Editorials / Gaming

The Joy of Visual Novels

Zero Time Dilemma 2

Originally published on 6/20/14

As made clear by the full review posted a few weeks ago, I recently finished playing through Zero-Time Dilemma. Despite my mixed feelings on the game, I still found myself in a marathon, late-night play session, one that led me to the same thought I have every time I finish a visual novel: I wish there were more of these to play.

Sadly, though, the visual novel remains one of the genres with the least recognition in English territories. That’s not to say they never catch on, as games like Phoenix Wright and the Zero Escape series have both managed to make a splash and become established franchises. The problem, though, is that outside of a few prominent examples – the Danganronpa games also qualify – there’s really not a lot going for the genre.

That’s why I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the visual novel genre and share my thoughts. And, if I’m lucky, some of you who’ve never given the genre a chance will come away from this article with a desire to track one down and give it a try. If nothing else, it’s a chance to broaden your gaming palate a bit.

Phoenix Wright 1

First and foremost, I’ll go ahead and define what a visual novel is. In a lot of ways, it’s exactly what it sounds like, a novel-length work with heavy integration of graphics, sound effects and gameplay. Depending on who you ask, you might even get the argument that they barely qualify as games, but that’s a discussion for another day. That said, they are games where you’re going to be reading a lot. Imagine the cutscenes from a Metal Gear Solid game, but instead of fully-animated CGI, you’re looking at pictures of Snake and Otacon while textboxes run underneath.

I realize there’s a good chance that description alone has sent some of you running for the hills, but I promise you, this is a fun premise! Yes, there’s a lot of reading through extended scenes of talking heads, but this is what gives a visual novel its edge. All of the dialogue means you’re getting one heck of a fleshed-out story. And, considering the types of visual novels we get in North America, that story is almost guaranteed to be a fantastic mystery.

Yes, if you’re like our very own Rich Lepore and love a good twist, this is the genre for you. From the murder investigations of the Ace Attorney series to the search for the mastermind in Dangaronpa, visual novels offer stellar plots enhanced by enjoyable characters and lots of over-the-top reveals. And, given how picky the localization of these titles seems to be, we at least benefit from mainly getting the cream of the crop.

For example, while Zero-Time Dilemma was a bit of a letdown, the complete Zero Escape trilogy still contains one of my favorite narratives in all of gaming. Similarly, while it wasn’t nearly as strong, Danganronpa was every bit as engrossing, as evidenced by my only taking three days to get through its roughly 25-hour campaign.

Danganronpa 1

A big part of that obsession is the strength of the gameplay. In Zero Escape, it’s all about the expertly-crafted puzzle rooms, while Danganronpa relies on its intense Class Trials to get the adrenaline pumping. Yes, these gameplay sections are often separated by large chunks of story, but it just serves to keep the gameplay exciting and fresh when it does come around.

And the gameplay doesn’t even have to be puzzle-based; Arc System Works has built two fighting game/visual novel hybrids into franchises, with the story modes of both BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena featuring far more reading than battling. On the flipside, the stellar Katawa Shoujo focuses exclusively on the story, with gameplay coming down to how the player’s choices affect the branching narrative.

And at this point, I’ve listed a lot of the greats, at least as far as games with official English releases go. I suppose I could mention Hotel Dusk, but that’s a game that’s a slow starter in a genre known for slow starts; if there’s one to avoid, that’s it in my mind, at least until you’ve experienced others.

The point is, this is genre with such great potential to tell interesting, unique stories. It’s a genre that I wish got more than two new entries – if we’re lucky – each year. As it is, for those of you out there who have yet to face the challenge of the Nonary Game or enjoy the simple pleasure of shouting “Objection!” at your DS, I’d highly recommend giving a visual novel a try.