Visual novels! Once decried as a “niche” by the masses, they have slowly but surely wormed their way into video games as a whole. Persona became a visual novel, then Fire Emblem. Now Saya no Uta, Gen Urobuchi’s disturbing cult “classic” (?!) is available on Steam to stumble upon. There are fewer barriers than ever before to experiencing this varied, historic and often misunderstood medium.
But where to begin? Some visual novels are very long. Others are quite lewd. A number of them (even the ones people love) front-load their most boring material at the beginning, and save the best moments for the last hour of what can be twenty or thirty-hour games. Picking up Saya no Uta without being primed for the extremes of the medium is a recipe for despair. But don’t be afraid! Many of the best visual novels being made today are only a few hours long, encompass many approaches and genres, and are acceptable for all ages. In this piece I will lay out a path that you, dear reader, may follow into the thickets. Some things to keep in mind:
1. Every one of the games featured here is legally avaliable in English. If you know Japanese and are willing to spend some money, feel free to experiment on your own!
2. The games featured here range from appropriate for teenagers, to appropriate for mature audiences. Content warnings will be marked as needed. That said, almost none of these games feature the kind of graphic sex you’d see in old-school titles like Fate/Stay Night; the exception is the final title, included for completionism, which is truly sordid and not appropriate for anybody (but I like it).
3. While I’ve had some experience with the medium, BL and otome games are huge blind spots of mine, so I won’t embarrass myself by pretending expertise! If you’re interested in exploring those fields, I’ve heard good things about Code: Realize (get the collector’s edition with the extra content!), Hatoful Boyfriend and (if you’re OK with some NSFW material) Coming Out on Top.
With that said, let us being our journey!
SHORT AND SWEET:
These games last about two to three hours, but will stick with you longer than that. Don’t assume these are “beginner games” simply because they are short! I could argue that collectively, the three titles here are the best on this list.
Butterfly Soup is Brianna Lei’s follow-up to her cult success Pom Gets Wi-Fi. It’s free! It’s also one of the most acclaimed visual novels ever by the mainstream games press, scoring praise from folks like Patricia Hernandez and Steve Gaynor. As for what it’s about: it’s the story of four girls on their high school softball team, two of them are in love, and there are many funny jokes. I found the ending to be abrupt, but if you’re looking for good vibes and some much-needed encouragement to stay true to yourself, I highly recommend this game. Plus it references Matt Mullholland’s excellent “My Heart Will Go On” performance, which earns it extra points in my book.
Content warnings: Brief depictions of parental and physical abuse (no visuals!), ableist slurs.
We Know the Devil is “what if Kelly Link wrote Revolutionary Girl Utena?” Plenty of anime and games channel that energy (my beloved What A Beautiful visual novel series among them) but few do so as succinctly and distinctively as Aevee Bee, Mia Schwartz and their team do in this game. The result is a punk, unsettling take on magical girl stories set in a Christian summer camp, featuring sneaky world-building and some striking body horror. You’ll feel for the cast and their struggles, and cheer in the True Ending when everything goes completely off the rails.
Content warnings: Psychological and body horror, alienation of queer youth in a religious setting, freaky music.
EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER is a game about gay antifascist folks fighting fascists across the desert while riding giant robots made of meat. It’s the equivalent of a zine you’d pick up at a fair, willing to dive into messy topics most games shy away from and wholly uninterested in sanding away any rough spots. The music is great too! Play this game if you want to beat up Nazis in a giant meat machine called ROOTS AMONG ASH.
Content warnings: Body horror, mentions of self harm and abuse, suicidal ideation, alcohol, gender dysphoria, loss of bodily autonomy, apocalyptic ideation. For mature audiences!
NICE AND MEATY:
These games are a good bit longer, ranging from five to fifteen hours to beat. If you enjoyed the earlier entries and want more, try some of these!
The House in Fata Morgana is a bonafide cult classic, a game made by a small studio that earned itself a legion of die-hard fans in the visual novel space. At first glance it’s an entertaining genre pastiche, four tales of doomed love centering around a cursed mansion. But read past the first four chapters, and suddenly the real story comes to the fore—the tale of two ordinary people and a love that lasts for centuries. Fata Morgana takes some huge swings, tackling societal oppression, intersexuality, recovering from past trauma and learning to move on from those who have wronged you without having to forgive them. Its success at landing these swings likely depends on the reader, but I found Fata Morgana‘s heart to be in the right place. Couple that with one of the best soundtracks in video games, and you have an experience that is worth it even at 0% off.
Content warnings: incest, domestic violence, racist and sexist remarks, psychological manipulation, homophobic and transphobic remarks, sexual assault, child abuse. For mature audiences!
