Visual novels are a sub-genre of Japanese adventure games and are a form of interactive fiction. The genre is similar to a mix-media digital novel where the focus is mainly on reading text with their presentation usually being made up of character portraits on top of background images accompanied by music, sound effects and sometimes voice acting. Some titles have no gameplay whatsoever and are solely about reading a linear story but it is more common for visual novels to have branching narratives where the player can experience different routes in a story and obtain different endings by making dialogue choices, very similar to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. The genre has seen the most activity in Japan on open platforms like the PC but is also prevalent on home consoles and portable devices.
The gameplay structure of the modern visual novel genre was first introduced by Chunsoft's Sound Novel franchise, which began in 1992 with the Super Famicom release Otogirisou and gained mainstream popularity with 1994's Kamaitachi no Yoru . These games played almost exactly like visual novels, with their focus on reading and branching narratives, and inspired the creation of many imitators on consoles like the Super Famicom and PlayStation. However the word itself, "visual novel", was created a few years later when the genre moved to Japanese computers thanks to an adult video game developer named Leaf. Released in 1996 for the NEC PC-98, Shizuku was an erotic horror game marketed by Leaf as first volume in the Leaf Visual Novel Series, coining the word "visual novel" for the first time . Playing off Chunsoft's own brand name, Shizuku's creators classified their game as a "visual" novel rather than a "sound" novel, even though their title played almost the same, simply because Shizuku focused more on visuals . Shizuku, and the other Leaf Visual Novel titles released afterwards, used detailed character portraits with multiple expressions and fullscreen event illustrations to visually punctuate their narratives, a stark contrast to the minimalist graphical style of most sound novels which tended to focus more on audio presentation. Although Leaf's Visual Novel Series grew in popularly with their third entry in 1997, To Heart, the use of the term really began to grow when other companies began mimicking the storytelling style of Leaf's titles in the late 1990s and early aughts. This began in November of 1997 with the release of Tactics' MOON., which copied the format and presentation of Leaf's games, and when Type-Moon began classifying their own titles as visual novels with 2000's Tsukihime and Fate/stay night in 2004, further spreading the use of the name and popularity of the genre .
Western Use of the Term
While the term, visual novel, originated in Japan it is actually used far more often in the western gaming community than it is used in Japan itself. Many titles that are advertised as visual novels in the West are classified as ADVs or AVGs in Japan, which are different abbreviations for "adventure game". Because visual novels are thought of as a sub-genre of adventure games in Japan, many popular titles that western fans would call visual novels, such as Steins;Gate and Clannad, are advertised as adventure games in Japan itself . In a 2013 interview Kotaro Uchikoshi, the creator of the Zero Escape series, explain that:
"The visual novel term does not really represent the genre in Japan. This is accepted as the genre and regarded as the genre outside of Japan, overseas. In Japan people think about it as... We have the adventure game, we have the sound novel, and we have the bishoujo genre. But there is no visual novel per say. With me personally, when I made 999, and Virtue's Last Reward, these are not referred to as visual novels, they're referred to as actual adventure games. Whereas overseas they're refereed to as visual novels. But in Japan, we don't really make that distinction [between visual novels and adventure games]" .
In the West the definition of a visual novel can be vague with the term being used to classify a number of different kinds of Japanese games with their only commonalities being that they are heavy in story, have an "anime" art style and are mainly presented through character portraits and text boxes . Even Japanese titles that would be considered traditional command-based adventure games in Japan, games where the player has more direct control over their actions and involve puzzle/problem solving, are also classified by western fans as visual novels. These include adventure games such as the Ace Attorney series or even older titles that were released before the visual novel term was invented such as The Portopia Serial Murder Case. The reason for this may be due to the relatively small number of Japanese adventure games localized for western audiences  but there are also some western publishers and fans that think of the visual novel genre as its own medium. John Pickett, MangaGamer's Public Relations Director and Head Translator, explained in a 2011 interview that visual novels were their own medium that contained different genres within it, with the "novel" genre only being one of many . An early company that localized visual novels in North America, Hirameki International, also once explained on their website that a visual novel is any game that involves "reading, listening, watching and choosing" with the company classifying many of their titles as "Interactive Visual Novels" in spite of whatever they were called in Japan .
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.
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.
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. Choices in visual novels can often have 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 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 favor of providing a more detailed storytelling experience.
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.
Sources and External Links
- Soundscapes – Back to Basics with Visual Novels, - by Peter Hasselström (Nightmare Mode, 2012).
- Visual Novels: Unrecognized Narrative Art, - by Alex Mui (John Hopkins University, 2011).
- The Weird World of Japanese "Novel" Games - by Ray Barnholt (1UP, 2012).
- Peter Hasselström: Can AAA games learn something from visual novels? - by Aare (Visual Novel Aer, 2012).
- ビジュアルノベルはいつ成立し、そして現在に至るのか？ ストーリーゲーム研究家・福山幸司氏が解説する歴史 - by Koji Fukuyama (Game Business, 2019).
- Interview with Kotaro Uchikoshi, "The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Vol. 1" (Pages: 340-341).
- A Brief Introduction to Visual Novels by Matt Fitsko, "The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Vol. 1" (Pages: 314-316).
- Bungle Bungle - The official website of Tatsuya Takahashi and Tooru Minazuki, creators of the Leaf Visual Novel Series.
- Type-Moon Offical Homepage (2004) - Classifies Tsukihime and Fate/stay night as "visual novels" on their Product page.
- Steins;Gate Official Homepage (2009).
- Key's Official Product Page (2004).
- What is a Visual Novel?, Hirameki International Group Official Website (2007).
- ANNCast's Interview with John Pickett of MangaGamer (2011).