What is a visual novel video game?

If you primarily enjoy playing video games for their stories, then one genre is perfect for you: visual novels. Their name is pretty self-explanatory, but you might not be familiar with this somewhat obscure genre.

Let’s explore the world of visual novel video games, including what makes a game a visual novel and some great titles that exemplify the genre.

What is a visual novel?

A visual novel is a genre of video game that tells an interactive story primarily through text. They usually feature static character models and locations, and while they can have animated cutscenes, these are generally short (if present).

While most video games feature some amount of text, visual novels are unique in that they look more like a written work. Instead of telling important parts of the story through gameplay, cutscenes, or contextual clues, you read a lot of dialogue and other text to move the narrative forward.

Visual novels are extremely popular in Japan, which is their biggest market. Some visual novels have been localized for Western audiences, and a few developers have even created visual novels from scratch in English. Due to the genre’s roots in Japan, most visual novel games feature anime-style visuals.

Without a lot of traditional “gameplay” to transport them, visual novels have to rely on their story, characters, and other narrative elements to keep the player interested. Fortunately, most good visual novels do a good job. Complementing the basics with great music and graphics makes the best visual novels stand out.

Distinctions in the visual novel genre

Like many genres of video games, visual novels have a certain fluidity in their definition. In Japan, a “visual novel” describes games like those mentioned above. In these titles, there is very little interaction with the gaming world.

In addition to reading the story, you may be given the opportunity to choose from some responses or actions that could influence the story or the ending. But you don’t directly control what your character does, like moving around and picking up items.

Related: Tools for Creating Your Own Text-Based Adventure Games

Japanese adventure games, on the other hand, are always text-based adventures with static graphics. But they usually involve solving puzzles, mini-games, and other gameplay elements beyond just reading the story. These Japanese adventure games are similar to the point and click adventure games that were popular in the West.

Compared to visual novels, they allow you to directly command a character, instead of just choosing from responses at certain times. While these games don’t have multiple endings or major branching paths, they usually punish you for making too many mistakes.

Outside of Japan, however, most people fail to distinguish between appropriate visual novels and Japanese adventure games. We use “visual novel” to describe both, which means that the games under this moniker can vary widely.

Related: Common Video Game Terms, Words & Jargon You Should Know

Therefore, if you’ve never played a visual novel before, you might prefer to start with an adventure game. Then, if you find that you value the story more than the gameplay, you can try a suitable visual novel.

The best starting point for visual novels: Ace Attorney

Many people credit the Ace Attorney series for popularizing the visual novel genre in the West. And while Ace Attorney is more of a Japanese adventure game than a true visual novel, it’s still a great way to test the waters if you’re new to this type of game.

In the Ace Attorney series, you play as Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney who takes on clients and has to prove their innocence. The gameplay is divided into two main areas: investigations and courtroom trials.

During the investigations, you travel to various areas to collect evidence related to the case. You will speak with witnesses, look around the crime scene, and chat with your assistant to learn more about what happened. You can’t move on to the next phase until you’ve found everything you’re supposed to get, so there’s no chance of missing out on anything critical.

Then, during the trials, you must use the evidence and information that you have gathered to prove that your client is not guilty. This is where the logical puzzle-solving elements of the game come in. For example, you will have to cross-examine the witnesses the prosecution brings and provide evidence that proves that what they are saying is not. true.

Ace Attorney is a great place to start with visual adventure novels. While you can’t sway the ending with your choices, you need to pay close attention to detail to be successful in courtroom portions. The memorable characters, great localization, fantastic music, and winding storylines make this a fantastic series that everyone should try out.

Examples of more traditional visual novels

If you like Ace Attorney there are plenty of other games like this to play next. But if you want a more traditional visual novel, it’s also easy to find high-quality titles in this flavor.

A well known option is Hatoful Boyfriend. In this game, you are the only human who attends a higher school for birds. As you move through the story of the game, you make decisions that affect which character you like.

As discussed above, since this is a traditional visual novel, your contribution to the game is limited to making choices when prompted. You’re not free to move around the way you are in Ace Attorney’s investigative sequences, and there are no additional gameplay elements in the form of puzzles and logical deductions.

If this game sounds too simple, VA-11 Hall-A is a game that mixes the simulation genre with a visual novel. You play as a bartender in a dystopian cyberpunk future. Your main form of interacting with the story is making drinks. Customers come in and let you know what kind of drink they want, but you’re free to give them whatever you want.

Depending on what you serve them, you will come across different scenarios and endings. The game has more interaction than a pure visual novel, but also relies heavily on interesting conversations with the various players in the game.

Open a visual novel today

Now you know the visual novel genre and what it offers. Whether you prefer a book-like visual novel or an adventure game, the genre is ideal for anyone who enjoys a good story. If you’ve found other genres of video games to be too fast-paced or too overwhelming, visual novels might be perfect for you.

Keep in mind that visual novels aren’t the only major, lesser-known video game genre, either.


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