Every once in a while, a visual novel bubbles up into popular consciousness for a hot sec. It’s rarely for good reason. The latest example is the KFC dating sim I Love You, Colonel Sanders! where you endeavor to woo a glamourized Colonel Sanders via knowledge of his restaurant’s menu. There’s also been Hatoful Boyfriend, the game where you date anthropomorphized pigeons; Super Patriotic Dating Sim, the ill-fated Kickstarter project about dating terrorists; even Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Sim, a genuinely good and well-written game that made headlines because of cut content that would have turned a pursuable character into a serial killer.
It should go without saying that all of these piss me off, as a fan of visual novels (and host of a visual novel podcast). In wider gaming culture it is more popular to parody visual novels than actually understand what the genre is: the wealth of “ha ha we made a dating sim” April Fools jokes makes that all too apparent. Now, a common defense is that visual novels are more than just dating sims, and that’s true. There are (relatively) well-known visual novels like Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, and Professor Layton that avoid relationship mechanics entirely. But also, what is wrong with dating sims? When games like The Witcher thrive based on their relationships, when BioWare got a thrashing for saying that you wouldn’t be able to date anyone in Anthem, why does such a popular element of so many games (and human life???) become an insult when it’s the genre name?
I’m here to stand up for all visual novels, be they dating sims, mysteries, raising sims, adventures, straight up pornography, or anything in between. And if you’re an outsider who side eyes the genre but finds yourself reading about that KFC game, let me set you on a better path with some suggestions of visual novels worth of your time, that don’t get much press.
Analogue: A Hate Story by Love Conquers All Games
What Is It: For reasons all your own, you are cruising through space when you encounter a distress signal. It belongs to an old, dead Korean colony ship, and your initial prodding reveals all manner of data logs, as well as an onboard AI. She asks for your help in figuring out what happened, and in your investigation, you dig through emails, genealogies, security reports, and more. Your search unveils a second AI with a very different perspective on the events relayed in the logs, and as events unfold, you must decide which of the two girls you trust.
How Does It Play: You’ll be digging through emails and using search terms to find fragments of the truth, and relay them to the two AIs who lived through the events via dialogue choices and asking their thoughts on specific documents. It’s like reading emails in an immersive sim (Deus Ex, Prey) but then you show those emails to other characters and discuss them.
Content Warnings for the Game: Detached discussion of domestic and sexual abuse, misogyny. These are both the point, the game is about how awful these things are, and it’s well handled… but if that’s hard for you to stomach, keep it in mind.
If You Like This, You Might Like: Hate Plus, Quarantine Circular. Hate Plus is literally a sequel to Analogue, though it leans harder into the dialogue sequences than Analogue did. Quarantine Circular is nearly all dialogue, but that dialogue is used to explore and shape the world in the periphery in ways Analogue also does.
Pyre by Supergiant Games
What Is It: Well, you’ve been convicted of the capital crime of knowing how to read, and you’ve been dumped into a wasteland-purgatory-prison. If you want to be “forgiven” and sent back to society in glory, you’re gonna need to learn to be really good at fantasy basketball. Unite a team of misfits and outcasts from all ways and walks of life, and forge them into a family. Or, I mean… you could lose. The game doesn’t mind, lose all you like! Secretly Supergiant’s best game.
How Does It Play: Well, imagine if NBA Jam were a fantasy action RPG, and you’re fairly close. There are more nuances than that, of course, and also you’ll spend more time talking to your teammates than playing hoops. There’s also an interactive index for looking up lore on the fly, so there’s a seamless and enjoyable way to experience the worldbuilding.
If You Like This, You Might Like: Uh. Bad news. Pyre is unique? T.T Sorry. I can’t really think of more games like it.
Cute Demon Crashers by SugarScript
What Is It: I believe I promised y’all some pornography. Friends and folks, that was not an empty promise. Cute Demon Crashers stars Claire, a lonely college student musing about how all her peers are gone for the summer break, many of them with their partners. For a moment, she voices how much she wishes she had someone to try this whole sex thing with, and that wish summons a squad of succubi and incubi. The four (three men, one woman) are here to help her safely explore her sexuality however makes her comfortable, whether that means goin’ to the Bone Zone or just a kiss or two.
Also it’s free? It’s free.
How Does It Play: This one’s just straight up (well, not necessarily straight, ha ha) visual novel/dating sim. You talk to characters, you make dialogue choices. Sometimes there is art of people Having a Nice Time. That is the game. One of its cooler ideas, though, is that its focus on consent is represented mechanically. As any sexual acts take place, the characters involved constantly make sure you’re comfortable, and the player/player character is free to say that they don’t want the scene to escalate further, or that they want it to stop entirely, at any time. The game doesn’t try to guilt you about it, either: this is about safe exploration of sexual space.
Content Warnings for this Game: Lots of graphically depicted consentual sex, M/F and F/F.
If You Like This, You Might Like: Hardcoded, Mutiny!!. Hardcoded is a trans cyberpunk sex game that’s very open about queer topics, and Mutiny!! Is a queer sex game about being the captain of a pirate ship in a fantasy setting. The thing is, porn is about sex, and sex is often about power rather than just fun, and an effective way to convey power in fiction is objectification. So unfortunately there aren’t very many sex games I can recommend, least of all the ones from Japan (^^;), because there is an overwhelming tendency to objectify women and treat them as less than real people. I can’t recommend anything that does that.
