I feel like the term “visual novel” is fairly new for a lot of western game fans. If I had to be exact, I’d say a majority of English speaking players had only been vaguely aware, or completely unaware, of the word “visual novel” until maybe January 4, 2012 when the English freeware game called Katawa Shoujo hit the scene and made many people fans of the genre (at least that is the impression I get from reading around the internet on sites like the visual novel sub-Reddit). I am certainly one of those people because while I had dabbled with visual novels like Ever17, which I played right after experiencing 999 around 2010-ish, I only started to read more visual novels after playing Katawa Shoujo, which made me more aware of the genre.
Today visual novels occupy a sizable niche within the western gaming community with all sorts of titles, both from Japan and by western developers, available on popular storefronts like Steam. With this surge in popularity both fans and critics have begun throwing the term “visual novel” around all over the place to classify basically anything that bares a surface level similarity to the genre, especially if they are Japanese in origin. Games that were once correctly classified as “adventure games”, like Ace Attorney or Hotel Dusk, are now being called visual novels or visual novel adventure games or even “visual novels with point-and-click elements”. I’ve even seen some people call games like Persona 5 a visual novel with RPG elements. Pretty much any Japanese game that is heavily story based and is mainly presented through character portraits and textboxes is being labeled a visual novel in the West. Sort of like when a little kid learns a new word and starts wanting to use it on everything.
Kid points at dog, “Dog!”
Kid points at cat, “Dog!!”
The visual novel genre originates in Japan and has a long history that is directly connected to the Japanese adventure genre, all of which are deeply locked away behind a thick language barrier. I think a lot of the misunderstandings behind what a visual novel is has a lot to do with the lack of English translations for many of the games that lead to the genre’s creation, causing a lot of confusion and misinformation. So, I wanted to try and clear some things up about visual novels by looking at their history and their relationship to adventure games. Bear in mind that I do not know Japanese, therefore I cannot really play most of these games, and a lot of what I know has been figured out by Google translating my way through Japanese wiki sites and picking up stuff from random sources over the years. But I’ll do my best.
First thing to understand is that all visual novels are adventure games. Let me explain. It is basically like how action-RPGs and turn-based RPGs are both still role-playing games, visual novels are just a branch of the larger family tree of Japanese adventure games. Visual novels don’t look anything like the classical western definition of an adventure game, which includes point-and-click titles like Maniac Mansion or modern games like those once released by Telltale, but if you look at the history of adventure games in Japan it makes a lot more sense.
Just like how most fans classify games like The Elder Scrolls series as “Western RPGs” and titles like Final Fantasy as “Japanese RPGs” or “JRPGs” it will be helpful to think of adventure games in the same way. There are western adventure games and Japanese adventure games. Both have their origins in text adventure games (like Zork, Deadline and other Infocom titles) and both were heavily influenced by Roberta Williams’ Mystery House, which was popular in Japan and in the West. However, after this point, the two regions went down different paths with the genre. Just like how the origin of JRPGs can be traced back to Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series, Japanese adventure games can basically be traced back to another Yuji Horii title, 1983’s The Portopia Serial Murder Case. A prototypical crime story, Portopia has the player take the role of a detective investigating a murder with the assistance of another detective named Yasu. There are other Japanese adventure games released before this, most of which were clones of Mystery House, but Portopia, specifically the more popular 1985 Famicom port, is the title that in many ways created the modern adventure game in Japan and would start many traditions and conventions that other Japanese developers would copy.
|The Portopia Serial Murder Case||(Famicom - 1985)|
Unlike many Western adventure games of the time, Portopia is presented in a first-person perspective instead of the third-person view seen in many point-and-click titles. There is also a much larger emphasis on character interaction with the game not being able to progress unless you talked to certain people in a certain order whereas western adventure games tended to focus much more on complex environmental puzzles. The screen is separated into three windows: one for the visuals, one for text and finally a verb window which is the player’s main tool for interacting with the world. The game is about gathering pieces of information from conversations with other characters and collecting items that can be presented as evidence which allows the story to move forward. A magnifying glass can be taken out at any time as well to examine the background of any scene and just the same an icon of a hammer can be used to hit anything in the background which can reveal new information to the player. The world can be navigated in a somewhat nonlinear fashion allowing the case to be solved in a different order each playthrough and even contains multiple endings depending on which character the player chooses to arrest, although there is only one true ending. This is the basic template that all future Japanese adventure games would follow.
