Part of what some would call a gaming genre niche, visual novels tackle the stories that most mainstream games avoid. A genre-cum-medium of interactive stories that often feature static anime-influenced art, they also tend to be more diverse than more mainstream titles – often taking a hard like at the society we live in.
There’s a lot more to visual novels than some people expect based on stereotypes about the genre. That’s truer now than ever, thanks to a raft of new games — either visual novels or titles influenced by them — that demonstrate the possibilities of the format and signal a sea change that asks us to reconsider what a visual novel is. So check out our list of visual novels that are re-inventing the genre.
Admiralo Island Witches Club
It wouldn’t be a visual novel list without an anime style visual novel in the mix. Set in the quintessential environemnt of high school Admiralo Island Witches Club is a women-positive, narrative-driven game with a focus on friendship, mystery and adventure.
The stories they tell are united by themes of romance, drama, and, at least in the skilled hands of Georgina Bensley, alchemizing teenage theatrics into something deeply poignant for all ages. It hits the core tropes: teenagers and high school drama, anime-influenced art, and static frames with click-through text. You play as a girl staying with her aunt on a secluded Pacific Northwest island for a year who then joins a secret witchcraft club, and, of course, the supernatural is real in this version of our world. Attend classes, explore the island and befriend nature spirits with the other girls of the witches club. You can download their 20 minute demo here.
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date: TBA
Emily Is Away & Emily Is Away Too
So nostalgic it hurts. The Emily Is Away series is a game about instant messaging played in an extremely familiar setting of Windows XP. The game feels exactly like my high school days of MSN and ICQ where subtle passive aggressiveness and language reigned supreme. It takes place completely on a computer terminal during your senior year in school. As in the original, you’ll message your friends on the non-copyright infringing EOL Messenger, but this time around you’ll also be able to browse profiles on Facenook, watch videos on YouToob and transfer files. It’s so charming and dizzyingly nostalgic I get the feeling my parents are just about to yell at me to free up the phone line.
The gameplay is fairly straightforward and you’ll be chatting to Emily and Evelyn during the course of your time here. Both girls come across as happily believable; insouciant teens feeling out the last days of their adolescence, afraid and excited for what the future will bring. Their play-acting at cool is largely endearing, especially after the introductory chapter. Like any normal human being, both Emily and Evelyn take their time to open up, and when they do, it’s hard not to care about them.
This is a survival game unlike that you’ve ever played before. Neo Cab, from Californian studio Chance Agency, looks to put a much more human and relatable spin on the concept. Also, the visual settings are absolutely neon cyberpunk gorgeous.
Neo Cab is a game about being one of the last cab drivers. In the not-too-distant future, you play as Lina Romero, one of the last human members of a business long since taken over by AI in the city of Los Ojos. Players are tasked with balancing money, reputation and emotional health while navigating both the streets of the city and the conversations that the job brings. You’ve got to keep your feelings from exploding while you engage in a quest to save someone close to you. Managing the emotional needs of your passengers along the way, and becoming invested in their lives, are the parts of the gig that you probably won’t be compensated for.
There’s a diverse cast of characters and unique mechanics including branching stories, an in-game economy, and an emotion system that promises to be completely original. The city is procedurally generated and contains plenty of random encounters and discoverable items. Get on their mailing list here.
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date: February 5th 2019
Vivid Foundry’s Solace State. It twists around you like a pop-up book. You click through text as in any visual novel, but the display carries you from scene to scene, a story literally unfolding and refolding around you like literary origami. Beautifully painted 3D urbanscapes reveal itself in hacking-like transitions, demonstrating the different paths that can be taken in a story of political intrigue and revolution, between people from all walks of life.
Abraxa, a city bound by digital mortar, is under siege. The “Haze” prevents communication with the outside world where a nefarious megacorporation cracks down on restive citizens leading a pro-democracy movement. The city-state becomes an island behind a great wall of fear. You play as Chloe, a neuro-hacker who just arrived back in her home city and is using her rare skills to help the rebels. Make challenging choices in a city fractured by inequality and intrigue, and shape different factions that are fighting for their livelihoods. Get on their mailing list here.
Release Date: TBA
Visual novels are typically a single-player affair, but The Yawhg combines choose-your-own-adventure storytelling with a multiplayer twist. It works out brilliantly because of it, but it’s also a blast solo. Set in an apocalypse type scenario the Yawhg is comingou in six weeks but before it comes what will you do? Spend the whole time drinking and gambling, clearly.
It’s a fairytale story with a hint of the Ant and the Grasshopper. Each player takes their turn going to whatever location they feel like – the arena, the hospital, the slums, the palace. Here they are assaulted with some decision or event. Maybe leeches break free from the hospital, maybe you build up your strength in the pits of the arena, or maybe you just bet on other fighters. Your strength might go up, or your money, or your charisma. These stats are important for the end of times. After six turns, the Yawhg comes and every player gets a little story about how they fared in the ruins of that event. The Yawhg has a massive amount of replayability thanks to its use of randomly generated content.
The Yawhg is available on Steam for RM 23