This idea has been in my head for a while now, but I never really got around to actually putting it into words. Until now, that is. So let’s speculate a bit about a very basic question: what is it that draws people to visual novels, as opposed to various other forms of media including anime, manga, light novels, and so on? What characteristics do VNs share with the above mentioned media, and which ones are unique to their genre only? I’m going to attempt to reflect a bit on that.
Visual novels are often described as “a book with static visuals and sound” and that’s not far from the truth. An adult-oriented picture book, if you will. Of course, that’s just the surface, and in reality, there’s a bit more to it, at least in the case of non-linear VNs, but we’ll come to that later.
Let’s start from the basics, though. First off: visuals. While there is no or only little animation, the artwork of many visual novels is one of their strong points. Detailed backdrops and carefully drawn character models can truly enhance that feeling of “being a part of the story” that many VNs elicit from readers. A VN is most often presented from a first-person perspective, with the reader seeing everything through the eyes of the protagonist. This, in my experience, is one of those aspects that really set the genre apart from anime or manga, where the reader/viewer is merely an outside observer, an onlooker of sorts. You could probably relate this to games like Skyrim, often praised for giving players a level of immersion where they feel they really are part of the game world, and can easily project themselves onto their respective protagonists.
Even if interaction in a VN is limited to a couple of dialogue choices, and the protagonist isn’t *actually* controlled by the player (his/her speech and conduct is mostly pre-determined by the scenario writers), in most of my favorite VNs, I managed to identify with, or at least feel empathy towards the given protagonist, immersing myself in the fictional world.
Of course, visuals alone can’t quite achieve this, which takes us to another tremendously important aspect of the visual novel: its script. One huge advantage of VNs is that they contain text – lots of text. The anime-VN comparison here would no doubt resemble the usual book vs. movie adaptation dilemma. Since, at its core, VNs are just very elaborate and fancy-looking books, it is only natural that they’d give their readers a great amount of dialogue and narration. Internal monologues and thought chains are hardly uncommon, potentially giving the reader a far deeper look into the characters’ feelings when compared to a more traditional anime series relying mostly on spoken dialogue. You discover not only what these characters do, but also gain a detailed explanation as to why they act the way they do. While a movie would enact a tragic backstory, a VN, like a novel when compared to a movie adaptation, might choose to go beyond that and describe in detail the internal struggle that went on inside the character during said events.
As a side note, anime can have internal monologues as well, but they aren’t especially common in the grand scheme of things. I feel that VNs are by far the most “personal” out of all the genres mentioned above, and I suspect that more often than not this can be connected to the the writing, and in particular the first-person, protagonist-centered and often introspective narrative technique. Simply put, when a VN’s writing is done well, it’s usually far easier to feel connected to its characters.
Another “feature” appearing in the vast majority of visual novels is the presence of various routes. This has to be one of the strongest assets of the genre, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do this article in the first place. Naturally, I don’t merely mean the possibility to pick different heroines. In more serious VNs, a different route generally means a different storyline, or a completely different take on the same thing. The more differing these are, the better; it shows just how vastly different possibilities can be present within the same universe. A writer’s hand is not tied to just one finale – instead, a large array of possibilities can be explored, further enriching the setting and the characters. People often wonder how much their lives would have changed, had they taken a certain different path in life – VNs exploit that very fantasy, potentially taking it to its utmost limits.
Two characters that fall in love in one route might end up as bitter enemies in another timeline; one earth-shattering moment in the game’s chronology might not end up happening at all due to minor alterations in the prior actions of some characters; the list could go on. Not only do the different routes, when executed properly, take the story to its full potential, they also bring to the forefront different aspects of the very same characters when they’re thrown into different scenarios. For many, this is one of the most exciting aspects of reading visual novels.
On that note, I find it unfortunate that in the eyes of the mainstream, such qualities are often overlooked, and visual novels are only being mentioned for their sexual content. It is thought by many that visual novels are mere porn games, their content limited to light-hearted school life/dating simulations, with the main focus of the game being the ability to “conquer’ a variety of heroines. Of course, such VNs exist, and sadly they tend to far overshadow novels that do tell meaningful tales with adult content that is minimal at best. I’m aware of specifically porn-centric games, aka nukige, but they shouldn’t be the titles that define the genre. One could write a separate article about whether or not porn scenes are a necessary part of visual novels, and you’d most likely hear very mixed opinions. Indeed, some of them can be completely superfluous, while others can be tastefully written, focusing not necessarily on the actual act, but rather the deepening of two characters’ relationship.
I’m sure more could be said on the subject, but let that be all for now. If you have any comments on this, or if you want to add your own thoughts on what the greatest appeal of the visual novel is, you are more than welcome to do so in the comments section below.