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A Working Definition of the Visual Novel (v1)


Darbury

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A couple blog posts back, I argued that the story exploration game Gone Home can be considered a visual novel. After some great discussion there, it seemed only logical to tackle the much bigger question: “What is a visual novel?

Which is why I’m not going to. That’s a spike-filled, snake-infested pit of a question if I ever saw one — and I already had spikes and snakes for breakfast. Instead, we’re going to attempt to answer a more nuanced question: “What are the minimum requirements something must meet in order to be usefully discussed as a visual novel?”

That’s a slightly different but way more useful angle. Just about anything can be used as a chair, but not everything is a “chair.” As a society, we’ve agreed on a certain set of characteristics that chairs share in common. This lets us discuss chairs with one another and be pretty sure we won't be given a pineapple to sit on.

We’ll do the same here. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll shorthand that question back down to “What’s a visual novel?” It’ll be our little secret.

The VNDB standard

The most obvious place to start looking for answers would be The Visual Novel Database (VNDB), home to info on more than 18,000 VNs. Here’s their answer, found in the VNDB FAQ:

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A visual novel can be seen as a combination of a novel and a computer game: they're computer games with a large text based storyline and only little interaction of the player. A typical visual novel consists of text over an anime-style background image and is accompanied by background music. Throughout the game, the player usually has to answer a few questions which will have an effect on the story, thus playing a visual novel a second time while giving other answers may result in an entirely different plot.

As a working definition, this leaves a lot to be desired. There are an awful lot of cans, mays, typicals, and usuallys. Worse yet, you could easily dream up a VN that meets almost none of the assumptions laid out here — perhaps an extremely short text-based story in which the words run around the outside of a woodcut illustration. There’s absolutely no background music and the player answers no questions, which results in the same plot every time she plays.

A somewhat more satisfying answer can be found in VNDB’s list of requirements that titles must meet before being added to their database. For something to qualify as a visual novel:

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Choices are the only allowed (but optional) form of interactivity. There are no other gameplay elements (including stats-based gameplay in dating/raising sims). Mini-games and simple mechanics, such as map-movenent [sic], are only allowed when they play a very minimal role – at least 99% of the title should be made of pure reading.

The story is told employing one of the known Visual Novel presentation methods such as ADV, NVL and their variations.

Better, but still somewhat problematic. For one thing, it conflates the commonly accepted with the essential. What if someone wants to present a story in a manner other than ADV (text in box below image) or NVL (text overlaying image)? What if they thought of a more innovative configuration of text + art? Tough luck, Billy; go suck eggs in the corner. (They don't seem to strictly enforce this, by the way. Digital: A Love Story is on VNDB, even though it eschews both ADV and NVL for a diegetic presentation.) Moreover, these guidelines can’t seem to decide if no gameplay is allowed at all, as the first two sentences suggest, or if up to 1% simple gameplay is okay.

A title can also be added to the database if it’s a “visual novel/game” hybrid that meets the following requirements:

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The game consistently uses the novel narrative for telling its story. Examples include describing visuals, events, character actions or thoughts. This point is ESSENTIAL - dialogues, no matter how extensive, are a characteristic of such game genres as RPGs, adventure games, dating simulations, etc., NOT of visual novels.

The story is told employing one of the known Visual Novel presentation methods such as ADV, NVL and their variations, consistently and for a significant length - at least 50% of the game should be made of pure, VN-style reading.

Again, problematic. The ADV/NVL issue is still there, of course, but now a new wrinkle’s been added: the privileging of narrative over dialogue. The assumption here is that a novel can’t consist entirely (or almost entirely) of dialogue, so a title that doesn’t “consistently” rely upon a formal narrator doesn’t qualify. In truth, there are any number of novels that take this form — The Awkward Age by Henry James, for one. Besides, if Key suddenly dropped a 50-hour all-dialogue school drama that looked and played exactly like Clannad, do you doubt for a second that we'd all consider it a VN? Or that FuwaReviews would give it one star?

But I don’t blame VNDB. They’re not looking to define the visual novel. They’re just trying to set up some semi-reasonable guidelines to help streamline their submission process. Without this, every staffer there would probably be eating gun-barrel sandwiches for lunch.

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Fine. Let’s build something better.

I’ve sketched out the beginnings of a more general-purpose test for discussing something as a visual novel. I don’t consider this to be at all authoritative, and in fact, I invite you to critique it and build upon it in the comments below. It’s a starting point, nothing more.

A 7-point test for visual novels

1. It must be “read” on a digital device that outputs to a screen.
Fairly self-explanatory. Computers, consoles, handhelds, phones, e-readers — hell, even a smart watch would qualify. A printed VN would be considered a graphic novel (or a choose-your-own-adventure book). An audio file of a VN would be an audiobook.

2. It must convey a recognizable narrative.
Again, fairly self-explanatory. A VN must be a spoken or written account of connected events. In other words, it needs to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. The entirety of the Detroit phone book displayed in Ren’py is not a VN, even if it’s accompanied by a whole chorus line of catgirls.

