I hate reading. It’s something I’ve always struggled to enjoy. Probably due to a combination of my ADD and dyslexia but when I’m thinking of something to do reading is usually the last thing that comes to mind. The only times I’ve ever read something just to enjoy reading it were when I didn’t have anything else to do. Like, as much as I love JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure I’m not sure if I would have been able to read the entire manga if it wasn’t for needing something to do on the train and bus rides home from high school. As such, I’ve always been surprised by the fact that I find myself enjoying visual novels quite a bit! I’d say it was for the visual aspects alone but if that were the case then I wouldn’t have a hard time getting myself to read manga or comics. I believe it’s more because visual novels are able to bring something both unique to games and novels despite the fact that some don’t consider them to be games at all!
Visual novels are basically just that. They are visualized novels. Though they tend to have a bit more interactivity than most actual novels do. They are games based around text and reading. Some good examples would be the Ace Attorney series, Danganronpa, VA-11 Hall-A, and Doki Doki Literature Club among others. Some might consider text heavy games, like Persona and some other JRPGs, to be visual novels but if the main game play doesn’t revolve around reading through lots of text with not much game play in between I personally wouldn’t count them as visual novels. It’s actually this lack of game play and focus on reading that have some people consider visual novels to not count as games, but in my experience the minimal amount of game play in each not only can enhances the game overall but also helps set them apart because of how they use it.
As you probably could have guessed, visual novels tend to focus heavily on their story. A visual novel’s story is often the driving force that keeps a player engaged. With that being the case though, you might ask “why not just write a book instead?” And that’s because even with the story being the main focus, the small amount of game play still plays a big part, and it’s often used to make the story that much better! Unlike a lot of other games that can have their story and game play completely separate, visual novels need to find a compelling way to blend their story and game play together. And how a visual novel decides to do this can be the difference between creating an alright game and a great game. More often than not, a visual novel’s game play will be simply answering questions that affect the story and where it will go from there. And while there isn’t anything really wrong with that approach, visual novels that go a bit further than that tend to be the ones that shine the most.
For example, let’s take a look at the Ace Attorney series, probably the most well known of visual novels.
The series starts with the player taking on the role of defense attorney Phoenix Wright, and while the series would go on to having you play as different characters besides Phoenix, the player would typically find themselves in the court room regardless of who they were playing as. The game play of the series is split between investigating and compiling evidence outside of the court room and then using said evidence to defend your client in the court room. You mainly do this by cross examining witnesses, reading through their testimonies and calling them out on their lies. While at the end of the day you really are just reading text and connecting a few points with the evidence, it’s still always exciting when you get to call someone out on their lying. That “Aha!” moment doesn’t really exist or have the same satisfaction when it comes to reading a book. Even if you solve the mystery before the book reveals it, it doesn’t feel as much like you are the one solving anything. After all, the main character will still figure things out regardless of if you, the reader, did or did not. The Ace Attorney series is the same way a bit. Phoenix will always prevail regardless, he has to save his client and solve the case, but because you’re the one actually picking the evidence and reading through the testimony, you suddenly have much more investment in these things. It feels like you and Phoenix did it together and less like you are just along for the ride. This sort of approach doesn’t really work for other game genres either. Not even conversation heavy games like Mass Effect have this much talking in them. Only in visual novels can you have hours of talking without there needing to be a big game play sequence to break things up. This is mainly because most games don’t have enough focus on their stories that they can get away with something like that. You have to have some great writers on staff if you expect people to get through hours of story at a time and visual novels often achieve that despite how hard that can be.
But let’s shift gears a little now and talk about another visual novel, one more relaxing and calming, like a good drink after a long day. Let’s talk about VA-11 Hall-A.
VA-11 Hall-A is a visual novel set in a cyberpunk world. Talking robots and some dogs are normal, big corporations control everything, and there’s a general sense of oppression in the air. You play as a bartender named Jill working at a bar called VA-11 Hall-A, which they pronounced as ‘Valhalla’, where you’re just trying to enjoy life and make enough to pay for rent at the end of each month. The game play revolves around you talking to clients and serving them drinks. And that’s about it. Yup. You can’t really do much to affect the story in any major ways and you don’t even get to pick what drink to serve as the customers will generally tell you what they want. There are a few times when they’ll just describe a drink and it’s up to you to find one that goes with that description though. Despite that, the game is still super enjoyable. It’s calming and relaxing and much more story and character focused than something like Ace Attorney. Don’t get me wrong, while the Ace Attorney series does have some amazing characters I didn’t really find myself getting as invested in them as I did with the characters in VA-11 Hall-A. Whenever I’d start a new shift I was always excited to see who would stop by during the night, seeing who’s story would be continuing. Getting to hear about the world from the perspective of your customers was really interesting as well as Jill doesn’t have much interaction with the world the game is set in besides browsing the web on her phone and going out to buy things from time to time. And despite there being plenty of drama in the story, the game always managed to keep the chill and relaxed atmosphere of the bar going. Which is exactly what the game was trying to achieve.
Unlike with Ace Attorney where you are suppose to be on the edge of your seat as you figure out each twist and turn in a case, VA-11 Hall-A is meant to be more of a calming experience. In fact, when you start a new game you actually get a message recommending you to get some drinks and a snack before continuing so you can properly relax and unwind while playing! After all, the biggest threat the game brings up that the player has any control over is making sure Jill doesn’t spend too much so she can pay for rent. The game is built around just enjoying making drinks and the characters that come to drink them. And it worked so well that I was even inspired to go and learn how to bar tend myself! Despite the game not being a very long experience I found myself getting extremely invested in the characters. From Dorothy to Alma to the brain in the jar named Taylor that comes in one night. The colorful cast really helps show you the world the game is set in despite never going to see it yourself and it drives you to play that much more. It’s an experience I will always recommend! Even to people who aren’t particular into visual novels.
Visual novels can give such unique experiences. It’s a genre that I think not enough people realize has a lot of creative potential. They aren’t exactly money making games so it’s rare to see any big game companies produce them besides Capcom with the Ace Attorney series. They often come from indie developers which can make them that much harder to find sometimes. And it doesn’t help that a lot of people just think of them as slightly more visual versions of books. And while that comparison isn’t completely wrong all the time, you can still get experiences you normally never would from any other game. Whether you’re just looking to relax in a cyberpunk world making drinks and talking with people who wander in to your bar or trying to be an attorney defending their client where you point very accusingly and shout “OBJECTION!” at everyone. And if someone like me, who really does hate reading, can enjoy visual novels, I’m pretty sure anyone can!
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Have you played any visual novel games before? Thinking about giving one a go now? Do you have a favorite visual novel that I didn’t bring up here? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
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