A novel idea
Quick show of hands-how many of you remember “Choose your own Adventure” books? You know the ones: you start at the first page, read, reach a choice, flip to that choice’s page, read some more, and repeat until you reach one of a number of different endings? These books were a blast to read as a kid (even if I did skip to some of the endings when I got bored of the story), and I always wanted to have more media like it.
How does this relate to video games? Well, a good number of video games tout choice as a key selling point and evidence of their interactivity. In most of those cases, though, these games are more along the lines of simulators, where you just act out the actions and movements of the characters involved. You’re in the action, but you don’t always have time to appreciate much of the surroundings or the intricacies of it all when you’re shooting the undead or swinging a sword at a monster. I love those kinds of games for sure, but they don’t give me the same kind of entertainment that those old adventure books gave me. There is, however, a kind of game that does: the visual novel.Visual novels (VNs) are exactly as they sound- you play through a novel-length story with visuals (and occasionally voice acting) supplementing the experience. Sometimes these games offer choices that can set you onto different “routes” focused on specific characters or story elements. Many visual novels also use their decision points to guide players towards multiple endings, tossing an element of chance to the mix. Depending on the choices you make, the cast could live happily ever after or end up in a worse situation than they started in. Visual novels provide just the right amount of interactivity to make it game-like, but you get a much more story and art-heavy experience than your average game. Many visual novels fall into the romance genre, but the genre is extremely versatile. Romance, crime, adventure, mystery- you name it, there’s probably a visual novel for it.
This genre has sort of gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to modern-day gaming. Elements of the genre are commonly melded into other games rather than acting as the main attraction. For example, a good number of fighting games now have visual novel segments in between fights, lots of RPGs have them in lieu of expensive animated sequences, and even popular franchises like Ace Attorney and Zero Escape place a heavier focus on investigation and puzzle-solving than their stories (though with that said, their stories are really freaking good). Straight-up visual novels are seen as a very niche genre in today’s gaming landscape, and the ones that get popular also get adapted into different forms like anime or films, removing the need for casual players to play the game (with the exception of ones with multiple routes). They also have an unfortunate reputation for being a dumping ground for video game equivalents of trashy erotic novels. However, if you look hard enough (especially in the indie scene) you’ll find proof that this genre is going strong. Here are a few out-of-the-ordinary VNs to get you started on your search- they may not be the most typical, but they provide a neat look into what the genre has to offer.
Keep in mind, these are far from the only options (lots of independent developers like Date Nighto and distribution services like Sekai Project have a few fun games, among others), but these are a good place to start if you’re new to the genre.
The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo“Look, I know what you’re thinking, but Link IS going to be playable in Mortal Kombat! I know this because my mom works for Nintendo.” We’ve all heard a story like that at one point- your friend knows SOMEONE at your favorite company (more often than not the house of Mario), and knows all the secrets that company holds because of that. But no one has any actual proof of that, right?
In The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, you spend a night at your best friend’s place (with the time period implied to be somewhere in the mid 1990s), and man, do they have proof. They have ALL the new video game consoles, including even some you’ve never seen before. There’s this weird white one with a remote control and a black one with a giant X on it. It’s rad. But there’s a snag. At some point in the night, your friend’s Uncle (who just so happens to work for Nintendo) is coming over. This sounds innocuous enough; family comes over to visit unannounced all the time. With every passing hour, though, everything around the house starts getting…weird.
Like, Lovecraftian weird.The game has an intense, creepy atmosphere, with the pattering of rain a constant reminder of just how trapped you are inside the unsettling household. Rooms appear and vanish out of thin air. Memories flutter in briefly and then vanish without a trace. Eerie noises flicker in and out of the soundtrack. The visuals are minimalistic, with backgrounds that look hand-drawn and stylishly dark. These include outside of a house in the pouring rain, a darkened game room with one light on, and a dimly lit kitchen setup to name a few. These locations seem simple and familiar, adding to the overwhelming sense of unease. The whole thing just feels bizarre the whole way through.
To say much more would be spoiler-y as the game is incredibly short (you can knock it out in less than half an hour). The game is definitely worth replaying, though, offering not just to see the different options, but to get entirely new experiences out of it each time you do so. It may be a bit closer to a text-based adventure than your average VN, but that makes it a very solid entry point into the genre. Give it a go, and you’ll be telling your own stories about The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo.
