This post was updated on November 5, 2017 to improve readability and rework some awkwardly phrased sentences. I’ve also written an update post that is a more recent look at visual novels and anime, with new recommendations for beginners and people interested into getting into the medium.
Previous edits were made in 2014-2015 to better reflect some of the changes made to the copyright policies of Fuwanovel, one of the sites mentioned in the post, as well as to include references to official releases of said games.
A short discourse on anime
What is anime?
You may have heard about anime, Japanese animation. After all, internationally Pokémon is very well known. Along with shows such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, Beyblade and Naruto, these kind of ‘cartoon shows’ are not exactly unknown. The shows I just named are anime that have been dubbed over for an international audience. Originally, these anime come from Japan.
It’s easy to have some misconceptions about anime. Since the medium is famous for children’s cartoons, it’s easy to think the medium is nothing but cartoons for children. That would be an oversimplification.
The animation and visual style is just the way these shows are presented, as opposed to them being representative of something like a genre. You see, plenty of more serious anime exist — ones that tell stories about sadness, hope, happiness, overcoming adversity, and much more.
Internationally, anime has gotten more popular and mainstream, with shows like Attack on Titan doing pretty well, and finding new viewership.
Where can I find and watch anime?
If you live in North America, Crunchyroll is a great source for anime streaming that is 100% legal. If you're in Europe, some of the content offered on Crunchyroll could be limited (some shows’ regional availability differs) but still might be useful. For instance, Little Busters! (which sounds like a show for four year olds, but isn't – trust me) is available on Crunchyroll here in Europe. Do take care to avoid some of the unofficial and legally dubious streaming sites.1
An introduction to visual novels
Some anime shows are based on an original story, but this is not always the case. Many are based on manga or light novels. And some are based on these visual novels. So, what are they? They are basically stories that come close to full-length novels in terms of storytelling. You will spend most of your time clicking through dialogue. So if that isn’t for you, well, you can stop reading right now.
Visual novels can be simple and short, with no choices (one company dubs these “kinetic novels”) or they can be riddled with choices and long, branching subplots. They can be over in an hour, or take more than 60 hours for you to complete.
They are really popular in Japan, but not so much in the west. I was unaware such things existed. I spent most of my time playing adventure games, for example. You see, my first introduction to the genre as a whole happened last year, with a rather unique visual novel.
My first real VN experience: Katawa Shoujo
I originally stumbled upon a reddit thread that was about (great) free games. Among the titles to catch my attention was a very short description of a game called Katawa Shoujo, a visual novel set in a fictional school in Japan — a special school, for disabled children.
At the time I was aware of visual novels (where you do a lot of reading and this is part of the plot) because I had already played the Phoenix Wright games on iOS, which is more of an adventure game with puzzles, but it also includes visual-novel like dialog and story. You play as Phoenix Wright, a defence attorney through investigation sections and in court.2
Back to Katawa Shoujo. I was curious why people were recommending this thing. As I visited the official site, I stumbled upon a description of the game:
Katawa Shoujo is a bishoujo-style visual novel set in the fictional Yamaku High School for disabled children, located somewhere in modern Japan. Hisao Nakai, a normal boy living a normal life, has his life turned upside down when a congenital heart defect forces him to move to a new school after a long hospitalization. Despite his difficulties, Hisao is able to find friends—and perhaps love, if he plays his cards right. There are five main paths corresponding to the 5 main female characters, each path following the storyline pertaining to that character.
To give you an impression of how this plays out, this is a screenshot of the game so you can get an idea of what the game’s UI and art looks like. In the following scene you have a conversation with one of the teachers at the protagonist's new school.
I’m going to be honest, the concept of Katawa Shoujo sounded pretty weird and foreign to me (heck, I had no idea what 'bishoujo-style visual novel' even meant 3).
The origin story of this specific visual novel is even more interesting — Katawa Shoujo originated on 4chan. That's probably why the title can be roughly translated to 'cripple girls'. You can find the entire story here.
Given that 4chan was involved, many were... skeptical about the content and quality of this visual novel. Surprisingly then, perhaps, it had received rave reviews from the international community.4
Each characters gets a so-called route, as folks who play visual novels call it. That means you’re locked into a specific character’s story, if you’ve selected the right options to interact with them. Since many visual novels contain a romantic aspect, it’s usually the choices that get you closer to a specific character that will land you on their route. Each route in Katawa Shoujo tackles a different disability, and details how the protagonist falls in love with the person whose route you’re playing.
