The Rise of the Western Visual Novel

The Western visual novel is a growing genre that adds a literary approach to gaming.

What Is a Visual Novel?

According to the Visual Novel Database, a visual novel “can be seen as a combination of a novel and a computer game: they’re computer games with a large text based storyline and only little interaction of the player.” Most visual novels feature branching narrative structures, where player decisions dictate how the game’s storyline will advance. Some even use complex gameplay mechanics, such as puzzles, role-playing statistics, and combat sequences.

Today, visual novels are highly popular with both Western and Eastern gamers. However, the genre itself has a long history—much of which predates the West’s interest in the format.

33 years ago, Enix released Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken, an interactive mystery game following the murder of the highly prominent banker Kouzou Yamakawa. Unique for its time, Portopia relied on text-based inputs for crime scene investigations and dialogue scenes. The game essentially gave birth to the visual novel format by introducing two main staples to the Japanese industry: onscreen visuals and dynamic character interaction.

As Brian Crimmins points out in ZEAL, it’s hard to track the history of dating sims and romance titles alongside the visual novel’s development. Adult works remained highly prominent in Japan and drew on many of the visual novel conventions introduced early on in the 1980s. Nonetheless, the visual novel quickly blossomed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with many games built around meeting attractive young women and wooing them with the correct dialogue choices.

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Of course, romance titles weren’t the only genre available in Japan. No, visual novel developers were always interested in innovative storytelling, and writers never failed to create games that dealt with serious social and psychological issues. Be it Hideo Kojima’s science-fiction thriller Policenauts or Puella Magi Madoka Magica writer Gen Urobuchi’s stomach-churning horror story Saya no Uta, Japanese gamers experienced visual novel stories with three-dimensional characters, memorable settings, and thought-provoking narrative branches. Despite popular confusion regarding dating sims and visual novels, Japan has traditionally developed visual novels that cover social, political, and psychological concerns that impact the country’s citizens in the 20th and 21st century.

However, prior to the emergence of such localization companies as Sekai Project and NIS America, most visual novels remained in Japan. Both Policenauts and Saya no Uta, for example, were not localized for the West during their initial release—it would take ten years for JAST USA to finally bring Saya no Uta to the United States, and Policenauts remained outside of the West until fan translators created an English language patch for the game in 2009. Most of the visual novel’s history has taken place in Japan, and Western readers have only recently been exposed to the genre’s offerings.

In 2010, developers both new and old began creating brand new stories for Western players.

Three Creators Pushing the Genre Forward

Canadian video game developer Christine Love released Analogue: A Hate Story for PC in 2012. Developed in the Ren’Py engine and published on Steam, Love’s game is a science-fiction epistolary tale about an abandoned space colony ship that resurfaces after drifting in space for centuries. The title quickly became one of Love’s most successful commercial endeavors, thanks in part to its immersive backstory, memorable robot AIs, and brutal frankness towards artificial intelligence, gender roles, and social isolation over prolonged periods of time.

Analogue wasn’t Love’s first visual novel, of course. But it certainly was one of her most provocative releases. The game drew on an intricate overview of medieval Korean culture, juxtaposing Korean nobility with a futuristic science-fiction setting. Indeed, Love’s work demonstrated to the West that visual novels could be an excellent vehicle for social, political, and historical concerns.

Shortly after Love released Analogue, visual novel developer Georgina Bensley published her critically acclaimed queen-rearing simulator, Long Live the Queen. Based around the rise of a 14-year old princess named Elodie, the game features a 40-week struggle to maintain her hold on the Kingdom of Nova while she prepares for her coronation. But death is always close in tow for the player, with everything from robbers to poisoned chocolates threatening Elodie’s reign.

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Bensley, who runs the development studio Hanako Games, wanted to create a raising simulator that captured the political tension found in regal European life. Developing the game as a visual novel was simply a natural fit from the start.

“When people say ‘make me feel like a princess,’ they don’t mean ‘put the weight of the world on my shoulders.’ But being a princess in olden times involved a great deal of politics,” Bensley told me over an interview. “I wanted to create a complicated web of royal and noble family connections, where every action might gain you friends and enemies.”

Like Love, Bensley’s game is fascinated with the historical and political environment in which its characters find themselves in. In fact, the game was largely inspired by the formation and development of countries.

“The original seed for Long Live The Queen was a raising simulation where, instead of raising a child who might develop into many different careers, you were ‘raising’ a country, and that country’s future would be determined by the history you had created,” she said. “This got merged with a number of other ingredients, including some of the cute-magical-girl-meets-demonic-abomination aesthetic of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.”

Currently, Bensley is developing A Little Lily Princess, a yuri adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s tale A Little Princess. The story is based around a mild-mannered young girl, Sara Crewe, who attends a boarding school in Victorian England when disaster strikes. The game features life management gameplay mechanics and six possible endings for the player to achieve.

