A few years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to find more than one or two games on Steam catergorised under the ‘visual novel’ format. In recent years however, their popularity has been growing; now there are a number of visual novels that are considered mainstream. In spite of that, visual novels are largely dismissed by some members of the gaming community as not being ‘real’ games and having little value as games.
Before we can discuss visual novels and why dismissing them is wrong, we need to answer one question: are visual novels really games? This question is one which has infuriated several people and has been a source of heated debate. To get a clear answer to this question, it’ll help to introduce some game designer lingo we can play around with.
To describe video games from a more academic perspective, there are two different terms that are used, narratology and ludology. The narratology approach states that games are fundamentally another medium of narrative and storytelling, in a similar fashion to novels and films, and should therefore be approached in such a fashion. The ludology approach, however, states that games are fundamentally interactive systems and any story they’re trying to tell is of secondary importance to the gameplay itself.
From these definitions, it is obvious to see visual novels fall into the narratological approach to video games. They are, at the end of day, novels with art, music, and a text heavy narrative. Any mini-games or gameplay aspects they have usually serve to add to the plot as opposed to standing alongside it. However, some visual novels have a more ludological approach as well.
There are some visual novels which have more classic video game elements such as those of RPG games. You get to control the characters in the story and can get involved in sequnces requiring fine hand-eye coordination. At the end of the day, however, while visual novels should technically be considered games, there will always be people who will argue against this and pick something like Call of Duty over Phoenix Wright.
“As the market and popularity of these games grew, so did their variety and accessibility”
One could ask how visual novels became so popular in the first place. When they started out, they were a bit more niche; they were predominantly popular in Japan and mostly consisted of ‘dating simulators’. People made their own translations and imported them online where the demand for these types of games grew from other players around the world. The developers then made more versions of these games, translated and dubbed, to help cater to this niche market. As the market and popularity of these games grew, so did their variety and accessibility.
They grew to encompass more than just dating simulators and began overlapping with quite a few genres. It’s gotten to the point where even western developers are also joining the market and making their own visual novels. Telltale Games are an especially popular studio, having produced several critically acclaimed series like The Walking Dead. Even some indie studios are getting in on the action with recent hits like Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator and Doki Doki Literature Club.
A large reason for their popularity boom and success is the fact that visual novels are very flexible. While they are a genre in and of themselves, they can also overlap with other types of games with regards to story or gameplay. Cross-genre visual novels contain other aspects of games such as dramatic survival horror with The Walking Dead and puzzle solving with Professor Layton. These types of visual novels are usually more appealing to the casual audience and are the ones that, at the end of the day, are the most mainstream. In fact, these particular games are more than just interactive novels with pretty pictures and nice music: they are damn awesome games in their own right.
“Cross-genre visual novels contain other aspects of games”
What’s the real selling point of visual novels? As the name might imply, they are just very good at telling stories. In fact, you could consider them the middle ground between reading a book or watching a movie and using VR or roleplaying to experience a story yourself. Visual novels can act as ‘choose’ your own adventure games, where you control the characters and can choose which direction you want the story to go. Granted, this is arguably limited, as for all intents and purposes, you can only really stick to the the story and direction specified by the developers (something players of Telltale games are often frustrated by). But in their defence, programming stories which can take multiple directions and endings are a lot of work and are usually left for games which are also heavy on gameplay and length to really get a fulfilling experience. Having said that, the choices you make in most visual novels feel impactful in the moment and if nothing else, get the player personally invested at that time. At the end of the day, you can always get emotionally invested in the story and cry your eyes out at select moments.
Ultimately, visual novels are a genre unlike any other in that they are focused on storytelling but with a different presentation and interaction than what you’d get from a book or film. Just make sure you can tolerate reading: if not, you might as well stick to shooting down enemy soldiers.