In Reading Corner, Susan takes a look at some visual novel games, and takes you through the highlights and lowlights of this subgenre.

As an avid reader and gamer, visual novels hold a great appeal for me as they toe the line between books and video games. My introduction to visual novels came through games that crossed visual novels with puzzles, for example the Ace Attorney series, which led me on to other, similar games such as Ghost Trick, the Danganronpa series and even the Zero Escape games.

However, I started to understand that there are other, more ‘pure’ visual novel games that focus more strongly on the reading and use the medium as an interesting way of telling stories. I made it my mission to explore the visual novel genre further and one of my first ‘proper’ visual novel experiences was Clannad.

Clannad was released in Japan in 2004, but was translated and released worldwide only as recently as 2015. Key, the studio responsible, is a well-known and renowned visual novel studio, which means that Clannad was a good place to start as an introduction to the genre as a whole. Clannad is for all-ages, so there is no risk of coming across naked cat girls, the eroge genre something that is well known to anyone with even the briefest knowledge of ‘those wacky text games from Japan’.

The main character of Clannad is Tomoya Okazaki, a young man in his final year of high school. A bad relationship with his father and a resulting injury that wrecked his sports career have left Tomoya restless. When Clannad begins, he is simply existing, trudging through high school. Tomoya embraces his reputation as a delinquent who is frequently late for school and barely present within classes, but it is clear that this ‘I don’t give a fuck’ facade is his attempt to hide his own angry, upset and frustrated feelings. Tomoya feels like he is going nowhere, and tries to convince himself that he doesn’t care.

When Clannad begins, TOMOYA is simply existing, trudging through high school. it is clear that this ‘I don’t give a fuck’ facade is his attempt to hide his own angry, upset and frustrated feelings.

Clannad’s first story arc revolves around school life, with Tomoya going through his last weeks of high school, and finding and making unexpected connections and friendships with a cast of characters. There are at least five main storylines to follow which involve Tomoya getting to know and possibly falling in love with girls at the school, but it’s far too simple to pin Clannad down as a visual novel purely about romancing anime girls. There are other storylines that don’t feature a romancing element, and each character has their own carefully crafted story and ending. Your heart will break with each playthrough as you grow close to each character and explore who they are.

The main female characters include the athletic and dominant Kyou, or her shy, retiring twin sister Ryou. Explore the library to find Kotomi, a quiet and quirky intellectual hiding among the shelves; or stumble across Fuko in an empty classroom, a mysterious young girl who has an obsession with carving wooden starfish and frequently spaces out right in the middle of conversation. Or maybe you’ll come across Tomoyo, a tough girl with a troubled past who is trying her best to turn her reputation around and become a member of the school’s Student Council.

Each of these characters is wonderful in their own right but the star of Clannad is Nagisa. She missed a year of high school due to sickness and is trying her best to graduate and have all of the high school experiences that she didn’t get to have. She has supportive parents, who are hilarious but also incredibly dedicated to their daughter. With Tomoya’s help, she grows as the visual novel progresses and demonstrates inspiring levels of strength and determination.

When a character’s storyline is completed and their problems are resolved, Tomoya receives an orb of light. These are important for the After Story arc, which is considered to be the true story of Clannad. The After Story arc is a continuation of Nagisa’s story, and if Tomoya is successful in gathering all of the lights, you can unlock her true ending and it’s something that will melt even the iciest of hearts.

the After Story arc is considered to be the true story of Clannad, and the final, true ending will melt even the iciest of hearts.

I enjoyed Nagisa’s storyline and the After Story arc, but other standout stories were Kyou, Akio and Sunohara. Kyou’s storyline snapped my heart into multiple pieces even though the high school drama of a love triangle might be a bit too much for some.  Sunohara was a great look at a character who was often relegated as comic relief in the other storylines, and provided a good contrast to Tomoya’s own situation. Akio’s storyline was also a nice change of pace from the other romance-centred storylines, instead focusing on what it means to be a father.

As is the norm for visual novels, there is a lot of reading but the production values of Clannad are high, which makes the visual novel a pleasant experience. Text is clear, backgrounds are beautifully presented and the music, sounds and voice acting are excellent. This, along with the limited number of choices you can make to branch the storyline, makes it feel more like a well-crafted, semi-interactive manga.

Clannad is long, but its length justifies what may feel like a steep price for a book. In the end, even with skipping through text that I had already read, a standard mechanic in visual novels, I clocked up more than 40 hours of gameplay. That’s a lot of reading, but then again that’s a lot of story and a lot of characters. It sounds intimidating, but the time flew by because all of it was so absorbing, and completing one storyline only made me want to complete the rest. If you choose to do the same, make sure you keep a box of tissues handy because you will cry a lot. And you know what? That’s ok.

Clannad is available on Steam.