What a novel idea
It may be a bit cliche, but I made a new year’s resolution for 2024. I’ve actually been making resolutions every year for a while now, and each of them seems to have paid off. I’ve been introduced to new things, grown as a person, come to see situations in a new light, and so on. I figured with things going so well, I’d keep up the tradition by settling on a 2024 resolution. This time around, I’m resolving to read more traditional books.
What does reading books have to do with visual novels? Well, other than the obvious, simply deciding to read more has led to an even deeper appreciation of the visual novel genre.
On New Year’s Eve, I shared my resolution with a pair of close friends who are big-time readers. I knew they’d be excited to hear the news, and a rash of book suggestions would follow. That’s exactly how things went, but it also led to an epiphany that I felt incredibly stupid for not seeing right away. I resolved to read more books, but somehow I never thought to introduce my book-loving friends to visual novels. The idea has been right there in front of my face for years, yet somehow it took my own resolution to see the opportunity to spread the good word on a genre I adore.
Truth be told, part of me finds it absolutely wild that visual novels are a popular genre outside of Japan. I remember being barely in my double-digit years when I learned about Japan’s appreciation for visual novels. Japanese audiences liked to play games that were basically digital books? You didn’t run and jump on enemy heads or fire a laser gun at never-ending waves of aliens? My young mind couldn’t fathom how such a genre could be a thing, let alone a warmly-welcomed one. While the mere fact that visual novels existed confused me to no end, it also intrigued me at the same time.
In truth, visual novels were always hiding in plain sight outside of Japan, but they were almost exclusively on the computer. Text adventures had existed since the very early 80s, and came about mostly through necessity. As developers were still figuring out how to bend computers to their will, savvy creators came up with ways to make playable experiences despite the platforms’ limitations. While the on-screen action had to largely be static, the accompanying text and player choices could bring the action to life in a magical way. The crude visuals and monochrome color schemes melted away and thousands of players were transported into countless worlds of wonder.
Outside of PC gaming, visual novels were pretty much non-existent on consoles and portables, at least in the lands beyond Japan. The powers that be (i.e. publishers) didn’t believe western audiences would have any interest in games that used reading as the sole mechanic. You can’t blame them for feeling this way, as even big-name RPGs saw sales that paled in comparison to platformers, sports titles, shooters and so on. Localizing a visual novel simply wasn’t worth the time or the effort, and it would likely stay that way…or so many thought.
While there’s no one event or time that we can point to as the definitive breakthrough moment for visual novels outside of Japan, there are certainly multiple occurrences that helped the genre gain momentum, even if it was a slow-and-steady trek. Having lived through the era of visual novel growth, I think there are a few key moments that, when combined, point to how visual novels got a foothold in Europe and North America.
First and foremost, I believe the Nintendo DS’ popularity was an absolutely crucial element in visual novels getting some time in the sun. The DS was a massively popular platform, and a very quirky one at that. Gamers really hadn’t seen anything like the DS, with its dual-screen setup and touchscreen input allowing for all sorts of experimentation. We saw developers trying all-new ideas right out of the gate with the DS, such as SEGA’s Feel the Magic: XY/XX and Nintendo’s “Nintendogs.” These undeniably experimental titles, especially for the time, showed audiences around the world that gaming could be more than the genres we were used to…and those audiences responded by gobbling those games up.
Along with the DS came the expanded audience it helped foster. Much like the Wii, the Nintendo DS welcomed all sorts of players, including those who had never picked up a controller before. Nintendo was quick to realize that their unique hardware could provide software unlike any seen before, and that had the potential to woo customers that would otherwise never interact with them. Games like Brain Age, Clubhouse Games, Style Savvy and many others tapped into a market other developers and hardware manufacturers never even considered, and with that came an audience eager for more untraditional experiences.
Last, but certainly not least, comes the visual novel that fully opened the door for the genre’s western expansion; Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Back in the GBA days, Capcom knew there was pretty much no shot for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney to find any sort of success outside of Japan. That’s why the game was released in Japan in 2001 and stayed there all the way until 2005. By this point, companies were noticing that the DS wasn’t just popular, it was also breaking down barriers. This was the opening that Capcom never knew would come around. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was already a hit in Japan, but with the combination of the widespread acceptance of the DS and the worldwide audience’s willingness to try new things, it seemed time to take a calculated gamble on localization. History speaks for itself from then on, as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney became a serious hit for Capcom on the worldwide stage, and this signaled to the devs/pubs that the time for visual novels to escape Japan was very much upon them.
Again, I’m sure there are all sorts of nuanced topics and pure facts that I’m completely missing, but as an active participant in gaming since the mid-to-late 80s, those are some of the elements I feel played an unquestionable role in the rise of the visual novel. Furthermore, from that time in the mid 2000s on, the genre has only continued to flourish. We see evidence of that on Switch, which has furthered the acceptance and popularity of visual novels, as the platform is littered with options. There’s almost too many visual novels on Switch to count, and a great deal of them have taken home numerous accolades from countless critics, including Game of the Year in some instances.
As I mentioned earlier, being an ancient gamer, I still find it shocking to see how accepted and prolific visual novels are, and I mean that in the best way possible. To go from the days of literally zero visual novels to platforms chock-full of them is an absolutely beautiful thing to see. Something like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney’s localization was a major topic of surprise and discussion back in the day, but nowadays no one would bat an eye at a visual novel launching worldwide. It’s simply the norm in 2024, and will only become more so as we move ahead.
As many gamers have known for decades now, gaming is a space for literally everyone. No matter who you are or what you’re into, gaming is a place where you can find some fun. That’s only grown to be more true with each passing year, and the rise of visual novels is a shining example of that. For there to be a genre that requires no traditional gaming skill to interact with, yet immerses its player on every conceivable level is the epitome of welcoming. We’re incredibly lucky that things moved as they did, and we arrived at a time when visual novels are welcomed, applauded and supported. Visual novels finding success the world over makes gaming that much better of a place, and a hobby to be that much more proud of.