I played through the entire game (all routes) in a few days during the summer break. I liked the fact that it was a rather lengthy story with some strong humour, but also some interesting situations. This slice-of-life novel was really special because of the disabilities of the characters in it. There were definitely some things that were not very realistic (since many anime tropes make an appearance) but the sum of its parts was enjoyable. Finally, I also enjoyed the soundtrack (which is available for download free of charge as well).5
As someone new to the medium, I thought this visual novel was a really good one. The consensus is that there’s better visual novels out there, but then again, those are most likely ones you need to buy. This one’s free, and it’s a good introduction to the genre.
Taking the plunge
After exploring this rather unique visual novel and 'feeling the feels’, I started exploring some other visual novels that have been translated. A few months after reading Katawa Shoujo, I started looking for a visual novel like the latter and found tons of recommendations. For example Clannad, which is a story about family and the challenges of adult life. Another recommendation was Little Busters!, which is about adolescence and friendship. Both are made by the same studio, Key/VisualArt's, which have produced other great visual novels (some of which I still need to read). Most of their VNs have also received anime adaptations.
I initially got my translated copies from Fuwanovel, a site dedicated to fan translated visual novels. I got some of my visual novels like Clannad, Little Busters! and Grisaia no Kajitsu6 (also known as The Fruit of Grisaia) from that site. These visual novels also came pre-patched, so I got to enjoy the content without having to apply any manual English translation patches.
Update (2015): As per February 2015, Fuwanovel no longer distributes pre-patched versions of visual novels. Their policies have changed since the site owner transferred ownership to a new owner, and more visual novels have become available for purchase or are being Kickstarted.
Update (2017): I just want to note that as soon as it was possible, I helped support the ‘Clannad’ and ‘Grisaia Trilogy’ Kickstarter projects, and I bought ‘Little Busters! English Edition’ the day it released. Please support the original creators, if possible. I’m very happy to see these games get official, well-translated and QC’d releases.
Of course, fans have translated these games in English, since they were originally entirely in Japanese. Some visual novels have not been entirely translated or are work in progress, like Grisaia no Kajitu's sequels: Grisaia no Meikyuu and Grisaia no Rakuen7.
These translations take a lot of time so often you'd have to wait a long time before a release is final — there's not only translating, but editing required in order to get these visual novels readable for a western audience. There's even a translation tracker and wiki on the internet for these things, all with stats and graphs.
Update (2017): More and more visual novels are getting official translations, sometimes even in collaboration with the translation groups that did the fan translations. That is seriously cool!
A word on eroge
I like the plot in visual novels. Not this kind, although some of these visual novels can definitely be considered eroge. If you absolutely hate nudity and erotic content, there's a chance that there’s a censored version or all-ages version available for said visual novel. Sometimes, the adult content is then replaced with additional scenes that don’t appear in the mature versions of the game.
Some re-releases that have been translated for a western audience have had that kind of content removed. Some other visual novels just don't include any depictions of intercourse or questionable content, and as such aren't eroge. (For example, the beforementioned Clannad and Little Busters! were developed as all-ages versions, so do not contain nudity at all.)
These so-called H-scenes can be quite tasteless and I usually skip through the content, since it can be rather awkward in some cases. In most cases, the sexual content doesn't really add much to the novels. At most, it allows for some character development, which can be funny. I do think that it makes sense to have characters in a relationship get sexual with each other, but you could argue there’s no need to actually show these moments, unless they contribute to the story.
Due to cultural reasons, there's little depiction of sexual content in modern western media. Some exceptions do exist, like HBO’s Game of Thrones and the like. HBO is notorious for having sexual content in their shows. And yes, of course the books are better. Not that it always adds to the scenes and the narrative.8
Why I really enjoy visual novels
I really enjoy visual novels because of the characters. It’s really all that a visual novel has to do to be enjoyable. A good character arc will get you invested in a fictional character in ways you didn’t expect. During the time you’re spending reading the VN, you’ll be seeing characters change, and sometimes how these characters develop can really leave a mark. For example, if there’s a funny character in the novel, you’ll be laughing at your interactions with this joker.
