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Text Adventures: The Story of Visual Novels in America

In the past decade, visual novels have blossomed in the west. How did it happen? And what's next? We spoke with the talent at XSEED, Aksys Games, and more.

Analysis by Tyler Ohlew, .

I've been intrigued by visual novels ever since I first came across an Electronic Gaming Monthly preview of Silent Hill: Play Novel, a Japan exclusive launch title for the Game Boy Advance. This little blurb about a game destined to never come to North America served as my introduction to the genre.

I had wondered for years just what it meant for a game to be little more than text on a screen. It wasn't until the release of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the Nintendo DS that I finally understood just what I had been missing. Here was a game that relied solely on the strength of its script to make an impression, a facet that is key to the genre. Many games are lucky to have any plot at all, let alone a decent one, and yet the success of the Ace Attorney series hinged on players being enthralled by its tale.

Despite the Ace Attorney series finding an audience in the West, it never seemed large enough to guarantee a localization for future installments. The people enjoying the games was certainly small in size, especially when considering the effort that goes into localization. The North American market had already set itself up as a market where action reigned supreme. How could the visual novel genre carve out a sizeable audience when our hardware generations are defined by the likes of Blast Processing and online multiplayer experiences?

While the genre found itself on platforms like the Super Famicom and PlayStation, its first home was always on Japanese PCs. Even now, in the age of Steam, Japanese developed PC games have trouble in making their way over to North America. While visual novels thrive in their native land, the process of finding a publisher or group willing to localize these works is difficult. With the genre unable to make its presence known in the West through a steady stream of releases, early standouts like Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton weren't enough to prove that visual novels were a bankable property.

Mike Engler, an editor at Aksys Games who recently worked on XBlaze Code: Embryo, explains that the time and resources needed to localize these games played a role in the delay of the genre reaching our shores. Having enjoyed his first taste of the genre with this year's XBlaze Code: Embryo, Engler is quite familiar with just how massive an undertaking these works can be.

Xblaze was "well north of 400 thousand Japanese characters. The final English word count for just the story text? 139,833 words, or roughly 450 pages. Think about a third of War and Peace," says Engler. And that's light for a visual novel.

He adds that Hakuōki and Virtue's Last Reward, a sequel to 999, reached upwards of 850 thousand and one million Japanese characters, respectively. What this means is a lot of work for these editors, and all of it for an admittedly small audience. When the translated text is handed over to the development team, it's not clear sailing either. Such a massive change to the game's source code brings its own problems, and considering how voluminous these games can be, they can be an even bigger headache than the less text-intensive products.

While visual novels have struggled to gain ground in North America, they've always flourished in Japan. Yuji Horii, the creator of the Dragon Quest series, introduced the genre to Japan with the release of The Portopia Serial Murder Case. The game, which saw release across several Japanese PCs and Nintendo's Famicom in the mid-1980s, cast players as a detective sent to investigate a murder. The game went on to spawn several sequels, and inspire the likes of Hideo Kojima to create adventure games of his own with Policenauts and Snatcher. While visual novels have remained most popular on PCs in Japan, nearly every home console and portable have had entries of their own.

It's difficult to pinpoint exact reasons for why the genre failed to find a home in North America through those early years, but considering how fickle Japanese publishers were in regards to what was brought over to the West, it's possible the blame falls on their own hesitance. In an era when publishers made alterations to games based off of perceptions of the North American market (Final Fantasy IV's easier difficulty for example), it's possible that the genre was skipped over for being too difficult or wordy for Western tastes.

Then came the Nintendo DS.

According to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors editor Ben Bateman, Nintendo's handheld was the beginning of video games breaking into the mainstream, which opened up the hobby to new markets. At this time the DS and Sony's PlayStation Portable were selling extraordinarily well in its native Japan, "and along with that popularity came a lot of new content - including visual Novels," Bateman explains. The widespread acceptance of these portables in Japan lead to an onslaught of software, with all genres seeing representation. Games like Steins;Gate, Professor Layton, and Danganronpa met with much success during this period, and brought the genre to new heights.

