What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

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What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#1 Post by Kinjo » Thu Sep 24, 2015 12:39 am

This is a question I've been wondering for a while, although I would not be surprised if ultimately the answer might end up amounting to the Sorites Paradox.

What defines a visual novel? When is a visual novel with gameplay elements still a visual novel? If you take a standard Ren'Py default visual novel, that's definitely a 100% VN. But then you add some programming aspects, like maybe a points system, and then a battle system, and then RPG movement, and so on and so on.... Maybe you don't use 2D sprites; you use 3D models. Is a VN with voice-over narration any different from a subtitled movie? How different can you make a visual novel from the usual "default" VN and still consider it a visual novel?

The Wikipedia definition is extremely loose : "an interactive fiction game, featuring mostly static graphics, most often using anime-style art or occasionally live-action stills (and sometimes video footage). As the name might suggest, they resemble mixed-media novels." When creators start deviating from these norms, how can we still label it as a visual novel?

Some games are labeled as VN/RPG hybrids, or maybe dating simulators or just simulations or adventure games in general. But the exact criteria, to me, is extremely vague and open to interpretation, so what is stopping a game like Final Fantasy 6 from being a visual novel? It has a textbox, with an intricate story, a battle system, a map system, and so on -- but it's not a VN. If we took away those elements, eventually it could BECOME a VN, but at what point does that occur? I've usually considered VNs to be bare-bones games, but that seems like a bad definition (since the reverse is that, if you add enough content to a visual novel, it becomes something else entirely). But if we're looking for ways to simply enhance the telling of the story/narrative, wouldn't it make sense to keep adding new and interesting features? And if we do that enough, our game will stop being classified as a VN, which defeats the point.

What do you think?

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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#2 Post by Morhighan » Thu Sep 24, 2015 12:49 am

I've oft wondered this myself. I don't have any more questions to add to yours, but I'll think on some answers and see what I come up with.

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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#3 Post by trooper6 » Thu Sep 24, 2015 1:13 am

I am not particularly worried about those genre boundaries. I find genre boundaries are more ideological than they are factual--they are about in groups and exclusion. And I've not found myself overly worried about the ideological wars that are causing people to argue that Walking Dead is or is not a VN...or if not having anime art disqualifies a game from being a VN...or any other number of criteria that someone wants to use to exclude something from being in the cool club.

I will make the game with the features that fit the concept I have and I will use RenPy because I really like the engine. If some folks want to say that what I do isn't a VN because of whatever their criteria might be...it isn't going to effect me. I think the art should come before artificial boundaries.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#4 Post by Fox Lee » Thu Sep 24, 2015 3:33 am

I'm not too concerned about trying to nut out exactly what is or isn't a VN. All game genres are imprecise, and they're pretty much based on arbitrary qualities - some are about game mechanics, some are about art style or origin, some are about visual perspective/angle, some are about mood... some get stacked together, some are treated as if they're mutually exclusive, and none of them matters much except for giving a three-second summary of where it probably fits amongst other games.

For comparison, we could think about "RPG" for a bit. Literally it's a game where you play a role, but that's true of virtually any game where you control a character. Okay, so maybe cut it down to games where performing the character is central to the game? Still includes most modern games. Games where you're supposed to think about playing a character, as opposed to just having a personal avatar in game? That can't be right, tons of people play RPGs with an "avatar" rather than a "character", especially in MMORPGs. Okay, so maybe it's more about having numerical stats and character advancement. But can things like Zelda and GTA be called RPGs? What about ll those modern FPS games where you can raise stats? What about stat-raising VNs? And on the flip side, why should Mass Effect or Dragon Age stop being an RPG if you could skip the fighty action parts?

What I'm trying to say is, all game genres are "extremely vague and open to interpretation", because it's virtually impossible to define any genre cleanly, unless you go on to classify a huge majority of modern games as "hybrids". It's not as if they serve no purpose, but they should always be treated as a rough sketch of what you can expect from a game, not a detailed description or - god forbid - a set of rules for what can or can't be in a game. At best, they're useful as a tagging system, more than a filing system.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#5 Post by gekiganwing » Thu Sep 24, 2015 6:29 am

In my opinion, a visual novel is a story told through text and computer software. VNs never need to focus on characters' relationships, present day settings, or academic life. VNs do not need to include choices or multiple endings. Nor do they need to include character or background art -- see Digital: A Love Story. They are quite similar to gamebooks, which have historically been printed on paper.
trooper6 wrote:I am not particularly worried about those genre boundaries. I find genre boundaries are more ideological than they are factual--they are about in groups and exclusion.