Portopia’s presentation is very similar to visual novels, with its first-person perspective, combination of still backgrounds with character sprites and textbox, but it is far more focused on problem solving with progression often being blocked behind puzzles and its writing being direct and terse. Japanese adventure games would go through a few more iterations over the ensuing years before they would look and play like modern day visual novel titles.
The adventure genre in Japan, just like any game genre, changed and simplified over time but a lot of this evolution would happen on Japanese computers, similar to the West. This is yet another reason so much of the history of early Japanese adventure games is lost on western fans since the titles released on machines like the NEC PC-88 and 98 are very obscure in English territories and practically none of these titles were released on other platforms. One of the notable steps in the transformation of adventure games into visual novels would be System Sacom’s Novel Ware franchise which lasted from 1988 to 1990. These games were basically adventure games in a similar vein to Portopia, often containing verb windows and puzzles, but were much more focused on delivering fully featured stories. The selling point of the series was that the games were written like a novel, containing plenty of dialogue and descriptive text instead of the sparse sentences one would often find in early adventure titles. Problem solving was greatly simplified and some entries didn’t even have puzzles at all such as the first entry in the series called DOME. The idea of making an adventure game more like a novel is a key step in the history of the genre and would be taken further by Chunsoft, the company who itself created the Famicom port of Portopia that kickstarted the genre. Chunsoft would release a horror title called Otogirisou (the Japanese name for the St. John's Wort flower) in 1992 for the Super Famicom which the company branded as a “Sound Novel”.
Otogirisou was quite literally a digital novel with the story’s text covering the entire screen and the game even simulating turning the page of a book. Visuals took a backseat to the story’s text with the only graphics being mostly static backgrounds that would sometimes have limited animations or have effects layered on top of them, such as rain and lighting. Atmospheric sound effects and spooky music embellished the game’s horror storyline hence Chunsoft calling it a “sound” novel. Player interaction was simplified to the point that the only input was pressing a button to advance the text and selecting choices that could branch the story to a number of different endings, with the franchise being famous for its large number of bad endings. This is the game that created the visual novel genre in all but name, featuring almost all of the characteristics and presentation of modern visual novels. After the sleeper success of Otogirisou, Chunsoft would create another sound novel in 1994 called Kamaitachi no Yoru (which translates to “The Night of the Sickle Weasel” and would later be localized as “Banshee's Last Cry” in Aksys’s 2014 translation of the iPhone release) which exploded in popularity in Japan causing a slew of copycats to be released by other companies. Chunsoft would continue to make games under their Sound Novel brand name but fans also began calling similar games created by other developers sound novels as well.
Throughout the 1990s, dozens of sound novels would be released on the Super Famicom and PlayStation eventually leading to an adult video game developer named Leaf throwing their hat into the market as well. In 1996, Leaf released a pornographic horror sound novel called Shizuku, which translates to “Drip” or “Droplet,” and branded the game as being the first volume in their “Leaf Visual Novel Series”. This, from what I can tell, is the first instance of the term visual novel ever being used to classify a game. Shizuku was basically just another sound novel featuring the same storytelling style of Chunsoft’s titles. Leaf may have just called their game a visual novel to differentiate themselves from the competition, but there were some notable differences between Shizuku and other sound novels. While most sound novels had minimalist visuals, often not even showing the characters or representing them as vague silhouettes, Leaf’s visual novels had defined character sprites with multiple expressions and fullscreen event illustrations, often used for sexually explicate scenes. So instead of relying mostly on text to tell its story like other sound novels, Shizuku also used visuals to convey its narrative. This tangent to the sound novel genre grew in popularity with Leaf’s third visual novel, 1997’s To Heart, which changed the usual horror theme seen in many sound novels to that of a romantic high school comedy. Obviously taking inspiration from the rising popularity of dating simulation games such as Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial and Elf’s Doukyuusei, To Heart repurposed its branching structure to lead to different character routes that corresponded with a specific love interest. So instead of making choices to avoid bad endings like past games, the player was making choices to lead to an ending where they could romance one of several girls in the game.
