2023 Is the Year of the Visual Novel
This once-niche side of gaming is ready to break into the mainstream.
This has been a year full of blockbuster game releases, leading to the common refrain that 2023 might be one of the best years ever for games. Most of that attention has naturally been fixed on the year’s biggest releases — the sprawling RPGs, long-awaited comebacks, and remakes of all-time greats. Far from the spectacle of AAA hits, 2023 has also been an incredible year for the all-too-often overlooked visual novel.
In some corners of the internet — the ones perpetually litigating the gaming discourse of a decade ago — visual novels are still hardly games at all. We’re going to ignore those arguments, because who has the time for that kind of nonsense? But even setting that aside, visual novels are still often seen as something separate from, and implicitly less interesting, than more action-packed games. If there’s ever been a year to cast that prejudice aside and embrace visual novels as one of the most vibrant spaces in gaming, it’s 2023.
The biggest sign that visual novels may finally be breaking through to the mainstream comes from the more high-profile hits this year. The most notable is Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo. Being published by Square Enix certainly helped it get noticed, and it went on to receive glowing reviews from more mainstream publications than visual novels typically get.
Capcom’s Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, remastered from the 2010 Nintendo DS original, got a similarly warm response. Like Paranormasight, Ghost Trick is a detective story at its heart, which helps it play on the unique strengths of visual novels. Both games’ focus on picking up clues from the environment and narrative makes piecing together the mystery yourself thrilling.
As great as those games are, puzzle-based mysteries are common in the world of visual novels. This was also a year of developers introducing concepts from entirely different genres to bring their visual novels to life. Venba is a game about identity and family that would have been touching as a straightforward narrative, but turning it into a cooking game was a stroke of genius that ties the act of recreating old recipes to the story’s themes. Goodbye Volcano High uses its rhythm gameplay the same way, to help players emotionally connect with the story through interaction while revealing more about its characters.
Visual novels don’t need to be genre mashups to be great, either. Misericorde and Life After Magic (which were both released in one banger 24-hour period last March) are about as traditional as visual novels get. In Life After Magic, the biggest choice you make is what to say during conversations, and Misericorde features no gameplay at all, just a compelling story to read through.
For both of these visual novels, their power is in their simplicity. Misericorde’s beautifully written murder mystery set in a convent is no less captivating because you aren’t calling the shots, and the decision of which of your estranged friends to spend time with in Life After Magic feels all the more important because of the game’s tight focus on story.
Still other great visual novels this year showed that you can still get experimental without bringing in gameplay from other genres. Slay the Princess is a visual novel in every sense, built entirely on dialogue choices. It’s also a remarkably open-ended game, one where the choice to ask a certain question or just pick up a knife can have consequences that spiral out to cosmic importance. Slay the Princess is as much about playing with the form of the visual novel, interrogating the idea of player choice, and poking at the edges of the fourth wall, as it is about the literal text of its story.
Another form of experimentation is on display in this year’s Mediterranea Inferno. Within the shell of a traditional visual novel, where the only player input is what to look at or say in conversations, Mediterranea Inferno feels wildly inventive. Using religious imagery, double entendres, and an aggressively vibrant visual style, it tells a gut-wrenching yet hilarious story of contemporary anxieties around sickness, isolation, and queer identity.
Visual novels sometimes feel separate from the rest of gaming as a whole. People who are into them are really into them, and for those who’ve avoided them, it can be hard to know where to start. But as this year shows better than maybe any other, visual novels are far from a monolith. Whether you’re looking for a cozy story of friendship or a harrowing detective thriller, you don’t even need to look past this year’s releases to find the right tale for you. With the new year fast approaching, it’s a perfect time to catch up on the great visual novels you’ve missed this year — if you’re not a fan already, one of them may just change your mind.