In video games, there's been some absolutely amazing character development and storytelling in games like Bioshock Infinite, but those are a rarity, not the norm. In visual novels, the story and characters is all what they've got going for them, which is why I enjoy them so much. You can't really do much other than tell a good story or otherwise the visual novel will not be considered a good game. (To be honest, there’s lots of crappy visual novels, too. But the best ones have great art and story. In my experience, the best visual novels take some time to read, but at the end you’ll feel fulfilled and kind of sad that the characters you’ve gone to love won’t be around more.)
I just used the word game in combination with visual novel. I suppose I should also tell you that not all visual novels are games. Like I mentioned before, ‘kinetic novels’ are not games, since there are no choices you need to make as the player. Besides a save and load system and some barebones choices that you may have to make, visual novels feel more like you’re reading a book, and less like playing a game. Your player agency is reduced to making a choice here and there.
So if you go into these stories expecting gameplay, you're going to be disappointed. Some visual novels do include minigames, though. For instance, Key's amazing Little Busters! (that I've mentioned quite a few times now) includes a baseball minigame and a fighting minigame. Pretty amusing stuff, and a nice way to take a break from reading hours on end.
Of course, there are some tropes that can be attributed to visual novels. For instance, quite some of these visual novels are set in high school or college. Also, the archetypical character stereotypes (tsundere, kuudere, etc.) also make appearances.
Regardless, there are always interesting elements integrated into these stories. For example, Grisaia no Kajitsu has a badass protagonist with army training as a special agent, a fact which is casually presented to the player in the first five minutes of the visual novel. This is done in the most amusing fashion as the protagonist gets dragged off to the police station after annoying a police officer. Oh, yes, he's going to a special school where he gets involved in all kinds of crazy situations.
Another thing that I think is pretty amazing is the soundtrack for visual novels. (Like anime, which have OP and ED tracks. Angel Beats has a great OP track, which is coincidentally composed by Jun Maeda, who also composed the soundtrack for many of the Key visual novels.) Especially after finishing the novels, soundtracks can bring back memories, which is pretty cool.
For instance, the main menu track of Katawa Shoujo, Wiosna is very memorable as it plays every time you're at the main menu. (Same applies to Little Busters!, which has [this opening track](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZtMsMcOuRc ""Little Busters!" Main Menu Theme on YouTube") on the main menu.)
On visual novel piracy
As much as possible, I prefer to acquire my digital content legally. For example, I pay for all the professional software that I use. Trouble is, finding legal copies of these visual novels and getting them here is just... well, pretty difficult and very, very expensive.
Fortunately, more and more visual novels are being brought to Steam by Sekai Project and other companies, so it's getting way easier. I've been a staunch supporter of them: I've backed their Kickstarter projects, and purchased their games on Steam, simply because the work they do is great. And I get more visual novels to read, so all's good. So far, we've seen a few notable releases and announcements. This includes the amazing Planetarian, as well as some others. Clannad has been announced as well, and will receive a professional translation and a Steam release. More Key VNs might follow if these do well.
Now, unfortunately not all visual novels are on Steam.
Most of the fan-translated ones are not available legally, though some fan translations have made it onto e.g. MangaGamer (and as a result, also on Steam).
Fortunately, soundtracks are on iTunes for the Key/VisualArt's novels like Little Busters, Clannad and such. Which is awesome. Buying these will also support the developers and publishers.
Update: Many of the more popular visual novels that I learned about in 2013 and 2014 are now available on Steam.
A more in-depth look at visual novels
Narrative, Plot, Character Development
In terms of narrative structure or plot, visual novels usually have branching storylines, depending on your choices. Most visual novels have shared common routes, after which the story diverges at a certain point.
This is where you have to choose a character (or a decision leads to you going for a certain character's route) which tells that character's story. Whether romance is involved depends on the genre of the visual novel. Usually romance visual novels have routes for each girl/woman the protagonist can learn more about and eventually/maybe date.
Depending on some characteristics of the novel, you might categorize it under different names. If there are no choices present in the visual novel (which is also possible), we also call it a kinetic novel. If the visual novel involves dating, some might be inclined to call it a date-sim, which are also very popular in Japan. If the visual novel involves nudity and sex, it is an eroge game.
