What is a Visual Novel? Similar to Interactive Fiction, Visual Novels utilize simplistic computer code engines to engage a reader in an interactive story. Visual Novels utilize, obviously, visuals, with drawn characters and backgrounds to enhance the text. Music is also a common component; in some of the latest, it is an integral part of the experience. Visual Novels have existed in Japan since the 80s and are now one of the most popular forms of computer generated entertainment in the country.
So why havent I heard of them? Well…Visual Novels have a somewhat pornographic past. For the early years, VNs were created as Dating Simulators, in which the player could court numerous bishoujo (pretty girls) to be their girlfriends. As this trend caught on, the rise of VNs as Eroge (Erogenous Games) took hold of the medium; well until the late 90s~2000s, most VNs were Dating Sims or Eroge Sims, the line being whether the player was rewarded with a sexual scene, or romantic ending (sometimes both!)
Uh…. Wait! So, the other side of this coin is that most, if not all, VNs were produced by individuals, and despite the adult nature, the ability to make one was limited only by ones ability to learn the engine, and get an artist. This lead to the creation of a group known as Type-Moon, who would lead a revolution in the medium towards one focused on fascinating narratives. And, yes, occasionally still adult scenes.
Type-Moon and the VN Evolution Type-Moon, lead by Nasu, the creator/writer, self-published a VN titled Tsukihime. Sold at Comiket, the largest collection of self- published anime/manga/game themed convention in Japan, Tsukihime moved beyond simple dating sims into telling a complex tale of horror, magic, romance, and responsibility. Tsukihime also re-envisioned the idea of the route, rewarding players for replaying the VN by having each new story route lead to a new possible ending, with a final True Ending awaiting those who managed to choose correctly through all 4 previous storylines.
Fate/Stay Night Type-Moons next project, Fate/Stay Night, would create the current market trend by setting the bar for literary merit and creative storylines. Fate/Stay Night has 3 separate storylines, which can only be accessed by reading and completing the others. In rough estimation at the time of English translation, F/SN contains more words than the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Ryukishi07 and the Naku Koro Ni Series Following the success of F/SN and other sims, a singular entity further pushed the boundaries of VNs by creating the Naku Koro Ni series, currently encapsulated in the Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni and Umineko No Naku Koro Ni series. Each of these series contain less player interaction than the previous works, instead focused on narrative storytelling. In some ways the importance of sound to these works has them labeled as Sound Novels.
Higurashi and Umineko What makes these two series most interesting is that each chapter of the work was released bi- annually at Comiket. Convention goers were able to purchase the first episode, which would be a self-encapsulated VN; however, each Comiket would bring a new disc, containing a new episode. Every episode would portray a sequence of events that were all related, yet separatethe first 4 of each series were Question Arcs while the final 4 were Answer Arcs, with the 8 th Episode being the True Series of Events. Readers who paid attention and followed the story from all episodes would be able to slowly uncover the truth for themselves. Ryukishi would also give out TIPS, as well as snippets on his blog, in order to continue the air of mystery between episodes.
The Aspect of Mystery Ryukishis works, unlike Type-Moons, focus heavily on horrific mysteries. In particular, Ryukishi uses aspects of the Knox Guide to Detective Fiction: http://umineko.wikia.com/wiki/Knox%27 s_Decalogue http://umineko.wikia.com/wiki/Knox%27 s_Decalogue Ryukishis works are also known for their gory, intense details of horrific murders, creating an air of supernatural horror surrounding the events. They are also well versed in somewhat odd Japanese historical eventsa gas leak tragedy in rural Japan, or the remains of a sunken WWII submarine filled with riches found off the cost of a Japanese island.
Experimental Narrative and VN Ryukishis works also play heavily with narrativeit is impossible at times to discern the truth in his stories until the answer, which can be literally years away. Similarly, each new scenario reworks the aspect of the storytelling in new directions, yet they are all related. As such, Ryukishis works do not take place in the usual first person that most other VNs use, as perspectives are changed frequently (although the default position is generally 1 protagonist and then it shifts as the story goes on.)
Steins;Gate and Nitroplus The newest group to create VNs following the success of Type-Moon and Ryukishi, in terms of creativity, is Nitroplus. Steins;Gate was their most successful VN, and deals with aspects of time travel, allowing player decisions to alter the past and future. In this way, the idea of a steady route is reworked, as players may choose completely different routes that lead to different endings. Also, S;G (and Ryukishis works) do not feature sexual scenes, and are instead narrative based.
Voice and the VN What makes the works of Nitroplus stand out further is that their works are fully voicedprevious VNs generally had no voice acting, or just used canned sounds to mimic noises. This new layer gives each character a distinct personality, but creates a much more direct connection, as the character seemingly talk directly to the player through their voiced dialogue.
Portable Games and non- pc VNs As the medium of VNs became increasingly popular, they have expanded beyond PC engines to those of portable systems, like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. These VNs generally focus on detective style mysteries, or Closed Room Murders. Also, they have much more interactive game elements, to give players a sense of accomplishment and agency as the stories progress.
Are there any non- Japanese VNs? This answer was no until two months ago. However, born from a desire to create something of their own, a group of Western programmers created the first ever OEL VN, Katawa Shoujo. Katawa Shoujo focuses on being a dating sim type game at its core. However, the storys focusgirls with disabilitiesis extremely unique, as most dating sims focus on only perfect girls. If anything, the creation and completion of Katawa Shoujo is interesting simply on the fact that it is the first OEL VN to be completed on a level similar to its Japanese counterparts, perhaps signaling a desire for more expansion in the field in the West.
The End result? VNs are an increasingly interesting way to experience complex narratives. Also, VNs are generally created as personal projects and sold directly to consumers. They are created out of a desire to tell stories first, money later. As the medium continues to mature past its Eroge roots, the VN will continue to be an intriguing aspect of digital lit.