Written by Jenni Lada.
The writing is on the screen. Visual novels aren't Japan-exclusives anymore. Sekai Project's Kickstarter projects for CLANNAD and Grisaia Trilogy have respectively raised $541,161 and $475,255. Companies like JAST and MangaGamer are extending their range of products beyond eroge, “adult” games. The niche genre has invaded our PCs, and people are rallying behind English translations and indie originals.
I'd like to think it's the Choose Your Own Adventure generation propelling them to success, but that would be selling these adventures short. The demand and appreciation are there because the creators have engaging stories to tell, and this is a unique means of conveying those stories.
However, getting into visual novels can be daunting. The "gameplay," or lack thereof, can throw newcomers for a loop. It's better to ease into the genre, and it's much easier to try something new when you can find it on Steam, perhaps even during a sale at a drastically reduced price. Prepare to expand your horizons! Add these titles to your Steam wishlist and, one day, let them tell you a story.
Cherry Tree High Comedy Club
One of the biggest barriers of entry with visual novels is getting used to the fact that you're going to be spending hours in front of a computer staring at character portraits while reading text. Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is more of a hybrid—part simulation game, part visual novel—which allows you to be a little more proactive when it comes to helping your character, Mairu, recruit people to her high school's comedy club to keep it from being disbanded. The ability to choose between a de-Westernized and Westernized localization—either a more direct translation or one that takes Western culture into account, respectively—is another way publisher Nyu Media has extended a friendly hand to invite players unfamiliar with the genre to try developer 773's game.
Dandelion - Wishes Brought to You -
Visual novels can be considered the cousin twice removed to anime. You're watching and reading a story, but occasionally decisions allow you to alter its course. By that reasoning, Dandelion - Wishes Brought to You - is the best way to welcome anyone with a fondness for shoujo into the fold. The plot’s similarities to the popular anime Fruits Basket—a young woman gets the chance to bond with once-gorgeous men who have been turned into cats and rabbits as part of a "game"—makes it a welcoming choice for current shouju anime fans. Unfortunately, the English translation could have been better, as there is some awkward phrasing and grammatical issues. Given this is a game from an independent, Korean developer, some mistakes are understandable.
Long Live the Queen
Before we get into the more traditional visual novels, there's one more hybrid that's a challenging, high quality adventure. For those new to the genre, Long Live the Queen will help you get used to the idea of having to read walls of text. The story offers you the opportunity to shape a young princess' life, in the hopes of helping her live to her coronation day. No easy task, given everyone else has their own agenda and tend to want her dead. There are plenty of choices to be made, and planning out her schedule with classes in things like diplomacy and music might round out her repertoire enough to keep her alive. Think of it as a crash course in “paying attention” to prepare you for more traditional visual novels.
Hatoful Boyfriend is the game for people who have no interest in visual novels. It eases you into the genre with the most ridiculous premise ever. In a post apocalyptic world devastated by the H1N5 bird flu, a young woman living in a cave goes to school and falls in love with birds. The game is hilarious on the surface, but those who spend enough time with it can unlock and experience the much darker Hurtful Boyfriend. Love and death, hilarity and tragedy, Hatoful Boyfriend has it all, while making fun of itself enough to let you know its in on the joke.
If My Heart Had Wings
Many visual novels also have romantic elements, with specific endings being tied to relationships growing between the player's avatar and other characters appearing in the story. If My Heart Had Wings is a slice-of-life kind of game, following a young man named Aoi who's returned to his hometown to attend a technical school after a car accident. There, he bonds with his fellow students in the Soaring Club as they attempt to build a glider. Childhood dreams come true, love blooms, and some characters might just find a happy end.
Presenting people with familiar stories and appealing art are two fantastic ways to coax newcomers into curling up with a visual novel. MoaCube did just that with Cinders, its retelling of the classic Cinderella tale. Except this time, if you were dissatisfied with Cinderella's willingness to acquiesce to others' expectations, you can take charge and see what happens when she pursues other routes to freedom. With many twists, even the more conventional possibilities may not be as straightforward as they seem.
Analogue: A Hate Story
Once you are used to the idea of dealing with walls of text, it's the perfect time to get into Analogue: A Hate Story. Christine Love's tragic story is steeped in South Korean historical conventions. Fans of historical fiction will feel like an archeologist, sifting through ancient texts in an attempt to discover the truth behind the Mugunghwa, a rogue, abandoned spaceship. Along the way, there's also an opportunity to bond with the two remaining AIs on the ship.
fault milestone one
We've gone through both visual novel hybrids and more traditional stories, but there's a one more type to consider. Some developers have created something called kinetic novels. These seek only to tell a tale, with players giving up all control and enjoying the ride. Think of them as being to visual novels what games like Gone Home and Verde Station are to adventure games. You’re exploring a world and experiencing things as an observer. With fault milestone one, players enjoy a story based on a doujinshi—an original, Japanese, indie comic. A princess and her bodyguard are trying to get home to Rughzenhaide, and players can sit back and follow their journey.
WORLD END ECONOMiCA episode.01
Finally, we come to Isuna Hasekura's WORLD END ECONOMiCA. I'm excited to recommend it, since it's my favorite kinetic visual novel and comes from a respected storyteller. You follow a young man named Haru, desperate to explore the unknown and willing to do whatever it takes to earn enough seed money to do so. That goal can be quite difficult to achieve, and players will find a story that is heartwarming, dramatic, funny, and even tragic. While there’s no direct influence over the course of Haru’s journey, it evokes the same kinds of emotions and feelings as more traditional gameplay experiences do, transporting the player to another world.