With many players enjoying Spooktober games for October, I thought it’d be great to take some time and look at the horror genre, in particular visual novel horror. It’s very clear that visual novels aren’t your standard type of game. Visual novels are text-heavy games with an emphasis on storytelling, sound, and visuals. After all, it’s in the name: visual novels. I want to talk a bit about how it shares some similarities with and how it differs from other mediums in the horror genre.
Similarities to Eastern Horror
For those familiar with Eastern horror movies, you might see where I’m going here. The difference between Eastern horror compared to Western horror is night and day. Eastern horror tends to focus more on subtle visuals and sound design. During quiet scenes, you may see a ghost in the background that will quickly disappear, or hear something scuttling across the floor. Meanwhile, Western films focus more on gore, jumpscares, and being loud.
While the West has memorable horror characters—such as Jason Voorhees, an unstoppable killing machine wielding a machete that’s covered in his victims’ blood—the East has something else entirely. The East has figures like Shizuko from popular franchise The Ring, a little ghost girl who crawls out of someone’s TV in order to kill them. In movies like Ju-On: The Grudge, you’ll hear noises coming from the attic and the ghost boy Toshio in the background, who the character doesn’t notice. In the next shot, he’s gone. Their scenes are also really quiet, which adds a sense of dread, because sure, quiet is fine, but there’s something about a place being too quiet that unsettles people.
This is something visual novels share with Eastern horror: a focus on atmosphere and tension. Now, that’s not to say visual novels and Eastern horror don’t have gory scenes, scary monsters, antagonists like Jason, or even jumpscares. I’ve recently played Cooking Companions by Deer Dream Studios, which contains a couple of jumpscares if the player looks hard enough for them. But when we forego the two jumpscares this game has, we’re left with a story that slowly builds up over time, which only makes the player more uneasy with someone whispering at the dead of night and scratching at the door.
Now, the two could share similarities because the visual novel medium originated from Japan, so that could influence some things. But I like to think it’s more than just that. As we’ve mentioned, visual novels need to have good writing. You simply can’t make a visual novel that’s scary and does not have a good story. If you don’t have a good story behind it, then everything else falls flat on its face. So developers are required to write a good horror story, one that builds tension and dread in a player. After all, most of the time, the player is going to be reading text. If done successfully, combined with the imagery and sound effects, you’ll have an effective horror visual novel.
Comparing to Horror Novels
When discussing this topic, my fellow VN Game Den writer Ashe gave some great insight into the topic and delved into horror novels and horror visual novels.
Although visual novels are text-heavy games, they’re also partially an audiovisual medium, setting them apart from books—though some people who aren’t familiar with the genre are inclined to call them “books.” Books, unless you’re listening to an audiobook, don’t have sound, and depending on the book you’re reading, may or may not have pictures.
To add to this, visual novels can utilize things that we commonly see in movies, television, and video games, such as creepy music, ambient sound effects, and jumpscares, just to name a few.
Books and visual novels utilize the same writing techniques to build an effective horror story, Yes, you can have scary visuals and spooky music, but if you don’t have a good, scary story to tell, all those elements are for naught.
Like many video games, visual novels share elements with other mediums. The storytelling from books; the oppressive, tense atmosphere from J-horror; sometimes even jumpscares that were made popular by Western media. However, despite this, visual novels are unique in combining all these different elements into a cohesive narrative that will run chills down your spine. If you have yet to play a horror visual novel, now’s the perfect time to do so.