There’s an array of visual novels that push the barriers of what’s considered a normal experience for the genre. These are a few that I think have unique, unconventional elements and are worth checking out.
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux (itch.io)
Ghost Switch is a wordless visual novel that follows an unlikely duo that swindles clients who call to have their homes exorcised. The swindling pair includes a con artist and a ghost, and just as their business endeavors seem to be going well, their next gig leaves them in over their heads.
The story itself is undoubtedly clever and creative. The irony of a ghost working with a con man to extract money from people had me instantly intrigued. What’s visually unique about this game is that the story is told through art and emojis. There isn’t any text or conventional dialogue, which makes the gameplay experience one-of-a-kind. Visual novels are typically story-heavy and therefore tend to be very text-based, but the use of emojis is an innovative concept for the genre and really proves that visual novels can and do evolve.
Meeting in the Flesh
Platforms: Windows, Mac (itch.io)
Meeting in the Flesh is a horror/romance visual novel where you date monsters. Vil is a resident of a strange city where they encounter three monstrous suitors: a bee shop owner, a salt scout, and the community overlook. This visual novel is a body horror game with a focus on romance and relationship development.
The most apparently unique aspect of this game is the character design of the suitors. Since this is a body horror game, the love interests have a monstrous look to them, which isn’t something the average romance player would expect. If you are looking for a game that breaches the conventional barriers of romance, Meeting in the Flesh is perfect for romance and horror fans with an appetite for unexpected surprises.
Recording the Predestined Time
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux (itch.io)
Recording the Predestined Time is a non-chronological science fiction/slice-of-life visual novel that follows a handful of townspeople as they await the predestined time. Each of these people has frustrations, worries, or curiosities. The story follows the protagonist as they record and witness the people who gather at the lonely wall.
The synopsis alone is cryptic and gives me a strong sense of intrigue. Upon starting the game, the first indicator that this game is unique is the soundtrack. The opening song has segments that play in reverse. This is very much a high-attention-to-detail sound novel. The sound effects and music work in tandem to extract an emotional response from the player. There are visual effects that appear across the UI which are perfectly timed with the music and narrative. All of these subtle obscurities come together and seem to be a play on the theme of the story: predestined time.
Emily is Away series
Emily is Away is an interactive visual novel released to Steam and itch.io in 2015 which features a chat-based experience. You can relive the early 2000s with an interface resembling AIM on Windows XP. The game follows the protagonist’s relationship with their high school classmate Emily.
This game is one of the first chat simulator visual novels, and currently has over 30,000 positive reviews on Steam. There are also two sequels, the first being Emily is Away Too, which uses the same gameplay concept but introduces brand new characters. Emily is Away <3 is the third edition, a more modern chat simulation resembling the early days of Facebook.
Heaven Will Be Mine
Heaven Will Be Mine is a queer mecha visual novel. Humanity has spent decades fighting a cosmic war against an intangible threat, but unfortunately the hope is dead. The story features three female mecha pilots who must decide if they will keep fighting or drop the heroism and kiss each other instead.
Rather than having the sprites constantly displayed on screen with a textbox, this game has a very unique UI design that blends the art and interface in a cohesive and appealing way. You progress through the game by reading through emails and chats, transitioning to a somewhat more conventional read-through and occasionally to novel mode, and also by selecting missions. It’s a very dynamic and ever-changing layout. The experience never feels static and it makes the story incredibly engaging.