Video games inspired or derived from anime represent just about every traditional game genre. There are plenty of JRPGs, which have their own article, and that’s often the first video game genre that people think of when you bring up Japanese games. However, since the early 90s and the rise of computer multimedia, the “Visual Novel” has also become a staple of anime-inspired video games.

In fact, it’s not that uncommon to find that a new anime is based on a popular visual novel. Popular shows Steins;Gate and Clannad are but two examples. Before I go any further, let’s talk about what a visual novel actually is.

Visual Novel

Is it a Game or Not?

This is a tough question to answer. Visual novels are, at their core, interactive digital fiction. Think about the “choose your own adventure” games, which were printed on paper and had you make choices by turning to different pages. Many pure visual novels are like that. It’s a branching narrative where you need to make key decisions at certain points which will affect what happens further along in the story, including ultimately which ending is reached.

Some visual novels have only a few major branches, while others have hundreds of choices, dozens of endings, and finely-grained branching within their respective stories. A pure visual novel does not have much in the way of game mechanics. Instead, the sum total of your narrative choices are the only way in which you can affect the course and outcome of the game. So there aren’t any actual game mechanics per se.

When you think about it, early text-based adventures were sometimes quite like visual novels, just without the actual visuals. While games like Zork were closer to puzzle adventures such as Monkey Island, they often were laid on a bedrock of branching narratives.

There’s a particular type of visual novel known as a “kinetic” novel which has no choices at all! This is literally just a novel that you read as the story plays out. So in that case it definitely is not a game.

Visual Novel Hybrids

Of course, plenty of games in other genres rely heavily on branching narratives, so in a way visual novels are like game stories that just need to have some game mechanics added to them. This also happens pretty often. Some visual novels, such as Virtue’s Last Reward, are also full-on puzzle games. Other visual novels might integrate simple mini-games to make them more engaging. The vast majority of visual novels are, however, simply branching stories, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fantastic experiences!

One common hybrid is the visual novel and dating simulator, where you try to get one of several characters to fall in love with you. While many visual novels are also dating simulators, the two types of games don’t always overlap.


Non-Japanese and Indie Visual Novels

Since it’s relatively easy to make a visual novel, it’s been a popular format for indie developers. If you can write a great branching story and can produce good artwork, you’re 90% there. Of course you also may want music and voice acting, but they aren’t absolutely necessary to qualify as a visual novel. All you have to do in addition is use one of the available visual novel creator tools to make your title publishable.

Most of these independent visual novels can be found on the PC, since it is an open platform. Console visual novels tend to be made by professional studios because there are licensing fees and other expensive red tape to get around before you can publish something on a Playstation.

Visual Novels and Adult Content

Adults-only visual novels are a prominent genre within this medium, but they don’t actually make up the majority of these titles. Because they are so easy to make there have been more than a few infamous titles which really push the limit of good taste. I won’t mention specific titles here, but be sure to pay attention to ratings and user reviews before diving into more obscure or independent titles. There is no lack of non-erotic visual novel content.

It’s also worth noting that plenty of modern visual novels allow you to limit the adult content. You can choose to have it censored or even removed from the story completely. It’s a great way to make these titles acceptable for a wider audience.

Visual Novels in Japanese Pop Culture

One curious influence that visual novels have had is references in anime itself. You’ll often hear characters in romantic or comedy anime refer to “triggering a flag”, which is a reference to triggers in visual novel and dating simulator hybrids.

In Japan visual novels are known as “love adventure” or “novel” games. Visual novel is a Western label.

The Weird Side of Visual Novels

While most visual novels take themselves pretty seriously, some creators have taken their narrative flexibility to their limits. There are some truly weird visual novels. For example, Katawa Shoujo is set in a special needs school where all the love interests are living with a disability. Hatoful Boyfriend is a Visual Novel set at a school where all the other students are pigeons! If pigeons are too, well, alive for you, there are options as well. Slabs of meat, sushi, and goodness knows what else.

Many of these are pretty terrible, but some like Hatoful Boyfriend have their fair share of fans.

anime games

Where Does One Get Visual Novels?

With the exception of the Xbox consoles, I don’t think there are any modern platforms that don’t have a decent swathe of visual novels available on them. The most prolific platform at this point has to be Steam, the PC-based digital distribution service that dominates all. Steam has great curation lists for every genre of game, and visual novels are no different.

Alternatively you can buy from indie shops like Humble Bundle or get them directly from the developer website. The PS Vita has quite a few good ones and more are still being released. Mobile devices, especially iOS ones, have seen releases of major titles such as the Phoenix Wright games. The Nintendo DS is well represented here, but for some reason few visual novels made it to English territories on the 3DS.

For older titles for platforms that are simply not around anymore, you can try some emulation options; there are plenty of classic titles too!

Weird, but Wonderful

Visual novels represent one of the oddest niches in anime-inspired Japanese gaming. Not really games but then not really books, they still have a unique charm. You can’t deny that they’ve produced some really strong narratives over the years, and if we Westerners had kept our appetite for games like Myst and Zork then maybe we would also have produced visual novels from an earlier time. Regardless, today there are plenty of visual novels from all over the world. It might have started as a purely Japanese phenomenon, but now it’s global. The only way to know if you’re going to be in to it is to try one. So head on over to the online game store of your choice and type “visual novel” in the search bar. The rest is up to you.

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