Visual Novels — How on Earth is this a Thing?

Jeffrey McGee
4 min readAug 30, 2021

Like all weird video games, it started in Japan

Weird video games are actually cool, as Goat Simulator would have it. But this phenomenon… God knows how it became popular. Of course, I’m talking about the phenomenon that is Visual Novels.

If I had to come up with a cool metaphor, “Visual Novels” are basically books trying to masquerade as video games. I don’t know what year it started exactly, but in the beginning, it was an esoteric subject, something that stayed within the boundaries of Japan. Of course, since they relish in an exotic culture, something like a video game where all you have to do is press the left mouse button to turn the pages. Why are you turning pages in a video game? That’s because it’s not a video game; it’s a book pretending to be a video game. But hey, at least it has pictures.

Basically, this is the whole premise of the weirdness of visual novels, in that you’re reading a book and nothing more. By the way, Pheonix Wright (AKA Ace Attorney) and all the others (too many names to mention) do not count because at least they require some puzzle-solving. And yes, those games are awesome… because they’re not visual novels.

I stated the problem already

I want to elaborate further on it by describing my experience playing a visual novel for the first time roughly a week ago (again, Ace Attorney and others don’t count). I heard that this good visual novel was also successful in the west, so I decided to try Steins;Gate for myself. I thought that this is something like Danganronpa, in that there is some form of adventure, but it turns out all I had to do was click the mouse and nothing else. I immediately got bored and removed the game from my computer. Now, I respect that some people might find these games fascinating because of the “captivating” story or the “distinct” art style. But I’m more into games that follow mainstream habits, in the sense that you need to feel that you’re in control of something like it’s your own body (i.e. a player character). Visual novels just don’t have that kind of thing.

And that’s how I see the problem: it is more than just localization issues, such as censoring material the West deems “offensive” or explaining to non-Japanese players what a tamagoyaki is. There are many cultural boundaries between what Eastern cultures would deem a phenomenal idea and how it would work in the West, and vice versa.

That’s why when these things first happened, it was hard for someone outside of Japan to acquire them since some could only be found on select websites, all of which were exclusively in Japanese. Of course, that’s how I remember it, way back in 2004. But considering how lenient the Internet became over the years, they became much easier to get, yet remain an esoteric genre despite more exposure, primarily because of how unconventional they are. But that’s ok because they’re still very popular in Japan.

So how to make them more popular?

I shouldn’t be asking that question since it’s not really for me, nor should I be answering it since I have no idea. So for once, I won’t give my interpretation of what the best possible solution is.

Instead of that, I will just say that Ace Attorney is worth your time. There’s your solution right there.

But in all seriousness, I think if one wants to make visual novels more popular, they have to appeal to classic and traditional gamers in that they have to feature more elements of an actual game than a book. Still, it wouldn’t be a visual novel; it would be an actual video game, ultimately deconstructing the genre and subsequently repurposing it into a more popular genre. In other words, it’s not a visual novel anymore, so this solution is ineffective. But that’s still my poor attempt at a solution, so make of it what you will.

Obviously, I shouldn’t say anything

Anyway, I want to hear from people who actually care about this kind of game and how they think they can do something to popularise the genre further, for whoever is interested, not me. I don’t want to hear but if you need to voice your opinion, go ahead.

Secondly, maybe there can be someone in the West who would want to make a visual novel of Western origin. There are some already, but I don’t think they entirely capture the “authenticity” of a visual novel.

Maybe I should just call the Committee of Social Science and ask them how this thing became popular (up to a certain point, of course). There’s no such committee, but that definitely sounds like something a social scientist should answer.

In Conclusion…

Visuals Novels are a niche genre, they’re not for everyone, and I can see why. I clearly shouldn’t be talking about them a lot because I’m not familiar with the genre since I only ever played Steins;Gate, and that wasn’t for me. Buy coming from me; I would say just go and play Ac… you get it. That game is definitely worth your time, although I can’t say the same for the entries that utilise 3d character models (that kind of killed it for me).

As I stated before, I just think that what works in Japan won’t necessarily work outside of it, although some people in the West enjoy these games. But I still think that if it didn’t catch with the mainstream audience, most people probably could see through the façade that is a book pretending to be a video game.

In any case, watch YouTube for these things; you’ll get a better idea of what they are than reading this article. That’s one piece of advice I’m sure about.