Bigger on the Inside: A History of Visual Novels
Regardless of whether you’ve played a visual novel, chances are that you have some notion (preconceived or otherwise) of the genre and its audience. At their core, visual novels (VNs) are simply text-based stories told in a digital medium, often accompanied by relevant visuals and/or audio. However, there are some similarities that can be seen across much of the most popular VNs such that it is not too difficult to visualise a stereotypical VN. You might picture a dating simulator featuring anime-style art and tropes, or a murder mystery featuring interactive puzzles.
Although these are overgeneralisations, they are understandable ones. Many popular VNs originate from Japan and have been translated into other languages following their release. Many are dating sims, in which players try to win over characters by choosing certain dialogue or action options, and many others are puzzle-based mystery games (referred to as “adventure games” in Japan) in which players must complete minigames in order to progress the story.
Unlike mainstream types of video games such as RPGs or FPSs, VNs are considered a rather niche genre. A possible reason for this is that VNs straddle two unlike mediums—video games and novels—in a way that does not always appeal to fans of either. Those who prefer novels may rather read a book without having to stop to physically interact with the story, and those who prefer video games may rather play something more fast-paced that requires less reading.
In any case, it can’t be denied that VNs ask a lot from their readers. Even the most widely acclaimed VNs sometimes have long expositions and repetitive content that the player must trudge through in order to get to the meat of the story. It is understandable that players, especially those new to the genre, would be turned off purely by the amount of time they need to invest in a story that they may or may not enjoy. VNs are much more static than other games, tending to describe, rather than show, action. It can take a substantially longer time for the story to advance, whereas with mainstream games, there are constant tasks or action-packed scenes to keep players engaged. People typically don’t play games to read paragraphs upon paragraphs of description, so in some ways, it’s not surprising that VNs aren’t more popular.
Still, there’s a reason there are so many devoted fans of VNs throughout the world; flawed or not, they deliver valuable stories, many of which could not suitably be told through any other medium. Although countless VNs, especially those made in Japan, have been brought back as animated films or TV series, there is often a sense of loss in those adaptations. There’s something about the experience of playing VNs that can’t be replicated, and it’s not just the long hours spent skipping through paragraphs of text.
To look more deeply into what makes VNs tick, we can review the history of the genre, starting with some of the first VNs released in Japan. Though there are now many diverse VNs on the market, there is no doubt that the genre has its roots in eroge (erotic games), particularly bishōjo games, in which the assumed straight male player can have romantic and/or sexual encounters with various female characters. In fact, the first visual novel (of those documented by VNDB) was a game called Lolita: Yakyūken, developed by PSK and released on the FM-7 in 1982. Lolita was essentially a game of strip rock-paper-scissors, in which the girl pictured onscreen would remove an item of her clothing each time the player won a round.
Lolita and its later sequel were followed by Joshi Ryou Panic, created by Enix (yes, that Enix) for the PC-88 in 1983. Like Lolita, this game had an unambiguous target audience and was rife with sexually suggestive content; however, unlike Lolita, it featured a branching narrative and several different endings.
Fortunately, VNs were soon hardly limited to thinly-veiled softcore pornography. Around the same time, Enix also released Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (translated as “The Portopia Serial Murder Case”) for the PC-6001. (This game is still available to play online in both Japanese and English.) It follows a storyline in which the protagonist must investigate a murder by looking for various clues. Like modern murder mystery VNs, The Portopia Serial Murder Case allows the player to interact with clues, talk to NPCs, and move through the game world freely. It gave players more than one way to solve in-game problems, and even included a plot twist.
Skipping forward a couple of years, another notable early VN was Suishō no Dragon (“Crystal Dragon”), released in 1986 by Square for the NES. As demonstrated below, this game utilised icons at the top of the screen that the player could click to perform various actions, rather than typing in commands. Many of the scenes were accompanied by animations instead of static images. It was also an example of an early sci-fi VN, taking place in outer space and including some fantasy elements as well.
The use of VNs as a medium for adventure and science-fiction stories seems to have caught on quickly. Inspired by Portopia, Hideo Kojima (the creator of Metal Gear) wrote Snatcher, a cyperpunk VN with notably more detailed graphics, voice lines, and fully animated cutscenes. Snatcher was published by Konami in 1988 and had disappointingly low sales overall. However, it did gain a cult following and, when brought to the Sega CD in 1994, was one of the only VNs of its time that were released in America. It is still available to play online using emulators, and many full playthroughs have been uploaded to Youtube.
Kojima continued to produce several more notable VNs throughout the next decade. Meanwhile, other VNs released in the ‘90s introduced new approaches to the genre’s style of branching narratives. EVE Burst Error (1995) allowed the player to switch between two protagonists throughout the game such that the characters could interact and work together. Yu-No (1997) included an ADMS (Automatic Diverge Mapping System), a map of the decision points in the branching narrative. Several other VNs in the future would take their lead from these games and feature similar mechanics.
