Although not especially well known outside the fandom community, the visual novel is a popular genre of video game among anime fans (not to be confused with the similarly named graphic novel). These games, produced in Japan, consist of narrative prose accompanied by pretty pictures in the familiar aesthetic found in anime and manga, and they play somewhat like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but with a longer story, the player making periodic choices that influence the direction the narrative takes. Many of the more popular visual novels have received anime and manga adaptations, enabling them to reach a wider audience of fans—many of whom in turn seek out the visual novels in order to experience the tales in their original form, since converting a branching story line into a linear 13- or 26-episode TV series is not an exact science and often falls short of the mark as judged by fans of the original game. Still, if there’s an anime series everyone you know is talking about and it wasn’t inspired by a manga, there’s a decent chance it started as a visual novel.
For the past decade, the Los Angeles–based video-game publishing group Sekai Project has been busy making this form of interactive media accessible to a niche but growing Western audience. Founded in 2007 by fans translating the visual novel School Days, whose anime adaptation was first airing at the time, Sekai Project partnered with the licensing company JAST USA to make their project the official English version of the game. They have since used Kickstarter to great effect, with their current campaign for A Clockwork Ley-Line having reached over $100,000 in pledges with 11 days to go as of this writing. This visual novel, as with all others Sekai Project has funded through the site, will become available on Steam as a digital download, with a physical version of the game being made available elsewhere. While Kickstarter has achieved some notoriety in recent years for larger companies using it to crowdfund software and other projects they can arguably afford to produce on their own—running counter to the website’s original purpose of empowering smaller startups with big ideas—what I find remarkable about Sekai Project is that 100 percent of the group’s raised funds go directly to the developers of the games they bring overseas. They are, for all intents and purposes, a fansubbing circle that directly supports the industry. Their stated aim is to “promote multimedia and live content with a single goal of getting greater exposure to indie creators.”
One divisive issue in the fandom when it comes to these games is the fact that many of them contain adult content. Some even attribute the genre’s initial growth to its use of pornography to drive sales, with studios’ willingness to take risks on family-friendly games being a more recent development. But the more popular adult visual novels have traditionally been rereleased later for an all-ages audience with the 18-plus content removed, and all visual novels released on Steam receive this same treatment. Reception is consistently positive, with only quiet rumblings from devotees decrying the censorship of the creators’ vision, showing that the value of the visual novel genre lies not in its risqué elements but in its capacity to tell stories in a captivating and interactive way.
Even so, the genre’s association with sexual elements does play a role in making the typical visual novel a romance, with School Days itself being one of the great love stories of our time.* Clannad, released by Key and now also available on Steam, was never an adult game. But it remains one of the most popular visual novels ever released, with story routes that are by turns both joyful and heartbreaking. A friend of mine once said, and I agree with him, that if everyone in the world were forced to play Clannad (or watch its anime version), there would be no more wars. Other games, like Fate/stay night and the previously mentioned A Clockwork Ley-Line, have adult content but are marketed more on their depth of plot than their erotic underpinnings. If you’re looking for a good interactive story, gorgeous artwork, and a narrative that doesn’t have as much of a problem with you being alive as the average Choose Your Own Adventure, there are a ton of visual novels that have been made accessible by Sekai Project and groups like them.
* This statement has not been reviewed and may require further investigation. (Click here to return.)