Visual novels originated in Japan during the tail end of the 20th century and introduced new ways to create games based around immersive storytelling. While some games focused on adult content, others developed rich worlds where players build friendships, solve problems, save the world, or find true love. Others let you mingle with the local androids and serve drinks to make a quick buck.
From dating sims, to horror titles, to epic science-fiction stories with multiple timelines, visual novels provide some of the best writing in video gaming today. And for newcomers and avid readers alike, these are some of the best visual novels available in the genre.
Mix drinks, change lives, and try to survive in a dystopian cyberpunk world ruled by late capitalism. That’s the premise behind VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel by Sukeban Games that brings cute anime girls into a futuristic world where technology is rampant and everyone still enjoys a drink or two.
Unlike most visual novels, VA-11 Hall-A’s plot isn’t directed by generic branching character routes. Instead, players direct the game by mixing up drinks and serving them to customers. Doing so successfully nets the player more money and lets the main character, Jill, bond a little bit more with her customers. But mess up too many orders, and you’ll have to restart your day.
VA-11 Hall-A is pretty memorable for its well-written characters and relaxing premise, making it an easy pick for any visual novel fan looking for plenty of character development and a touch of satire. The game is on its way to Nintendo Switch, too, with a 2019 release planned.
Eroge games literally gave birth to the visual novel genre, but well-written erotica remains just as rare as ever. Luckily, Christine Love’s Ladykiller in a Bind is a little different.
Released in 2016 to critical acclaim, Ladykiller in a Bind was written and designed by Christine Love, after a career filled with successful visual novel releases. The game focuses on a lesbian named “The Beast,” who crossdresses as her twin brother on a senior class cruise ship packed with women incredibly attracted to him (and, by extension, her).
While most of Ladykiller in a Bind focuses on The Beast and her kinky hook-ups with her brother’s classmates—particularly a domineering ally named The Beauty and a naïve shrinking violet called The Stalker—Ladykiller isn’t just about a lot of 18+ sex scenes. The game features a suspicion system where the game ends if The Beast is caught impersonating her brother. There’s good reasons to throw suspicion on oneself, as certain actions can unlock new routes with side characters. But raising too much suspicion can put the player in a logical checkmate, and the only way to reset the system is by visiting The Beast at night.
As far as visual novels go, Ladykiller doesn’t have the most sophisticated plot in the world, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting visual novels in recent years. The uncensored version is even available on Steam, too.
Higurashi When They Cry begins like most slice-of-life visual novels, but the game quickly takes a turn for the worse in a disturbing, and utterly memorable, direction.
Written and drawn by Japanese game designer Ryukishi07, Higurashi When They Cry takes place in 1983 and follows Keiichi Maebara, a newcomer to the rural village Japanese Hinamizawa. Keiichi spends his summer days hanging out with four girls in his school’s after-school club. But as the mysterious Watanagashi Festival approaches, a crime is committed, and one of his friends winds up dead. Puzzled by the events, Keiichi is sent into a bizarre and horrific story, one that’s equally thrilling and terrifying.
Part horror, part mystery, Higurashi has been praised over the years for its skilled character writing, interesting plot, dynamic story arcs, and perhaps most of all, its atmospheric music and sound. Granted, Higurashi is a kinetic visual novel, meaning the player doesn’t actually make any branching choices during play—but for a late night close to Halloween, Higurashi can’t be beat.
It’s just a week before the upcoming school festival, and your childhood friend Sayori wants you to join her literature club. The idea sounds pretty boring at first—that is, until you discover that the club is staffed by incredibly cute girls. Suddenly, writing and reading poems doesn’t sound all that bad if it means getting a girlfriend out of going to class.
But something seems off during club meetings, and gradually, Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club explores the limits behind what dating sims and visual novels are capable of for their characters. Certainly not for the faint of heart, this seemingly innocent visual novel became an overnight sensation when it launched in late 2017 thanks to its complex themes and heartbreaking look at the genre’s storytelling capabilities. Between the upbeat Sayori, tsundere Natsuki, notably timid Yuri, or charismatic Monika, there’s plenty of new friends to make in the literature club. As long as you aren’t easily disturbed, that is.
As far as visual novels go, Katawa Shoujo’s history is just as interesting as its story. Developed by Four Leaf Studios, which was made up 4chan users, Katawa Shoujo is often praised as one of the best western visual novels in the genre’s history—if not the medium as a whole.
Katawa Shoujo takes place at Yamaku High School, a Japanese school for students with physical disabilities. After Hisao Nakai is sent to Yamaku for his cardiac arrhythmia, he soon finds himself falling in love with the women at his school. These characters range from Lilly Satou, who is blind, to Hanako Ikezawa, whose body is covered in scars from a fire during her childhood years.
Touching at times, heartbreaking at others, Katawa Shoujo captures both everything visual novel fans love about romance games while simultaneously providing a refreshing take on the genre as a whole. Be warned, your choices matter in this game, and not every branch leads to a happy ending. But the journey to find true love is worth it all the same.
Steins;Gate is often applauded as one of the best visual novels released in the genre’s history, and for good reason. The second game within the Science Adventure series from Mages and Nitroplus, the game centers around Rintarō Okabe, a confident and somewhat maniacal scientist with a knack for time travel. After Rintarō and his childhood friend Mayuri Shiina stumble across a girl in a poll of blood while walking to a conference, Rintarō and his friends soon discover a way to change the past through text messages and mail.
Unlike traditional visual novels with branching in-game narrative decisions, players use a “phone trigger” UI system to accept calls and send text messages, impacting the game’s storyline and various endings. Known for successfully mixing drama, thriller, and science-fiction themes together for an impactful read, Steins;Gate merges its lovable characters with a layered story that’s hard to put down.
Alongside Steins;Gate, Key’s Clannad is often considered one of the best visual novels of all-time. Originally released in 2004, the game follows Tomoya Okazaki, a high school student who lost his mother at an early age and lives with his alcoholic father. After meeting Nagisa Furukawa, a shy and somewhat self-conscious girl repeating her senior year due to her sickness, Tomoya’s life gradually becomes intertwined with Nagisa’s, making friends along the way while helping rebuild the school’s drama club.
At first blush, Clannad may seem like your average, run-of-the-mill romantic visual novel. But there’s more to Clannad than meets the eye, including its rich themes about growing up, falling in love, and how children mirror their parents in all too many ways. Be warned, Clannad is quite long, and its steep price tag reflects that. But the game’s story is worth it, in part because of its thought-provoking story and rich writing.
Like many of the other visual novels on this list, Muv-Luv isn’t what it appears to be. Split into three different stories, Muv-Luv follows Takeru Shirogane, who wakes up one day and finds himself stuck between falling in love with the wealthy heiress Meiya Mitsurugi or his childhood friend Sumika Kagami. It’s up to the player to decide between the two.
But after experiencing both Meiya and Sumika’s endings, Muv-Luv shifts from a romantic comedy to an apocalyptic sci-fi story, in which the world has been invaded by gigantic alien miners devastating the global population. Separated from his original dimension, Takeru gradually becomes entwined in a hellish world struggling against an incredibly powerful and dangerous extraterrestrial force that promises to wipe out humanity if given the opportunity.
Notoriously complex and incredibly well-written, Muv-Luv is often praised for both its dynamic characters, tear-jerking moments, and its meta take on visual novels. Quirky, funny, yet oddly poignant, Muv-Luv is a great place to start if you want to see the visual novel genre’s full potential.
Disclosure: Writer Ana Valens previously freelanced for Sekai Project as a QA Team Member.