Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opinion!

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cesullivan
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Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opinion!

#1 Post by cesullivan » Wed Oct 02, 2013 8:00 pm

I'm in the Arts and Technology program at UT Dallas, more specifically, in the game design program. "What is a game?" is a question that comes up in almost every class I take in my program. And I'll tell you this now, most people in my program probably don't think that visual novels qualify as games (although I've only heard one professor say it explicitly).

So anyway, I need to make an argument on whether or not visual novels are games as part of a presentation for a grad class on Games in Gallery Spaces. What my argument is, I haven't completely decided. So, I'd really like to try to guage the opinion of the visual novel community itself, which, academics aside, I think should be taken into account...well, that's what I think, but I might just be a weirdo ;P

I'm not sure if there's already been a thread like this (oh, probably, but I couldn't find it), and anyway, there's specific feedback that I'd like to have.

Are visual novels games? Please answer with any one OR MORE of the following: Yes, No, and I Don't Care ("Yes and No" is a completely valid answer, as is "Yes and I Don't Care" or "No and I Don't Care" or "Yes and No and I Don't Care"). Then please explain your answer.

I have noticed that the Lemma Soft Forums' tagline does say "supporting the creators of visual novels and story-based games." So obviously, there's some distinction being made there. I have to say I'm not entirely sure exactly where you draw the line between visual novels and "story-based games", so if you'd like to take a crack at that one, please do.

Also, there's one other thing I'd like to ask. If you DON'T think visual novels are are games, do you still find yourself calling them "games" sometimes? And would you say "I'm playing a visual novel" or "I'm reading a visual novel?" (or something else, like "I'm interacting with this visual novel...").

(I also have a question I'd like to ask developers specifically, but I'll post it in an appropriate place later.)
EDIT, 10/9: Finally posted that here: http://lemmasoft.renai.us/forums/viewto ... =4&t=23530
Last edited by cesullivan on Wed Oct 09, 2013 3:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#2 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Wed Oct 02, 2013 8:21 pm

Well, for my stance:

Kinetic Novels are definitely not games. They are a static medium akin to comic books, wherein you just click instead of turning pages. There is no gameplay theory involved, no mechanics or rules.

MOST pure visual novels would not qualify as games. They are akin to Choose-Your-Adventure books, only with more pictures and a more robust system for handling choices. For something to be considered a game, it must have rules and mechanics of play where success is in some way tied to skills or luck. Unless the Visual Novel is trying to trick you or do its best to ensure you don't reach any story conclusion at all, it can't academically be called a game.

Even a linear based shooter game with cutscenes qualifies as a game in comparison, because you can fail those shooting segments and never get more story. In most Visual Novels, by contrast, it is impossible NOT to get more story or reach a conclusion as long as you keep clicking. With a purely storybased game, even a failure state that delivers more story has to be considered at least some measure of success for the audience.

Next you move up to the dating or life sims. This is the first level I'd consider a VN-type game to actually BE a game. The player is making meaningful choices in a system of rules and mechanics to try and achieve the result they want. If they don't plan accordingly or maximize numbers or skills within time limits, they don't get the results they want. There is an actual chance of failure if the player doesn't play correctly. The same can't be said for even branching Visual Novels - which often boil down to just picking the choice that favors the outcome you desire.

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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#3 Post by papillon » Wed Oct 02, 2013 8:36 pm

I think it's a spectrum, but that VNs in general fall close enough to games that it's valid to call them that.

The umbrella term used for things including the old Choose Your Own Adventure series is "gamebook", because they are not pure books, but games contained within books. That includes stories that are purely choice-driven as well as gamebooks that included out-of-text puzzles (riddles, logic puzzles, graphical puzzles) or even ones with small solo RPGs in them.

My usual distinction between a game and a toy, when it comes to interactive computer entertainment, is the presence of a loss condition. If you can't win and you can't lose, you can only make stuff happen, it's not a game. By that standard, a KN is obviously not a game. A visual novel which contains only one choice (like "which girl do you want to marry") and all the endings after it are happy? That's not a game, any more than running a random character generator is a game. Making the choices to have Black Hair and Blue Eyes and a wife named Sue is just playing around.