And I've not found myself overly worried about the ideological wars that are causing people to argue that Walking Dead is or is not a VN...or if not having anime art disqualifies a game from being a VN...or any other number of criteria that someone wants to use to exclude something from being in the cool club.
A positive article that talks about fans' often ridiculous genre/category distinctions in fandom is Anime... or Not?!, which was written in 2011.

I try to remind myself that art aesthetics should not define a category or genre of fiction. Why? Because there was a time when my definition of comics was quite limited. I had looked at maybe two examples, and thought they were a region-specific format that were restricted to G-rated action hero stories. At the time, I did not know that comics could tell just about any kind of story, and that they were being made in many nations.

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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#6 Post by Rossfellow » Thu Sep 24, 2015 8:11 am

On one hand, I tend to agree that VNs deserve a category on its own, independent of games. Most of the time, it's just an E-book with sounds, music, and visual cues anyway. Choices and endings are just like choosing another chapter of the same story.

However, sometimes a game comes along that makes me glad that the line between VN and game is blurred. Being a game allows VNs to do some really cool things. Like Danganronpa, or Blazblue, or the Persona series.

Being a game or having elements of gameplay doesn't change the story being told. It just changes how that story is told.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#7 Post by truefaiterman » Thu Sep 24, 2015 2:10 pm

Every genre can be mixed, and the visual novel genre being mostly about narrative it's a convenient tool for a "secondary" element in your game (it looks fine, and it's waaaay cheaper than making cutscenes). I remember when, suddenly, every game had "RPG-elements" where they had Lara Croft pushing things so she could get stronger, or lots of level ups and skill trees on games like God of War.

In the same way, you can have any kind of game with "visual novel components" which are... basically the way to present the story and dialogues.

For example, BlazBlue or Persona 4 have a fighting game and a turn-based RPG as core mechanics, but their narrative relies on that visual novel element. In the opposite side, 999 is a visual novel at its core, with some puzzles here and there, and GunKatana (if you're going to google it, put your safe filter on: I found out about this game one day I entered the weird side of the Internet) is a visual novel with FPS levels thrown in.

So basically... VNs are a genre by itself, but they can be used as a non-defining part of a game just like any other genre.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#8 Post by Kinjo » Thu Sep 24, 2015 6:01 pm

trooper6 wrote:I will make the game with the features that fit the concept I have and I will use RenPy because I really like the engine. If some folks want to say that what I do isn't a VN because of whatever their criteria might be...it isn't going to effect me. I think the art should come before artificial boundaries.
Right, though for me it's the opposite. Using Unity allows me to do a lot of interesting things to enhance the telling of the narrative that can't be found in the typical RenPy game. I don't mind making a game that ends up being classified as not-a-VN, but since I've been calling it a VN all this time I'm wondering if or when I'd be crossing that line.
Fox Lee wrote:What I'm trying to say is, all game genres are "extremely vague and open to interpretation", because it's virtually impossible to define any genre cleanly, unless you go on to classify a huge majority of modern games as "hybrids". It's not as if they serve no purpose, but they should always be treated as a rough sketch of what you can expect from a game, not a detailed description or - god forbid - a set of rules for what can or can't be in a game. At best, they're useful as a tagging system, more than a filing system.
True, though ironically most VNs that I've seen here do little to actually branch out of the typical structure. There may be a few Phoenix Wright clones, but you won't find something like Dangan Ronpa made in RenPy. And even straight-up copying PW's setup isn't too original. When we're looking at other game genres, like you said, many times they do interweave various genres together so that you rarely see a pure RPG or pure platformer, but VNs (and/or EVNs) seem to mostly remain the same old, same old.
gekiganwing wrote:In my opinion, a visual novel is a story told through text and computer software. VNs never need to focus on characters' relationships, present day settings, or academic life. VNs do not need to include choices or multiple endings. Nor do they need to include character or background art -- see Digital: A Love Story. They are quite similar to gamebooks, which have historically been printed on paper.
Right. VNs are just computerized books, which allow for ways of interacting with the story, such as choices. That said, most video games could be rewritten as books instead (but with a single, linear story) -- I could easily see a Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy book series working out wonderfully. So the main difference would be that the VN is more "like a novel" than other games, which I can only guess means there is a larger emphasis on text and/or prose. But I still think that is debatable.
Rossfellow wrote: However, sometimes a game comes along that makes me glad that the line between VN and game is blurred. Being a game allows VNs to do some really cool things. Like Danganronpa, or Blazblue, or the Persona series. Being a game or having elements of gameplay doesn't change the story being told. It just changes how that story is told.
truefaiterman wrote:Every genre can be mixed, and the visual novel genre being mostly about narrative it's a convenient tool for a "secondary" element in your game (it looks fine, and it's waaaay cheaper than making cutscenes). I remember when, suddenly, every game had "RPG-elements" where they had Lara Croft pushing things so she could get stronger, or lots of level ups and skill trees on games like God of War.
These two go together well, and I hadn't really thought of it that way before. Speaking of hybrid games, it's not unusual for a non-VN game to use a VN-approach for their story (such as in Fire Emblem's cutscenes, or even Catherine's). So you have more or less a pool of game genres to take ideas from, then combine them together to make your own unique game, which could fall into any of these categories. So you could take a few VN elements and combine them with a few RPG elements, and there's your game. Or take some VN elements and combine them with RPG and platformer elements (Fairy Fencer F).

