adventure stories, good news! Many visual novels feature branching story paths and multiple endings.
Searching for a VN that hits the sweet spot for you will probably take more time than downloading, installing, and starting it. You can add things that look promising to your wishlist on Steam or your collections on itch.io and save yourself time in the future. Following your favorite creators means you'll get notified about their new releases, so you won't have to look far for your next read. Steam has a good number of English VNs, but itch.io has so many more, and there are other places to buy original Japanese or translated versions.
Here's a secret about visual novels you should know before you buy one: If a VN has branches, you'll want to reread it a few times. There could be a lot of material you haven't seen yet, and you won't be able to get a good measure of the tale until you try different options. Some visual novels really bloom as you take other paths, allowing you to dig much deeper into characters and events.
A visual novel isn't a traditional video game with complex mechanics and incredible graphics. Even if a VN includes exploration and combat, it won't be like the latest Final Fantasy - and it won't be trying to compete in that arena, either. Simplicity is a selling point of these games, but it's also necessary. Visual novels are usually made by a head creator who does much of the writing, art, and programming on their own or with a small crew of everyday folks. Most have day jobs and craft VNs as a side hustle or labor of love. They're smaller-budget productions and only bring in so much profit to use for future novels, even when they get boosts from crowdfunding campaigns, so creators focus on what they can deliver within their means.
But this also means you won't need a top-end gaming rig to run visual novels; hardware requirements are low. Many VNs are also stable, so you won't encounter annoying bugs. And this all feeds into the price you can expect to pay, which ranges from free, a few bucks, or somewhere in the 20 dollar range. In many areas, you'll spend more on a meal than on a visual novel that will entertain you for hours. Supporting VNs also means supporting small businesses and independent creators.
Visual novels tend to have these features, which you should find listed in their descriptions:
Many visual novels use subtitles, even if they have voiced performances; this is a boon for many readers. When that's the case, they'll probably also let you choose the speed at which the words roll onto the screen and font options (such as size and dyslexic-friendly type). Many describe what's shown on-screen so sight-impaired players don't miss out on what locations and characters look like. If you have concentration issues, it can be helpful that the story won't move forward until you click; you can also look for VNs that let you rewind to previous screens or have a log of everything you've read thus far. A few have colorblind-friendly interfaces or let you change colors for that reason.
Creators often provide portraits and brief write-ups for the key characters in their tale. While it might be tempting to only pay attention to the main character, you should at least skim the others, if they're described. After all, if the entire cast seems unbearable, you probably won't enjoy the book.
For branching visual novels, it's worth noting how many routes/endings are offered and skimming reviews to see if choices feel like they matter. Some VNs only ask for your input a few times because they only have a few routes and endings; these can appeal if you want to get most of the tale in a couple of read-throughs. Others require your input regularly, but this doesn't mean there are actually many branches; different choices could loop back around to the same two or three routes. If you enjoy feeling that your decisions influence things and really want to explore a book, then more choices will have to reveal new information. If reviewers tried various options but didn't get much new information out of them, then most didn't count (and probably led to the reader's dissatisfaction).
You'll also want to look for the number and types of endings that are offered (usually termed "good" or "bad"). Most creators will tell you how many different endings are possible. And VNs can skew one way or the other, which can influence how satisfied you feel about the whole experience. To have the best time - and to be fair to the novels - you'll need to be honest about what you really want at that moment.
For instance, if you're in the mood for a lighter tale, then you should look for a VN with more "good" endings where things work out better (the characters live, the main character gets what they want, etc.). You might trigger some "bad" endings where characters suffer negative outcomes, but most of the time, you won't. If you ignore the novel's bent and keep getting negative endings, you might come to hate it not because the book is bad but because you're not in the right headspace for it.
You'll probably notice that visual novels offer detailed content warnings. If the novel is erotic, you'll be told which sexual acts are available. If violence is part of the story, you'll see which kinds you might run into. You'll also see a variety of other content listed, such as drug use. While these elements might not be uncomfortable for you, they could be troublesome for others, and you might find something you have a major problem with. If something really turns you off, it's probably best to pass the novel by. There are plenty of others to try.
Many VNs offer some customization options for the main character. The most common ones are the MC's name and pronouns. (Since you may not see the main character, these changes only affect text, so they're not as difficult to implement.) Some VNs also let you alter the MC's appearance, such as hair style, skin tone, or outfits. Since these elements change the artwork, they're offered less often. A few VNs also let you establish things about the main character that will affect the choices they can make, such as abilities they know how to use or unique backstory info.
From what I've seen, it's rare for VNs to allow you to choose elements of other key characters, but as tabletop roleplayers, that shouldn't be difficult to understand: we don't get to choose how NPCs look and act in our campaigns unless we're GMs.
Customization in visual novels is usually offered before you start the story. Some will let you change things later, like the MC's outfit or name. Sometimes these choices don't make a big impact. If you choose a backstory but it rarely comes up in conversation, you may wonder why you were given the choice at all, but it probably won't sour the whole experience.