This new style of novel game would grow in popularity, especially with the otaku audience, and is the origin of the modern-day visual novel. While not all visual novels are about romance, the idea of having more visuals, routes that lead to different endings that are often attached to a specific character and the prevalence of romantic stories (as well as pornographic material) originates from Leaf’s titles. The presentation of visual novels would change slightly over time with most titles containing their text in a box at the bottom of the screen, similar to adventure games, instead of the fullscreen style seen in sound novels. Other variations of the genre would also emerge over time such as kinetic novels, a term originating from VisualArt’s brand of linear visual novels, which describes a visual novel that contains no player choice or gameplay of any kind. There are also titles that are hybrids between visual novels and other genres with the two gameplay styles often being separated into clearly defined sections. Examples include titles such as Utawarerumono which has strategy RPG segments, Baldr Force which has mech combat sections and even the Zero Escape series could be considered a hybrid between a visual novel and a puzzle game. But when a game is classified as a traditional "visual novel" it should be describing a mix-media digital novel that often has a branching narrative.
That’s a lot of history, so here is a visual timeline of the major changes in the adventure game genre that lead to visual novels:
Now that we got that out of the way lets go back to what I said earlier, that all visual novels are adventure games. In Japan novel games, whether they be visual, sound or kinetic, are just another type of adventure game with magazines like Famitsu including titles like Steins;Gate and 428: Shibuya Scramble in their poll for best adventure games of all time. While that might sound crazy to a western fan since they seem so different from a “normal” adventure title it makes sense after seeing how the adventure game genre has evolved over the years in Japan. But, just like in my comparison to turn-based and action RPGs earlier, while every visual novel is a type of adventure game not every adventure game is a visual novel. A game that is focused on problem solving (containing some kind of fail state, block to progression or puzzles that need to be overcome) like the Ace Attorney series is a Japanese adventure game in the most traditional sense. Ace Attorney specifically is directly copying the exact gameplay structure of Portopia. Phoenix Wright’s design even pays tribute to its heritage by sporting the same iconic blue suit and red tie worn by Yasu in Portopia. Western fans may think a title like Ace Attorney must be a visual novel of some kind since there are so many surface level similarities but that is because visual novels, as we’ve seen, are just an evolution of the Japanese style of adventure games. Visual novels look like Japanese adventure games not the other way around. Their presentation may be similar but what each genre focuses on and how they play are very different. Again adventure games are about problem solving and visual novels, or any of the novel games previously mentioned, are mainly about reading a narrative.
To give an analogy: adventure games are like driving a car to a destination. You directly control where you go with the potential of taking a wrong turn and getting lost. Visual novels are like if you took a train to a destination. You choose a route and the train takes you there.
The purpose of this write-up is not to argue semantics about what games belong in what genre. Genres are confusing in general and we could argue all day about what exactly an RPG is or what exactly an adventure game is (whether their western or Japanese). Words also often change when they are adopted by other cultures. Maybe the word “visual novel” will simply become a term in the West that encompasses any adventure game made in Japan or any game made in that style. Similar to how the term “anime” in the West means “animation from Japan” whereas in its country of origin anime is just another word to describe any kind of cartoon from anywhere in the world. But I also don’t think it is helpful to just throw genre names around willy-nilly and put the visual novel label on anything that sort of looks like a visual novel. When I was first getting into visual novels, I actually didn’t like them very much because people online were saying they were similar to the many DS adventure games I was playing at the time but they weren’t. When I played games like Ever17 I was frustrated at the lack of interactivity and never ended up finishing most of them. It wasn’t until I played these games on their own terms that I began to enjoy them. People who are fans of games like Ace Attorney are not always going to like visual novels and people who like visual novels are not always going to enjoy adventure games since they are trying to accomplish different things despite their similarities. I think understanding where these genres came from and acknowledging the differences between them will make it easier for people to appreciate them for what they are. I may have gotten some of this history wrong, and if I did please let me know, but I hope this has cleared up what a visual novel is for some people.
- Chrontendo History of Japanese Adventure Games: 1982 to 1989 and 1989 to 2010
- Game Developer Research Institute - System Sacom
- Japanese Wikipedia: サウンドノベル, ビジュアルノベル, システムサコム
- Kotaro Uchikoshi’s GDC 2013 Presentation
- Mobygames - Novel Ware
- Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals by Hiroki Azuma
- Pixelated Audio (Staff Roll: Manabu Saito – PA101)
- The Possibilities of Adventure Games
- What is Game Design? Three Perspectives
- Chunsoft 30th Anniversary Interview