Humans have told stories since we invented language and art, but the history of storytelling has reached new heights in the last 40 years thanks to a complex, marvelous technological invention: video games. Video games combine art, music, performance, science and, perhaps most important of all, writing. There is an endless list of video games that have been praised for their creative methods of storytelling, but one genre is, at last, rising in popularity and gaining respect in the gaming community: visual novels.
Visual novels consist of text accompanied by character portraits and static backgrounds. There is minimal gameplay, usually only involving choosing dialogue which determines the direction of the branching storyline. Many visual novels also include point-and-click elements for exploring the setting of the game. It’s becoming increasingly common for visual novels to include minigames, like the bartending element of Sukeban Games’s “VA-11 HALL-A” or the real-time shooting sections of Kazutaka Kodaka’s Danganronpa series. Ultimately, what lies at the heart of the visual novel is the ability to not just read or watch a narrative, but interact with it.
I’ve been a fan of the genre since I first played “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney” on my Nintendo DS as a kid. I was a voracious reader who tore through stacks of books at my local library, but nothing held my attention as well as a game that allowed me to become a central part of the action. I was never the most skilled when it came to real-time action in games (and to this day I’m still more puzzle and strategy-oriented), but that’s what hooked me about this genre — it was accessible but just as exciting as any book or video game.
Complexity and skill level are often used to separate “real” gamers from the rest of the pack. Similarly, simplicity is used as an insult against readers. In a class with my fellow English majors, I’m far less likely to gain respect by making comparisons to The Twilight Saga or “The Fault in Our Stars” than if I were to discuss “A Farewell to Arms” or “Moby Dick.” Some visual novels are written with the intent of not being taken seriously, such as the dating simulation “Hatoful Boyfriend” in which all romance options are pigeons. Others are just as sincere and contemplative as the novels I’ve been required to study.
What makes a story worthy of the label “great literature?” If it’s the level of complexity, then “To Kill a Mockingbird” would not be held in as high regard as “Finnegans Wake.” Complexity alone is not the measure of what is deemed literature; enjoyment and depth are equally important. By this logic, visual novels (due to their focus on text) should easily fit in this category. History shows us that as technology advances, the boundaries between mediums blur, as do the benchmarks of value.
A prime example of this in recent memory is developer Vanillaware’s 2019 visual novel “13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.” It was praised by the biggest outlets in gaming journalism and nominated for awards across the world for its exceptional non-linear storytelling. In fact, it was the only video game nominated for the 51st Seiun Awards, a long-running award for the best Japanese science fiction. If a game of this genre is deemed important enough to be nominated for an award typically only given to literature and films, should the genre not be taken more seriously as an art form?
The genre’s history can be traced all the way back to the early 1980s, but until recently it has been considered very niche. Nintendo was one of the first big names to influence the genre with 1983’s “Portopia Serial Murder Case” on the Famicom console. They were also the first to bring the genre into the mainstream with the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton series on the Nintendo DS. Though they continue to be developed more often by indie developers than large studios, visual novels now rank among the top-selling games of the Nintendo Switch, Steam and Playstation stores. Elements of visual novels can also be found in many successful games today outside of the genre; the social aspects of “Fire Emblem: Three Houses” and “Persona 5” are some of the most enjoyable sections of the games, both of which have sold millions of copies.
It’s encouraging to see visual novels on the rise as they are finally being appreciated as the thoughtful pieces of art that they are. It’s challenging enough to write something engaging, but add in animation, a soundtrack and interactivity and something singularly creative is born. Regardless of content, visual novels open the door for creators to craft a narrative without the limitations other forms possess. As the genre gains popularity with serious gamers and newcomers alike, it simply makes sense to consider this an exciting step in humanity’s constant search for the best way to share stories.
Daily Arts Writer Harper Klotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.