But when there are good endings and bad endings and best endings, when the outcomes are unclear, when you're having to think about it and take chances and try to achieve a goal? That's a game. Not necessarily a good game, but a game still.

(Three buttons to choose from, completely unlabeled, two of which say YOU LOSE if you choose them and one of which says YOU WIN? Game. Stupid game, but game.)

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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#4 Post by PyTom » Wed Oct 02, 2013 9:27 pm

cesullivan wrote:Are visual novels games? Please answer with any one OR MORE of the following: Yes, No, and I Don't Care ("Yes and No" is a completely valid answer, as is "Yes and I Don't Care" or "No and I Don't Care" or "Yes and No and I Don't Care"). Then please explain your answer.
Yes and No.

From a purely technical side, I treat Ren'Py as a game engine, and the various visual and kinetic novels as games - even if they're kinetic novels without any choice. It's the same way I think of the card game War as a game, even though there's no decisions and no choices to be made, simply because it shares a lot of materials and rules and so on with games like Poker. I also think that there's a reasonable overlap between the skills required to create visual novels and the skills required to make other games, to the point where it's reasonable to say that developing visual novels (including kinetic novels) is a branch of game development.

On a different level, I think it's tough to see kinetic novels as games, without any choices.

When it comes to visual novels with choices, I think many or all of them can be considered games. Certainly, if there are bad endings, then there's a game in avoiding the bad endings to get a good endings. Even if the visual novel only has good endings, there's something of a game there - many players will attempt to clear all the endings, and trying to get specific endings that you want (or just avoiding endings you've already seen) is a game in its own right.
I have noticed that the Lemma Soft Forums' tagline does say "supporting the creators of visual novels and story-based games." So obviously, there's some distinction being made there. I have to say I'm not entirely sure exactly where you draw the line between visual novels and "story-based games", so if you'd like to take a crack at that one, please do.
I don't quite know where the line is to be drawn - especially because there's a lot of things (for example, Analogue: A Hate Story) that other people consider to be visual novels, but I do not. To be fair, I use a very technical definition of what is a visual novel - the story can be represented as a Directed Acyclic Graph. I don't think that comports well with what other people think, but hey, thats why we have multiple people answering.
Also, there's one other thing I'd like to ask. If you DON'T think visual novels are are games, do you still find yourself calling them "games" sometimes? And would you say "I'm playing a visual novel" or "I'm reading a visual novel?" (or something else, like "I'm interacting with this visual novel...").
I informally refer to VNs as games all the time. I'll occasionally describe my hobby as "making tools that people use to make indie games", especially if I don't have time to explain what visual novels are. I'll almost always say "I'm playing gamename.", but there's some ambiguity in the word play - it works for movies, slideshows, games, music, etc.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#5 Post by Greeny » Wed Oct 02, 2013 10:33 pm

The way I see it, anything that has a "victory condition" can be considered a game.

So.... most visual novels don't really fall under that category.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#6 Post by PN04 » Thu Oct 03, 2013 12:01 am

Anything with interactive elements, such as a visual novel, might be considered a game assuming there are multiple outcomes (including a death or failure type ending) that can be obtained through interaction. If all you're doing is reading then it's just a novel. I find that some times people use the term Visual Novel when they actually mean kinetic novel, which i believe generally means it has no interaction, and this can confuse the issue for some.

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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#7 Post by PyTom » Thu Oct 03, 2013 12:04 am

Greeny wrote:
So.... most visual novels don't really fall under that category.
Don't most visual novels have some sort of victory condition? You save the world, wind up with the girl, achieve personal success, or something? I mean, if we can talk about good endings, then reaching one is a victory condition.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#8 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:08 am

PyTom wrote:
Greeny wrote:
So.... most visual novels don't really fall under that category.
Don't most visual novels have some sort of victory condition? You save the world, wind up with the girl, achieve personal success, or something? I mean, if we can talk about good endings, then reaching one is a victory condition.
I think the difference is whether or not that victory condition is inevitable. Many Visual Novels have you make a series of choices denoting preference, but it just determines which victory you get. Failure isn't an option. Even "Bad Endings" are often fleshed out, entertaining and rewarding chapters in their own right. You get a unique CG, etc. So, in the context of "victory" being getting a fulfilling story based on your choices, you can't lose.

