Remember those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from your childhood? They were novels that provided the illusion that the reader was in control of the story. You'd read a passage, then decide between two or three choices to see what would happen next by skipping to another page. Granted, most of us cheated, ready to skip back two or three decisions to ensure we'd get the result we wanted. I'm sure we figured those days were long gone after grade school, but video games are bringing them back with visual novels.
Visual novels have primarily been a Japanese thing. They're most often available for computers, though consoles and handhelds have seen more than a few major releases, and they’re usually dating sims. (Quite a large portion also happen to be hentai, and I'm guessing that I don't have to explain the meaning of that word thanks to the Internet.) The PS2 and PSP in particular were home to many great adventures.
Yet, something surprising has been happening. Slowly, visual novels have infiltrated the North American gaming scenes. It started, naturally, with hentai, thanks to publishers like Manga Gamers and JAST, but now a sizeable assortment of visual novels appropriate for audiences of all ages have appeared.
It's the independent developers that are spearheading the movement, naturally. Developers like Hanako Games, Christine Love, Sakevisual, Winter Wolves, and even Zeiva Inc. and MoaCube are among the most prominent names when it comes to visual novels. Each developer has games that strictly follow the genre's rules: being a text-based adventure with expressive character art, a few static backgrounds, special CG event images, and plenty of choices. Analogue: A Hate Story, RE: Alistair++, Date Warp, Heileen, and Cinders are perfect examples.
However, these independent developers are also attempting to make these visual novels more accessible to people who don't normally consider staring at their computers, reading 30,000-200,000 words a good time. They're combining visual novels with other game genres to lure in people who normally wouldn't be interested. Hanako Games, Sakevisual, and Winter Wolves all have visual novels with simulation elements or RPG elements, like Magical Diary: Horse Hall, Flower Shop: Winter in Fairbrook, or Loren The Amazon Princess. There is still plenty of reading in all of these games, but life sim, farming, and RPG elements are also blended in to get players more involved.
The biggest testament to the rise of visual novels is the fact that we're actually seeing console and handheld games with visual novel elements. Aksys has been the biggest supporter of the genre so far. Not only has it released 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and its sequel Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, which are primarily visual novels with adventure elements, the company also took a chance on one of Idea Factory's otome games. It actually picked up Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, a Mature-rated visual novel with dating sim elements. While it is geared towards a female audience, what with the heroine and a cast of available bachelors, its supernatural story rooted in history makes it more appealing to a wider audience. XSEED has also offered some assistance with Corpse Party and Corpse Party: Book of Shadows. While the former has more exploration and RPG elements, the latter is a straightforward visual novel.
Of course, there are other major games available that are either visual novels or games with visual novel elements. One of the earliest is Sprung, a dating sim released shortly after the DS launched that offered both routes for men and women. We've also seen Arc System Works release fighting games like BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena, both of which have story modes in which players do plenty of reading and even make decisions that determine which ending a character gets. Even Atlus' Devil Survivor series and Level-5's Crimson Shroud could be used to champion the argument that visual novels are coming close to being commonplace.
The real test, however, is in how visual novels fare in the future. I sincerely hope Aksys picks up another Idea Factory visual novel, perhaps Amnesia, Beastmaster, and Prince or Princess Arthur. Even if it doesn't, Japanese developers are beginning to turn to the Vita with visual novels like Fate/Stay Night [Realta Nua] and Steins;Gate. Perhaps developers like Aksys, XSEED, or even Atlus will decide to take a chance and see how one or both of those games would fare as PlayStation Store exclusives.
If you have yet to try a visual novel and are curious if you're ready to choose your own adventure, there are plenty of ways to start. People who prefer PC gaming may want to turn to RE: Alistair++, which is free, or perhaps add Analogue: A Hate Story to their Steam wishlist and watch for a sale. Probably the best way to dive in is with either 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors or Virture's Last Reward: Zero Escape though, as each features a fantastic script and enough puzzles to appeal to a wider audience.
Date: January 25, 2013