3. It must use on-screen text as the primary avenue for conveying that narrative.
At the heart of any VN is the act of reading — eyes looking at words and turning them into meaning. If any significant portion of the story is delivered as voice-over or action without on-screen text, it isn’t a visual novel. Watching Game of Thrones on your laptop with subtitles doesn’t suddenly turn it into a VN.

4. It must have visuals paired with that narrative.
A visual novel must have visuals. Crazy talk, right? It doesn’t matter if those visuals are 8-bit pixel art, hand illustration, 3D renders, photography, or video. Ideally, these images would be germane to the narrative, but even that’s not technically necessary. Having unrelated images wouldn’t keep something from being a VN; it would just make it a *bad* VN.

5. It must be authored.
In other words, the story must be an act of creative intention by its author(s). A VN cannot rely upon sandboxes, emergent gameplay, or similar mechanisms to generate its narrative arc (though they may be used to flavor it). Such experiences, while highly interesting, result in something other than a novel.

6. Reading must comprise the majority of one’s experience with the title.
This one gets tricky, because it cuts deep to the heart of another unresolved question: “Is a visual novel a game?” For the purposes of this discussion, I’d suggest there’s a continuum that looks roughly like:

not a VN >> game w/ some VN qualities >> game/VN hybrid >> VN w/ some game qualities >> VN

Roughly past the halfway mark, we can usefully consider something to be a visual novel for terms of discussion. Below that, we can consider it a game but usefully discuss its VN-like elements (or lack thereof).

7. It must offer a deliberately framed reading experience.
This one’s a little tricky. Here’s the problem: a plain old Word doc containing a short story + embedded images could technically satisfy requirements #1 through #6, but we’d be hard-pressed to call that a visual novel. I’m still tweaking the language for #7, but the general idea is that just as a film director frames a shot, controlling what the audience can see and hear at any given moment, so too does the creator of a visual novel. This is unlike our hypothetical Word doc, in which you could widen the window to see more text than intended, skip around the story out of order, scroll the window so that you can read a passage without seeing its associated art, etc.

I briefly considered adding an eighth bullet point, but chose to leave it on the cutting room floor.

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8. It must provide the reader agency to advance through the text.

In most cases, this is achieved by turning to the next “page” of the VN with a click, tap, or button press, but any user input could suffice — speech or motion controls, for instance. If the option is available (e.g., via an “auto-play” setting) the reader may choose to waive this ability.

Why did this get dropped? Well, I imagined a traditional novel that was rigged to turn its pages at pre-defined intervals. You can’t speed it up, you can’t slow it down; all you have is an on/off switch. Would that lack of agency suddenly keep this particular book from being a novel? I couldn’t think of a good reason why it would, so I removed the requirement. But I'm open to good arguments for bringing it back.

Closing thoughts, for now

You might note that I’ve avoided any mention of things like: story genre, branching narratives, art style, country of origin, sexual content, sound/music, etc. That’s by design. These things help inform what type of VN a title is, not whether it can be discussed as one.

You might also note that my 7-point test would disqualify Gone Home from being considered a visual novel, invalidating my earlier argument. That’s also by design. Kill your darlings, amirite?

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Just now, Palas said:

Definition rejected. But I can't elaborate right now

Rejection rebutted. But I'm under an NDA.

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1 minute ago, Valmore said:

THIS ISN'T A BLOG! IT'S A VISUAL NOVEL!!!

Fails #5 and #7 (and arguably #2). Yet somehow, it's still better than Sakura Beach.

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12 minutes ago, Darbury said:

Fails #5 and #7 (and arguably #2). Yet somehow, it's still better than Sakura Beach.

But you're both authoring it. And these posts are framed...

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Just now, Valmore said:

But you're both authoring it. And these posts are framed...

Is it an act of creative intention? Are we both creating content together with the intent of it being a visual novel? No.

Is it framed? Are we artificially limiting what portions of a larger text you're able to see at any one time? No. The conversation is emergent and the text does not yet exist. 

But I appreciate the effort you're putting into this. :D

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I agreed with the definition, every point. Such nuance!

I had this idea of a NVL-format VN, but with no graphics, just voice acting and a character icon sprite beside each line of dialogue.
This would fail point 4. I wonder what you'd call it. Kinetic novel sounds silly, since from the name you'd picture graphical effects. Probably the term Japanese people used to use: "Sound Novel"

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To be honest, I feel like "Visual Novel" was coined to encompass the typical eroge-style originated in Japan due to the lack of a better term.

I'd argue that the majority of visual novel fans come from the anime medium, and that they are visual novel fans because of that anime-ish eroge style, and that the actual presentation of the text as, well, a novel that utilizes visual elements and everything else you elaborated on the post isn't actually that relevant. 

Because of that, while the definition is coherent, I don't see any advantages of using it since it needlessly broadens the term to include a lot of things it wasn't meant to include in the first place. 

