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Don’t like visual novels? These games might change your mind

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Four games that are reinventing the genre

Chance Agency

Visual novels have long ventured to places that more 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 — including how they depict queer relationships. Even before programs like Twine democratized game design, visual novels were more accessible to marginalized creators because they offered a lightweight process for development that allowed lone creators to put together a playable story. All they needed was the free RenPy engine and some art.

But visual novels are also controversial; their unmistakably feminine mien both attracts and repels. And while their non-traditional, often queer and erotic stories have earned them a devoted fandom, some gamers dismiss the clicky text-and-sprite affairs as barely worthy of the label “game.” Not every critic of visual novels is a stereotypical gamer bro, however.

Back in July, Adam Koebel, the award-winning creator of the tabletop RPG Dungeon World, tweeted, “can we please have more queer games that aren’t visual novels? signed, a queer person who does not like visual novels.” He held up the punky road-trip combat game Get in the Car, Loser! as an example of a video game that met his requirements, only for its creative lead Christine Love, an award-winning developer, to pop in and say:

“I don’t think I’m the developer you want to hold up if you don’t like visual novels. My earlier game Analogue was the first visual novel on Steam, and frankly, I think Get in the Car, Loser! would be a pretty lifeless game if not for all the visual novel influences in its design.”

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.

Neo Cab

In Uber-simulator and bisexual-lighting paragon Neo Cab, Lina is the last human ride-share driver in Los Ojos, a city increasingly under the thumb of the Capra Corporation, whose driverless taxis dominate the streetscape. This is a game about agonizing choices and limits, accurately capturing the grim, gamified realities that confront your Uber or Lyft driver in real life. Should you please this passenger by parking illegally or risk losing a precious star? Get gas or another pax (aka passenger)? Answer your mercurial friend’s call for help or get another passenger and hope he’s going your way?

As always, text is central, even in these arrestingly visual games. But unlike so many others, it doesn’t wait on you. The animation of each ride is continuous and, especially when looking out the windshield, you can’t pause the words. There’s no time for a breath; it feels all too real in that regard. There’s a brief respite when you choose how Lina replies to some pax queries, each bathed in tension and the artifice of emotional labor. The game excels by allowing you to find that hidden path toward humanity and equality between driver and passenger. It isn’t easy and it isn’t intuitive, but it’s like real life socializing under late capitalism in that way.

A standout story in the new demo sees you deal with a date gone horribly wrong between a woman who’s an AI researcher and enthusiastic about Capra’s driverless cars, and an insufferably smug progressive techie who thinks of himself as “non-hierarchical” and condescends to you about his privilege relative to your Latina identity. It’s pitch-perfect humor and all too familiar to those of us who work in certain spaces. Performative social justice activism versus the woman who wants you to lose your job. A pox on both their houses? Not quite.

The way subtle truths are revealed about who we are behind our masks of consumerism here is masterful. All I can say as a hint is: refuse to sell “an authentic experience.”

Solace State

One game stood out in a satisfyingly crowded field of narrative-driven titles at the recent PAX West: 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.

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.

But it’s the game’s meditation on the nature of rebellion, its psychology and its costs, that really make it. The demo centers on a tense scene where a compatriot of yours uses a hacked ID to disguise himself as one of the corp soldiers in a bid to save the life of a local community leader being abused by the troops. While he does all the talking, you do all the hacking, peering deep into the life of one of the marauding soldiers, uncovering bank statements, marital problems, and a personal history that ties him deeply to this area.

The interplay between him, your friend, and the community leader is sublime. The point of the exercise is to find the right types of info your disguised friend can use to browbeat the fellow, while also inspiring the gathered crowd and the woman who leads them. It feels like a delicate balance. The result rhymes hacking with psychology.

The game twists almost lovingly around its art. It embraces 2D and adds half a dimension in a way few visual novels ever do. The proscenium of the genre is that RenPy frame that contains each panel of interacting characters, set before a static background. Lead developer Tanya Kan envisioned something different: twisting and turning to the point where one doesn’t know where front and backstage begin or end. It’s fitting for this game about politics and swapped identities.

Admiralo Island Witches Club

This is a game that offers a new perspective on where visual novels have been. Notable exemplars of the visual novel genre include Hanako Games offerings like Magical Diary, Black Closet, and Long Live the Queen, all of which are united by a few key features: an anime / manga art style, static frames with minimal animation, and a focus on high school-aged young women as protagonists. 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.

At the recent Seattle Indie Expo, we saw a new entrant in that grand tradition, and it made me smile. Admiralo Island Witches Club is quintessentially a visual in what might be called an academic style. 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.

The 20-minute demo, which introduced the core characters of this drama, felt as warm as a cozy hearth fire. That’s what these games do so well: tease a smile from you and win an embarrassing gush by embracing the power of cute.

Necrobarista

The last stop before the afterlife? A cafe in a tram graveyard. There are few things quite so Melburnian as the silhouette of a Z-class tram, and they’re piled high in the distance of this supernatural crossroads known as The Terminal. The titular necrobarista is, as you might imagine, a necromancer who summons souls with the aid of her compatriots for a final reckoning — over coffee.

It’s a fittingly Aussie way to go (the country adores its unique coffee brews so much that it’s repelled Starbucks), and Melbourne-based studio Route 59 embraces its homeland in a way that’s rare among the many digital offerings from the continent. But what makes this both visual and different from others in the genre?

So many visual novels involve clicking through text that scrolls by in a box on the bottom of the screen. Here, as in Solace State, the presentation of the text is simply much more dynamic: it floats in the air, for instance, and it’s snappier and more interactive.

A unique mechanic centralizes it even further. You “collect” keywords by clicking on them as they appear in each passing sentence. You can only gather a limited number so, eventually, you have to make choices about which ones to keep. The particular assemblage shapes the direction of the story. It’s beguiling in its opacity. Combined with a starkly cinematic presentation, unique art style, and a blending of genres (there are first-person scenes redolent of Fulbright offerings), it becomes trailblazing.

In a curious way, the game expresses itself through limits. There are only so many keywords and only so many interactive objects your ghost can click before the scene advances. It’s eerily apt for a game about time running out.

What links all of these games together is the way they play with visual novel fundamentals to express their themes through lavish stories: Solace State’s layers of self and deception, Neo Cab’s frenetic gigs, Necrobarista’s lines of shadow and mortal limits. Each one also plays with text to emphasize its theme, like the way Necrobarista turns its collectible keywords into a pivotal mechanic that alters the experience of the game.

Opaque choices with unclear outcomes can be vexing, but, as with Sukeban’s VA11-HALL-A where the story was shaped by how you mixed your drinks, there’s something charming about it, too. It feels more real than simply choosing A/B/C from a menu of options. Instead, it forces you to think about the text rather than just mindlessly proceed. And in truth, that’s what any good novel — visual or otherwise — ought to do.