"So in Japan," Bateman says, "you've got a lot more titles available to pick up, and the internet's inexorable globalization of communication and fandom has exposed a lot of people in the west to VNs—people who might never have heard of them before." With so many people looking for unique experiences, Bateman argues that the mindset of just what a video game could be expanded with the Nintendo DS. With such a large and willing audience, Bateman contends that localization companies felt the time was right to bring over some of Japan's most popular works. Due to the efforts of publishers like Aksys Games and XSeed, North America was finally able to enjoy the genre more than ever, with games like Hakuōki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom and 999.

Tom Lipschultz, who serves as XSEED Games' Localization Specialist, feels that it wasn't just the popularity of those handhelds that brought VNs to our shores. He believes that there was a sea change in the early 2000s, with a wider acceptance of "art house gaming", retro revivals, and indie games. "Though a lot of people still consider games to be primarily the realm of young children, more and more people are beginning to recognize it as a valid artistic medium," Lipschultz explains. "And those people are willing to explore all the possible ways in which that medium can be used for artistic expression."

For Love of the Game

The appreciation for visual novels in North America is undeniable, with those working within Western publishers like XSEED Games possibly the genre's biggest evangelists. It's that focus on story that appeals to them, a chance to flex their writing muscles that sometimes take a back seat to the action on screen.

To have Tom Lipschultz tell it, the work that goes into a visual novel is very rewarding for himself and his peers. "When dealing with games that rely more on the 'tell, don't show' mentality," Lipschultz tells me, "there's a ton of text that serves to set the mood through visceral description of things like a chill in the air, a crumbling wall, etc. It may not sound exciting, but translating stuff like that requires a totally different thought process than translating dialogue." Lipschultz worked on XSEED's Corpse Party games, a series that demands a proper translation to sell its blood-soaked locales to the players. "We kind of have to read the Japanese, visualize what it's describing, then find the right words to reconstruct that image in English." The reward comes from that process, Lipschultz explains, noting he finds his work in the genre incredibly creative and challenging.

"A visual novel lives and dies by its story and characters," says Phoenix Spaulding, the editor of the Danganronpa series for Nippon Ichi Software America, "so as a writer by trade I really enjoy the fact that the writing aspect is so crucial to a player's enjoyment of the game...I definitely enjoy that challenge and pressure to excel."

With so much praise for the genre, it's no wonder that working on a title like Danganronpa makes an impact on its editor, no matter the genre. Spaulding believes that visual novels serve as a great reminder that there's an audience out there that craves a good story, regardless of how much gameplay there is to support it. In his time at XSEED Games, Tom Lipschultz has had his hands in many products, most commonly JRPGs, and since working on visual novels he's noticed the abundance of exposition in those other games. A concern of his is players finding this kind of dialog disingenuous as the game tries to explain its backstory through mountains of unnatural dialogue.

"A visual novel lives and dies by its story and characters, so as a writer by trade I really enjoy the fact that the writing aspect is so crucial to a player's enjoyment of the game...I definitely enjoy that challenge and pressure to excel." - Phoenix Spaulding, NIS America

"I'd like to think that my experience with visual novel sections in our own games has helped me identify scenes like this...and soften them a bit during localization," Lipschultz says.

If you've played 999 or Virtue's Last Reward, you've seen Bateman's handiwork in dealing with long conversations that range from frozen Egyptian princesses to Schrödinger's cat. While he's ecstatic from the characterization and dialog offered from these works, the genre has also taught him the value of brevity.

"Visual novels tend to be extremely wordy," Bateman tells me, "and as a writer it's very easy to get caught up writing and writing and writing, and using all sorts of exciting words." He says there's a lot of importance in the phrase "less is more", and that in working in localization, he's learned that his career is dependent on succinctness.

With so much riding on one's abilities as a writer, the stresses as a result of that pressure are understandable. A concern of Lipschultz's is the text coming across as dry. When it comes to dialogue, knowing the character he's writing for allows him to "give them a little more 'oomph' to correspond with known quirks traits, habits, etc." As for descriptive text, the words that describe the environment or an action, Lipschultz says these come to him as little more than an "info dump." He finds it necessary to be on his toes when it comes to to descriptive text, as it runs the chance of killing the mood.

"And the mood," Lipschultz says, "is everything in a visual novel."

With the genre's focus on story, dialogue, it's interesting to consider the role traditional gameplay plays in visual novels. While games like Hakuōki are example of the genre in their purest form (which is to say there's no gameplay), others like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Virtue's Last Reward frequently make use of traditional player interactions (puzzles to solve, actions to commit). For North American tastes, do publishers find one form of visual novels more important than the other?

