The Three Ages of Visual Novels

With this month’s Cover Game being one of the most influential, well-regarded visual novels of all time, it seems only right and proper to take a look at the history of the medium as a whole.

To date, there have been three main “eras” of visual novels that can be clearly distinguished through a combination of their visual style, thematic content, gameplay elements (if any) and breadth of appeal. Of course, things aren’t quite as neat and simple as that might suggest, with some modern works deliberately channeling older styles, or some older works being ahead of their time, but it’s a working hypothesis to start from.

And, since visual novels form an extremely important part of both Japanese gaming and Japanese popular media in general, it’s worth tracing the route things have taken to get to where we are today.

Defining a medium

Adventure, which became Colossal Cave.

So what was the first ever visual novel? Well, that all depends on your definition of what a visual novel actually is.

Text-based adventures have been around since the dawn of gaming, with titles like Colossal Cave originating on mainframe computers before being ported to a variety of home-based personal computers — and with these machines’ graphical capabilities it wasn’t long before the descriptive text started to be accompanied by visual images to further immerse the player in the game world.

But a text adventure isn’t the same as a visual novel, despite superficial similarities. In particular, early text adventures were very much focused on exploration and puzzle-solving rather than enjoying a narrative — the idea of “interactive fiction”, of which the most prolific and successful proponent was American company Infocom, didn’t come about until a little later, but even that is different from your typical visual novel.

Zork

The main distinction between text adventures/interactive fiction and visual novels is the way in which the player interacts with the game. While the former make use of a text parser to take the player’s input, with the narrative and their journey only proceeding when they type in the appropriate commands, visual novels typically follow a pace set by the author rather than the narrator, with interactions typically being limited to choices at specific moments in the story.

There’s also the cultural angle to consider. Despite the growth of a thriving Western visual novel scene, it is still a medium widely regarded as Japanese in origin, while text adventures and interactive fiction began in the science and technology communities of the West.

So, working by this definition, then — a game which is narrative-centric, which features limited player input, and which is distinctly Japanese in origin — what was the first visual novel?

There’s still some disagreement even then, but two titles spring out as being possible “origin points” for this medium: Lolita and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (The Portopia Serial Murder Case).

The first visual novel?

Lolita

Lolita for NEC’s PC-88 series of home computers is the earliest game listed on the Visual Novel Database, which in theory should make this something of an open and shut case given the general level of rigour of that site, but it’s not quite that simple: Lolita is not an adaptation of Nabokov’s classic novel or indeed a narrative-centric experience at all. Rather, it’s more of a “strip rock-paper-scissors” game, in which victory causes the rather young-looking on-screen girl to remove an item of clothing. Getting her completely naked causes the police to show up and arrest you, because thou shalt not lewd the lolis, even in 1983.

Lolita is primarily noteworthy for being one of the earliest games to feature prominent use of large, colourful, character-centric anime-style artwork rather than small-scale sprites or abstract representations of what is going on. So it definitely had a part to play in the development of what we know as visual novels today, but it’s mostly “visual” and not really “novel”.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken is another matter, however.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken

Released in the same year as Lolita, Portopia (as we shall refer to it hereafter) was the work of Yuji Horii, who would go on to create Dragon Quest three years later. At the time, Horii had taught himself to program using his home computer by modifying other creators’ games, and found himself inspired by news of a new type of game from America in which players could read stories and interact with them: the adventure game.

Since adventure games did not, at this point, exist in Japan, Horii took it upon himself to create his own for NEC’s PC-6001 home computer series, and Portopia was born, providing an unusually story-centric experience for the era, making the most of its combination of limited visuals and text-based dialogue to create an atmospheric, well-regarded game that went on to get ported to a variety of other platforms including, in 1985, the Japanese NES-equivalent, the Famicom. It’s arguably this latter port rather than the PC-6001 original that had the strongest influence on what would come later, as it replaced its source material’s text parser with a menu-driven interface.

Portopia never saw a Western release; while, at the time, Japanese developers and publishers had no qualms with including violent or sexual content in their games, Western publishers were rather Puritanical by comparison — particularly Nintendo, who would have had the final say on whether or not the Famicom (or NES, as it would have been) version would ever see the light of day. And with the game involving murder, drug dealing, violent interrogations and a scene in a strip club… yeah, that was never going to happen.

The influence the game had on more modern visual novels is clear, though; it combined descriptive text and dialogue with visuals representing a small but distinctive cast of characters, it had a clear emphasis on telling a story first and foremost, and it dealt with some challenging themes. While it remains largely unknown in the West, even following an ambitious ROM-hacking translation project by a group called DvD Translations in 2008, Japanese creators certainly understood its impact — renowned video game auteur Hideo Kojima even went so far as to say it was one of the three most influential games he had ever played, with his early game Snatcher being clearly inspired by it.