Analogue: A Hate Story
Analogue: A Hate Story is at once both simple and complicated as hell. In a genre defined by detailed story combined with lush visuals, of varying choices and intricate storytelling, the game locks you into a white room with a singular character and an assortment of informative data logs and says “Go nuts.” You don’t expect much out of a scenario like that.
As it turns out, though, this singular character is an artificial intelligence, the only “living” being left on the derelict wreck of a former Korean space colony, and these logs actually reveal the secrets behind the untimely demise of the colony. It’s like going to the movies to see a superhero flick and finding out it’s actually a documentary about superheroes. It’s not bad in the slightest, but it’s sure as hell not what you expected.
Analogue takes place in the far future and focuses around the nameless protagonist’s interactions with *Hyun-ae, an artificial intelligence aboard the Korean colony vessel Mugunghwa. The protagonist, working for (of all things) a historical society, is charged with retrieving as much information on the ship and its inhabitants as possible. *Hyun-ae is more than happy to help as she’s been all alone on the ship for who knows how long and is more than happy to talk to just about anyone at this point. As they scour through the journals, messages, and other varied writings within the logs, it becomes immediately apparent that society on the Mugunghwa descended into feudalism before its demise, with a monarchy set in place under the control of a grand Emperor. In particular, the two discover diary entries by a mysterious girl known only as “The Pale Bride,” a sickly young woman who was placed on the ship in medical stasis until the Emperor set her free. Tragedy, horror, and intrigue lie in wait within the walls of the Mugunghwa and the writings of the Bride.
An isolated deep-space mystery, Analogue: A Hate Story has twists and turns galore in spite of (or maybe because of) its minimalist nature. There are some definitely sexual/NSFW parts to the story (particularly involving some of the more horrifying elements of life on the Mugunghwa). Some genuinely disturbing imagery is written into the various logs and diaries that might make players incredibly uncomfortable, to say the least. There’s lots of attitudes and viewpoints that characters espouse that would definitely not fly in today’s society, and that’s the intention-it’s a showcase of the spiral and devolution of society, and showing the greyer sides of morality. It is worth giving a heads-up about, however, as it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. For those willing to take the plunge, Analogue will show you just how much of a terrifying world that a simple feeling like hate can create.
Did I say lucky? I meant “unfortunate.”
As the saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown. This is a lesson that Elodie, a young girl and crown princess of the Kingdom of Nova, learns extremely quickly in Long Live the Queen. Elodie is recalled from boarding school after the mysterious death of her mother and placed on the throne of the fracturing kingdom. Nothing’s official just yet; Elodie has to wait until her fifteenth birthday to be officially crowned Queen of Nova. Elodie is thrust into a world of might and magic, of political intrigue and secrets, and of government theatrics as she walks the precarious road to royalty.
At least until bandits assassinate her as she travels to her friend’s birthday party.
Wait. No. That’s not how it goes.
Elodie begins to learn the ways of the kingdom, but she’s assassinated by a madman at a festival.
…no, no. That’s not right.
Elodie begins to learn the ways of the kingdom, but is poisoned by a box of chocolates that-
Ok, something’s not right here. None of these could possibly be how Elodie’s story ends.
…could they?Long Live the Queen is a visual novel that doesn’t beg for repeated playthroughs. It demands them. There are multiple branches of study that Elodie can focus on throughout the game, ranging from royal manners to sports to even martial arts. Elodie can also choose where to go to throughout her castle on her off-time. These outings help determine her mood, which is based on four scales: Angry to Afraid, Cheerful to Depressed, Willful to Yielding, and Pressured to Lonely. All of these factors make it a necessity to pay close attention to the story, as throughout the game there will be “checks” dependent on the different skills that you can learn. These checks come into play during bigger choices throughout the game, like the aforementioned birthday party and festival scenarios. If you never learned to watch out for ominous mystical signs, hopefully you built up a poison immunity earlier in the game. If you happened to be bad at naval strategy, you’d better hope you learned how to swim. There’s all sorts of avenues to choose from. Whether or not they’ll pay off is something you won’t find out until you either win or die.
Long Live the Queen puts you in charge of the safety and future of not just Elodie, but a whole country with a cast of characters tormented by tragedies and struggles. The pressure to make the “right” choices makes every decision feel like it has weight, and with dozens of options to choose from, the pressure just keeps building and building. Will you lead Elodie and her kingdom to prosperity, or will it fall to ruin and despair? It’s a good thing this game has a lot of save slots. After all, having to start from scratch every time would be a royal pain in the neck.