What are Visual Novels?

Julián Carrera 

November 2019

If one takes a market approach to the term, a visual novel is a video game. They are packaged as video games, they are sold in the same digital and retail stores as video games, they are advertised as video games, and they look like video games.

And yet, there is something odd about them: though they are video games, there is not a lot of “game” going on in them. Granted, “video game” itself is a blanket term for an abundance of different genres and different games played on computers, but even within that spectrum, the visual novel still sits at an odd place: the main allure of the visual novel is not to play it; rather, it is to read it.

A take on the visual novel,
from Doki Doki Literature Club!

Taken during gameplay on a PC.

So what are visual novels? Their lack of gameplay mechanics makes them hard to think of as games, but the addition of interactivity, visuals, and other form-specific tools make them not entirely fit literature, either. Looking through literary or game studies academia proves this, too: neither of these fields has done extensive work on the visual novel.

Another take on the visual novel, this time depicting the characteristic choice-making moment of the form, from Bury Me, My Love.

Taken during gameplay on a
Nintendo Switch.

To get some basics down: visual novels are a digital form, meaning they run on computers. Although many visual novels tend to add other forms of gameplay, the core gameplay mechanic is that of the choice-making moment: at certain times, the narrative flow will stop and options will appear, giving the player a choice to make, as whatever decision they take will alter the flow of the story. Onscreen, a common approach is to have a character in front of a background, with a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen showing narration, inner monologues, or dialogue pertaining to any of the characters on-screen. This approach is not the norm, however, as many visual novels take different approaches (like the screenshot from Bury Me, My Love above). The dialogue box, when it is used, can be a tension-building tool, given the fact that it mostly changes when clicked, and what limited text it shows allows for a form of enjambment where the player must click to progress. Like other video games, visual novels have save files where players can store their progress to resume at a later point or go back to in case they did not get the desired result from a choice; in a similar way, players/readers will often play through a story line then replay the visual novel from the beginning to make different decisions and get different results.

A choice-making moment in Oxenfree, a game that, although usually considered part of the adventure genre, shares the game mechanic of the choice-making moment.

Taken during gameplay on PC.

Even though visual novels are built around this specific choice-making moment, the form allows for variations of gameplay that either go beyond that or modify it in some way. The fluidity of the form, as it were, is a fluidity in categorisation. Video games are usually categorised in terms of genre, but the lines between genres are, at best, blurry. Visual novels themselves came into being out of the early form of the American text-based adventure game, yet they are not conceived of as adventure games.

A still from VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel that hides the choice-making moment behind a drink-making mechanic. Notice the anime aesthetic.

Taken during gameplay on a Nintendo Switch.

I have pointed out that the origin of the form is the American text-based adventure game. Visual novels, however, are mostly made in Japan. Their history evolves from American adventure games into Japanese adventure games (a genre heavily marked by puzzle-solving mechanics), passing through a style that used different manga-style frames and dropped the puzzle mechanics to focus on narrative, becoming what it is today.

This article is part of an ongoing series about video games and visual novels. For further reading on visual novels, read this article on Bury Me, My Love. To read up on larger theorising of video games as literary, you can read these articles about a retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s eyes in the game Elsinore and a general discussion of literariness in video games.

The previous articles talk about Doki Doki Literature Club! And Bury Me, My Love, yet there are two visual novels here without articles: Oxenfree and VA-11 Hall-A, which will be covered at length in future articles as an attempt to better understand, through examples, what a visual novel is.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.