As a follow-up, I thought I'd post a quick primer to the visual novel medium as a whole, as I think I'm the one with the most experience with it. There's a bunch of specific terminology surrounding it that's worth knowing so you can understand the context of specific works when you stumble across them.
So without further ado:Pete's Probably Non-Comprehensive Visual Novel PrimerWhat is a visual novel?
First things first, get out of the habit of thinking of a visual novel as a "game", despite the fact that they're typically sold as games, referred to as "games" and share a number of stylistic and mechanical elements with games. In Japanese popular culture, visual novels are treated as their own distinct medium, and in the pantheon of media which creators tell stories across, they comfortably sit alongside light novels, manga, anime, movies, live-action TV shows and, yes, video games.
The reason I say this is because visual novels very often don't have any "gameplay" as such, and coming to them with the expectation that you will be "doing" anything is often a recipe for disappointment. There are exceptions of course, since some visual novels do incorporate "game" elements -- notable examples include Aselia the Eternal's extremely deep and satisfying strategy game and its spiritual successor Yumina the Ethereal's dungeon-crawling and peculiar argument-based battle system -- but for the most part, visual novels are about reading reams of text accompanied by some combination of art, music and voice acting.
Danganronpa, Corpse Party and Ace Attorney are often described as visual novels due to their text-heavy nature and emphasis on linear storytelling, but there's a strong argument that they are more adventure game than visual novel due to their balance between story and game being firmly in favour of "game". Ultimately it doesn't matter all that much; if you're less than familiar with the visual novel medium as a whole, though, just don't go in expecting to actually have any interaction whatsoever, and then you can only be pleasantly surprised if you do get to do something. The appeal of a visual novel is in the storytelling, not the interaction.Types of visual novel
The presentation of pure visual novels can be roughly broken down into two main types:
types fill the screen with text, usually in a semi-transparent box so you can see the artwork behind it, and read like a traditional novel. Examples of this type include Kana Little Sister and KiraKira.
types look more "gamey", with a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen and a clear view of the art and characters. These tend to have a sharper demarcation between narration and dialogue, compared to NVL types, which will often mix both on a single screen of text. Examples of this type include Katawa Shoujo and The Fruit of Grisaia. This is probably the more common type we see in the West.
Visual novels can also be split into a couple of different categories according to structure:
- Kinetic novels
have no choices whatsoever. You start them up, you read them, you reach the end. You have absolutely no interaction whatsoever -- it's a pure storytelling medium.
- Multi-scenario visual novels
are the more common type. Most of these start with a common route, then branch off in a number of different directions according to choices you make in the common route. Some further split the branches into other routes, not all of them necessarily ending well; others guarantee you a specific good ending once you lock in a particular route.
You can then further subcategorise visual novels by basic subject matter:
- Bishoujo games
-- aka bishoujoge, literally "pretty girl games", have a (usually heterosexual) male protagonist and a cast of heroines who usually correspond to the various narrative routes. The story isn't necessarily focused on dating the heroines, but the girls tend to be the ones pushing the story forwards. This is by far the most common type of visual novel brought West.
- Otome games
-- aka otoge, literally "maiden games", are the inverse of a bishoujoge in that they have a female protagonist and a cast of heroes who usually correspond to the various narrative routes. Again, the story isn't necessarily focused on dating the heroes, but the non-player characters are the ones who push the story onwards. We're starting to see more of these in the West -- both Aksys and Idea Factory International are starting to bring more over -- and Western visual novel developers seem to favour these over bishoujoge, perhaps because of the disparity in the number of bishoujoge and otoge from Japan that get localised.
- Yaoi games
-- stories that focus on homosexual relationships between men. These are often designed to appeal to women as much as gay men, so if you like some hot man ass, go nuts. So to speak. These are relatively rare in the West, perhaps because of our seeming hesitance to depict homosexual relationships in interactive media, but we are starting to get a few. The most recent example is MangaGamer's "No Thank You!!", but JAST USA have also released a few.
- Yuri games
-- stories that focus on homosexual relationships between women. Like yaoi is designed to appeal to women as much as gay men, yuri is often designed to appeal to men as much as gay women. Notably, the first ever uncensored visual novel to make it to Steam unscathed is a yuri game
-- literally "depression game", these are visual novels specifically designed to be upsetting, depressing or emotional. A visual novel of this type is generally an utsuge alongside being something else; Kana Little Sister, for example, is both bishoujoge and utsuge.
And by erotic content:
visual novels have no explicit erotic content, though the "all-ages" part is a bit of a misnomer in many cases; since visual novels tend to deal with mature themes even when there's no explicit depictions of sex in them, you should still be aware that "all-ages" visual novels might include challenging subject matter.
games are often found under the "all-ages" umbrella. They stop short of explicit sex, but may include "teasing" content such as non-explicit views of naked people, people in provocative poses and/or people in their undies. They may also strongly imply sexual activity without outright depicting it.
are visual novels that incorporate erotic content, but where the erotic content isn't the main point. In other words, these are stories where the characters might have sex with one another as part of their developing relationships -- or there may also be explicit depictions of sexual abuse, so be aware of that -- but the point of the game is not simply to jump into bed with one of the heroines.
are visual novels where the erotic content is the main point. These are your porn movies of the visual novel sector; while they often do have plot and characterisation -- sometimes surprisingly good ones, too -- make no mistake, the main reason to play one of these games is to see some fucking as quickly as possible.Other useful terminology
- Bad/Wrong/Dead End
-- an ending in which the protagonist and/or hero/heroine dies, usually. Not necessarily a "fail" state; if the story is a tragedy, there might be nothing but bad endings!
- Good End
-- an ending in which everything resolves nicely and cleanly, and (usually) no-one dies.
- True End
-- an ending which is treated as canonical for the purposes of sequels, whether or not sequels actually exist. True Ends are often inaccessible until you complete all the other routes.
- Decision point
-- being presented with a choice. Not every choice in a visual novel has an impact on how the story ends out, but most don't tell you one way or the other, and some don't even allow you to save while a decision point is on screen, so choose wisely!
-- hidden binary variables that are set and unset according to the choices that you make. The most commonly referenced is the "death flag", where a choice you made will result in someone's death, not necessarily immediately. Some visual novels use flags to determine which route you end up on.
-- other visual novels have hidden "stats" according to your choices, and use these to determine which route you end up on. Kana Little Sister is an example of this; the choices you make in the first half of the game determine the personality of the protagonist and his sister, and this determines how the latter half of the game plays out.
-- the ability to fast-forward through text you've already read. All but essential for subsequent playthroughs to get different routes, unless you really want to read all the same text again. Most visual novels stop skipping when they reach a decision point.
- CG/event image
-- a piece of artwork that isn't a character sprite overlaid on a background, usually depicting something significant happening. You are considered to have 100% cleared a visual novel when you have unlocked every CG in the game's gallery page.
-- pronounced "ecchi scene", these are the erotic scenes in an eroge or nukige. Many eroge and nukige allow you to watch these scenes by themselves once you've cleared the game once. You know, for... you know exactly why.