To “read more” is a common New Year’s resolution, but no-one says it has to be books that you’re reading. The modern world has a whole host of ways in which to consume the written word, and a particularly palatable one for those who have grown up with the whiz-bang nature of video games is, of course, the visual novel medium.
Conversely, the word-heavy nature of the visual novel medium also leads those with short attention spans to dismiss them as having “too much reading” — an actual reason a friend of mine gave for not getting all the way through even one of the Ace Attorney games that I discussed last week. This is also a common criticism levelled at the immeasurably wonderful Persona 4, with recent reviews of the new Vita “Golden” version pretty much all saying that you need to “endure” or “make it through” the text-heavy first few hours before you get to “the good bit.” I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but that was pretty much the gist of many reviews I’ve read in the last few weeks.
Here’s the thing, though — being wordy doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) considered a bad thing. Just as some books are easier to digest than others, so too are some games easier to swallow. Just as some movies have a slow pace and a dearth of action sequences, so too do some games. There’s nothing wrong with words — they’re an important part of the world’s rich cultural history, after all, so a game incorporating a whole bunch of them to stoke the fires of the imagination really shouldn’t be a criticism, just something worth noting for those with a lack of patience.
As such, for the benefit of those of you seeking to “read more” in the New Year as well as those of you who have long been curious about the visual novel medium but haven’t yet got into it, I present to you a “reading list” of five works that are well worth your time and attention. Some of these I’ve discussed in previous installments of this column, others I’m planning to cover in the future. Between them, however, they represent a good cross-section of the things you can expect from the medium, and some fine examples of some excellent stories that are worth reading. (Also, everyone writes list features at this time of year, so who am I to not follow suit?)
You’ll notice my Game of the Year School Days HQ isn’t on this list, and there’s a very specific reason for this — despite the fact that School Days is structurally the same as a visual novel, it’s actually more of an interactive movie and demands far less in the way of reading and using one’s imagination. Consequently, I regard it as something a little different from the titles I’m putting on show here, all of which focus almost entirely on using words rather than fancy animations or complex gameplay to get their point across. You can read more about School Days here if you’d like to know more — and it’s well worth a look. For the same reason, I’m not putting the gameplay-heavy Aselia the Eternal on this list — if you’d like to know more about that particular title then check out the two columns I wrote about it here and here.
As ever, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, just five works that are widely regarded as being good. If you have any other particularly noteworthy entries in the genre that you’d like to share with everyone, feel free to note them down in the comments below.
Let’s get started!
Analogue: A Hate Story
Christine Love is one of the more visible, well-known Western visual novel authors, and several of her works carry heavy Japanese and anime influences. Her earlier titles Digital: A Love Story (which actually doesn’t have all that much to do with Analogue besides computer technology playing a key role in how you interact with the characters) and the wonderfully named Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story are both available for free and eminently worth playing through, but it was Analogue, her first paid title, that started to get her some more widespread recognition. In fact, it’s enjoyed so much success that Love is currently working on an expansion called Hate Plus.
Part of the joy of Analogue is in discovering what it’s all about so I won’t spoil too much of it here — I’ll save that for a future installment of this column when I find some time to refresh my memory on the specifics of its narrative — but suffice to say it tells its story in a very interesting manner. Rather than relying on internal monologues and talking-head sequences like most visual novels, the majority of Analogue’s narrative has to be pieced together by the player through reading disjointed computer log entries from long-dead members of a spacefaring civilization. At the same time, the player has conversations with one of two artificial intelligence units who help them to interpret the various entries and piece together exactly what happened.
Analogue is cool for a number of reasons. It explores a real-life culture that will likely be somewhat “alien” to a large proportion of its readers, it successfully intertwines a large number of narrative threads without breaking a sweat, and it encourages you to think. Not in the same way as solving a difficult puzzle in an adventure game, mind, but in that it encourages you to consider what the various stories you encounter are saying and how they relate to one another — because things aren’t always made explicit by any means. It’s a challenging read that deals with some difficult themes, but it’s a fine example of what the medium is capable of.