Most visual novels have hilarious situations, though there are always confrontational elements in visual novels that drive the narrative and character development. Sometimes there can be a disconnect with the real world, especially when supernatural elements are introduced, but often this adds a certain mystique to the story that would otherwise be impossible.9
Dialogue is usually presented in dialog boxes under or on top of the artwork. (Often contrast of the text against the background is adjustable so you can enhance legibility.) You progress through the plot by clicking with your mouse. At certain points, you may have to make decisions.
Dialogue complexity varies from game to game. Depending on the game, it can be very simple talk, but in other games there might be specialised jargon. An example of a game with jargon is Grisaia no Kajitsu, where there are quite some military terms being tossed around. Other games, like Katawa Shoujo are more lighthearted and contain hilarious monologues by weird characters. (I'm looking at you, Kenji, always talking about the feminists taking over the world. Kenji is a character that appears in Katawa Shoujo.)
Gameplay & Replayability
While there isn't much gameplay in visual novels, the choices and branching plotlines make for an engaging experience that allows for some replayability. If you want to read all that a visual novel has to offer, some games can last up to 60 hours. Replaying visual novels sometimes gets you to discover hilarious dialogue that you maybe didn't pay much attention to in the first place. Sometimes you will notice that events were being foreshadowed! Of course, replayability and length of the game depends on the reader's speed and willingness to replay a 60-hour-long. visual novel. Yes, you need quite some free time to read some of the longer visual novels.10
The fact that it is a called a visual novel implies that the visual part is kind of important. Indeed, a visual novel is like a book, but whenever anyone talks, you see their faces with a certain expression on their face (whether they're happy, sad, angry) and in some cases you can even hear the voices (originally in Japanese) if the VN is voiced.
In addition to voices, there's also special scenes, CG, that show critical aspects of the story. Usually, there is the option to revisit and see what CG you unlocked after playing the game. Some visual novels even have character models in 3D so you can actually see characters talk.
The soundtrack of a game can really do much to help the atmosphere of the story. Because of the nature of visual novels, this counts doubly so for this genre. At key moments, the soundtrack can also be a dead giveaway as to what will happen. Sometimes the track names foreshadow certain events in the story, and when you revisit the music later after finishing the game you'll make a connection.
It's the power of music, and it's no less important in a visual novel. If anything, music plays an even more important role in visual novels, especially because it sets the tone. It's like reading a book with a soundtrack especially made for certain parts of the book as you're reading them. It's absolutely fantastic if done properly, and most of the time, the soundtrack can make such an impression, or leave one, even after finishing the game.
A great informational source for visual novels is VNDB, a database filled with information about visual novels, themes, characters and such. Pretty incredible project. You can also see where to purchase some of these visual novels if listed. Like I said before, great sources are MangaGamer, Desura, and Steam. If the novel isn't on these platforms, you can maybe find it on Fuwanovel
(usually prepatched with fan translations).
Most visual novels only run on Windows, especially older ones. (They also run well on newer versions of Windows, like Windows 8.1) You can always try to use WineBottler to get the games running on OS X. I have had luck getting Little Busters! to run on my Mac using WineBottler, and other games like Katawa Shoujo are supplied with Mac binaries, so you don't need any additional tools to run them.
And then I started watching anime
After having spent a little time on visual novels, I decided that I would watch the anime adaptation of Clannad, since I didn't have the time to properly play through the visual novel. Since the visual novel came highly recommended, I took the plunge and watched the show.
Note: During this time I decided to go and watch Clannad, you must remember that there was no official release of the visual novel available, and the fan-translation was semi-finished at the time. Nowadays, there’s an official release you can buy over at Steam.
It’s a different medium
The average length of an anime episode (and the entirety of the show) is much shorter than what you get with a visual novel. After adapting a visual novel to an anime series, you’ll find a lot of filler content and dialogue is cut and removed. It's that extra banter that makes the visual novels always enjoyable, but if you dislike the long runtime of the story or banter, anime adaptations are the way to go. Some anime adaptations are of course better than others.
Like I mentioned earlier, not all anime are based on existing manga, light novels, books or visual novels. Sometimes, an anime is based original material, newly created for the show itself.
