An Introduction to…Visual Novels

You have to forgive me for this fellow gamers, but I have grown tired of killing. It has been at least six months since I stepped into a game of Counter Strike or Call of Duty and even longer since I actually found ‘fragging’ fun. I went off and read a book instead; longing for a story and wishing that more games were just stories. Then I stumbled across the interesting, exciting but frankly awkward world of visual novels. A Visual Novel (or VN for short) is an interactive fiction game that uses images, music and words. There is no gameplay beyond pressing a button to advance the text or in some cases to make a decision that changes the course of the plot. VNs are some of the biggest selling games in Japan and monopolize the PC market with 70% of games released being VNs, however in the West they are hard to find.

However the content of these games is a little hard to swallow for a Westerner, especially one like myself, with little knowledge of anime or manga. Most VNs are either heavily based on popular Japanese television & games or they are erotic dating games. I don’t know about you, but when I think of a dating game I think of that dear Liverpudlian Cilla Black and her ever cheesy Blind Date not the school-girls and buxom heroines that some VNs provide. So here I present to you, three VNs that are artistically distinct, all legal to download, and all are palatable even to the conservative and judicious gamers out there.

I shall start with Narcissu, one of the most popular and accessible VNs, one that inspired translations in several languages. It is for the PC and is free to download from the translation project page. Narcissu is a story that touches upon several ethical and social issues such as euthanasia and care standards .There are no plot decisions to make in this game, only a story to follow. The presentation is minimalist, the text and speech are well written, but the conversations between the characters are laconic. The images are well drawn, but nevertheless vague and blurred, placing you firmly in the head of the forever day-dreaming protagonist.

Narcissu tells the tale of two terminally ill young adults who break out of hospital, steal a car and travel across Japan on an arbitrary journey to Awajishima island, committing petty crimes along the way. The story is told from the point of view of an anonymous protagonist who falls ill shortly after his 20th birthday, diagnosed with a malignant lung cancer. He assumes his life is over, until he meets Setsumi, a girl who has spent her entire life in and out of hospital and is confident that her death is soon. The protagonist only ever learns four things about her, her name, age, blood type and favourite species of flower. But he uses these to take her on one final journey with no actual destination, only a rhetorical one. Narcissu is a short game at only 3 or 4 hours in length, but its harrowing realism and distinctive imagery make it difficult to appreciate in just one sitting.

The Letter is another VN with a similar narrative style to Narcissu. It begins at the end of a journey with young man called Takahiro arriving home after several years away in Tokyo. He finds his mother has changed; she has become distant and cold. The death of her husband preys on her mind, the death of his father preys on Takahiro’s. After being home for a few days he injures himself whilst walking at night and passes out. In the morning he wakes up to find himself in the past. He is given one more chance to learn about the life he ignored, his own, and to spend time with the parents he never understood.

The Letter is very much a personal project; it has a very low budget and short length of only an hour, relying on simple music, sound effects and blurred stock photos. However this works with the very intimate narrative style as you are very much within the head of Takahiro and his world is a very vivid one. The gameplay also gives you some choices that affect the flow of the plot, making this piece a nice example of an interactive VN.

A more uplifting VN I have come across is True Remembrance, another very popular game with a high production value, well written story and a fantastic visual design that rivals Narcissu. This game has also been released free on the PC. The game is set in the present day, but in a world where depression has become a pandemic. A city was built in a renaissance European style where cars, clocks and other technologies are banned. Here the people suffering from the depression are cured of it by people called Mnemonicides. You play as one of these Mnemonicides, a dark and handsome young man called Blackiris who is one of the best at what he does, erasing and nullifying the depression. When his newest patient, a girl called La first arrives in the city, the story of True Remembrance begins, a expedition into the human condition, both the good and the bad.

This game has a brighter and livelier style than Narcissu or The Letter. It is designed to be comforting, whilst still maintaining its serious plot elements and dark undertones. Like Narcissu, it is yet another great introduction for someone like me who didn’t know the first thing about VNs.

I hope my quick introduction to the world of VNs is enough to make anyone reading this consider trying one of them out. I would give a strong recommendation to Narcissu and True Remembrance as they are both free to download and of a very satisfying length. These games deserve to be popular as they are accessible to a wider audience, they cost nothing, no ‘leet’ skills are required to play and very little time is lost doing so. The sheer number of these games means that there is something to satisfy everybody. If you like comedy, drama, art or sex, VNs are the place to go. However I shall leave the latter one for the voyeuristic and less discerning gamer to explore.

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