Contrast that with a game like Mass Effect, which essentially does the same thing, EXCEPT you can fail the gameplay sections and never get more story. You can die and get a Game Over screen. You have to plan and manage equipment and study the game mechanics to continue.

Even the card game example you gave, "War", is a game because it has rules - yes, those rules rely on luck and the player has no input beyond shuffling the deck, but it still fits the dictionary definition of a game.

I have a test I like to do with Visual Novels (just to be mean, maybe, or for kicks). Is it possible to NOT end up with a girl / boy? If so, that at least implies, as Papillon stated, that the Visual Novel has a puzzle element to it. If you are forced to get an ending with someone, anyone, then you are really being funneled through a series of choice gates with no gameplay mechanic involved.

Now, I don't mean to imply Visual Novels that aren't games are bad, but I definitely prefer VNs with gameplay elements to those without. And as creators, I think it is very important to be aware of what you are creating, as it contributes to a better end product, which ever direction you go in.

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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#9 Post by feathersnake » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:16 am

I'm in the yes and no category as well.
This is probably a terrible answer, but I really just think it depends on what one person considers a game versus what another person considers a game.

I mean, I consider this a game. Yet you really have no options in that game. There are no victory conditions, no other endings, no winning, losing, or skill. But I still consider it a game. What it does have is mechanics that tell a story. So, I suppose that's a pretty heavy arguing point in comparison to Kinetic Novels.

So I think defining a game gets really difficult at some point.

I'm in agreement that Kinetic Novels are a lot harder to consider a game than a Visual Novel. Not to make assumptions, but what I've basically gathered after being around for a while and lurking even longer is that a Visual Novel has branching story points based on choices and a Kinetic Novel is completely linear. It is possible to give a Kinetic Novel mechanics though. In that case, it would end up much like the Loneliness game I linked to. Once a game has you do something with a mouse or keys other than clicking through dialogue like turning pages in a book, I really start to consider it a game. A small kind of game in a much different genre than your average video game, but a game nonetheless.

I also consider Next Door Taker a game, even though it's also not in the usual sense. If I had to give a reason why, I guess it would simply be because it branches into different endings. It doesn't really matter to me whether it has all good endings or all bad endings or a mix of both. If it branches to another ending due to a choice I made, it's a game to me.

Games are a unique media that give a player's input and interaction meaning or effect. It's something a novel or a movie can't do. If a novel or a movie did change depending on the reader/watcher's interaction, I would start considering the fact that I was pretty much playing a game.

So, yes and no. It depends on what kind of Visual Novel we're talking about and what the person being asked considers a game to be. Personally I end up calling most Visual Novels "games" without thinking when I talk about them. I do also consider Visual Novels a specific form of media apart from games as well. However, I could say the same about flash games vs. card games vs. video games and ect. I consider all of them as games, yet I also put them in their own general category.

I also have a tendency to call Kinetic Novels (even without mechanics) "games." But I think in their case, it's a little bit different. It isn't necessarily because they fall under my opinion of what a game is, but more because it feels like a game. Which is a little weird for me to stop and think about. It feels like a game because it's in a window in my computer with graphics (moving graphics and animation sometimes), click to continue text like a lot of story-based video games, sound and music that ties in with the Kinetic Novel and its story as a whole, and all manner of things that "feel" like a game. So that's another point of view on things I suppose.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#10 Post by trooper6 » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:26 am

Yes.

Of course, as an academic and a person, I am pretty inclusive of things rather than exclusive of things.

So are visual novels games, yes.
Why? Well, that is hard to answer...and the answer does not lie specifically in the details.

Some people say that games must have a win or lose condition...but improv games and make-believe games are games and there is no win/lose conditions. Heck, the way I run table-top RPGs isn't based around win/loss.

Some people say games must have conflict/fighting...but Myst didn't have fighting.

Some people say that games must have story...but Tetris doesn't have a story.

