In the Western World, we are familiar to videogame genres like first-person shooters, console role-playing, and puzzle games — games like Halo and the Final Fantasy series dominate the Western gaming market. However, there is one genre of game that is relatively obscure in the West — the visual novel.
The visual novel (VN) is a popular genre of game in Japan, dominating the Japanese gaming market with its thousands of available titles. As its name implies, the primary focus of a VN is its story. They are usually characterized through its vivid anime-style artwork, juxtaposed with text, static backgrounds, music, sound effects, and voice acting. Gameplay is minimalistic — most of the interaction is achieved through clicking the screen to advance the story. A VN may or may not have decision points, at which your decisions may affect the outcome of the story.
The majority of VNs are renai, or having romantic themes, usually in a school setting. In these VNs, you take on the role of a male character with one or more female romantic prospects. The “otome game” reverses this role — a female character with one or more male romantic prospects. However, there are several VNs where romance is not the primary focus; an example includes the Phoenix Wright series. The VN genre encompasses a variety of themes, including, but not limited to: mecha, yaoi and yuri (gay and lesbian relationships, respectively), magical girl, and medieval themes.
A large number of VNs contain hentai, or adult scenes. A VN containing them isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in a romantic-themed story, it can enhance the relationship between two characters. However, there are VNs where the primary focus lies in the hentai, with an “excuse plot” to justify it. On the other hand, there are VNs with no such content. Whether you choose to play an adult or all-ages VN, they can have equally great stories.
There exists VNs for both PCs and videogame consoles. If you choose to play a Japanese VN on your PC, you might have to change your system’s locale to Japanese, or use AppLocale if you use Windows; otherwise, you’ll get garbled text. However, there are translation groups that have translated a number of Japanese VNs to English.
A good way to get your feet wet in the VN scene is to play some homebrewed ones; there are many free English VNs created using Ren’Py, a free VN creation software. When you’re ready, you can look at several Japanese professional VNs at the Visual Novel Database; demos of the games can be found at their respective developer’s sites.
Visual novels can serve as a break from today’s action-oriented games. Try one today — engaging plots, vivid anime-style art, and captivating characters will keep you wanting to play more.