The age of pixel art

Three Sisters’ Story

The first of the three “eras” of visual novels truly got underway following the release of Portopia, and was very much dominated by NEC’s range of home computers — particularly the PC-98. There are far too many individual releases to cover individually in this article, so we’ll instead look at the overall trends in this particular period along with a couple of specific examples which got ported from NEC’s systems to the IBM PC-compatible and Windows-based machines that we’ve been using in the West since the early days of gaming.

The single most distinguishing feature of this “first age of visual novels” is its use of pixel art rather than more traditional forms of illustration. This was primarily down to resolution restrictions on systems of the time; the earliest models in the PC-98 series, for example, could only display 640×400 pixels in 8 colours; subsequent iterations bumped this up to 16 and later 256, but the resolution never really got much higher than 640×480 until the system abandoned its proprietary nature and started running Microsoft’s MS-DOS and Windows operating systems, by which point the PC-98 had ceased to be a unique thing and had pretty much just become another IBM PC clone.

True Love

The upshot of the PC-98’s technological limitations, particularly in the early days, was that a lot of traditional artistic techniques wouldn’t be entirely practical, as there simply wasn’t the resolution or the colour palette to be able to do things like smooth lines and gradients. Instead, pixel art of this era made use of a combination of techniques, which ultimately gave it a very distinctive look: characters would tend to be brightly coloured and would often contrast strongly with rather muted backdrops — particularly in early games where the hardware’s colour palette was more limited — and would typically have noticeable black or dark-coloured outlines defining their overall silhouette.

Use of colour tended to be relatively sparing, though characters were often distinguished, as in anime, through hair and eye colour, with different colours often signifiying various character traits. The illusion of shading and lighting was created through “dithering” — using pixels of two different colours in varying degrees of balance to emphasise one or the other and make it appear that there was a “gradient” of sorts.

A great example of this style can be seen in 1995’s Nocturnal Illusion, which demonstrates a number of fashionable visual elements from the period: an ornate, static border to frame the action; bright characters atop a dark backdrop, both using a limited palette; and the aforementioned pixel art techniques to give the art depth and definition.

Nocturnal Illusion

It’s not just the art that was distinctive during this period, either. While it became obvious that the emphasis in these games was very much on storytelling rather than puzzle-solving — in contrast to many of the Western adventure games of the period, which often had the opposite priorities — a lot of these games still very clearly thought of themselves as “adventure games” rather than “visual novels”.

Nocturnal Illusion, for example, featured the ability to move from location to location in the mansion in which the game is set, look at objects in a room and make use of items. This gives the illusion of freedom, but that’s all it is; the flow of the narrative is strictly linear, and there’s only one way to cause it to proceed to the next scene.

Ring-Out!! Pro Lesring

Some games, such as Ring-Out!! Pro Lesring handled this in a different way, eschewing an adventure game-style interface in favour of providing the protagonist with multiple choices on how to proceed through various scenes that were encountered in a linear fashion. Unlike more modern visual novels, where making a choice typically has an immediate impact, in Ring-Out!! making a choice often simply shows a bit extra of the scene, with the narrative not advancing until all the possible choices have been chosen, and in some cases repeated several times.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, most notably later in the game, where certain choices affect the ending, but for the most part this is just another way of creating the illusion of interactivity.

Root Letter

This approach has largely fallen out of favour among modern visual novel developers, but it isn’t entirely dead; titles such as Kadokawa’s Root Letter and Capcom’s Ace Attorney still maintain their pretensions of being “adventure games” rather than visual novels, with the former in particular being strongly evocative of games such as Nocturnal Illusion and its ilk, if not in visual style then certainly in terms of the way it plays.

This style has even been evolved somewhat by games such as Danganronpa by incorporating elements such as first-person exploration and dating sim-style relationship building. But they’re still linear narratives at heart.

Ring-Out!! Pro Lesring

There’s one other important way that this “first age of visual novels” distinguishes itself from modern titles, and that’s in how far you can expect things to go from a violent and/or sexual perspective. While modern titles that explore the darker side of humanity most certainly exist, you tend to know what you’re getting into beforehand; during this period, however, it wasn’t at all unusual to find yourself encountering challenging content such as rape, gore, sadomasochism, torture, scat and bestiality, often quite by surprise.

