What draws people to visual novels? — The appeal of a niche medium


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.

5 thoughts on “What draws people to visual novels? — The appeal of a niche medium

  1. Visual Novels combine the depth of Novels, the feeling of involvement of Video Games and the spark of life given to characters in Anime. I only discovered them last year but I would have to say they are already my favorite medium of entertainment (though I still love all the others too).
    I agree that their unique combination of features usually makes for a more immersive experience than other mediums, although I have to say that I prefer when protagonists have their own personality (I quite like the main character of Hoshizora no Memoria, which is what i’m currently reading).

    The feeling of connection to characters is one of the major features for me, although that feeling when you finish a Visual Novel and say goodbye to the characters you’ve grown attached to can be almost painful (which I call Post Plot Depression in one of my editorials).

    The different routes, while allowing some control over what’s occurring and most definitely adding to my enjoyment of most titles, aren’t one of the major draws of Visual Novels as a whole in my opinion. While I haven’t read many, the VNs that only have a single route are just as entertaining as those with many, and in some cases your enjoyment can be muted by having to read through routes you don’t like in order to unlock the hidden “True” route, though admittedly true routes are often the best endings of Visual Novels. Choices that change more than just who you end up with later on are my favorite, with Fate/Stay Night being an excellent example.

    I also agree with what you say about how VNs are seen by others. It’s unfortunate that H-scenes are so widely used to make VNs more appealing, because that’s the only thing that others pay attention to despite the vast majority of the story being of a far higher quality (and the sex being used to show the final stage of a relationship in many cases). Calling any plot-centric VN a porn game is like calling any movie with a sex scene a porno.

    • It’s just that I’m a complete sucker for differing routes. “What if” and alternate timeline scenarios really get me excited, hence why for me it’s an important part of the genre. Without spoiling anything, Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi made a great point about what it means to choose different outcomes in a VN, it’s one of the reasons I loved that game.

      And your “Post Plot Depression” is all too familiar to me. I’ve experienced it countless times. :p

  2. Thanks for the article!
    I, personally, can’t say I feel a huge amount of immersion in vns. That just isn’t a factor for me (that might be part of the reason why I can play Otoges and Bishoujoge at the same time). In fact, reading Grisaia has me out of the position of Yuuji and in the position of a random girl fawning over him. C’est la vie. However I do feel that finding out the protag’s thoughts is a precious thing. I think I may have wanted to punch Shirou a few times when I KNEW his thoughts. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if I didn’t.
    I feel like, like a movie, vns use a lot of media to gain atmosphere (music, sometimes voices and visuals) and then like a book write the thoughts and dialogue. I think it’s a great mix of the two. I know I’ve had experiences where I stopped the game but the game’s music or voices were still in my head. Hell, I listen to the G-Senjou no Maou soundtrack in my off time and it’s not only great music, it reminds me of specific scenes. (On the other hand, music CAN completely ruin the thing… I’ve had one where I’ve muted the music entirely and another where every time one specific track plays I sigh and skip a few lines).
    My favourite part by far is all the different endings, though. I enjoy comparing characters and actually my favourite comparison is the protagonist. How does the protagonist end up in this route compared to this route? Fate/Stay Night was wonderful for that, but you can also see it in games like Hakuouki, where it’s not really the main point. You can see different emphasis on different things between routes and that’s great. This time, the main villain in other routes may be sitting around, doing nothing (or inexplicably disappear!!!). This character may die and this one survives. With an intensive focus on the a specific character, too, you can end up caring about them fully such that learning their fate in another route is torturous. They’re able to elicit some much emotion partially because you already saw their side of the story.. It’s incredibly interesting and putting together every piece of the puzzle is fun – even if the ‘true’ route is twice as long as the others and you’re just not into that character, at the end you had a pleasant experience.
    Finally, the vns as porn games dilemma. I don’t really appreciate the thought of every vn being porn, especially since there are a lot that have no porn whatsoever (if we’re looking at otoges as well, anyway. The selection is more limited when it comes to male-targeted games). Plot games tend to force porn scenes in there anyway, and there’s a lot more to the games than that. A lot are genuinely well-written, and each element can come together and create something quite a bit more than just the porn (which I don’t care for anyway but that’s another topic for another day)

    • Oh, that’s surprising. I thought the immersion thing was something everyone had in one way or another. Although I can see your point. I wonder if my reading of Gahkthun would be different in any way if the POV character wasn’t Neon, but Tesla.

      I wanted to punch Shirou all day every day during Saber’s route. I secretly dream of a fanfiction where Shirou and Kageaki are locked into the same room for a couple of hours, and I just watch things unfold. :p And totally agreed on music, I do the same thing in fact! I really wanted to find a clip of Gleam Garden’s music back when I did my article on it, because it had some really, *really* good moments… And I listened to Muramasa’s “Uzuki” so much that I pretty much know the lyrics by heart.

      Btw, that’s a good way of explaining the charm of different routes. That’s exactly why I also find them really interesting, and why so often you can’t call a VN truly “finished” until you’ve read all the routes.

      • Well, I suppose I fall in love with the characters along with the main, and if a bad end comes I say ‘I got a Bad End’… I do try to choose according to my own thoughts, but more often than not that ends in a bad end because the protagonist isn’t acting in character, so… I did start with reading games with male protagonists and in fact have only read one commercial one with a female protagonist. Although, I suppose in hindsight, I have joked that characters ‘must not like me’ based on the choices I was making (Saito and Souji’s routes were complex for me to get into…). But at the end, the character and character development of the protagonist is the most important thing for me, rather than feeling like they’re an insert for me (which is why I want more CGs where you see the main character and for more main characters to be voiced! It wouldn’t break the experience at all if I saw Yuuji or Shirou…! It would definitely mess with Ever17, though.). I wouldn’t make a great protagonist, anyway. Leave it up to them.
        Close Your Eyes from G-Senjou nearly makes me bawl every time I listen to it. I was INTO that game by the end. But it also had cool arrangements of classical music where I was just like “Isn’t that Ode to Joy?!” partway through the game and I loved it.
        That would be interesting if they had Wine/Tea Time and discussed the finer points of being a hero. Actually, that would be really interesting. I only wanted to punch him a few times in Fate. I could kind of understand the feelings of wanting to keep someone out of danger no matter what, but..
        Yeah, although I guess it is possible in some to finish without every character’s ending. I don’t think going through every ending in G-Senjou no Maou is worth it, to be honest.

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