Here we investigate the overlooked, the underappreciated, the Shameworthy titles of the world. Jump in to an existing mission thread and give your thoughts, or start your own to kick off a discussion.
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The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Beige » Fri Sep 04, 2015 2:58 pm

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Somewhere over in the Real Talk thread, someone had wondered out loud “where are all the games that focus on realistic relationships.? Patlabor 2 stuff, non-twee, non-trite examinations of men and women and sentimentality and complex characterizations and falling in love and whatnot.

As Lynette mentioned, you get some of that emotional realness in the Otome space (Strangely. I guess they figure that women are OK with emotional complexity, men not so much?), and naturally you also get bits of it here and there in games made by old people attempting to be all Grown Up and stuff. David Cage likes to dance around the subject… and we have stuff like The Last Of Us and the Witcher and Brothers, etc.

All of which is to say that recent meditations on the subject ultimately led me down the path of googling what games ought to be considered “famous” or canonical visual novels in the conscience collective. I rationalized if such qualities were to be found ANYWHERE in gaming, it’s probably in Visual Novel land. Amy Hennig I think once said that the scope of the stories you can tell while looking down a reticule is pretty minimal.

I began crowdsourcing answers to this question and ended up at (where else) /r/visualnovels/where, not surprisingly, a top 10 list sourced from the experts could be found.

In order, as voted by Reddit, they are:

#1: GRISAIA NO KAJITSU: LE FRUIT DE LA GRISAIA (PC)
#2: MUV-LUV EXTRA, UNLIMITED AND ALTERNATIVE (PC)
#3: FATE/STAY NIGHT (PC)
#4: KATAWA SHOUJO (PC)
#5: STEINS;GATE (PC)
#6: G SENJOU NO MAOU (PC)
#7: UMINEKO NO NAKU KORO NI (PC)
#8: REWRITE (PC)
#9: LITTLE BUSTERS! (PC)
#10: CLANNAD (PC)


I know jack shit about visual novels, but that fact notwithstanding I still happen to have played at least 2 of the top 10. (Stein’s; Gate and Katawa Shoujo) and both of those games were pretty great experiences when considered as net takeaways.

Lynette and I were talking and we think we’re probably going to attempt a few of these to see what “the best” actually constitutes. The elevator pitches on the page referenced above are surprisingly varied and seem pretty compelling at first blush, with subject material running a pretty wide gamut thematically. Especially when you get up into the high concept VNs, the stories run the gamut between Yakuza drama to murder mystery party to sci-fi and soforth, and I like the idea of some of the titles kind of breaking the 4th wall Hideo-style and having games within games, getting very meta.

Pete’s recent posts about Grisaia motivated me to actually post an “official” mission thread on the subject, as I feel like lumping these VNs into a single thread before we go too far down the Grisia hole would be beneficial in the compare-and-contrast way. I’m definitely going to play Grisaia and Muv-Luv if nothing else, because after reading those pitches, how can I NOT?

Anybody interested in coming along, just post to the collective thread. I expect it’ll be a slow burn in our case as these aren’t exactly the sorts of things you rip through in a hurry, nor are they something I’m going to want to be doing back-to-back-to-back.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Beige » Fri Sep 04, 2015 3:43 pm

Also, just sticking a pin in this in case it's relevant to the discussion later: Cibele, the indie romance game where your time is split half between playing an MMO with a boy and sexting him. I guess? Dunno. Interesting anyway. Potentially pertinent to the matter at hand.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Calin Kim » Fri Sep 04, 2015 6:47 pm

Reaaaally looking forward to Cibele.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Fri Sep 04, 2015 10:21 pm

Can vouch for the quality of Steins;Gate, Katawa Shoujo and what I've played of Grisaia so far (see Grisaia's own thread for further details on that). I've also seen the anime of Clannad and it made me really want to read the VN to see the other routes, since the anime only follows one route by design. (That said, it does have a couple of side-story episodes that show a "what if" scenario with one of the other girls, but one twenty-minute episode isn't the same as a full-on route.)

I also have a friend on Twitter who is absolutely obsessed with Little Busters and will happily recommend it to anyone who will listen. Not sure that one's available officially in English -- I believe it's a fansub affair at the moment, as are a number of others on that list -- but Clannad is being worked on by Sekai Project (who are also doing Grisaia, and who did School Days) so that may well mean we'll see other Key stuff localised in future if Clannad is well-received.

Of the list above, Grisaia, Katawa Shoujo and Steins;Gate are available officially and commercially in English; I'd encourage you to support them if you like the sound of them by actually buying them. (Steins;Gate is even available on PS3 and Vita now.) Clannad is on the way from Sekai Project, as previously noted, as are the subsequent two installments in the Grisaia trilogy.