"Is a story-only game with no notable gameplay elements going to sell a million copies in the West? Not anytime soon," Spaulding shrugs. "But even now there is a small but growing movement of Western developer doing their own VN work, using things like Twine to create really powerful, well written choose-your-own-adventure style experiences."

If a developer wants to reach a massive audience, Spaulding believes gameplay is necessary, "If you can make a game that has engaging gameplay and an engaging story, you've basically got the best of both worlds."

While Lipschultz agrees that the genre benefits from forms of gameplay the player may be more familiar with, he does see the potential for more "pure" visual novels. "It's just going to be a fairly long and hard road until we get to that point", he admits. "I think people need something familiar to which they can cling in order to justify spending their money on a 'game' that feels more like a book with a soundtrack and some pretty pictures."

Nevertheless, the genre has been fairly successful of late. Earlier this year, NISA's release of Danganronpa for the PlayStation Vita was so well received that the publisher announced the upcoming release of its sequel just two days later. With the genre clearly on the rise, one has to wonder what it will take for visual novels to continue to grow.

"I think it really comes down to the game's content," Spaulding says. "A big reason Danaganronpa did so well for us is that the concept is immediately intriguing, and the art is incredibly striking and memorable." Spaulding says that this kind of game is a great introduction to the genre, and should lead to players being more willing to take a chance on other types of VNs, such as the more romantically driven Hakuōki series, or Sweet Fuse: At Your Side.

To Engler, it's the fans currently enjoying the genre that have a large effect on its future. Through the likes of social media, praise for works like XBlaze is a far better tool to raise awareness than ads "or debatably insane localization editors proselytizing on their Twitter account."

The genre's success here is leading to some interesting approaches to meeting that demand. While publishers like Aksys Games are continuing their support with titles such as next year's Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, Kickstarter is proving to be a new avenue for localization groups. Exogenesis ~Perils of Rebirth~, WORLD END ECONOMiCA -Complete-, and Sunrider are successful examples of fans willing to support smaller studios with the localization of visual novels. In those cases, the financial support for the Kickstarters blew past their expectations, often resulting in the game being brought to more platforms. This kind of effort proves that the market is there, and that its audience is starved for content. The genre is growing, and we're taking it there.

While being a fan of video games is never dull, there's an allure to witnessing the birth of something new. While we are seeing the fruits of the genre later than I would have liked, it also means that the games releasing on our shores come long after any sort of growing pains visual novels have experienced along the way. Despite being relatively new on our shores, I'm playing some of the greatest works the genre has ever had. It's surprising that I can finally commend a game for its story, and should visual novels continue to grow in popularity, the effect they could have on the industry as a whole is undeniable.

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Comments 14

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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #1 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    Snatcher may be my favorite of all of these. Although I've greatly enjoyed the Phoenix Wright games as well! I still need to get Dual Destinies (and was going to do so yesterday, but missed the sale price, drats).
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #2 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    What a fantastic article!

    Interestingly enough, my first taste of a VN was the (then in-progress) fan translation for Silent Hill: Play novel. My english wasn't very good, so I couldn't progress very much through it.

    Then, a few years later I played JAST's True Love, and I really did not know it was an eroge at all. I think that many western players came to associate VNs with eroge over the course of the early periods of the genre's translations, and it is something that has finally begun to crumb down over the last few years. The Zero Escape series, Danganronpa, Phoenix Wright and even Persona 3 and 4 have shown that engrossing stories on consoles could have their niche over this side of the planet.