Analogue is available from several sources including direct from Love, but those who like to keep all their games in the same place may wish to opt for the Steam version, which also has achievements for those who care about that sort of thing.
Kana Little Sister
Kana is particularly noteworthy for its sensitive handling of a taboo subject — incestuous relationships between siblings. Don’t let the subject matter put you off, however — it’s difficult to explain why it’s not as “problematic” as it might first appear without spoiling things, but longtime fans of anime probably know what I’m getting at. It is, however, worth noting that Kana is an “adults-only” title and includes explicit sexual scenes — though compared to many other eroge they are very tame and tend to serve the narrative rather than existing for pure titillation.
Kana is a deep, philosophical story about the nature of relationships and attitudes towards death. The title character — the protagonist’s sister — is struggling against a terminal illness, and much of the game consists of exploring the changing nature of the two siblings’ relationship and how they come to terms with the seemingly-inevitable conclusion that they will be torn apart from one another. The story is as much about the protagonist and how he deals with the turmoil inside his own mind as it is about Kana herself, and the six different endings all show very different ways that people can deal with grief.
Katawa Shoujo is noteworthy for many of the same reasons as Kana Little Sister – it explores taboo subjects in a sensitive and respectful manner, encouraging the player to think about the situations that are being shown to them and how they might respond if they were in a similar position to the protagonist.
Katawa Shoujo casts players in the role of a high school student who suffers a heart attack as the love of his life confesses her feelings to him. He is subsequently taken away from his old life and sent to a school specifically designed to cater to students with disabilities, and while there he gets to know six remarkable young girls, each of whom has a specific disability and each of whom has their own personal hangups — which are very rarely directly related to their disabilities — to deal with. Along the way, he will come to terms with his own condition and learn the fine art of accepting people for who they are, not what they look like or other physical characteristics. While the subject matter will be uncomfortable for some, that’s entirely intentional — an important part of the game is going through that learning experience alongside the protagonist.
Katawa Shoujo is also noteworthy for effectively being a “fan project” that came to fruition over the course of several years. The end result is surprisingly slick and polished — and it’s completely free, too. Check it out here, and read more about it in a past installment of READ.ME here.
I’m currently playing through this one with a mind to writing about it in the next few weeks, so I can’t comment in extensive detail on it, but it’s worth a look for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s beautifully and atmospherically presented, with excellent visuals and high-quality sound and music supporting the experience of reading the text. Secondly, it seems — thus far, at least — to be quite well written, entertaining and presents an endearingly Japanese take on some traditionally Western subject matter. Thirdly, it’s a fine example of something the visual novel medium does particularly well — take a pretty mundane “slice of life” setting and build a compelling narrative around it.
The fact that visual novels can do this shouldn’t be surprising, really — after all, there are plenty of book authors out there who make a living from “slice of life” tales. However, over the years many of us have come to expect a certain degree of “spectacle” from our video games, with our improbably-proportioned heroes and heroines typically saving the world from something or other in a climactic, overblown, physically-impossible final showdown beyond the limits of time and space. Kira Kira, meanwhile, is about a group of high schoolers who want to form a band.
Kira Kira is available in both “all-ages” and “adults-only” formats from its publisher Mangagamer — the latter version also comes with the “Curtain Call” sequel. The all-ages version is also available for iOS devices.
I’ll confess to knowing very little about this one at the time of writing, but people keep recommending it to me so I figured I should mention it simply due to its perceived importance. So highly regarded is it by Japanese popular culture that the original “adults-only” version for PC spawned a later teen-rated version for PS2 and Vita, an anime series, a movie, numerous sequels and spin-offs, a manga adaptation and a series of prequel light novels. It’s widely praised as a shining example of interactive storytelling and branching plotlines, with a level of narrative complexity comparable to a conventional novel. You better believe this one is well and truly on my list for future coverage in this column!
Fate/Stay Night has sadly never seen an official English language release, but a full fan-translation patch is available via Mirror Moon – the word count for which apparently exceeds the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. You’ll still need a copy of the original game to apply the patch to, though — if you’re willing to pay the pretty hefty price to import a copy from Japan, you can grab it from J-List.
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.