Additionally, there’s also anime movies, like the beautifully animated The Garden of Words by Makoto Shinkai.11
I’ve been reading more visual novels
Still, there's enough to be found in a visual novel for it to warrant a playthrough. Lately I've enjoyed playing visual novels more than those classic AAA games, which I've grown tired of. I also play a bunch of League of Legends and StarCraft II, which are more eSports titles and fun with friends. But when there are no friends that want to play, I pick up a visual novel if I feel I have enough time free to read a decent portion of the story. If I only have like 30 minutes, I watch an episode of an anime show.
So the Japanese are pretty cool
In all honesty, discovering anime and visual novels has been eye-opening to me. I used to laugh at people who watched anime, but I was amazed that some deal with very adult oriented themes and emotions. The same applies to visual novels. Reddit user praffle had the following to say on Katawa Shoujo:
My biggest surprise of the year. I played it as sort of a joke, but by the end I found myself getting really attached.
Katawa Shoujo actually contains a few scenes depicting sexual content, so many who played the game initially expected a perverted story, like michfreak on reddit. What they got was something different instead:
This pretty much describes exactly how it was for me with Katawa. "Haha, cripple porn! This'll be fun." Cut to one week later and I can't even open it up due to the damage that Rin's path caused. I mean, Jesus, I came to some very weird realizations about myself and the trouble humans have communicating with each other. I still can't play it. And that's really pretty awesome.
And that's how it is. And whilst I now have a lot more respect for Japanese people, Japanese stories and such, I still don't get cosplay. But hey, maybe that's just me.
- 2014: I added references to Kickstarter projects and official translations for some visual novels.
- 2015: Fuwanovel adjusted their legal policies and no longer distribute prepatched copies of games, since more legal alternatives are coming up. I’ve updated the post accordingly.
- 2017: I’ve rewritten major parts of this post, while keeping the content of the blogpost the same. (I’ve also written a follow-up post you may be interested in.)
Note that I’m not making the distinction between ADV and NVL. Katawa Shoujo was my first NVL game, and Phoenix Wright my first ADV game. As per Wikipedia: “In Japanese terminology, a distinction is often made between visual novels (abbreviated NVL, derived from visual NoVeL), which consist predominantly of narration and have very few interactive elements, and adventure games (abbreviated AVG, or ADV derived from ADVenture), a form of adventure gamewhich may incorporate problem-solving and other types of gameplay. This distinction is normally lost outside Japan, where both NVLs and ADVs are commonly referred to as ‘visual novels’ by international fans.” ↩
In case you’re curious, “bishoujo-style” means it’s some kind of dating sim with beautiful girls. “Bishoujo” kind of directly translates to “beautiful girl”. (“Bishounen” translates to “pretty boy”.) These often refer to adolescents, so in most visual novels, these are high school or college students. These characters are not women in their 30s, for example. Those wouldn’t fall under “bishoujo”. ↩
Katawa Shoujo was praised on multiple sites by multiple reviewers, and was recommended by many people on reddit. It also received many great scores on VNDB.org, where it has received mostly 8/10 scores, which means the VN ranks high in the list of top visual novels. ↩
In addition, if you're good at piano, you can also find chords of the soundtrack (e.g. Wiosna, the main menu track) online as well. You can get both the game and the soundtrack on the official download page. ↩
Depending on the success of the original ‘Grisaia’ on Steam, work on the translations might continue, since the translation is currently on hold.Thanks to the Kickstarter campaign, Grisaia no Kajitsu, its sequels and spinoff will receive official translations. ↩
I would even argue that some of the sex scenes in 'Game of Thrones' take away from the narrative, especially scenes that took place in Littlefinger's brothel in the first two seasons. ↩
Especially the Key/VisualArt's VNs are known to have supernatural elements in them. 'Clannad', 'Little Busters', 'Air', 'Kanon', all of them contain these supernatural elements. It is most apparent in the latest VN by Key, 'Rewrite', where nature and supernatural phenomena stand at the core of the story. ↩
Visual novels can be very time-consuming, and addictive. In my personal experience I recommend that you take some time out of your schedule to play them. Especially longer ones are quite tricky, because if you spread your playthrough too long, you might not remember important plot points if you don't pick the novel up for some time. ↩