What Are Visual Novel Games? How to Get Lost in an Epic Story

8 minutes read

A visual novel is an interactive, story-like game featuring an overarching theme and, typically, static imagery. The genre originated in Japan and offers unique gaming experiences that borrow elements from various mediums.

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In fact, the two most common questions people ask when it comes to visual novels are:

  • Is a visual novel a book?
  • Are visual novels even games?

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These are common questions because visual novels are like books and games but, at the same time, they’re neither one nor the other. They’re a hybrid and, in many ways, they’re akin to mixed-media novels. However, for all the novel-like qualities, they are games.

You have some control over the action and there’s an end goal. Therefore, it’s best to see visual novel PC games as highly immersive, highly detailed gaming experiences that make you the lead character in the story.

How Do Visual Novel PC Games Work?

The defining feature of a visual novel is text. Boxouts in each scene help you determine where you are in the story and what’s happening. The text boxes also provide you with questions, tasks, and options that allow you to progress through various storylines.

Alongside the text boxes are images and scenery. These visuals are usually anime in their styling but there are no clear rules as to how something has to look. In fact, this lack of rules is what can often make it hard to separate a visual novel from a traditional novel.

There is no fixed structure or set of dynamics. Therefore, a visual novel PC game can have a lot of gameplay or very little. It’s also common for visual novels to spin off into various directions.

Unlike traditional action games where there is a certain amount of linear progression, visual novels don’t always follow a set pattern. In this way, they are similar to survival games in the sense you are moving through a series of interconnected but not always linear sets of events.

A Creative Experience

This dynamic means developers have a lot of freedom. That, in turn, means it’s hard to find the line between where the novel starts and where the game ends, leading players to asking if certain games, like Persona 5, are a visual novel. 

In the case of Persona 5, the answer is yes. It not only has a strong storyline with various plots and subplots, but it also offers a lot of gameplay.

In practical terms, you take control of a Japanese student from Tokyo who explores the Metaverse. There’s an overarching day-night cycle simulation that guides the main story. This is punctuated by random moments of scripted scenarios that you have to react to.

Additionally, you can build up relationships with other characters, play side games to earn extra powers, and choose between story-specific or multi-layered random scenarios.

So, when you play Persona 5, you’re rooted within a story but have a high degree of control over where the action goes.

The History of the Visual Novel

The visual novel genre in gaming goes back to the 1980s. Although the exact origins are varied and somewhat unclear, many experts agree that The Portopia Serial Murder Case game kickstarted the genre.

This 1983 offering from Enix was inspired by American adventure games, according to designer Yuji Horii.

Early novel games had a similar dynamic to American hits such as Sam’s Spade and King’s Quest. Put simply, they featured a series of loosely connected puzzles. However, as the video novel genre grew in popularity, developers began to focus more on visuals.

The storylines subsequently got more elaborate, and, through the nineties, they became highly detailed, visually striking games. 

Why Are Visual Novel Games Popular?

People like to immerse themselves in a visual novel for a variety of reasons. The main one is the storyline. Just as people like to lose themselves in a good book, gamers like to submerge themselves in a deep and ever-changing plot.

However, unlike a traditional book, players have the ability to guide the story. This is important. Having an element of control means you can take the story in a variety of directions and, in turn, create a new experience each time you play. Complementing the storyline is a constant stream of visuals and voiceovers.

Modern visual novels are large-scale productions crafted not just by gaming experts but writers and actors. This ensures they’re multi-faceted, engaging, and enjoyable.

It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the genre or a seasoned player, these games have a depth that calls out to people across the gaming spectrum.

The Best Visual Novel Experience

Those that are new to this genre often ask: what is the best visual novel? That’s a tough one to answer, though most critics would laud Persona 5 as a standout. It looks great, offers a rich universe to explore, and has, unsurprisingly, won countless awards.

However, it's important to acknowledge that the enjoyment of visual novel games is entirely subjective. Simply put, while Persona 5 is critically acclaimed, there may be some people that don’t like the number of subplots it contains.

Indeed, because you can spin-off in a variety of directions and choose different game modes, it can be a little confusing to navigate at times. Therefore, it comes down to personal preference.

There isn’t a single game that can be classed as the best visual novel. Some people like less gameplay and more story, others prefer having more control over the action. The best thing to do is try some visual novels and see which ones suit your tastes.

With this in mind, here are 5 top-rated visual novels to get you started:

Blood Shift

Blood Shift is not only a great visual novel game, it’s the ideal game for newbies. The reason we believe it’s a great entry point into the genre is the fact it’s a detective game. This makes the story and subsequent decisions you have to make feel more intuitive.

Everything is out in the open in the sense that you’re looking for clues in order to solve the case. The plot isn’t hidden behind any metaphors. Therefore, you can get a feel for how the genre works and put your powers of reasoning and logic to the test at the same time.

Kyle is Famous

Kyle is a special guy, and the world is about to find out why. However, the way in which they find out is up to you. This is a funny, entertaining visual novel with 21 different endings. The way things play out depends on you and who you interact with.

Each decision you make throughout the day will affect Kyle’s fate. This, combined with the fact Kyle has special powers, such as the ability to travel through time, makes this an extremely engaging game you have to give your undivided attention to.

Cryptid Crush: Prologue

A monster visual novel inspired by tabletop role-play gaming, Cryptid Crush: Prologue is your chance to work alongside strange creatures. The story is set in the seaside town of Longhope that’s under the spell of magic, but a vengeful cat called Taro. Your job is to work alongside monsters such as the wingless Jersey Devil, Jamie, and take down Taro.

It’s not an easy task and the story will spin you off in a variety of directions. However, if you enjoy visually impressive, quirky, but engaging visual novel PC games, Cryptid Crush is fantastic.

First Bite

The aptly titled First Bite is a vampiric visual novel with a darkly comedic twist. The central theme is survival and, specifically, doing whatever it takes to remain alive. You play the role of Noe, a human who dares to explore the ominous-looking house in Dead End Drive.

It’s there you encounter three vampires and become locked in a quest for survival. Will you choose the right path and find a way out? Or will you follow the wrong storyline and miss your chance for survival?

VA-11 HALL-A

If you like a dash of 1980’s nostalgia mixed with cyberpunk styling, VA-11 HALL-A is perfect. This visual novel is set in Glitch City, and you assume the role of Jill, bartender at a local bar called VA-11 HALL-A. Your job is to serve customers and earn credit for mixing drinks properly.

However, when the past catches up with Jill, you have to react. As you progress through stories of the past and present, you’ll deal with loss, depression, joy, and sorrow. Can you find Jill’s happy ending? That’s the challenge.

Get Lost in a Visual Novel

So, there you have it! That’s the visual novel genre. These games might not have the hard-hitting visuals of an action game, or the strategic elements of an RPG.

Nonetheless, visual novels are complex, detailed, and highly engaging games that can captivate you on multiple levels. If you enjoy getting lost in the action and using your imagination, visual novel PC games are ideal.

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