Though that still does leave the question, should I advertise this game as strictly visual novel, or does it focus on something else more heavily? Would you feel cheated if you bought or played a game that said it was a visual novel but only featured VN-like cutscenes and the rest of it was other kinds of gameplay? Or, alternatively (and more relevant to my interests) if I advertised it as a visual novel, and it effectively was just a visual novel, but all the sprites were say 3D models and we had voice acting for every line and brilliant 3D particle effects, that doesn't quite seem like a typical visual novel anymore, so would you feel cheated then?

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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#9 Post by Rossfellow » Thu Sep 24, 2015 6:37 pm

From my perspective, the moment a proclaimed "Visual Novel" adopts a gameplay type within itself (especially ones that are required to progress the story), it becomes mislabeled.

Example: Arksys' Tokyo Twilight: Ghost Hunters. This game was advertised as a visual novel, but off the bat the player is thrown into gimmicky RPG interactive elements without context or explanation. This tends to be jarring and frustrating. Even worse, you get thrown into a puzzle strategy battle system later on with barely a handle on what to do. This game expects me to solve puzzles to progress the game. That should make it a puzzle game, or an RPG, or an Adventure game, but not a VN.

The "VN" tag creates this expectation similar to buying a book or a movie. People who buy VNs expect an experience taken in by reading, watching, and listening to it. Choices are just "Jump to page X", revealing varying levels of content, usually which ending you get.

TL;DR, If your project has gameplay elements, it gets prioritized over the "VN" component. Advertise it as such.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#10 Post by trooper6 » Thu Sep 24, 2015 7:06 pm

Kinjo wrote: Though that still does leave the question, should I advertise this game as strictly visual novel, or does it focus on something else more heavily? Would you feel cheated if you bought or played a game that said it was a visual novel but only featured VN-like cutscenes and the rest of it was other kinds of gameplay? Or, alternatively (and more relevant to my interests) if I advertised it as a visual novel, and it effectively was just a visual novel, but all the sprites were say 3D models and we had voice acting for every line and brilliant 3D particle effects, that doesn't quite seem like a typical visual novel anymore, so would you feel cheated then?
Well I wouldn't be bothered...though some purists might be bothered...but purists get bothered by everything.

However, I think you might be thinking about your advertising in the wrong direction. What I mean to say is, some of the most successful EVNS I can think of tend avoid marketing themselves as visual novels at all--even if they fit very comfortably in the genre. Mainly, because I think the makers wanted markets beyond the fairly narrow VN purist market and might have wanted to avoid the stereotypes associated with the genre in Western minds. I mean I was playing a successful weekly VN on iOS for years, Cause of Death, that never mentioned the phrase visual novel. I could have easily been a huge fan of that game and never found my way to the VN community. I found my way here through Christine Love's work, specifically Digital: A Love Story...but when I found that game, it was in the context of it being marketed as an Art Game, not as a visual novel. I found my way here because some googling revealed to me that her art games were made with renpy...and I thought, I want some more games like those cool interactive fiction art games...and I bet I could make one myself!

I think if you self-identify your game as a VN, you should call your game a VN. Even is some VN purists get upset. But if your game might have any crossover appeal, you might want to consider marketing your game with other labels as well, not because VN people will be mad if you don't, but because you could possibly get a much bigger market if you do.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#11 Post by truefaiterman » Thu Sep 24, 2015 9:16 pm

Kinjo wrote: Though that still does leave the question, should I advertise this game as strictly visual novel, or does it focus on something else more heavily? Would you feel cheated if you bought or played a game that said it was a visual novel but only featured VN-like cutscenes and the rest of it was other kinds of gameplay? Or, alternatively (and more relevant to my interests) if I advertised it as a visual novel, and it effectively was just a visual novel, but all the sprites were say 3D models and we had voice acting for every line and brilliant 3D particle effects, that doesn't quite seem like a typical visual novel anymore, so would you feel cheated then?
I'd say, think about your core mechanic, and go for it.

