Sitting down for a nice read: making time for visual novels

I, like many of you reading this, love visual novels. Over the years, they have provided some of the most memorable, inspiring, emotionally engaging moments in all my time spent pressing buttons on computers and consoles.

And yet, these days, I sometimes find it tough to convince myself to start on a new one and see it through to completion. There are a variety of reasons for this — and a variety of counter-arguments, too. So I thought I’d attempt to talk myself around to spending some more time with visual novels — and perhaps help out a few of you struggling with similar thoughts in the process.

Visual novel Olympia Soiree
Olympia Soirée

A matter of time

Visual novels vary enormously in length; some older titles are done and dusted within less than an hour, while many modern titles take upwards of 50 or more hours to read, especially if you want to see all the routes, all the endings, all the bonus content and anything else that might be included.

In many ways, the development of the visual novel medium has paralleled what paper books have done over the course of the last 20-30 years or so. When I think back to the paperback novels I enjoyed as a teen in the ’90s, they were a fraction of the size of today’s bestsellers; today’s books aren’t necessarily better, they’re just longer. And that means that they demand more of your time in total.

The same is true for visual novels. Today’s visual novels have a word count on par with equivalent books, and consequently that means they take at least as long to read through — perhaps even more so, since part of the visual novel medium’s core appeal is being able to hear music and voice acting, see animations and fully immerse yourself in the multimedia experience.

While you can romp through a paper book at your own pace under most circumstances, your average visual novel — one that is voiced, anyway — tends to have a sort of “optimal” pace at which to experience it. You’re free to ignore that pacing, turn off dialogue or simply skip through lines, of course, but there’s an argument to be made that you’re depriving yourself of part of the experience by doing that.

It’s understandable to feel a little discouraged when facing down a visual novel which is supposedly 50 or more hours long, just as it is when looking at an 800-page tome from whoever the latest hot author of the moment is. But here’s the thing to remember: there’s no rush.

Seriously, there is absolutely no rush whatsoever. No-one is speedrunning visual novels — or if they are, I doubt anyone cares. No-one minds if it takes you a long time to get through the complete experience of something like BUSTAFELLOWS or Olympia Soirée, because there’s no competitive element. It is entirely, completely about your own experience and appreciation. And thus you shouldn’t feel pressured to race through something just because you feel like you “should”; take your time and enjoy it. After all, in the best visual novels, you find yourself wanting to spend as much time as possible in the company of those characters anyway, right?


A bit at a time

As with any large task, it pays to take a hefty reading project and break it into smaller chunks; that immediately makes it less daunting.

In the case of visual novels, this is actually pretty easy to do, because most of them are split up into distinct, discrete scenes and chapters, meaning there are plenty of natural “break points” for you to stop, take a rest, maybe go and do something else for a bit or get some sleep.

Another way of looking at it is treating them like you would a favourite TV show or anime series. Set aside maybe 30-60 minutes at a time purely for enjoying the visual novel — read it with your lunch or something, or before bed — and do that regularly. Before long, you’ll have made it through more of the complete work than you might have realised.

And because most visual novels don’t require you to actively engage with “gameplay”, they’re ideal for exploring while you’re doing something else. Take ’em to the gym and make that boring exercise bike session a bit more spicy with the latest otome thriller. Keep one in your pocket while your car’s getting serviced so you can hang out with cute girls while sweaty men work on your car. Trigger an awkward conversation with HR by reading Euphoria on your lunch break at your workplace. (Maybe don’t do that last one.)

This brings up a useful and worthwhile point.

Visual novel Code: Realize
Code: Realize

In the palm of your hand

While visual novels are available on a variety of platforms, they’ve seen the most success on platforms such as PlayStation Vita and Nintendo Switch. The reason for this is simple and obvious: portability. Visual novels are among the most portable-friendly experiences in all of gaming, since they don’t require you to do anything complicated, they don’t require any kind of active engagement beyond reading and absorbing what the narrative is telling you and, as previously mentioned, their structure tends to be quite friendly to short or unpredictable opportunities to play.

So if you’re a visual novel fan and you haven’t yet picked up a Nintendo Switch… do so. You won’t regret it.

But what about PC visual novels? There are a lot of visual novels out there that only come out on PC — including, but not exclusively limited to, titles with 18+ content. How can those be made portable?

Well, there’s a few ways. You can play them on a laptop, though most laptops these days aren’t exactly easy to just whip out at a moment’s notice.

Alternatively, you could use some sort of desktop streaming service such as Chrome Remote Desktop or Steam Link to stream your PC games to a portable device such as a phone or tablet. This can be a good solution if, say, your PC is downstairs but you want to read in bed, but streaming over the Internet to a remote location can be sub-optimal due to variance in connection quality. Hell, even variance in Wi-Fi signal quality can spoil the experience somewhat; while many visual novels don’t have a lot of animation to clog up the bandwidth, it’s still distracting to hear music and voice acting chugging if your connection can’t quite keep up for whatever reason.

You could get some sort of Windows tablet computer, which is a reasonable solution, but often quite expensive — and typically geared to uses other than gaming.

Or you could take a look at the upcoming Steam Deck, which looks like it could potentially be the optimal solution, offering a Switch-style hybrid device that runs PC games natively and has the option of allowing you to play things handheld. Best of all, the fact that the Steam Deck is “unproven” is not really an issue, since it’s just a PC rather than a proprietary format; even if Valve only sells five of the damn things, you should still be able to play pretty much everything that works on a “normal” PC.

I’m planning on nabbing a Steam Deck almost exclusively to play PC-exclusive visual novels. Coupled with my Switch, I need never be without something to read.

Visual novel Aokana

Just do it

These days, it’s all too easy to find yourself in a state of “analysis paralysis” when you find yourself with free time — and it’s no wonder, given the constant pulling in all directions from social media, streaming services, gaming, mobile apps and all manner of other distractions, let alone the real three-dimensional people in your life.

Sometimes you just have to be decisive. Sometimes you just have to put your foot down and say “right, I’m going to read Code: Realize, and I don’t care how long it takes; Cardia is cute and I want to see her happy, dammit”. Sometimes you have to tell yourself that rather than spending your lunchtime watching YouTube videos you’ve seen multiple times already, you’re going to read something new, exciting, and stimulating. And sometimes you have to say “fuck off” to Twitter for distracting you from things in life that are actually fun and pleasant.

So, since I fully intend to practice what I preach here… right, I’m going to read Code: Realize, and I don’t care how long it takes; Cardia is cute and I want to see her happy, dammit. I’m going to spend my lunchtimes reading new chapters of Code: Realize, and say “fuck off” to Twitter at every opportunity; any time I feel myself tempted to “doomscroll” I am instead going to throw my phone through a window (or probably just to the other end of the sofa) and pick up my Switch instead.

Join me, why don’t you? I’ve got a lot of reading to do, and I’m sure you do, too!

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Pete Davison
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