The others all -- I believe, anyway -- have full English patches available from fansub groups, but said patches are usually distributed by themselves and consequently require a copy of the original game to use with. The morally correct thing to do, of course, is to buy a Japanese copy and patch it, but pre-patched torrents do exist if you look hard enough.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Sat Sep 05, 2015 10:05 am

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 Primer

What 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:

- NVL 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.
- ADV 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.
- Utsuge -- 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:

- All-ages 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.
- Ecchi 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.
- Eroge 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.
- Nukige 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!

- Flag -- 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.

- Points/stats -- 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.

- Skip -- 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.

- H-scene -- 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.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Tue Sep 08, 2015 12:36 am

Some additional information regarding the status of the games on the list above and how to play them in English:

#1: GRISAIA NO KAJITSU: LE FRUIT DE LA GRISAIA (PC)
Officially available in English, localised by Sekai Project. All-ages version is available on Steam; 18+ version available via Denpasoft. Sekai is also working on the two sequels.

#2: MUV-LUV EXTRA, UNLIMITED AND ALTERNATIVE (PC)
None of these are officially available in English, so you'll need a Japanese copy and the fantranslation by Amaterasu Translations to play.

#3: FATE/STAY NIGHT (PC)
Not officially available in English, so again you'll need a Japanese copy. Mirror Moon did a translation of it. There are also a number of other translation patches for different editions listed on the game's VNDB page -- Fate has been rereleased a whole bunch of times!

#4: KATAWA SHOUJO (PC)
Free, English. No excuse. Play this now.

#5: STEINS;GATE (PC)
Officially available in English. PC version is by JAST. Also available on PS3 and Vita; search PSN to find it.

#6: G SENJOU NO MAOU (PC)
Not yet available in English, but picked up for localisation by Sekai Project, so expect this in the near future.

#7: UMINEKO NO NAKU KORO NI (PC)
Aka Umineko When They Cry. Currently being localised by MangaGamer, will be available on Steam when it's released.

#8: REWRITE (PC)
Not officially available in English, so you'll need a Japanese copy. Fantranslation by Amaterasu Translations available.

#9: LITTLE BUSTERS! (PC)
Not officially available in English, so you'll need the Japanese version. Fantranslation by Doki Fansubs is available; the patch for the original version is complete, but work on patches for the Ecstasy and Memorial Edition versions is still ongoing.

#10: CLANNAD (PC)
Currently being localised by Sekai Project. Further information here.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by RedSwirl » Tue Sep 08, 2015 3:50 am

My little weird thing about visual novels: I'd vastly prefer to play them on portable devices, especially now that today's portables can pretty much run them without issue. If I'm gonna read a book that's packaged in the form of software, I'd at least like to read it in all the same places in which I could read an actual book. It's a couple steps away from a Kindle book if you ask me.

Any of you guys heard of the Smach Zero? That supposed portable Steam machine that's coming out at the end of 2016? It's supposed to be a handheld that can straight-up run SteamOS/Linux games. People are of obviously doubtful this thing is even real, but I at least like the idea and think it's totally viable for playing low-end PC games on the go which are innumerable when you look at all the indie games on Steam as well as classic games from GOG. Visual novels would be perfect for something like that, and it's a growing genre on Steam.

Until then I guess running the Windows version of Steins;Gate on a Surface tablet will have to suffice.

Edit: One thing I'm prickly about with these kinds of things is, unfortunately, the art. Gotta be if I'm gonna be looking at static images for 50 hours.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Tue Sep 08, 2015 11:27 am

There's stuff like the nVidia Shield, too, which can stream PC games to a handheld device, and a lot of visual novels hit Vita. Steins;Gate is one. Surface tablet would probably be a good solution, too; I've considered picking one up myself purely for portable visual novel purposes, but it's a bit of an extravagance.

Steam In-Home Streaming works pretty well, too; if I want to read Grisaia in bed, I can do so on a netbook, streaming the game from my main gaming computer where it's installed. Because VNs are typically animation-light, there's no problems with latency or artifacting.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Alex Connolly » Tue Sep 08, 2015 11:35 am

If you're looking for a good Windows tablet on the cheap, I cannot say enough good things about the Asus T100. They sell for a song, and have a decent bit of grunt packed into their slim plastic shell. Good chiclet keyboard attachment and all that.

Sorry, back to the regular scheduled programming.
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Re: The Top 10 Visual Novels

by Angry Jedi » Sat Sep 12, 2015 12:56 am

Update: looks like MuvLuv actually is getting an official English release in the near future. Kickstarter is apparently coming soon; here's the official Twitter account to follow for updates in the meantime: https://twitter.com/muvluvseries
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