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Japanese Visual Novels: What They Are, Plus 5 Reading Recommendations

A guide to Japanese visual novels and suggested game titles to get you started.

By 11 min read

In North America and Europe, critics, journalists, and gamers have pronounced that the PS Vita (PlayStation’s handheld console) is dead. For gamers in Japan, however, the PS Vita is very much alive and kicking for one major reason: the incredible popularity of the ビジュアルノベル, or Japanese visual novel. Go to the PS Vita section of any video game store in Japan and you’ll quickly see that half the shelf space or more is taken up solely by these games.

The video game community seems to be split on whether visual novels are indeed video games. While they do lack active gameplay elements, the one thing that separates them from films, books or any other medium is decision making. In video games, players must make choices. They must swing the sword, fire the weapon or choose which path to take. While scaled down, visual novels include this same process of decision making — whether it be which person to ask on a date or which dialogue option to select, people must make decisions when playing visual novels.

The great thing about the Japanese visual novel is that they are available at almost every game or electronics store or on almost every gaming console, as well as the Windows and Mac operating systems. Simply purchase a physical copy of the visual novel game or download it from an online store, load it on the device of your choice and you’re good to go. For people who aren’t big into video games, visual novels are usually straightforward and easy to navigate, often only requiring the use of the directional buttons and a single action button to “turn the page” and select options. As a bonus, for English/Japanese or Japanese/English learners, some visual novels will have dual language support.

An example screen from a visual novel, Clannad published by Interchannel, Protype, Sekai Project and Visual Arts.

Japan is a country with a high demand for visual novel games that’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world. As a result, they make up a huge part of the video game market in Japan. Often some of the most popular anime and manga, like Steins; Gate or Fate/stay night, are adapted from visual novels and vice versa. But the question is: what are they?

Simply put, visual novels are exactly as their title implies: novels presented visually. Instead of the hundreds of pages of text in traditional hardcover and paperback novels, visual novels are presented in digital format and playable on video game consoles, smartphones or computers. Visual novels present their stories using text, voice-overs, background music and pictures. In most, players take control of a main character, see the story unfold through that character’s first-person perspective and make decisions for them throughout the story.

Some occasionally feature fully animated cutscenes. This type of media can be a great tool to get adolescents and young adults interested in reading more instead of watching anime and can be used as a bridge between reading manga and reading full-blown novels.

… visual novels are presented in digital format and playable on video game consoles, smartphones or computers.

One major difference between visual novels and traditional novels is the feature of branching paths or storylines. With most visual novels, you not only read the story but make decisions within it that lead to one of various possible outcomes and endings. Almost all visual novels will include multiple endings and some titles will have more than ten possible endings.

While traditional visual novels can be too text-heavy for people new to the genre, some visual novels feature interactive gameplay elements making them easier to digest for visual novel newbies. The games on this list are either must-plays or were chosen for their active gameplay elements. All of the titles on this list are available with either English audio, English text or both.

1. Clannad

Clannad developed by Key, published by Interchannel, Protype, Sekai Project and Visual Arts

One of the best-selling visual novels of all time in Japan, Clannad is a must-play for those who love a good romance story. The first half of Clannad is your stereotypical bishoujo (beautiful girl) romance where the shy, quiet, delinquent male student finds himself the center of attention of the most beautiful girls in the school.

While the first half of Clannad is great in itself, where the story truly shines is in the second series titled Clannad: After Story. This sequel series is unique in its presentation of themes not normally covered in anime or video games: specifically, the difficulties of marriage, finding work after high school, coping with loss and forgiving neglectful parents. The narrative is so deep that the anime adaptation is often hailed as the most heart-wrenching or emotional anime of all time.

Clannad is a traditional visual novel where players simply read the text, occasionally make choices within the story and enjoy the music and visuals. For romance anime junkies, Clannad is a must-play.

2. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

Danganronpa, developed by Spike Chunsoft, published by NIS America and Spike Chunsoft.

One day you’re on the way to your school’s entrance ceremony and the next day you wake up in a game of life or death. This is the story of Danganronpa and this game is every mystery lover’s dream.

In Danganronpa, you take control of Makoto Naegi, a boy who finds himself in the middle of a living nightmare. Makoto and several other students are locked in a heavily fortified high school campus by an unknown mastermind. The students are free to roam about and live their daily lives investigating the mysteries of the school and trying to uncover the identity of the person or group that has trapped them there. If any student wants to leave, no problem — all they have to do is kill another student and get away with it.

The gameplay of Danganronpa includes talking to other students to form bonds, investigating the school, searching for clues when a murder occurs and ultimately convicting the killer in a class trial. Danganronpa is a visual novel masterpiece complete with animated cutscenes, tons of voice over dialogue and incredibly fluid and exciting gameplay. Its perfectly paced level design gives you just enough clues to find the murderer without spoon feeding you the solution.

For those new to visual novels or murder mystery aficionados, I can think of no better place to start.

3. Steins Gate

Steins Gate developed by 5pb and Nitroplus, published by Jast USA, Kadokawa Shoten, Mages, PQube and Spike Chunsoft.