    Also, there is no better place to play VNs than in a mobile platform. I doubt I would have had time to play through 999 and VLR if I was playing on my PC. But on my 3DS? I blew each in about a week, during commute and before bed. There are a few that I want to play still (Tsukihime, Saya no Uta, Steins;Gate), but I find cumbersome to read through them on the PC. I have been experimenting a way to get those to work on my galaxy tablet, but still no dice.Edited 2 times. Last edited September 2014 by renatocosta90
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #3 SigurdVolsung 4 years ago
    Great article. I am a huge fan of visual novels, even though they can never quite replace my love for traditional novels any more than comic books could. But much like a graphic novel, it can be a nice switch from sitting down to another reading session. And Dangonronpa 2, which came out this week, is fantastic so far. I really don't mind if USGamer doesn't review it, but for those on here who enjoy VNs, courtroom drama, and murder happy havoc, it is a must buy.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #4 manny_c44 4 years ago
    Agree with above comments, portable gaming is where VN belong because you can play them in bed or on the go. Also snatcher was pretty awesome, I guess the story was a little boiler plate but I still liked it. Basically all the VNs I've played have been on the DS...I would like to make one.Edited September 2014 by manny_c44
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #5 renatocosta90 4 years ago
    @manny_c44 http://twinery.org/ Twine would be your friend then. There are some great experiments popping up left and right. You could be next :D
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #6 Kat.Bailey 4 years ago
    @SigurdVolsung Bob is in the process of reviewing Danganronpa 2 as we speak. Look for it next week.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #7 Pacario 4 years ago
    If anyone has an iPad or iPhone, I recommend checking out the Sorcery! interactive novels by inkle. The company even provides, for free, the program they used to construct their games on their website. The games are based on the Fighting Fantasy series of books and boast hundreds, maybe thousands, of different choices and outcomes.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #8 SigurdVolsung 4 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Okay, thanks for the response Kat.
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  • Avatar for Daedalus207 #9 Daedalus207 4 years ago
    Key/Visual Art's is bringing English localized versions of their VNs to Steam, beginning with "planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~" which already has a listing on Steam.

    Key/Visual Art's might be familiar to anime fans, as the anime series Angel Beats!, Clannad, and most recently, Little Busters! are all based on Key/Visual Art's visual novels.

    At the recent JapanExpo in California, they announced that preliminary plans are underway to release a localized version of the VN Clannad on Steam.

    I'm quite excited as I'm a big fan of their works. I've imported and played several of their VNs with fan translation patches, but I will gladly buy them on Steam if and when official versions become available.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    I'm not a fan of the genre like I am Fighters and JRPGs, but 999 (or rather, its ending), got me invested in this rather odd genre. As such, I'm still mostly invested in the tragically on-hold ZE series, but I'm probably going to be owning Danganropa 2 and Hatoful Boyfriend by the year's end.

    Also, good choice in Kyoko and Phi in the pictures; that's a good character archetype that wouldn't be a bad thing if it caught on more from here on out.
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  • Avatar for IPA #11 IPA 4 years ago
    Despite being an omnivorous reader, I've always found text adventures to be utter bores. The stories themselves don't compete with, say, any halfway decent novel, and the interactivity of the titles feels way less engaging compared to RPGs or [fill in your favorite genre]. It seems like something I should love but it just doesn't click for me.
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  • Avatar for trooper6 #12 trooper6 4 years ago
    Something I think this article is missing is the growing community of Original English Language Visual Novels. Not localizations of Japanese games, but games made here.

    Many of them are progressive and really interesting. Made by awesome Indie folks. Probably the most well known would be the games by Christine Love and Katawa Shoujo, but the Ren'py community is full of great works...including works that are attempts to recreate a Japanese aesthetic in English. I'm quite partial to the works of Cyanide Tea...but Cinders is another great game.

    Anyway, there is a US indie VN scene...whether it is in Ren'py or Twine or Choice of Games or a custom language. There are English VN review sites and...it is a cool community. It would be nice to have seen that dimension of the story addressed. Perhaps in a follow-up article.

    Some interesting games to look at:
    Cinders
    The Elevator
    Analogue: A Hate Story
    The One in Love
    Face Off
    Magical Diary
    Vera Drake
    Leviathan: the last days of the Decade.

    Even more mainstream western VNs like the excellent and now deceased iOS game, Cause of Death.

    In the ELVN communities there have even been category debates about adventure (?) games with heavy VN elements like The Walking Dead and The Stanley Parable. Some people categorize them as visual novels or visual novel hybrids.

    So...Western VNs are not just waiting for localizations of Japanese otome games.
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  • Avatar for MightyJAK #13 MightyJAK 4 years ago
    I'm feeling nostalgic for the short-lived Infocomics series from the late 1980s. Perhaps this particular style of static story combined with an interactive interface could find a new lease on life in the expanding western VN market.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #14 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    @trooper6

    Love is hilariously talented (and talentedly hilarious). Any designer that makes the player bake a cake for a cheevo gets my respect.
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