I can barely believe it, but in less than two weeks from now, the 2010s will be over! A while ago I saw some posts going around twitter in which people picked one favourite movie or video game for each year of the decade, and I thought it would be fun to try to do the same with visual novels, and to include short reviews of the ones I chose. It was pretty hard to narrow it down, but I eventually managed, and the list of ten of my favourite visual novels from the past ten years is below!
In the case of Japanese visual novels, I’ve included them in the years of their first English translations (whether fan translated or official), as that’s the effective release date for primarily English-speaking readers like me. I also want to emphasize that this is just a list of my own personal favourites, and by no means an attempt at listing any kind of objective best of the decade—not only do I feel very strongly about the subjectivity of art, but I’m also certain that there are some great VNs from the 2010s that I haven’t read yet and that might surpass some of these for favourites of their release years in the future. If you think I missed anything big, let me know and I’ll add to my list of stuff to read soon!
2010: Digital: A Love Story
So I’m kind of stretching the definition of visual novel already in the very first entry of the list—but since Digital is a story-based game in a loosely-defined series that also includes some more typical VNs, I think it’s close enough. Christine Love’s works were some of the first visual novels I read way back closer to the beginning of this decade, and they’ve consistently remained among my personal favourites, as well as having a big influence on my own writing. Digital in particular uses an interface that imitates the early days of the internet to tell an intriguing mystery and explore the ways people can form emotional connections online, and its spiritual successors Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus are also well-written, immersive tales that were only narrowly edged out by other greats of their release years. And if you missed reading Digital this decade, it’s completely free, so check it out now!
999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
2011: Hatoful Boyfriend
I don’t think any conversation about the visual novels of the 2010s would be complete without considering Hatoful Boyfriend. I credit this game with kicking off the still-ongoing trend of otome games featuring a lineup of love interests who all fit a certain theme or gimmick; I bet you could probably search any crowdfunding site for “otome” at any time and see a bit of its influence in the search results. But I don’t know if any of its imitators have managed to fully capture what makes Hatoful Boyfriend so great. It’s not just a comedy game about dating birds, but also an all-around supremely weird and wonderful work of fiction that gets more tragic, disturbing, and heartfelt the longer you read. It’s a unique experience that I would recommend to any visual novel fan. And there’s also a lovely fandisc called Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star that it’s the perfect time of year to read right now!
Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story
Magical Diary: Horse Hall
2012: Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
I enjoyed the whole Zero Escape trilogy, but Virtue’s Last Reward is my personal favourite installment. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of stories in which evil masterminds trap a bunch of strangers in bizarre situations that encourage them to murder each other, and the Zero Escape series brings that concept to another level with its consistently engaging puzzles and insane sci-fi twists. One of the main reasons that I especially love VLR is that it features the totally badass Phi, whose introductory scene involving a monologue about all the kinds of men she’s not is one I’ll never forget. If you’re looking for a great story that also has some challenging gameplay, you can’t go wrong with Zero Escape. (Well, the first two anyway. I had fun with the third one too, but my feelings are a bit more . . . complex.)
Analogue: A Hate Story
2013: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
And speaking of evil masterminds making people kill each other, the Danganronpa series is another absolute classic that I would be remiss to leave out of a decade retrospective. I personally love every part of Danganronpa, but in this article I particularly want to highlight the one that started it all. Not only does it have a memorable cast of characters and some fantastic gameplay in the class trial segments, but it also has some of the best pacing I’ve ever experienced in a visual novel. The way that each chapter is split up into the daily life, investigation, and trial segments worked perfectly for me; I never got tired of playing it, and always wanted to just keep going a little longer to see how the next bit started. Danganronpa is a game you should make sure you set aside a lot of free time to play, because you’re guaranteed to get completely sucked in and wonder where your whole day went.
Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies
The Fruit of Grisaia
If you recognize my nom de plume, you’ll probably have already guessed that no list of my favourite VNs would be complete without Steins;Gate! (Fun fact: I actually came up with the phrase “part-time storier” as a play on “part-time warrior” first, and only later on doubled down on the theming and also adopted the name Jane Titor.) I’ve always been a big fan of time travel stories, and this tale of a group of nerds who accidentally microwave their way into being targeted by a conspiracy is one of the best. It’s an absolute joy to read, and it’s chock full of quotable lines that I’m sure I’ll still be occasionally yelling at my friends well throughout the next decade. El Psy Kongroo!
Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
Dejection: An Ode
It was the release of Asphyxia in 2015 that introduced me to the works of ebi-hime, and she’s been one of my absolute favourite visual novel creators ever since. She’s a very prolific writer, with twenty-two visual novels released over the past six years on her itch.io page at the time of this post, all of which I would heartily recommend. In fact, I’m sure that most of those other works would appeal more to your average reader than Asphyxia, with its odd concept of gender-swapped Romantic poets transposed into a modern-day high school moping around on a school trip—but I was a depressed English major in 2015, so I was exactly Asphyxia’s niche audience. Its dramatic and angsty characters really spoke to me at the time, and its artist, Sillyselly, uses a unique style that looks like equal parts watercolour and anime to create some memorably beautiful images. It’s a story that means a lot to me, and I’m very grateful to ebi-hime for writing it, alongside so many other great VNs.
Cute Demon Crashers!
2016: The House in Fata Morgana
When I was looking through the release years of visual novels I like in order to make my selections for this post, 2016 came up more often than anything else. If I were to make a separate list of something like my top 25 favourite VNs ever, releases from 2016 would absolutely dominate—I’ve included a few extra honourable mentions for this year because of how hard it was to narrow it down. But despite how much I love all of those stories listed below, there’s one that was always undoubtedly going to come out on top: my favourite visual novel of all time, The House in Fata Morgana. The moving and memorable experience I had reading this VN was actually what initially inspired me to create this blog—although I did so with such a messy, rambling post that I’m embarrassed to link to it now. My writing has improved a lot since then, but my feelings haven’t changed; this dark and tragic, yet ultimately uplifting tale that spans several eras of love and loss in one mysterious mansion is one of the best visual novels you’ll ever read.
Extra Honourable Mentions:
Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice
Her Tears Were My Light
Kindred Spirits on the Roof
Ladykiller in a Bind
Once on a Windswept Night
Root Double -Before Crime * After Days-
2017: Fashioning Little Miss Lonesome
I remember being excited for the translation of Fashioning Little Miss Lonesome when I first heard about it just on the principle that it was an 18+ otome game, and there are way too few of those in comparison to the endless catalogue of 18+ VNs aimed at straight men. But the adult content element is far from the only thing FLML has to offer—it’s also an all-around adorable and hilarious story whose protagonist is deeply relatable in her incurable awkwardness and her unwavering determination to avoid her love interests’ attempts to turn her into the perfect fashion model. I especially want to give credit to translator Verdelish for making the English version as delightful to read as it is. She’s also on staff for the upcoming localization of another VN from the same developers called Fxxx Me Royally!, and it’s absolutely going to be a day one purchase for me.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
2018: Lake of Voices
2018 was another great year for VN releases, but Lake of Voices is the one that stands out most in my memory because of its uniquely chilling concept, with its protagonists attempting to cross a vast lake on a maze of bridges while avoiding the creatures lurking below. The art in particular is a big part of what made it so memorable for me—especially the image of the lake’s mysterious Guide standing on the bridge, with his lantern barely illuminating the twisting path ahead. And this is another one that’s completely free, so check it out if you’d like something scary to fill the cold winter nights.
428 Shibuya Scramble
Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation
Heaven Will Be Mine
2019: Heart of the Woods
I reviewed the first chapter of Heart of the Woods, prior to its full release, almost a year ago, highlighting some of the details that brought its opening scenes to life and expressing my excitement to find out what would happen next. The complete story actually turned out quite a bit differently than I was expecting, with a lot of the horror elements that intrigued me becoming secondary to a tale more focused on supernatural romance and mystery—but I had a great time reading it either way. There’s a lot of great production value in Heart of the Woods, from its variety of adorable CG images to its lengthy original soundtrack, and it’s great to see a game development company that can afford those kinds of resources dedicating them to stories about LGBTQ+ women. I can’t wait to see what Studio Élan comes up with in the 2020s.
Looking back on this past decade, I’m really glad that I got into reading visual novels when I did. Each year has only brought more excellent stories from a widening variety of developers, and I’m happy to be a part of it all. Is there something you can’t believe I left out of the list? What are your favourite visual novels of the 2010s? Let me know in the comments or on twitter, and have a happy new year!