The aforementioned Ring-Out!!, for example features a scene where the protagonist is raped so hard by one of her “opponents” in the wrestling ring that she loses control of her bowels in front of an audience; Nocturnal Illusion, meanwhile, features a character whose desire to be “punished” for her past sins manifests itself as some pretty stomach-churning sadomasochism and torture scenes. The latter in particular is by no means a nukige title in which the sexual content is the priority, so this scene is a bit of a surprise when it comes up — though it also fits the tone of the story so, although shocking, it doesn’t feel overly gratuitous or out of place.

The age of ambition

Fate/stay night

The first age of visual novels extended through most of the ’80s and ’90s, and it was with the move to the more technologically advanced, graphically capable PC systems in the early 2000s that the medium underwent its most significant change since its inception.

Now relatively unencumbered by technological limitations such as chunky screen resolutions and tiny colour palettes, visual novel creators could start to spread their wings a little more, and it’s during this time we not only started to see more impressive titles generally, the medium started producing some of its most enduring, influential work — not least of which was, of course, 2004’s Fate/stay night.

Since the technology was less restrictive, visual novel artists were able to exhibit a great deal more individuality in their work, leading to a less homogeneous overall style than the previous era, and instead creators and studios being able to develop their own distinctive “look” and “feel” to their work. Type-Moon’s artist Takashi Takeuchi certainly had his own style, for example, which can be clearly seen in both Fate/stay night and the team’s earlier title Tsukihime.

Tsukihime

Probably the most notable thing about this particular era of visual novel development, however, was the sheer audaciousness and ambition of many creators. New works were often significantly longer than many titles that had come previously and typically involved multiple distinct narrative routes that veered off in their own unique directions without sharing content.

Fate/stay night’s three routes Fate, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel are, of course, a prime example of this at work, but it can also be seen in 2003’s Deus Machina Demonbane, with unique narratives based around the three main heroines of the game, all presenting their own twists on the overall game world and lore, but complementing one another and, taken as a complete work, providing the player with a comprehensive understanding of the setting and characters.

Fate/stay night

This sense of ambition extended to subject matter, too. As well as personal stories about relationships, high school drama or the criminal underworld, now we were getting narratives featuring earth-shattering epic drama, intricately crafted background lore and creative reinterpretations of established myths, legends and folklore.

The creators of these tales never forgot the true strength of visual novels, however: their ability to tell compelling, involving stories about people, and to allow the player to experience all manner of different situations (and emotions!) by looking out through the eyes of a first-person participant narrator.

Deus Machina Demonbane

One thing we did see the back of in this era was the use of adventure game conventions, with most titles giving up the pretense of being traditional “games” and instead providing the player with infrequent but extremely important choices to make over the course of the narrative.

The implementation of these choices varied according to the game but tended to fall into one of two categories: choices that had an immediate impact, perhaps showing you an additional scene, triggering a narrative route or determining the ending you would get; or choices that would contribute to hidden behind the scenes variables that would have an impact on the narrative routes and endings you’d end up seeing. Sometimes both are used; Fate/stay night, for example, uses immediate binary choices to determine whether or not the narrative progresses or reaches a bad end, but also uses long-term variables in the Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel routes to determine whether you get the (quite different) “Good” or “True” ending to each of the narratives.

Fate/stay night

Given the sheer number of genre-defining titles that arrived on the scene during this era — many of which were subsequently ported to consoles and handhelds such as the PlayStation 2 and PSP, and many of which also went on to spawn anime and manga adaptations or spinoff titles — it’s easy to think of it as a “golden age” for the medium, and that’s certainly a reasonable assessment. If you really want to know visual novels, you need to engage with titles from this era in particular.

All this, of course, isn’t to say that modern visual novels have no value, mind you…

The age of acceptance

Recettear

One thing we can definitely say for sure is that the current era of visual novel development we’re living in is an age of acceptance — or at least, we’re getting that way, anyhow — and it all began with an important step for Western PC gamers: the arrival of visual novels (or, more accurately, Japanese PC games in general) on Valve’s Steam digital distribution platform.

Speaking with Siliconera in 2011, MangaGamer’s John Pickett noted that he believed controlled digital distribution platforms such as Steam and PSN were “biased against” visual novels, and that those in charge of said platforms believed that visual novels were “not games”.

Times were already changing, though. 2010 had seen the Western Steam release of EasyGameStation’s Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, localised by small outfit Carpe Fulgur. Despite the game being a low-budget indie affair, it proved to be enormously successful, receiving both critical and public acclaim. Clearly there was a market for Japanese PC games via established distribution channels, so something had to give.