Originally released nearly 10 years ago, Steins Gate is a visual novel that has received incredibly good reception. From manga and anime to light novels and even board games, the success of the Steins Gate visual novel has spawned countless adaptations. The story follows Rintaro Okabe — a university student and self-proclaimed mad scientist — and his group of friends who spend their free time developing new inventions.

One day, Rintaro and his childhood friend attend a press conference for a man who claims to have developed a time machine. Our hero quickly outs the man for the phony that he is and is thrown out of the venue for disrupting the conference. He then hears a scream and rushes toward the source — only to discover that a young girl has been murdered. Rintaro runs out of the building, but instead of finding himself on the streets of Akihabara in Tokyo, he finds himself in a different time dimension.

Steins Gate is a traditional visual novel without much gameplay, but definitely a perfect title for lovers of Japanese science fiction anime or fans of time travel stories.

4. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward developed by Chunsoft, published by Aksys Games, Chunsoft and Rising Star Games.

Much like the above mentioned Danganronpa, Virtue’s Last Reward begins with a group of abducted strangers trapped in an unknown facility without a clue as to how they got there. In this one, players must solve puzzles and find clues hidden throughout each room of the facility. Each unlocked room unlocks more areas and slowly the player uncovers the mystery of their past and the mastermind that brought them there.

However, the mastermind doesn’t make things easy and throws a spanner in the works: a game of betrayal. During their free exploration of the facility, the abductees are forced to periodically return to a voting room where they must choose to either ally with or betray the other team of abductees they are paired against. Lose and you will be executed. Win and you will be set free.

Virtue’s Last Reward is a game of puzzle solving, mystery and survival. Fair warning: the puzzles in Virtue’s Last Reward can be incredibly difficult. Even for a mystery and puzzle game lover like myself, I often had to read game guides to get through particularly difficult rooms.

If you fancy yourself a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, then this game is perfect for you.

5. Special Mention: Telltale Games

Game of Thrones developed and published by Telltale Games; The Walking Dead developed by Skybound Games and Telltale Games, published by Telltale Games; The Wolf Among Us developed and published by Telltale Games.

Telltale Games is a special entry in this list because it’s is an American company and not a Japanese one. Before its closure last year it did, however, produce visual novels perfect for newcomers to the Japanese visual novel genre.

In its prime, the company produced several adaptations of incredibly popular series like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and others. For English audiences looking to get into visual novels, Telltale Games titles are accessible and easy to pick up and play. The company has an enticing library with potentially a game for everyone. While these are not Japanese visual novels, they are the perfect starting point for players who find Japanese visual novels too text heavy.

Here are three must-play Telltale Games titles.

1. Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones developed and published by Telltale Games.

Take control of various members of House Forrester in their struggle against House Bolton and play your own part in George R.R. Martin’s world-renowned fantasy series. The amazing thing about the game is that the events take place alongside events from the television series without contradicting anything that has happened in the television series. Complete with appearances by Jon Snow, The Lannisters, and the Queen of Dragons herself, the game is a must-play for fans of the television and book series.

2. The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead developed by Skybound Games and Telltale Games, published by Telltale Games.

Like Telltale’s Game of Thrones series, The Walking Dead takes place alongside the television series and follows the harrowing story of a convicted murderer who finds a stranded little girl in the midst of the zombie outbreak. With a completely original story, this game is a must-play for hardcore Walking Dead fans. To be completely frank, Telltale’s take on the Walking Dead universe is much better than some seasons of the television series itself. Can you steal an innocent family’s provisions to help your group survive? Can you leave people behind? Telltale’s visual novel puts you behind the gun, forces you to pull the trigger and leaves you to live with the consequences.

3. The Wolf Among Us

The Wolf Among Us developed and published by Telltale Games.

If you’re familiar with ABC’s television series Once Upon a Time, Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us is pretty much the same concept but much, much darker and unapologetic about it. In The Wolf Among Us, you control Bigby Wolf, also known as The Big Bad Wolf. Yes, I am talking about the very same wolf that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and was slain by The Huntsman. The Wolf Among Us takes iconic characters from childhood fairy tales and places them in America in 1986 where they must hide their true forms from the rest of human society. Only this time, Bigby Wolf isn’t the bad guy, but instead the sheriff who keeps order within the magical community. It’s incredibly provocative and jarring to see the characters from our childhood bedtime stories reduced to drunks, city workers, and lower-class citizens just trying to get by.

Bigby’s already exhausting life gets turned upside down when members of the magical community are killed off one after another and he’s tasked with finding the murderer. If you love fairy tales or magical realism, then The Wolf Among Us is the game for you.

For those new to visual novels, Danganronpa, the Telltale Games titles or Virtue’s Last Reward would be great places to start. Others who are Japanese visual novel novices or better will appreciate Clannad or Steins Gate and these series would be great additions to your collection.

If you have some free time during this upcoming Golden Week — take a break under the blossoming spring flowers and trees while enjoying one of these great visual novels.

Do you have a favorite visual novel of your own? Is it good for newcomers to the genre or better for those with some experience? Let us know in the comments!

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