VNs are known for drama, romance, and dating simulation, but include most other popular genres, notably fantasy, comedy, and mystery. It's a good idea to look for genre terms in the description so you know what to expect.
I may not need to warn you, but just in case, you should know there are also a lot of eroge (erotic) visual novels out there, particularly in original Japanese productions. If you're curious or interested in such content, there's plenty for you! Just be sure to follow your local laws in what you download. If you want to avoid sexual content, you adjust your content filters on outlets that offer them, like Steam, or look for terms like "eroge" in outlets that don't.
Most visual novels highlight relationships in the main character's life. Some will focus on platonic friendships or at least offer the chance to build friendships with key characters.
Many offer a number of possible romances, and they'll tell you how many (and what kinds) up front. This can happen regardless of the overall genre of the story. Some only offer a few, mostly monogamous choices, which means you might be able to flirt with everyone at the start but you'll eventually focus on one person. Others will let you romance multiple characters at the same time (but individually) or form a polyamorous arrangement. Many VNs focus primarily on heterosexual, homosexual, or other kinds of relations, while offering a couple of exceptions. Romances also come in different types such as enemies to lovers) and tones (from humorous to serious).
As far as I know, in most VNs, romances are optional: the decisions that lead to love or sex are fairly obvious, and other choices are available. If romance isn't your bag, avoid dating sims because that's what they're for. But if you're looking to get into romance, this could be a great way to try it out! You won't have to worry about discussing it with your gaming group or making other players at the table uncomfortable; it's just you and the novel.
Most visual novels will have a "skip ahead" button during play. Once you've played through a scene before, this button lets you fast forward to the next decision when you play through it again. This helps you get to different branches quickly and makes multiple playthroughs bearable.
As I said before, if the novel has various routes, you should try them out. In tabletop games, you experience the story in one direction: forward down one route. If you use dice, you also have to deal with the outcomes of rolls and your GM's decisions. It would be quite difficult to go back to a previous scene as it was at a certain point and play a different path. But you've probably wondered about what would have happened if a session had gone differently or if you'd rolled better. You may have talked about what would have changed with fellow players. Well, in a visual novel, you can go back to a previous save or restart the game and choose differently. It's one of the features I love the most!
A number of visual novels include something different in their gameplay, from resource management to timed decisions to an alignment system. These usually impact later choices you can make, story branches, or dialogue options but aren't too demanding. Some VNs include mini-games you have to master to move forward. You might worry that these features will get in your way; in that case, checking out reviews could help you make your choice.
All that being said, you always have to remember that a visual novel isn't a traditional RPG. It isn't a tabletop game with a responsive GM who can notice how you feel and adjust things on the fly. You might need to save and exit if a visual novel isn't working out for you. Trying again later can make a difference, but depending on how well it fits your needs, the experience might not improve. But if you end up with a visual novel you don't like, you won't be out $60+.
The vast majority of visual novels highlight how many words are in the story in total, with all routes and dialogue options taken into account. Some will also include an estimated time to complete a playthrough, but even if they don't, you'll know that the more words there are, the more time you'll spend to get at them. As you read more visual novels, you'll learn the length that you enjoy the most and can search for it in other games.
But remember, you won't experience an entire visual novel in one playthrough if there are branches. There could be quite a bit of content you're missing out on if you only play one route.
Another great source of enjoyment is the music. (As I've said before, music is a big part of my gameplay experience.) Some creators commission new soundtracks for their visual novels so they have tunes that fit their settings and moods. Some of these soundtracks can be purchased and make good background music for tabletop games in similar settings, too! Other creators use royalty-free music that you've probably never heard before and can be quite evocative! Sound effects can also help transport you into the story just a little bit further.
I love voice acting and voice actors. I love the nuances of different performances, and voiced characters can be a treat in VNs. Generally speaking, visual novels aren't fully performed like audiobooks are. Often, the main character won't be voiced at all, but other major characters will be. Even then, much of the time, key scenes and important lines are performed, but not every single thing they say; this is likely due to cost. Secondary and tertiary characters may have "barks" or short phrases that give a brief impression of who they are, such as when they're introduced.
Even if performances are a little shaky at times, as voice actors find their stride they can add a lot of fun to the story. A little forgiveness can go a long way, and you may end up falling in love with some performances. I'm sure there are visual novels out there with vocal performances that will grate on your nerves and ruin your immersion, but those will likely be the exception. You can also adjust the settings to turn down the vocal performances. I have yet to do so, though.
Visual novels are multimedia entertainment with low barriers to entry. With so many free or pay-what-you-want novels out there, you won't have to break the bank to sample an assortment until you find what you like. The art, music, and writing you encounter can inspire your own creative endeavors, including tabletop games. All of these are good things and make VNs worth trying. I hope you'll give them a go and if you fall in love with them, I hope you'll let me know!
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