Analogue: A Hate Story

It was around this time that we really started to see Western attempts at the medium gaining a foothold, with arguably the most prominent example being Christine Love. Her 2010 work Digital: A Love Story, followed up by Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story a year later and her particularly well-received Analogue: A Hate Story in 2012 — one of the very first pure visual novels to be released on Valve’s platform — all received recognition from press and public alike, even from those quarters that hadn’t been following the visual novel medium for years. While Love was by no means the only Western developer experimenting in this way, her work certainly helped open a lot of eyes and played a significant part in helping expose the medium to a wider audience — and without the perceived cultural barrier.

Another key work whose importance cannot be underestimated is 4 Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo, a game developed as a worldwide effort based on some sketches of the titular “cripple girls” from the turn of the century by doujin artist Raita Honjou. Discussed extensively on popular imageboard 4chan, Katawa Shoujo eventually became a concrete project, releasing to the public in 2012 and shocking everyone by actually being very good indeed.

Katawa Shoujo

The game offered an eminently likeable blend of Japanese-style anime tropes, Western wit and an incredibly sensitive exploration of physical disabilities, mental illness and the struggles of growing up “broken”. Released for free and thus accessible to pretty much anyone with a computer, Katawa Shoujo was responsible for creating a lot of new visual novel fans and remains well worth your time today.

Meanwhile in Japan, modern visual novels were getting more and more polished, with developers embracing technology such as widescreen, high-resolution displays and the greater flexibility digital distribution offered over traditional physical media such as CDs and DVDs. New titles were becoming more ambitious with their presentation, featuring striking graphics, substantial soundtracks and enormous amounts of professional-grade voice acting, and the prior success of titles such as Fate/stay night encouraged developers to create works with the possibility of an “extended universe” in mind for the future — a noteworthy example being Nitroplus’ Science Adventure series, the most well-known installment of which is the wonderfully stylish and imaginative Steins;Gate.

School Days HQ

Localisations were becoming more frequent, too. While previously, the majority of visual novels that had come West in an official capacity were localised and published by either JAST USA or MangaGamer, 2014 saw a new kid on the block: Sekai Project, who had last been seen partnering with JAST USA for their release of interactive anime School Days HQ.

Sekai Project quickly proved itself to be an ambitious company and made use of the growing Kickstarter platform as a means of both raising the funds needed to see their localisation projects through to fruition as well as allowing visual novel fans to put their money where their mouth was and directly show their support for the titles they wanted to see succeed in the West — including some that people had been waiting to play in English for a long time.

Grisaia

Sekai’s noteworthy success stories via Kickstarter included the Grisaia series, which raised over $475,000 via Kickstarter alone (considerably more than its $160,000 target), Clannad, which raised over half a million dollars (again, way above its $140,000 target) as well as numerous others. Sekai’s success also went on to convince numerous other companies of the value of crowdfunding: to date, Grisaia developer Frontwing has had strong performance on the platform independently of Sekai, and Degica Games managed to run a successful campaign to bring the popular Muv-Luv series to the West. And there are plenty more independent developers and localisers who have enjoyed success through crowdfunding.

Sekai also enjoyed a number of other notable successes outside of crowdfunding, with probably the most prominent being the Nekopara series, developed as a collaborative effort between East and West with a simultaneous worldwide release in mind, and enjoying strong sales on Steam in its all-ages incarnation as well as enduring popularity in its 18+ form.

Nekopara

Things aren’t quite as rosy as they could be, of course; Steam still doesn’t officially allow explicit adults-only content to be sold on its platform, for one thing — while Western titles such as Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher feature sexual content, they’re not as explicit as your average visual novel H-scene — and Sekai Project sometimes draws criticism for emphasising all-ages versions of formerly 18+ titles, leading to accusations of censorship, among other issues.

But neither of these issues are crippling; MangaGamer recently promised to provide 18+ content patches to its Steam releases for free rather than releasing them as premium DLC, allowing enthusiasts to purchase visual novels via the most popular digital storefront without feeling like they are getting a gimped version, and Sekai Project, in most cases, offers adult content either in standalone self-contained form or as a downloadable patch via its 18+ imprint Denpasoft. Meanwhile, established localisation outfit JAST USA has fully embraced digital distribution with its own DRM-free store, and alternative storefronts that do allow 18+ material such as Nutaku have proven popular with consumers.

Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto

If anything, the main problem we have right now is that there are almost too many visual novels out there for one person to be able to reasonably enjoy in their lifetime! But that’s a great “problem” to have, and a sign of a medium reaching maturity; just as one person can’t possibly be able to enjoy every book, TV show, movie or piece of music in existence, neither can one person expect to take in every visual novel out there.