-Phoenix Wright is an adventure game at it's core, with almost all of the gameplay being exploration, gathering and (sometimes) combining items and characters, and getting some hints through dialogue. Even the court parts are mostly dialogue puzzles with more combining items.

-999 is mostly about narration and dialogue, with only some relatively little puzzles added, which are mostly to create some tension and a context to expose more of the plot, and all of the important stuff is on VN "format" only, with no more interaction than your choices.

Those examples are succesful games which mix VN and Adventure Game, but they go on different ways to do it. If it IS so hybrid you can't really put one before the other, though... just market it as a mixture, or look for a way to mention one while enphasizing the other (For example, your VN-RPG hybrid can be an "RPG with a complex story and narrative-focus").
trooper6 wrote: I was playing a successful weekly VN on iOS for years, Cause of Death, that never mentioned the phrase visual novel. I could have easily been a huge fan of that game and found my way to the VN community. I found my way here through Christine Love's work, specifically Digital: A Love Story...but when I found that game, it was in the context of it being marketed as an Art Game, not as a visual novel. I found my way here because some googling revealed to me that her art games were made with renpy...and I thought, I want some more games like those cool interactive fiction art games...and I bet I could make one myself!
We may want to consider the context here: nowadays when I ask people if they know what's a visual novel, a surprising amount have played some of them (or they know them but gets the term weird like this guy who told me he wanted to try classic otome games like Tokimeki Memorial), but less than five years ago nobody had any idea about what the hell was that "graphic novel thingie? Aren't those comic books?" in the mainstream public (at least as far as my experience goes). Most of these kind of games were labeled more like adventure games (I daresay it was Hotel Dusk the first to coin the term "visual novel" for a big marketing campaign, or at least in Spanish it was... which is ironic since THAT game is purely adventure game, lol).
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#12 Post by trooper6 » Thu Sep 24, 2015 9:36 pm

truefaiterman wrote: Those examples are succesful games which mix VN and Adventure Game, but they go on different ways to do it. If it IS so hybrid you can't really put one before the other, though... just market it as a mixture, or look for a way to mention one while enphasizing the other (For example, your VN-RPG hybrid can be an "RPG with a complex story and narrative-focus").
I've seen many people, even on these boards, categorize VNs as a form of adventure game...so even making a distinction between visual novel and adventure game isn't always something everyone can agree on.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#13 Post by LVUER » Thu Sep 24, 2015 9:45 pm

For me, Visual Novel is a medium... it's not a games... it's a novel presented visually.

There are lots of games resembles visual novel... or visual novel with gameplay element... but those are games. For me, VN is VN, video game is a video game... they are just a different medium... just as novel, light novel, manga, anime... all are different mediums.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#14 Post by trooper6 » Thu Sep 24, 2015 10:00 pm

LVUER wrote:For me, Visual Novel is a medium... it's not a games... it's a novel presented visually.

There are lots of games resembles visual novel... or visual novel with gameplay element... but those are games. For me, VN is VN, video game is a video game... they are just a different medium... just as novel, light novel, manga, anime... all are different mediums.
Whereas I see Visual Novels as a form of Video Game, just as I see Interactive Fiction as being a form of video game. Maybe a KN is a novel presented visually...but I don't see a VN as a novel presented visually...novels are not interactive in the way that VNs are.
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Re: What defines a "visual novel" apart from other games?

#15 Post by Kailoto » Thu Sep 24, 2015 11:48 pm

Semantics are always tricky... it's important to remember that it's not just how you define things that matter, but also how an unnamed anonymous "majority" defines them. And I think that most people, when they see something labeled as a visual novel, will automatically think "lots of text, emphasis on story and narrative, and few mechanics outside of choices or stat raising, if at all."

Is that very specific? No. Does it have to be? I don't think so. The problem is, VNs are already very diverse, and they sort of blend into different genres; at what amount of stat management does a VN become something else? What if you have puzzle solving, or minigames? And what of games that have portions that a like visual novels, but other parts that are clearly in their own genre? There isn't really a hard and fast line dividing the two.
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