Humans have been telling stories ever since we invented language and art, but the history of storytelling has reached new heights over the past 40 years thanks to a complex and wonderful 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 finally gaining popularity and respect in the gaming community: visual novels.
Visual novels consist of text accompanied by character portraits and static backgrounds. Gameplay is minimal, usually only involving choosing a dialogue that determines the direction of the branching storyline. Many visual novels also include point-and-click elements to explore the game setting. It is increasingly common for visual novels to include mini-games, like the bartender element of “VA-11 HALL- A ”from Sukeban Games or the real-time filming sections of Kazutaka Kodaka’s Danganronpa series. Ultimately, what is at the heart of the visual novel is the ability not only to read or watch a story, but to interact with it.
I’ve been a fan of the genre ever since I first played “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney” on my Nintendo DS as a kid. I was a voracious reader tearing up stacks of books in my local library, but nothing held my attention quite as well as a game that allowed me to become a central part of the action. I’ve never been most good at real-time action in games (and to this day I’m still more of a puzzle and strategy-oriented), but that’s what got me hooked on that genre – it was accessible but just as exciting any book or video game.
Complexity and skill level are often used to separate “real” players from the rest of the pack. Likewise, simplicity is used as an insult to readers. In a class with my fellow English majors, I’m much less likely to gain respect by making comparisons to The Twilight Saga. or “The fault of our stars” that if I were discussing “A Farewell to Arms” or “Moby Dick. ” Some visual novels are written with the intention not to be taken seriously, like the dating simulation “Hatoful Boyfriend” in which all options for romance are pigeons. Others are just as sincere and contemplative as the novels I have come to study.
What makes a story deserve the label of “great literature?” If this is 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 considered literature; fun and depth are just as important. By this logic, visual novels (due to their focus on text) should easily fall into this category. History shows us that as technology advances, the boundaries between mediums blur, as do the benchmarks of value.
A great example of this in recent memory is developer Vanillaware’s 2019 visual novel “13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim”. He has been praised by the top gaming journalism outlets and nominated for awards across the world for his outstanding non-linear storytelling. In fact, it was the only video game nominated for the 51st Seiun Awards, a long-standing award for Best Japanese Science Fiction. If a game like this is deemed important enough to be nominated for an award usually reserved for literature and film, shouldn’t the genre be taken more seriously as an art form?
The genre’s history dates back to the early 1980s, but until recently it was considered highly specialized. Nintendo was one of the first big names to influence the genre with the 1983 “Portopia Serial Murder Case” for the Famicom console. They were also the first to bring the genre to the mainstream with the Ace Attorney and Professor Layton series for Nintendo DS. Although they continue to be developed more often by independent developers than by big studios, visual novels now rank among the best-selling games in 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 among the nicest sections of the games, both of which have sold millions of copies.
It is encouraging to see visual novels on the rise as they are finally being appreciated for the thoughtful works of art that they are. It’s pretty hard to write something engaging, but add some animation and a soundtrack and interactivity and something singularly creative is born. Regardless of the content, visual novels open the door for creators to create a narrative without the limitations other forms have. As the genre gains popularity with serious gamers and newcomers alike, it just makes sense to view this as an exciting step in humanity’s constant search for the best way to share stories.
Daily Arts writer Harper Klotz can be contacted at [email protected]