I never thought I would become engrossed in the world of visual novels. I always liked games that featured flashy action, RPG elements, and a ton of button mashing. So basically I liked Kingdom Hearts and Zelda.
If you were a Kingdom Hearts fan back in the day, you know that the series was spread across almost every single home console and portable system available. So I bought a PSP with only Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep in mind. I didn’t know of any other game on the device that would be interesting.
So after I thoroughly played Birth by Sleep a hundred times, I started looking for games people were playing on the PSP. After various top ten lists, I discovered Persona 3 Portable, a handheld remake of a popular RPG for PS2.
The concepts of the game intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. 78 hours later, I was officially a fan of the Persona franchise. But it wasn’t the combat or overall gameplay that drew me in to Persona 3. It was the amazing story and themes the game presented.
For those who haven’t played the PSP version of the game, you may be wondering what this has to do with visual novels. Due to space and hardware limitations, Persona 3 Portable had to simplify its design. So for the daytime segments, character models and environments disappear, being completely replaced with 2D character sprites and background art. The game basically embraces a visual novel style for all of its character interactions, and I loved that style of storytelling.
Persona 3 goes to some very dark places, and the whole weight of the situations it presented could be felt even with the lack of visuals. Atlus did a fantastic job with the game, and I was hungry for more. I quickly played Persona 4 after that and I loved it just as much. After that, I fell back into my usual routine. I stuck with the button-mashing action games that I had grown up to love. It wasn’t until years later that I would truly discover my appreciation for visual novels.
Danganronpa was the next series I fell in love with, and this one was recommended to me by a good friend from high school. He didn’t tell me much about the game, he only told me to play it. I had no idea what to expect, but I trusted his judgment.
Throughout the entire week, I was hooked on a story about a cuddly teddy bear that trapped sixteen high school students and forced them to kill each other and get away with it. I was speechless when I finished the game, and I desperately searched to see if a sequel was on the way. Coincidentally, the North American release of Danganronpa 2 would hit store shelves the next day.
Before Danganronpa, I didn’t think visual novels held that much importance in the video game community. I thought they were made solely to satisfy a lonely person who wanted to date virtual characters. This was the wrong approach to the genre and I wasn’t giving it a fair chance. Even after Persona 3 Portable, I didn’t give visual novels enough credit. But Danganronpa truly opened my eyes to what kind of experiences awaited me.
The first game follows a teenager named Makoto Naegi, who has just been trapped with fifteen other high school students that are being persuaded to kill each other in exchange for their freedom. The killer, however, must get away with the crime. If they’re found out, they will be executed.
There are a lot of rules to the Killing Game in Danganronpa, but the premise is simple. A classmate ends up dead, and Makoto has to uncover the truth to find out who did it. After each trial, more truths are uncovered about the situation the students are in as well as the person who is behind the whole game.
This visual novel is like reading any other thriller that you might pick up from the book store. You can’t take your eyes away and you’re always guessing what might happen when you flip the page. Danganronpa and other visual novels are a lot like that.
Another series with a similar idea is the Zero Escape series. The first game, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (referred to as 999), traps nine people on a ship that will be completely sunk under water in nine hours. In order to escape, the participants need to find a door with a number nine on it to get out. Like Danganronpa, it’s actually more complicated than this. But some common elements are still here.
Outside of the escape rooms in 999, there is a complicated story that’s waiting to be uncovered. Something unique to this series though is player choice. You will only uncover certain story pieces if you go down certain pathways. The game makes you want to play through all of the endings so you can understand the full scope of what’s going on.
This is a clever way to tell a story, and it really brings me back to the “choose your own adventure” style of books you might read in school. 999 and the two games that come after it tell a story in a unique way that makes me want to never stop playing.
The way visual novels tell stories make them truly unique. They may seem like long, low-budget cutscenes, but the way they convey such complex plots and themes makes them more than worth your time and attention. If you’re still not convinced of the importance of these games in the community, look no further than Doki Doki Literature Club, a game that took the internet by storm late last year.
Doki Doki is arguably the most important game in the visual novel genre, despite what you might think of it. The game has great storytelling, hidden messages, and plotlines you might completely miss if you just do one playthrough. It features all of the things great visual novels strive for and pokes fun at all of the overused tropes of more mediocre ones. It’s a perfect entry point for anyone who is curious about the genre and can stomach a lot of creepy imagery.
Visual novels continue to be an important part of gaming culture. I strongly encourage all of you to at least try one of the games on this list. Almost every series I mentioned is available in some form on the PlayStation 4 or PC. If you ever liked reading or if you like more story in your video games at all, there are plenty of great visual novels out there for you to try. You just have to find the right ones.