“Six, why do you know this much about sex games?” Listen the only way you figure out you’re ace is by doing some exploring and figuring out what isn’t working. No I will not be taking questions.
80 Days by Inkle
What Is It: My dear Passeportout, we are going to go around the world! An adaptation of the Jules Vernes classic, 80 Days is a sprawling, globetrotting adventure where you play as a valet to an English gentleman attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days to win a bet with his friends. From that premise, it goes into a steampunk world of nostalgia, romance, drama, mystery, and so much more. Tons of routes around the world, with their own narratives and characters to encounter.
How Does It Play: This is close to a Twine game in mechanics. You make dialogue choices, pick routes on a map, and play the markets in an attempt to offset the cost of your grand adventure.
Content Warnings For This Game: There is a general discussion of bigotry and oppression that occurs across the globe. None of it’s particularly hard to read, though.
If You Like This, You Might Like: The Yahwg. There aren’t many sprawling, find-your-way-through-the-world visual novels, but The Yahwg is definitely a great fantasy choose your own adventure style VN.
We Know the Devil by Date Nighto
What Is It: Neptune, Jupiter, and Venus are stuck in hell- a religious summer camp, to be specific. Over their time together, they explore ideas of identity, queerness, and the way society sees them. I don’t wanna say more, if you’re intrigued you should play it.
How Does It Play: Just a straight up visual novel. Text boxes, dialogue choices, character art.
Content Warnings For This Game: It’s a game about queerphobia and body dysphoria, so there is some queerphobia and body dysphoria. Well handled and framed as bad things, but they’re in there.
If You Like This, You Might Like: Butterfly Soup, One Night Hot Spring. Butterfly Soup is a delightful game about being a queer asian high school girl, with a great sense of humor but still touching and thoughtful about the queer experience. One Night Hot Spring is a story about a trans girl in Japan trying to survive life in a culture that treats her like less than a person.
Mystic Messenger by Cheritz
What Is It: An innocent attempt to download a game from the app store lands you in the middle of the RFA, a fundraising association full of drama and tension. You’re quickly given the responsibility of organizing the next fundraising party by the group’s absentee leader, V, and from there things take a turn. There are more secrets beneath the surface of this charity group than you might suspect… a lot more. But even so, you might find the love of your life.
How Does It Play: So, this is the sticking point. Mystic Messenger plays like it’s a chat room. Conversations occur based on real time, and if you miss them, you can still read them, but you don’t get to participate. Once in a conversation you’re picking dialogue options, trying to win the affection of a particular member of the organization (your choice, naturally) while uncovering secrets and trying to organize a great party. For some, the disjointed structure is anxiety-inducing. All I can tell you is missing stuff doesn’t matter as much as you think.
Content Warnings For This Game: Suicide, self-harm, domestic abuse, stalkers, brainwashing. Yo this game gets pretty dark.
If You Like This, You Might Like: Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, Don’t Take It Personally, Babe. Do you like hot boys with dark secrets and grim truths? That’s your Hakuoki, there. More here for the chatroom interaction mechanics? That’s Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, This Just Ain’t Your Story (though I will note that’s a partial recommend, I have mixed feelings on it).
Long Live the Queen by Hanako Games
What Is It: Tragically, the queen has passed away. As crown princess, the throne naturally passes to you… assuming you can survive to your next birthday, and be old enough to take it. Prepare as best you can, trust no one, and decide on the kind of ruler you will become. Or die! You might die. You will probably die.
How Does It Play: Every week, you pick a schedule for yourself- how will you prepare for the throne? You can learn etiquette, study tactics, practice magic, become versed in dance… every choice affects your skills and stats. Events also fire according to a preset (but invisible) script, testing both your skills and your judgment as a player. There are many routes safely through the game, with many endings… but even more ways to be killed by an angry populace, a rival for the throne, a hostile nation, or many others. It’s a real live, die, repeat.
Content Warnings for the Game: The art for game overs is chibi and cute, not graphic, but it’s still a teenager getting poisoned, stabbed, shot with an arrow, blown up, etc.
If You Like This, You Might Like: Princess Maker, Disgaea Infinite. Princess Maker was pretty clearly the inspiration for Long Live the Queen, so if you liked those lesson/daily planning mechanics, this is where they came from. Disgaea Infinite is a time travel game about experimenting with tons of different possibilities to try and safely find the way through.
There are obviously tons more incredible visual novels out there: I leaned away from horror because that’s not my jam, and I also tried to avoid VNs that are pretty well known. Ace Attorney is great, Danganronpa is great, the When They Cry games are remarkable. Play Dream Daddy! And if you want more recommendations, and I’ve gotten you hooked? Well, Novel Not New is a podcast Jen and I run with our friend Em about visual novels and narrative games, and you can get some more thoughts there.
In general, though, I would say that it’s worth considering what it is about visual novels that make them the butt of jokes. Is it that they’re games where you read a lot? Hey, news flash, reading kicks ass. Is it that they’re about relationships between people? It’s kinda screwed up if we’re making fun of the idea of people making connections. Look past the parodies, and maybe you’ll see a genre where strong characterization and a compelling plot are the linchpins, and there’s room for you here no matter your taste.