Visual novels. Are they games, or are they slideshows?
Well, let's get one thing straight, because this is a soapbox: I personally don't particularly care. I enjoy an evening curled up with a good book, and likewise, I enjoy an evening curled up with a good visual novel on auto-play, occasionally unfurling my hand from the mountain of blankets and biscuit crumbs to make a choice.
I think visual novels are fantastic, especially because so many of them play with convention in a way that books could never do. They often don't offer much in the way of interaction, although many of them will give the player dialogue choices, but I'm not about to discount an entire genre of excellent games because I don't get to press buttons enough.
I've been playing The House In Fata Morgana for the past few weeks — a visual novel that came out in April, and is widely regarded as one of the best — and the way it tells its story not only through the words on the screen, but through its framing, its interface, and even through its menu is a wonderfully surprising twist on the genre. Visual novels set up the expectation that you're about to do a lot of reading, but that's not to say that they don't have something up their sleeve all the same.
Doki Doki Literature Club, which I've also been playing, is similar, in that it subverts the players' expectations through various unusual narrative devices. It's easy to dismiss these games as trashy, girly, or somehow less 'worthy' because they're anime, or because they're "just reading" — but that's like avoiding action movies because "it's just guns, innit" and then you never get to witness the sheer brilliance of films like The Fifth Element and Mad Max.
Anyway, I don't want to waste time defending visual novels against the criticism they always get, because frankly, if someone wants to avoid the entire genre because of some preconceived notions about how boring reading is, then they're just missing out. And that's fine. More visual novels for me. Yum yum.
But just one look at the slate for 2021, and it's clear that a host of third-parties — and Nintendo itself — is investing in a very particular type of game. Between The House In Fata Morgana, Famicom Detective Club, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, the Doki Doki Literature Club port, and the Danganronpa Decadence collection, one trend emerges:
titles with lots of Ds in them the growing popularity of visual novels and narrative adventure games on the Switch.
Some of these games were super popular on the PC, and made it to Switch thanks to their proven success elsewhere. Doki Doki Literature Club has over 150,000 reviews on Steam, the majority of which are "overwhelmingly positive"; The House In Fata Morgana was, for at least a month or two, the highest rated game of all time on Metacritic (it's now tied for fourth place). Others, like Danganronpa and The Great Ace Attorney, have been requested either on Switch, or in English, for a long time. And then there's Famicom Detective Club, a 30-something-year-old game that no one expected.
But many of the recently-announced or released visual novels were not made for Switch. A fair few of them are ports or translations of older games, like Gnosia, which is a PS Vita port, and Root Film is a new game, but also a sequel to a 2016 PS Vita game. There are still many more games in the visual novel-adjacent genres that aren't yet coming to Switch, despite requests from their fanbases, like older entries in the Professor Layton, the Zero Escape series, and Persona 5.
You may have noticed a little bit of a running theme if you're a fan of visual novels: Discounting the PC, where you can play pretty much every game ever made, the console that was best-known for serving this particular section of the game-playing public was the PS Vita, which excelled in showcasing the kinds of strange, interesting games that we're beginning to see on Switch. Sadly, the Vita floundered much faster than its closest rival, the 3DS, and although we have yet to see a true successor for the kinds of games the Vita offered, Switch has arguably taken over its role in the last few years with an ever-growing library of niche titles.
I first played Danganronpa on the PS Vita, so I'm thrilled to see it coming to Switch, even though I already own the games on PC. There's something about a visual novel that goes extremely well with a handheld console — probably because we often want to play VNs in a similar way to how we read books: on trains, in the bath, in bed.
It's not really surprising that Nintendo are getting in on it, as the only mainstream (semi-)handheld console left, and as a company in the position to bring more Japanese-made games over to the West, but it does beg the question: what's next for visual novels on consoles?
So far, it feels like we're catching up. Visual novels and narrative adventure games always feel like the underdog, fighting for recognition and legitimacy in a packed market. The ones that rise to the top — like Danganronpa and Doki Doki Literature Club — gain cult followings until they reach a critical mass. The Switch is getting tons of ports and remakes of these super-popular games because those are the ones that will sell the best, and they allow Nintendo to fill up their bookshelves with the crème de la crème to attract more VN fans to the platform.
We might be playing catch up, but it also feels promising. We're getting some of the biggest hitters in terms of visual novels on the Switch, like a football team made up of, er... Pelé? And... Messi? Why did I choose a football analogy? I don't know. Anyway, once we've indoctrinated everyone who owns a Nintendo Switch with games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa, then we'll be able to force them to play the more niche ones, like Clannad and AI: The Somnium Files. Nyahaha! It's all part of an evil plan to rule the world with visual novels!!
Whether you love them or not, you can't deny: this summer is the summer of visual novels. You can either join us in the sun, or you'll just have to join us when we inevitably force every single video game in the world to be a VN.
- Further reading: Best Visual Novels For Nintendo Switch