Heart of the Woods is, as of yet, the most ambitious game made by Studio Elan. It’s a supernatural mystery where two adult women travel to a small town in the cold and dark to investigate some strange occurrences. What they find leads to unexpected romance, but also incredible danger. Heart of the Woods is sweet, it’s funny (Tara is hilarious!) and as has come to be a running theme in this piece, the music is excellent, courtesy of Sarah Mancuso and Kris Flacke. Heart of the Woods is a game made by people who clearly have a lot of affection for visual novels as a medium, but had enough discretion to snip out the bits they weren’t fond of. It also comes with a plethora of accessibility options, allowing you to customize everything from the text to the music to your needs.
Content warnings: Parental abuse, alcohol, light horror elements, some sex scenes you can enable with an optional R-18 patch. For mature audiences!
As for Seabed, it’s… yuri ASMR? It’s difficult to describe, as the appeal of this one for me isn’t so much the story—which is intriguing, but very slow-paced—as it is the feel of it. Everything from the music, to the sound effects, to the text, contributes to a languid feeling unlike every other game in the medium I have played. Seabed won’t be for everyone, but few titles match its distinctive atmosphere.
Content warnings: alcohol, partial nudity. At least one sex scene that isn’t too explicit by the standards of the medium. For mature audiences!
THE DEEP END:
These games range in length from fifteen hours to fifty… and beyond! If you’re looking for the experience your Japanese-speaking friends fell in love with back in the days of fan translations and frantically searching online for information on Type-Moon properties, this is it!
Imagine that you have an idea for a great Japanese TV-drama, but you decide to make it as a visual novel instead. Wanting to produce as authentic an experience as possible, you hire actors and have them act out every scene in your script as you take multiple photographs depicting every twist and turn in the plot. Imagine the sheer amount of time and labor it would require. Then multiply it by five, let the player switch between these narratives with the ease of hitting a button on a gamepad, and tie them together into a vast meta-narrative. That’s 428: Shibuya Scramble, one of the most ambitious visual novels ever created and a game that was famously awarded a score of 40 by the Japanese games rag Famitsu. Despite having an enormous and complicated script, it was localized into English just a year ago. Don’t miss out on this bizarre and fascinating video game! If you’re a fan of the Yakuza series, you’ll be right at home with 428‘s brand of lunacy.
Content warnings: Violence, drugs, alcohol, some bad language.
Umineko: When They Cry is a lot. A gonzo mystery story that starts as a riff on And Then There Were None, it swiftly mutates into a hundred-hour game of four-dimensional chess. It was made by a small team, scored by the music of the gods, and is fully committed throughout to its brand of sentiment, metaphysical rambling and extreme horror. Some might say that Umineko is overwrought, but that is the point: the game is memorable for its excess, not despite of it. If you’re looking for a taste of the full VN experience, complete with shocking twists, a weird obsession with trivia and far too many words, this is the most authentic you can find that’s appropriate for all audiences. Please play with the original art! It’s charming.
Content warnings: Parental abuse, blood and gore, people getting killed and suffering fates worse than death at the hands of witches (???). For mature audiences!
And now we come to [NSFW] Wonderful Everyday, everything your anxious friend told you about visual novels. It’s not just that Wonderful Everyday has sex scenes, it’s that it takes less time to list what triggering and problematic content is not in the game than what is in it. It references Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Cyrano de Bergerac. The game isn’t afraid to take huge, unexpected shifts in tone and aesthetic in order to scare or destabilize the player. You might be wondering: why recommend a game like this, which many would find morally abhorrent? All I can say is that Wonderful Everyday is the game that convinced your Japanese-speaking friends to read Wittgenstein. It’s a cult classic, a title unavailable in English for years that came with the highest praise imaginable: that it was a profound work of art, that it would change your way of thinking forever. After finally playing through the game two years ago, my feelings were more mixed; but there’s no mistaking that few games better personify the visual novel medium’s eccentricities, indulgences or shoot-for-the-moon ambition than this shaggy, gross, but fascinating video game.
Content warnings: suicide, psychological and body horror, multiple variants of sexual assault, extreme bullying, extreme violence, bestiality (thankfully cut down for release in the US!), a transgender character who is handled in a pretty specious way. Many graphic sex scenes. For very mature audiences!
There’s even more great titles out there that I couldn’t fit on this list! The high stakes and interface-shattering plot twists of 999. The countless games being made in engines like Ren’Py, Choice of Games and Twine. South Korean visual novels like Nameless and Mystic Messenger. No matter what kind of person or reader you may be, there is a visual novel out there somewhere for you. I wish you luck in your endless journey of discovery!
Are you a fan of visual novels? Do you have any (safe for work, if possible) recommendations? Please let us know in the comments!
Adam W is a features writer at Crunchyroll. When he isn’t eagerly awaiting the announcement of the Girls’ Work anime by Type Moon, he sporadically contributes with a loose coalition of friends to a blog called Isn’t it Electrifying? Follow him on twitter at: @wendeego
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