|From Thanatos Contract, a visual novel series I created with a group of friends.|
What is a visual novel?
Visual novel. What do those two words make you think of? A picture book? A comic book? Visual novels are a medium that mixes video games with reading, art with music, to deliver a unique experience. You won’t be shooting someone in these games unless presented to you as a choice, similar to choices presented in Choose Your Own Adventure books. Sure, there are visual novels that provide puzzles to solve, but, for the most part, the narrative is the main draw. For Japan, this has been a popular genre for many years, but the West is finally starting to see the appeal of the genre.
A niche genre
The first series of visual novels to intrigue American consumers most notably would be the Phoenix Wright series. For those of you unaware (and shame on you), the Phoenix Wright series revolves around a young defense attorney as he tries to clear his client’s name. The game blends between visual novel and adventure game, where you must investigate crime scenes while you gather clues. With these clues, you provide proof supporting or denying the testimony of witnesses. Each game provides a good story with an eclectic cast of characters to wrap up the experience. For people new to the visual novel genre, the Phoenix Wright series is a good place to get your toe wet.
Even with the success of the Phoenix Wright series in the early 2000s, visual novels didn’t hit their stride in the U.S. market until much later. For people who enjoyed the genre, fan translations were their only source of getting these games outside of Japan. If a game didn’t have any type of interaction beyond clicking through text boxes, it wouldn’t come here.
With the success of the Phoenix Wright games for Capcom, other companies slowly started to put their feet in the visual novel market. Aksys Games, most known for publishing the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fighting games, published 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, or just 999 for short, leading to a series of visual novels more popular in the West than in their native country. More recently, Nis America published the popular Danganronpa series, providing a dark twist to the courtroom drama seen in the Phoenix Wright series. Granted, games like these are still visual novel hybrids, containing elements from puzzle games and even rhythm games, but more and more people have become accepting of the genre.
As time went on, companies specific to publishing visual novels were created in the U.S. MangaGamer has been an active company for publishing PC visual novels from Japan, one of their most notable titles being Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, or When They Cry in English. Another company is JAST USA, though they have been known to work with MangaGamer in the past for distribution.
A more recent juggernaut in the visual novel publishing game is the company Sekai Project. Using crowdfunding to gauge interest in the visual novel market, Sekai Project has gained success from many of their projects. Not only have they published visual novels that fans have been begging for, such as Clannad, Sekai Project also publishes indie visual novels from developers from not only Japan but from around the world. Though they might not be the first publishers to bring visual novels to Steam, they have certainly flooded the market. The company shows no sign of stopping as their list of games for the future grows.
Make your own visual novel!
With Kickstarter and various visual novel programs, becoming an indie visual novel creator is fully within reason, though not a guarantee. Sure, you can become a one person development team if you are talented enough, but throwing on the role of artist, composer, and programmer might be a bit daunting. But whether you are planning a best-selling masterpiece or just want to try it out, there are many ways to create your own visual novel.
The route I highly recommend is Ren’Py. With over a decade of support, Ren’Py is a program that can bring to life either the simplest visual novels or the most complex. Not only that, the community behind it is extremely helpful, and the amount of games created using the program ranges in the hundreds. Even a few Steam visual novels were created using Ren’Py, including the excellent Sunrider, which I backed on Kickstarter. I’ve personally dabbled with Ren’Py, creating my own visual novel series along with a few Xenosaga fan projects. The code isn’t too difficult though it may be daunting at first glance (the Py in Ren’Py standing for Python, after all), but I highly recommend playing the built in tutorial and searching through their website for all the help you need. If you aren’t an artist or musician, you can also find tons of creative commons images and sounds around the web. The best thing of all: Ren’Py is completely free.
But wait, what if I can’t program? Don’t worry, I have you covered. Tyrano Builder Visual Novel Studio follows a drag-and-drop method of creation that is easy to make simple visual novels. You can find it on Steam for about $15 and it supports porting games to Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, HTML5, and CSS3. I haven’t personally used this engine yet, but I’m keeping my eye on it in case of a sale (though $15 still isn’t a bad price).
If you want to go the free route, Novelty is another drag-and-drop visual novel maker. The community isn’t quite as developed as Ren’Py’s and you can’t really make any overly complex games either, but if you want free and simple, this is it. I’d recommend it to beginners that find Ren’Py intimidating.
The Golden Age of Visual Novels in the West
With games like Steins;Gatefinally making it to the U.S., on a console of all platforms, visual novels are finally gaining their momentum in the West. I still wouldn’t say they are as popular as the next blockbuster first person shooter, but the popularity of visual novels is enough to satisfy the fans who do enjoy them. To conclude, here are a few of my favorite visual novels in no particular order:
- Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (When Seagulls Cry) – Another murder mystery by the talented Ryukishi07, Umineko is a lengthy series that keeps you guessing.
- World End Economica – From the creator of the Spice and Wolf series, the story revolves around a kid trying to get rich on the moon by investing in the stock market. That may sound a tad boring, but the cast of characters and setting keep your interest.
- Zero Escape Series (999 and Virtue’s Last Reward) – A series that deals with complex philosophic themes, quantum mechanics, and just about everything else, it’s hard not to love the complexity of these games. The third and possibly final game is set to release summer 2016.
- Saya no Uta (The Song of Saya) – From Gen Urobuchi, famed writer of such series as Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica, Saya no Uta is a short, Lovecraftian visual novel that manages to creep you out through its art, music, and writing. Warning: not for children.
- Danganronpa Series – Do you like growing attached to characters to only have them slaughtered before your eyes? If you said yes (through a veil of ugly tears), this series is for you!
- G-Senjou no Maou (The Devil on G-String) – If you liked Death Note, G-Senjou no Maoufollows a similar formula of a cat and mouse game where an eccentric detective tries to find a criminal mastermind.