And, as we’ve previously discussed, that’s never really been a realistic expectation anyway, even in the earlier, less sprawling days of the medium. No one person is into everything from a perspective of genre, style, tone and subject matter; we’re just fortunate now to have so much choice available to us, meaning that there’s something out there for pretty much everyone to enjoy in one way or another.

Today, there are long, epic visual novels and short stories. There are tales of epic fantasy and sci-fi, and down-to-earth slice of life stories. There are visual novels with complex decision trees and diverse gameplay styles, and purely kinetic novels with no choices whatsoever. Tales of boys who love girls; boys who love boys; girls who love girls. Erotically charged nukige with H-scenes so hot you’ll have wanked your genitals into a fine paste by the end; tragic utsuge where you’ll be using the Kleenex for an entirely different reason; inspiring tales of overcoming adversity; relatable stories of normal people doing normal things.

School of Talent: Suzu-Route

The visual novel is a fascinating medium, and it’s never looked healthier. Here’s to many more years of immersing ourselves in the many weird and wonderful stories creators are yet to tell — not to mention catching up on all the amazing titles from years gone by.

Now I’d probably better go finish Heaven’s Feel if I’m hoping to write about it this week!


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5 thoughts on “The Three Ages of Visual Novels”

  1. It’s really interesting to see how the VN has separated itself from adventure games over time. Earlier ones found themselves bound way too much to them, to the point of being very tedious to play, so it’s a good thing that it rather went with a straight stories with occasional choices. However, an influence is still there, like Ace Attorney which gives the player some freedom in their “detective work” without giving too many options, cutting down potential frustration.

    However, others seem more keen to take the worst elements of adventure games and make choices with completely unforeseeable effects. I love Clannad to bits, but with choices that seem minor but are highly important (among choices that are minor and only add a scene or too) and two routes that have to be done in a certain order (with barely a hint to it), it’s not a player-friendly VN (and I advise everyone to use a guide for it).

    And then there’s Flowers. Not only does it have lots of choices that give you points for either love interest (not only in an obvious way, but at least with visual cues, so you can guess whom you got closer to), but at some points it turns into a (somewhat) interactive detective story, where you have to figure out what’s going on and solve the current issue with a series of choices (and, while it’s not as high-stakes as a murder mystery, failure to do so leads to a bad end). Gives quite some spice into what’s otherwise “just” a yuri slice-of-life drama. And gave protagonist Suoh a “smart” tag on her VNDB profile.

    While they largely didn’t age very well, there’s quite some nostalgic appeal to old VNs. It’d be nice too some retro throwbacks with low color/low resolution graphics (gotta love that dithering) and music that could have been on the PC98 (I’m quite fond of the sound of these Yamaha chips). Albeit possibly without the more tedious elements. There’s VA-11 Hall-A, of course, but I’d like to see more and from Japanese devs.

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    1. I’d certainly like to see some modern VNs channelling that old pixel art look. I love it! VA-11 HALL-A was, of course, wonderful, but yes. More, please.

      Flowers sounds really interesting, I’m not familiar with that one but your description has me intrigued. I’ll have to try and track it down!

      Clannad, meanwhile, is on the list for future coverage; I have a lovely Kickstarter LE sitting on my shelf just waiting to be played, so I just need to find the time for it!

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      1. Clannad is a monster of a VN. It’s good, but being too long and (arguably) having too many unnecessary routes is why I can’t fully love it. Final route is extremely good though.

        I can’t remember the exact playtime and the slow pacing may have warped my sense of time, but if I had to guess, it would be about 1.3 times the length of Fate/Stay Night.

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  2. I really can’t agree with that. Neither do I find Clannad too long nor do I think that any of the routes are unnecessary. It’s pretty telling that I finished it in several weeks, when I have the bad tendency to stall these things (there are several VNs I started but never even half-finished).

    I was actually wary of starting it at first due to that, thinking that I might never finish it. Only to end up having more trouble to stop.

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    1. Everyone has different levels of tolerance for this sort of thing, I feel! While after beating Fate I can confidently say its “classic” status is well-deserved, I know that there are many people out there who wouldn’t be willing to spend a total of 3 days, 8 hours and 32 minutes (all hail the in-game clock) reading a visual novel.

      Their loss, I say, but everyone’s different, particularly when it comes to attention spans. And it’s the same with other art forms, too, even related ones; I could never make it through Lord of the Rings, for example (books or movies), while I have a friend who has read and watched it more times than I’d care to count!

      Sometimes something just “speaks” to you, too, and you find yourself more willing to spend endless amounts of time with it than you might otherwise be. I’ve certainly had a few RPGs like that (hello, Dungeon Travelers 2) and I definitely wouldn’t have played Fate through to completion if it hadn’t engaged me, either.

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