Visual novels are something of an acquired taste, typically being light on what we'd traditionally call "gameplay" while, unsurprisingly, heavy on the reading. But this peculiar little niche often tells some of the best, most interesting and provocative stories in all of gaming.
There are lots of Japanese visual novels available in English, so it can be difficult to know where to start -- particularly if you're wary of delving into the "adults only" territory of those that contain erotic content. Like any medium, though, it's just a case of diving in and experimenting to see what you might enjoy -- and what you might never, ever want to see ever again.
The first release from new visual novel publisher MoeNovel might be a good place to start for those curious. If My Heart Had Wings (aka Kono Oozora ni, Tsubasa wo Hirogete in the original Japanese) is a well-regarded title in which you take on the role of Aoi Minase, a boy who has recently returned to his hometown after a cycling race accident. Feeling understandably bummed at his dreams being shattered, Aoi isn't sure what to do with his life -- until he encounters the wheelchair-bound young girl Kotori Hanabe on a hilltop. Together, Aoi, Kotori and their friends aim to revive their school's gliding club, with the eventual aim of riding the legendary phantom cloud "Morning Glory."
The new English version of the game was localized by Active Gaming Media, who previously worked on the translations for Demon's Souls and No More Heroes. Those who are familiar with the Japanese version may also be interested to note that while the original included erotic scenes, MoeNovel's Westernized version has removed this content in order to attain a "T" rating from the ESRB, and subsequently reach a wider audience. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this; on the one hand, it's a shame that content has had to be cut from the creators' original vision, but at the same time, making the game accessible to more people -- including those who feel uncomfortable with graphic depictions of teenagers having sex in their games -- is probably a good thing in helping visual novels build a bigger audience in the West.
Regardless of your feelings on anime people doing the nasty, though, if you're looking for an interesting interactive story to explore and don't mind a whole ton of reading, you might want to give If My Heart Had Wings a look. You can find out more about it and download a demo from the official site.