The vast majority of the time when I bring up visual novels to someone in conversation, they have no idea what I am talking about. On one level, this floors me. On another level, I expect it. Visual Novels have never been particularly main stream, not even in their country of origin: Japan. I suppose I should explain exactly what a visual novel is, for those who don’t already know. I’m sure there are quite a few of you. For all intents are purposes, a visual novel is an interactive fiction game, usually, but not always, supported by anime style character sprites, filtered photograph backgrounds, music, and sound effects. Not all visual novels sport the anime style or all these features. A few on this list don’t even require any interaction, but they are all of the same basic style. Computer games that provide a new and engaging way to share a fictional story adding new mediums of immersion.
For the purposes of this blog post, I have decided to list my ten favorite free visual novels. All of them are easy to get and cost you nothing but time. None of them are illegally translated and distributed. Most of them are, in fact, Original English Language Visual Novels created by, usually, anonymous companies that are linked by a small, but developing community around the program Ren’py. They have a lot of useful resources for keeping up with the visual novel community. The most useful of which is definitely their blog aggregator: Planet EVN.
Without further ado, let us begin!
1. Katawa Shoujo by Four Leaf Studios
This is by far the most anticipated and well known Original English Visual Novel to date, and the one with the best production values. Surprisingly enough, it started off as a loose project on the /a/ board of the infamous anonymous image board community: 4chan. The loose project grew into a company known as Four Leaf Studios and soon attempted to separate itself from its 4chan roots, for the sake of image. This is one of the most interesting of the list by far. First of all, the art is a step above anything else available for free and even above those English Visual novels that do cost money. The writing, on the other hand is a little inconsistent and not amazing, to say the least. This is, however, what makes it even more interesting! The project had 6 different writers! One for the common route, and one for each of the female cast members. Like most visual novels, this comes with choices which turn it into something akin to a choose-your-own-adventure novel. There are five full storylines complete with good, bad, and sometimes neutral endings (the common route contains the only truly BAD end, but it’s also hilarious, see if you can find it!). Fortunately the internet is absolutely full of walkthroughs and flowcharts to help you navigate the game!
Now enough about the origin. Let’s move on to content. The same Katawa Shoujo is Japanese, meaning, literally, Crippled Girls. I know, that’s a turn off right there, but stay with me here! You step into the shoes of the main character and learn that you, he, has a heart arrhythmia and can no longer return to his old life. He may need constant medical attention and advice, so he is sent to a boarding school for those with disabilities. There, he meets a varied cast of characters: his hall mate and crazed anti-feminist Kenji, the blind and elegant Lilly, the shy, burned Hanako, the head-strong, deaf-mute Shizune, the rambunctious legless track star Emi, and the scatter-brain, artist with no arms Rin.
As he gets used to life at this school, he has to struggle with how to approach his own newfound disabilities and the others that now constantly surround him. The game doesn’t get particularly preachy, but it is not at all insensitive about the subject, as the title might otherwise indicate. They handle the subject very well while not losing itself in the issue. This game is first and foremost a romance story and contains explicit sexual content, which is common among the original Japanese visual novel and a factor in their lack of mainstream appeal. Fortunately, for those with fainter sensibilities, there is an option to disable adult content. I would recommend against it as the sex scenes actually do have storyline significance and I feel that the censorship damages the integrity of the work, but the option is there.
2. Narcissu by stage-nana, translated by insani
Narcissu is an interesting issue in this group. It was a freeware project by stage-nana of Japan and translated into English by a group called insani during their annual al|together translation conference that has, since 2008, unfortunately disappeared. This kind of visual novel is sometimes called a sound novel because it takes a more minimalist approach to visuals by removing character sprites and only providing a meager background in order to focus on the audio and text.
Even more interesting is that there are two separate translations of the text available in the same program. One is takes into account the Japanese voice acting that was original provided and the other works with the unvoiced versions. The two translations end up reading quite differently at times, but both translators agree that the other is equally true to the original Japanese. It’s incredibly interesting to compare both. You come away with a much clearer understanding of the story. It is also known as a kinetic novel, since the storyline is static and there are no choices that affect the outcome.
You begin in a hospital dying of a terminal illness with only a short time to live. There, you meet a woman in a similar situation. Both characters work through the issue of death and its inevitability and the unfairness of their situations in different and surprisingly similar ways and bond in a way they would never have in any other situation.
3. True Remembrance by Shiba Satomi, translated by insani
This is another freeware kinetic novel translated into English by insani during an al|together conference. This is different from Narcissu in many ways, but similar in that there are no choices available and only a single story. It does contain much more complete backgrounds and character sprites, but no voice acting.
Unlike the previous two, this story takes places in a fantastical world that has been inflicted with a plague known as The Dolor. It is much akin to what we know as clinical depression. In this world, however, The Dolor is treated by fantastical doctors known as Mnemonicides. They determine what memories are causing the symptoms and literally rip them out of your head. This the story of a particularly impressive Mnemonicide and how he interacts with the girl La as he treats patients and how and why they live together in their little closed off town.
4. Homeward by Samu-kun
The amazing thing about this visual novel is that it is a one-man job. A single person created this entire visual novel on his own with only the help of the Ren’Py program and beta testers along the way. As a slightly autobiographical piece, I can see why Samu-kun took on the burden of it himself, but the feat is just enormous for a work of this magnitude if you know anything about visual novel development.