For Bensley, the visual novel format is perfect for novel adaptations, because the genre allows her to escape the traditional limitations of linear storytelling and create more open-ended worlds for her readers.

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“[T]here are a large number of female characters that Sara has meaningful interactions with, but no canon pairing. Crucially, none of those relationships are intrinsically necessary to the major plot points of the book,” she said. “That means that I can write different paths focusing on the character of the player’s choice while still having the big important plot milestones happen. Every route can feel like a valid version of the book’s story, instead of having one ‘canon’ route and a bunch of offshoots which would be taken less seriously.”Like Love, Bensley demonstrated that developers can create visual novels that provide for serious themes, open-ended interpretations, and hours upon hours of rich narrative content.

Not unlike choose-your-own-adventure games, Bensley suggests, Western developers are learning to treat the visual novel as a serious tool for historical, political, and romantic literature. After all, Love and Bensley aren’t the only visual novel developers tackling serious issues in their game worlds. Take Date Nighto’s 2015 psychological horror release We Know the Devil. Written by ZEAL Editor-in-Chief Aevee Bee and illustrated by freelance artist Mia Schwartz, We Know the Devil follows a group of three teens attending a Christian summer camp in the middle of the woods. Inspired heavily by ‘80s horror classics, We Know the Devil’s world quickly grows disturbing as the devil himself makes an appearance among the three campers.

Not unlike Love’s focus on humanity and technology, Bee’s game is deeply invested in the personal experiences of queer teenagers growing up in the Christian Midwest. Indeed, We Know the Devil provides a very specific outlet for queer and trans players, portraying everything from teenage drinking to gender dysphoria in realistic detail. For this very reason, Bee’s writing stands out as one of the first visual novels for a queer and trans young adult audience.

Bee, who holds an MFA in creative writing, found that Japanese visual novels feature a wide range of faceless protagonists that are difficult to connect with. Instead, when she sat down to design We Know the Devil, she insisted on creating three protagonists who were fully fleshed out characters.

“Most visual novels center around a single protagonist, and it’s usually someone I can’t bring myself to care about or identify with,” she told me over an email interview. “So I wanted to think about ways of making a different design choice, rather than accept that particular convention, because I wanted to make a game about an equal push/pull dynamic between three characters.”

From there, Bee and Schwartz spun a world accessible to queer and trans youth by drawing on their own experiences growing up.

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We Know the Devil has digested the culture that Mia and I consumed as kids and saw ourselves in,” she said. “The language We Know the Devil speaks is drawn from it, but it’s taking the hints and subtext and turning it into text in a setting that’s specific to queer/trans kids growing up in the Midwest.” This, Bee argues, makes these experiences accessible “to kids who didn’t or still don’t have much outside of the internet affirming them.”

While radically different from Love’s focus on AI transhumanism and Bensley’s fascination with regal politics, Bee’s writing uses the visual novel to focus on social, philosophical, and existential concerns found throughout queer life in North America. The Western visual novel, We Know the Devil suggests, is able to create new stories for a different kind of audience—one that isn’t necessarily familiar with Japanese manga and anime.

Beyond the Happy Ending

From political intrigue to young adult horror tales, North American and European developers are creating their own visual novel stories by and for Western audiences. The genre’s rise in the West certainly shows no signs of stopping, either, especially as Bensley and Love continue developing A Little Lily Princess and Ladykiller in a Bind, respectively.

“I design games which are very much intended to be played multiple times to see different facets of the story,” Bensley said, “and not all of those facets are guaranteed to be happy or fulfill the player’s hopes. To me, that’s a feature. I tend to feel that something isn’t really a game if you can’t lose.”

Indeed, Bee, Love, and Bensley’s games are not exactly happy stories. Death and despair reside throughout all three of their worlds, as each game features characters tortured by their past and present. This, Bensley suggests, is absolutely vital to the storytelling experiences she creates. After all, these existential crises give room for larger social and political issues for the characters to deal with.

Bee, meanwhile, argues that the tone a visual novel establishes is vital to its success. She stresses that a visual novel doesn’t have to appeal to every reader, but it most certainly needs to resonate with its core demographic.

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“I feel like We Know the Devil is for a limited audience and also that the game makes some assumptions about what the audience knows, but those assumptions are different—it was written for different people,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, just a thing to think hard about.”

Indeed, it’s not an issue to develop a visual novel for a new audience. Thanks to the introduction of the visual novel in Japan, Western developers are creating their own stories inspired by the genre. Certainly, the Western visual novel market is only just beginning to make itself heard in the gaming industry. Let’s hope it’s here to stay.

Ana Valens is a freelance contributor.