The world of games includes a wide, wide variety of things. Solitaire, marbles, jump rope games, board games, pick-up sticks, guessing games, clapping games, table tennis. In the realm of video games there is everything from Myst and Flower to Halo and Ninja Gaiden. There's Analogue and The Path. There's Mass Effect and the original Mario Brothers. There is Frogger. There are all those interactive fiction games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos. There is Minesweeper and Minecraft. And a million other sorts of games as well.

I am a semiotics person and don't follow the idea that meaning is in the thing itself--but believe meaning is in the production and reception--because things made by people are parts of a cultural conversation. If people understand something to be a game, then it is.

Video games and the meanings ascribed to them are still in flux. Some people say video games are art (I am one), and some think they aren't. Sine people think video games are sports, some don't. Some think they are games, some think they are toys, some think they are entertainment.

For me, they are games because they are interactive and art because they are creative expressions.

By the way, I didn't understand the phrase "visual novels and story-based games" to imply that visual novels are not games, but that this site is for visual novels (which are a specific type of story-based game), and for other sorts of story-based games that aren't visual novels but that can also be made using renpy (probably most specifically dating sims).
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#11 Post by Lishy » Thu Oct 03, 2013 3:09 am

I personally wouldn't call them games, but for the sake of categorization, they are made in the same way. A game genre which functions as a novel.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#12 Post by Ophelia » Thu Oct 03, 2013 11:15 am

Yes.

Not because I decided myself to think of them as games, but simply because I do. Playing a Visual Novel and reading story are completely different things for me and I approach them differently, too. I have no problem at all to read ebooks at the computer and did so a lot of times, but I'm usually hesitant to play a VN with a lot of words. Because they are games for and not books. Yes, they are mostly stories with pictures and music, but I still feel it's different. For example I expect to get a "reward" for playing it. The reward may be a CG, a satisfying ending or simply learning what the big mystery is about. When reading I don't expect a reward, I simply read. Sure, I expect to be entertained and to read a good written story, but I feel that this is something different than what I feel when playing VNs.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#13 Post by TrickWithAKnife » Thu Oct 03, 2013 12:06 pm

Yes and no.

Some VNs contain enough game elements to be considered games, but others do not.
There's no black or white answer to such a grey question.

Perhaps there is an even more important question: What do your professors want to hear?
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#14 Post by trooper6 » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:03 pm

TrickWithAKnife wrote: Perhaps there is an even more important question: What do your professors want to hear?
I think students have to be careful with that. There may be some professors who only want to hear what they want to hear, but I am not that professor and many of my colleagues don't want to hear that either. If I read a paper where the student is parroting back what I said with no critical thinking, or if the student just writes down what they think I want to hear...then that student is not going to get a good grade. Because that is not being a critical thinker and that is not doing the work that is the point of the class.
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Re: Is a visual novel a "game"? Grad student needs your opin

#15 Post by Tempus » Thu Oct 03, 2013 2:43 pm

I don't think the question is very meaningful. The problem isn't distinguishing games between non-games, so much as trying to distinguish one thing from another. It's a sorites paradox. For those unfamiliar it basically goes like this: you have a pile of sand -- millions of grains of it -- and proceed to remove one grain at a time. At what point does it stop being a pile? You can also do the reverse; start with no pile and add one grain at a time. It's a classification problem which appears in many fields (consider the distinction between certain animal groups in biology) and even concerns the fields themselves. You can progressively add elements to a program leading it to be an interactive program, a text adventure, a kinetic novel, a visual novel, and a game.

Now, this is not to say classification isn't useful. It's very useful for technical purposes even if it often causes disputes. Technically speaking, I consider visual novels -- even kinetic novels -- games. I've worked on a game prior to my own KN and the skills involved are more or less exactly the same. The result itself is also close enough to make the classification useful. Is it wholly accurate? Probably not. But it's better, in my opinion, than the alternative: making an entirely separate category called "visual novels" when they involve so many of the same skills and their final products resemble other games (or their elements can be easily mixed into "real" games and vice versa.) There's nothing about the inclusion of visual novels under the header "games" that prevents people doing mechanical analyses either.
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