Most visual novels have been released on personal computer platforms (such as the PC-98 or Windows PC), as they are generally easier and cheaper to develop for. However, many of the more popular visual novels have often been ported to console systems, such as the NES, SNES, Saturn, PS2, DS, and Xbox 360.
In Japan, it not uncommon for visual novels to be adapted into successful anime, manga, films, shows, or traditional novels. Popular examples of such adaptations include Chunsoft's "Sound Novel" series (including Otogiriso, Banshee's Last Cry, and 428: In a Blockaded Shibuya), YU-NO, Key's titles (including Kanon, Air, and paritcularly Clannad), Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, School Days, the Fate series, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and the Science Adventure series (including Chaos;Head and particularly Steins;Gate).
Visual novels are also known for featuring a wider variety of themes and content compared to other genres, ranging from genres such as drama and horror, to universal themes such as marriage and parenthood, to adult eroge content such as sex and nudity.
Visual novels are similar to "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, but take advantage of the digital medium to evolve the concept much further. Common features of visual novels include branching storylines, dialogue trees, multiple endings, cutscenes, artwork, voice acting, music, and sound effects. The gameplay in these titles often revolve almost entirely around the narrative, such as talking to characters and making dialogue choices or moral decisions, though it is not uncommon for some titles to feature puzzles or mini-games.
Considering the nature of visual novels, the gameplay is fairly limited as the focus is placed primarily on story, characters, art, and sound. Very often, visual novels give players a choice based on a selected number of actions such as whether or not to talk to certain characters, choosing dialogue responses, or deciding to move to another location. Choosing to go on specific story paths generally leads to different endings, another aspect that's very popular with visual novels.
Visual novels are also known for having very lengthy scripts, which are, on average, longer than even traditional novels, due to their non-linear, interactive nature (with the branching narratives and dialogue trees often requiring more text). When translated into English, the word count for visual novels are often in the hundreds of thousands, with some even exceeding a million words (such as the fan translations of YU-NO, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and Clannad, for example). Clannad and Fate/Stay Night have longer word counts than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example.
Because visual novels revolve almost entirely around storytelling and character interactions, this allows the narratives to be much more non-linear than is usually possible in other genres. In RPG's, for example, the choices made often have a limited impact on the overall main plot (due to the greater budgets and resources required to do so), whereas in visual novels, choices usually have a much bigger, more meaningful, impact on the plot, often leading to entirely different branches, which are often referred to as "routes" or "scenarios" within the genre. This is one of the key elements usually differentiating visual novels from Western point & click adventure games, where the plots are often more linear due to their greater emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving, elements that most visual novels either streamline or eschew in favour of providing a more ambitious, non-linear, interactive storytelling experience.
Non-linear branching storylines have become a defining feature of visual novels, which usually emphasize meaningful player choices that lead to multiple branching storylines and multiple endings. Decision points within a visual novel often present players with the option of altering the course of events during the game, leading to many different possible scenarios and outcomes. This multi-scenario branching narrative structure was largely popularized by Chunsoft's Otogiriso (1992) and Banshee's Last Cry (1994), though earlier visual novels since the 1980's had also experimented with non-linear storytelling, such as the Yuji Horii Mysteries series, Tokimeki High School (1986), and Mirrors (1990). Since then, the most ambitious attempts at interactive storytelling have often arose from the visual novel genre.
This branching narrative structure popularized by Chunsoft was further expanded by the late Hiroyuki Kanno's titles, Eve Burst Error (1995) and YU-NO (1996), where actions and dialogue choices can also lead to entirely new branching paths and endings. YU-NO in particular popularized a branching narrative structure where each path only reveals certain aspects of the overall storyline and it is only after uncovering all the possible different paths and outcomes through multiple playthroughs that everything comes together to form an overarching, coherent, well-written story. This branching narrative structure popularized by YU-NO has since been used in many subsequent visual novels, including Key's titles (such as Kanon, Air, Clannad, and Little Busters!) and Kotaro Uchikoshi's titles (such as the Infinity and Zero Escape series), as well as some adventure games (such as Shadow of Memories), action-adventures (such as Way of the Samurai), and RPGs (such as Drakengard and Radiant Historia).
ELF's most famous visual novel, YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world (1996), in addition to establishing the branching narrative structure used in many subsequent visual novels, featured a science fiction plot revolving around time travel and parallel universes. The player travels between parallel worlds using a Reflector device, which employs a limited number of stones to mark a certain position as a returning location, so that if the player decides to retrace steps, they can go to an alternate universe to the time they've used a Reflector stone. The game also implemented an original system called ADMS, or Automatic Diverge Mapping System, which displays a screen that the player can check at anytime to track the direction in which they are heading along the branching plot lines. Similar systems have later been employed in the 2010 role-playing games Radiant Historia and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together.
Another common feature used in visual novels is the dual-protagonist system, where a game has two protagonists giving different perspectives on the story. C's Ware's EVE Burst Error in 1995 introduced a unique twist to the system by allowing the player to switch between both protagonists at any time during the game, instead of finishing one protagonist's scenario before playing the other. EVE Burst Error often requires the player to have both protagonists co-operate with each other at various points during the game. Chunsoft's Sound Novels such as Machi (1998) and 428: In a Blockaded Shibuya (2008) develop this concept further, by allowing the player to alternate between the perspectives of several or more different characters, making choices with one character that have consequences for other characters. 428 in particular features up to 85 different possible endings.
However, while most visual novels typically have branching storylines and multiple endings, there are some that are more linear, with only a single story path and ending, such as Higurashi: When They Cry.
The Visual Novel style is also a popular means of expressing dialogue and communication in many Japanese video games outside of the genre, particularly Japanese RPG's. The traditional visual novel shares some fairly similar traits, among them being a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen, a display for the date and time, a background image, and a static image of the character the player is currently conversing with. In most cases, a soundtrack is included as well as fully voiced dialogue.
Other genres of video games tend to use the presentation of visual novels as a medium for conversation between characters. Notable examples include adventure games like Professor Layton and Ace Attorney, RPG's like the Persona series, and various tactical role-playing games. The codec conversations in the Metal Gear stealth games also presented similarly to a visual novel.
Visual novel style interactive storytelling mechanics have also found their way into some popular Western titles in recent years, including adventure games such as Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, and RPG's such as Alpha Protocol, The Witcher series, and BioWare's Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. However, due to the greater effort required by the higher-budget production values, the interactive storytelling in these games have only just begun scratching the surface of a visual novel style non-linear narrative structure.