With the Steam Summer Sale in full swing, now is a great time to get some of the most popular visual novels on the platform. For the uninitiated, a visual novel is a text-based game where players have multiple options and "routes" that lead to different endings depending on the choices made. Many of these games come with art and character portraits to set the scene, often including voice acting.
The medium's anime leanings -- and the fact that many anime are based on them -- means visual novels are perfect for an anime fan looking to branch out to other forms of Japanese storytelling. With that in mind, here are five essential visual novels perfect for getting your feet wet with the medium.
Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni: When They Cry
Usually shortened to Higurashi, this is a horror visual novel series that takes place in June 1983 in the fictional village of Hinamizawa. The protagonist, Keiichi Maebara, has just moved to the village, where he learns that every year for the past four years, people either disappear or are killed during the annual Watanagashi Festival. The game features a time loop and is quite graphic, so it is not recommended for younger players. There are multiple sequels and spinoff games, as well as manga, light novel and anime adaptations.
Clannad is a romance/drama visual novel that also has an anime adaptation. Tomoya Okazaki is the main protagonist and the player follows his life from adolescence to adulthood. The first half of the game follows his life during his high school years, with the second half taking place after he graduates. In his final year, he meets five girls who he helps in various ways, one of whom he later marries and has a child with. While mainly focusing on romance, there are supernatural elements to this game. This is one of the most popular visual novels of all time and a great place for beginners to start.
For fans of science fiction, Steins;Gate is a great option. While the anime adaptation tends to be more popular, the original game is also widely regarded as one of the best. It is actually the second in the Science Adventures series of games and comes after the game Chaos;Head. Set during Summer 2010, the story follows a group of researchers working on time travel, with a focus on being able to change past actions.
The player views the events of the game as Okabe Rintaro, an eccentric "mad-scientist" who one day finds a girl lying in a pool of blood. He sends a text to his friend Daru, but as he does, people around him disappear with nobody else noticing the strange events. He later sees the supposedly dead girl alive and well, and it turns out the experiment he and his friends had been working on is a time machine able to send text messages into the past.
Another lighter title, MuvLuv is a romantic comedy that switches to a coming-of-age story, then changes into an alien invasion war game. The player character, Takeru Shirogane, randomly wakes up to a girl lying in his bed one morning. The girl ends up being from a rich, powerful family and has decided that Takeru will marry her. This upsets his friend and neighbor Sumika, and the two girls then begin vying for Takeru's love.
Not only are the two main girls competing for Takeru, but so are three other girls that the player can choose from. Once the first half of the game has been completed, Takeru will wake up and find his neighbor's house destroyed by a mecha and the world invaded by aliens. There is a sequel called MuvLuv Alternative that sends Takeru back to the beginning of the second half of the story to change the events that play out.
Another popular title thanks to its anime adaptation and many Let's Plays on Youtube, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a murder mystery set in a locked high school called Hope's Peak Academy where sixteen students are pitted against one another in order to survive. A black and white bear plush named Monokuma has trapped the students within the school and says they will not escape unless someone is killed, and eventually someone is.
Each chapter is broken up into Daily Life, Deadly Life and Class Trial. There are mechanics that help the player unravel the clues and eventually solve the mystery of Hope's Peak Academy and the fate of the world outside. Like Higurashi, there have been numerous sequels and spinoffs.