It was also around this time that the first otome game (a genre of simulation games targeted towards women) was released: Angelique (1994) was a dating sim created by Ruby Party, an all-woman division of Koei. Several sequels for the series were also created in the following years. Dating sims would become a popular subcategory of visual novels, and for good reason—the branching narrative format of VNs easily lends itself to the multiple routes required for a dating sim.
Another genre of VNs called nakige (“crying game”) was popularised with the release of games such as To Heart (1997) and One: Kagayaku Kisetsu e (1998). In these games, a romantic beginning is interrupted by tragedy, illness, and/or similarly traumatic events before the story settles on an eventual happy ending. Players are made to feel a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the game, possibly so that they will feel more attached to the story and its characters. The developers of One later formed Key, a new studio that would release extremely popular VNs such as Kanon (1999) and Air (2000).
Adventure game series such as Ace Attorney (2001 onwards) and Professor Layton (2007 onwards) also deserve mention (though the latter is not considered a VN due to its lack of narration). The popularity of these games made it so that future VNs also received English translations. As a result, many VNs, including Ever 17: Out of Infinity (2003) and the Zero Escape series (2009 onwards) were able to reach the US as well as Japan. These early games’ influences can be seen in many games that followed; for instance, Ace Attorney’s investigation and trial sequences are reflected by those in the first two installments of the Danganronpa series (2010 and 2012).
Other studios took VNs in a different direction. 07th Expansion took inspiration from the way nakige games shock the player by introducing tragic events into an initially happy story. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (2002–2006), known as “When They Cry” in the US, used a similar tactic—instead of aiming to make the player cry, however, this game aimed to scare. Opening as a seemingly innocuous slice-of-life game, Higurashi slowly reveals a horrifying and grisly tale. The game was a success, and all eight original chapters were translated and released in English from 2009–2010. A remastered version with upgraded graphics and translations was released on Steam in 2015.
The method of using certain genre stereotypes to subvert expectations has been seen in more recent VNs as well. Due to the nature of this tactic, the most impactful stories are often found in unlikely places… such as Hatoful Boyfriend (2011), a pigeon-dating simulator. While the premise of the game is strange enough, perhaps more surprising is the fact that the individual character routes have fairly well-developed stories ranging from heartbreaking to horrifying. Furthermore, the bulk of the story actually resides in a secret mode that is unlocked only when the player has completed all of the boys’ (birds’?) routes.
Once again, this is where the issue of accessibility comes into play—though those who have played the game in its entirety will praise its surprising depth, there are others who are understandably hesitant to plunge into hours of quickly repetitive gameplay before gaining access to the bigger picture. Hatoful Boyfriend was hardly the first game to receive this criticism: Higurashi, with its hours of gameplay (or rather, reading) required to reach the main plot, also undoubtedly loses some players during its long exposition.
In recent years, creators from outside Japan have also had significant success with the VN format. Cheritz, a South Korean game studio, has produced three otome games, all of which have English releases available: Dandelion (2012), Nameless (2013), and Mystic Messenger (2016). The latter’s innovative use of a fictional messaging app to tell its story made it a success, even among users who don’t typically play dating sims. Players could participate in time-sensitive chat rooms and even answer “phone calls” from various characters.
This seemingly-lighthearted VN is also not without its dark twists; in fact, its unique format is well-suited for horror. Because the chat rooms are updated by the hour in real time, players are able to have the experience of receiving creepy or threatening messages in the middle of the night, adding a layer of unfortunate realism. The real-time component of the game brings up accessibility once again—it takes an entire eleven days to finish a route, and players must either open the game every few hours, or risk losing out on a chance to participate in an important conversation. Players must use in-game currency (available as in-app purchases after the initial balance runs out) to retroactively participate in missed conversations.
Flawed as it may be, the approach of hiding a deeper story within an unassuming exterior is far from dead. Doki Doki Literature Club, a VN released in 2017 by Team Salvato, was marketed as a high school dating sim. For the first section, it is exactly that. However, as some players predicted from the game’s content warning (“This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed”), as well as its “psychological horror” tag on Steam, the lighthearted tale comes to an abrupt halt as the player makes a horrifying discovery—and it’s all downhill from there.
DDLC hit a level of popularity that it may not have reached, had it been marketed as a horror game from the beginning. The “hidden horror” aspect of DDLC is enticing; as Dan Salvato himself points out, players “know something will happen, but it’s hard to predict exactly what.” Although it faces the same problems as Higurashi and Hatoful Boyfriend for players who are only playing for the horror, DDLC was nonetheless successful in reaching gamers outside the typical VN audience, with countless Let’s Plays uploaded by mainstream Youtubers such as Pewdiepie and Markiplier. Critics praised the game for both its effective use of horror elements and the deeper message it sends through subversion of tropes.
Easy as it may be to dismiss visual novels as a hopeless medium, it is much more useful to view it as we view any other genre—that is, as an opportunity for more. VN culture, while flawed, has come a long way from strip rock-paper-scissors. Developers are constantly finding new ways to make games, and VNs are just one more format in a sea of options. Ultimately, what matters is not what format a creator chooses, but how they work with and against the boundaries of that format to tell a story that is entirely theirs.