You are the son of a military family who has been moved around his whole life and never really fit in anywhere, finally returning to the town where he spent the most time in his childhood. He is reunited with his childhood friend Nonami and his younger sister who he never knew before Sora, and even makes a new friend in Haruka along the way. He struggles with his loneliness and difficulty becoming truly attached to anyone.
This, like Katawa Shoujo in particular, is a romance story and contains some explicit and sometimes problematic content. For instance, one of the romantic options is his sister, turning it into an incest narrative. However, there is an All-Ages version available without explicit content and you can easily avoid the incest storyline if you so wish. Again, I would recommend against both of these options. The all-ages version effective turns this into a kinetic novel, as only the Nonami Arc is available, and the incest narrative is worth experiencing, in my opinion.
5. don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story by Christina Love
Christina Love is one of the most ambitious visual novel authors to enter the field. This visual novel is actually the spiritual sequel to another of the more unique visual novels further down on the list, also by Christina. The production values are quite a bit lower than many of the others one this list, but I think this work still warrants a spot on this list. Instead of going with the usual text and choices, Christina elects to follow a more unique approach to the art of storytelling in this medium.
The school you teach at as the main character is set an undetermined amount of time in the future where a social network has become integral to school social life so much so that teachers have administrative access with full freedom of information. Basically, you spy on your students throughout the novel and use that information to make your choices along the way. Another reason why this title makes the list is its subject matter. Not only is it about the consequences of complete freedom of information, but also about LGBT politics and the responsibilities of a teacher to his students. One of the endings kind of fails to really bring this story to its full potential, but the journey to that ending is still quite valuable.
6. [text] – A Summer Story by Sakevisual
[text] is a member of the prolific Sakevisual’s Green Tea line of free visual novels that are supported by their paid products which are quite superb, though they suffer from the unfortunate shortness of all their titles. This story in particular is incredibly short, only barely taking 15 minutes to reach an ending. However, with 7 different endings, that makes it almost 2 hours’ worth of content.
[text] is a sound novel quite unlike Narcissu in that it’s English language in origin and provides much clearer backgrounds and the cellphone mechanic seems to take a note from don’t take it personally babe. You are a girl going on her summer break to visit a relative. She gets mysterious texts from a boy who apparently knows her uncle and a set of mysterious events ensues. [text] proves to be rather unique and an entertaining experience for those who enjoy psychological mysteries and fans of visual novels in general and very quick for those with no much time!
7. Ristorante Amore by Cyanide Tea
I’m not the biggest fan of Cyanide Tea, but they have contributed quite a bit to the visual novel community, especially with this title. This is an excellent example of how you can take an overused, cliché trope and turn it completely on its head. It is a slice of life story and science fiction at the same time, which is pretty cool.
The game starts off as a traditional otome game (visual novel for a female audience), with a klutzy protagonist that is easily to self-project on and a cast of attractive male characters that sweep her off her feet. Not long into the story, the entire work turns itself on its head and you’re left wondering “What the hell just happened?”
I suggest reading it if only for that moment.
8. Memo by Doomfest
Memo is like Homeward in that it was small team job with decent production values and a main character that moved around a lot growing up who returns to a city in which he used to live. Contrarily, Memo is a bit shorter and explores the idea of memories in greater depth.
The creator, Doomfest, is an incredible artist who used to be a part of the Dischan team, which produced Juniper’s Knot, further down the list, but left for personal reasons and left a great void in his wake. This is one of his earlier works with the Ren’Py program and his art isn’t quite up to its current standards, but it is still nice to look at and the story isn’t bad.
9. Juniper’s Knot by Dischan
Dischan is one of the lesser known creator of English visual novels, but their art and music is among the best in the community. This is one of their few works, one of two which are free! It is a kinetic novel with a no choices and a single storyline and set in a fantasy world.
The story is told from two different perspective, first you see out of the eyes of a boy who has become lost in a seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape. He meets a demon, trapped by a magical force. The perspective shifts later to this demon as she tries to convince the boy to release her.
10. Digital: A Love Story by Christina Love
This last example is another work by Christina Love, the inspiration for don’t take it personally babe. The two works are actually extremely different and Digital has lost much of its resemblance to any other visual novel I’ve ever read. It works more like a game with a lot of text.
I know that a lot of the people reading this will probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but hearken back to the early days of the internet where BBS message boards were everything and we did not have many of the graphical conveniences we now take for granted. The storyline of this sound novel takes place entirely in e-mails and on the message boards. Getting through the game is actually a little difficult, so don’t be afraid to search up a walkthrough to help you out!
It’s a very long game, but I’d recommend it to more to anyone who has a lot of experience with puzzle games and computer games in general.
We have come to the end of my little top ten list and I hope that your interest has been piqued! Visual Novels are one of my absolute favorite ways to read and can create an almost seamless experience of immersion unlike anything else I’ve experienced. As the medium is still growing in America (and these examples are all free projects), please do not expect the most amazing writing you’ve ever seen, but I expect you’ll be surprised at how much these things can pull you in. It’s a truly unique experience in reading.