Though I could also just be an idiot. Who knows.

Just my two cents on it.

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I mean, if you could somehow make a MMOVN that writes itself as you interact with others and writes your dialogue based on your actions and increments your behavior based on your interactions with other players - remember, replacing an RPG system with written text as the primary source of information and engagement - it would still be a VN, pretty much.

I think when you get into the MMOVN thing, the 'VN' part is just the fact that the information given to the player is provided in text form, in a controlled manner. However, once the player is aware that there are players on the other side, it becomes more like a game, practically speaking. But you can play a VN like a game (giving yourself objectives) if you want to.

The difference is whether the author pre-created what's going to play out, or if the players themselves are going to create the emergent story. The latter would be a text-etc-interface multiplayer roleplaying. It could certainly feel like a VN because of the narrative and how each player sees the information, but I wouldn't call the whole thing a VN.  For prose generated from an underlying game system, what would matter is how much of what happens determined by the author. If it's just the order switching around a bit, then it'd still be author conceived. Otherwise it would be emergent.

(If you call that type of presentation VN-style, then yes, the game would be a VN-style game, you might even think to call it a VN. But that would overlap with the current notion which has that VN's are something which authors conceive of).

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And finally, I believe the framed reading experience to be a symptom of the intrinsic tension between text and other elements rather than a thing on its own. You can still make a visual novels that goes on and on and on without restrictions to the player, i.e. without framing it, but employing other techniques to make reading a ludic act, which is what matters the most (confronting the information it delivers with the voice acting or visuals, for example).

I suppose an examples of that would be a game where all you do is explore this big manuscript that you view within the game, and when you go to different places you hear different sounds and stuff.

I have no idea what to call this. It's not quite the same as a set of real letters because you can incorporate sound and visual effects into it. Does controlling the order the player reads parts of the story make the work a VN or not? If you had a series of episodes viewable in any order, that would still seem like a VN. What about if you interacted in a point and click fashion to access the episodes? What about if you walked around a 3-d environment to access those episodes?

It's just a categorization problem. You wouldn't be able to make a classification for every conceivable thing without being very minute and detailed. You can pick a relatively easy way to categorize works, or you could end up aiming for a categorization that's actually impossible, because our notion of what makes a VN would turn out to be contradictory once you explore the array of things which are possible using text and interaction.

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On 6/11/2016 at 0:40 AM, Palas said:

What I disagree with here is that a narrative is not necessary. It's the progression, not necessarily that of events, that makes up our experience in games or even in literature - the progression of a train of thought can easily qualify and be just as interesting while still favoring text over anything else to deliver it.

I think we’re in agreement here. The definition of “narrative” I used (borrowed from the OED) reads a bit narrowly and could stand to be broadened. A train of thought can still be a novel, as Joyce did a good job showing. But a list of unrelated words or statements picked at random? Probably not, unless you’re a diehard dadaist.

On 6/11/2016 at 0:40 AM, Palas said:

I also don't buy that visuals are a must. Visuals are a source of information like any other

Here we disagree. It’s a visual novel. By its very name, it seems to demand some sort of visual accompaniment. Otherwise, a straight ASCII dump of Huck Finn could be saved out as a PDF and qualify as a VN. A definition so broad doesn’t help us usefully discuss VNs, which is why I’m looking for a working definition here rather than a textbook one.

On 6/11/2016 at 0:40 AM, Palas said:

The authoring - well, I think it's a practical issue rather than an essential one [...] I think it's (theoretically) possible to build a VN out of emergent interaction.

I’d argue the opposite, and I think by using the world “build” at the end there, you might just doing the same. The emergent can certainly be wonderful raw material, but someone still needs to recognize the potential underlying narrative, then structure the text to best frame it. Me dumping all of Groucho Marx’s letters on your desk is not a narrative. Me editing and ordering his letters to spotlight the delightful back and forth between him and his studio is something much different.

As for your MMO idea, you’re butting up against the notion of a working definition again. If anything that generates text to be read on a screen can be considered a VN, then a VN stops being a useful thing to define (which I suspect is your intent). Back to my chair example, it’d be like you saying that anything I can sit should be considered a chair. I’d ask for one and you’d give me a dead mule. “It has four legs and a back,” you’d say, “just like you’d expect. Go ahead and sit. It’s really not comfortable, but how many chairs are, really?” Yet I’d still be wanting for a chair.

On 6/11/2016 at 0:40 AM, Palas said:

You can still make a visual novels that goes on and on and on without restrictions to the player, i.e. without framing it, but employing other techniques to make reading a ludic act, which is what matters the most (confronting the information it delivers with the voice acting or visuals, for example).

I’d be interested in hearing you flesh this out more. It seems like you’re hoping to blur the lines between text as a framework for the ludic (in which a reader plays between the lines, so to speak) and the ludic itself (where the play *is* the text). I could be misunderstanding, but this sounds like another case where the line between "VN" and "game" becomes so incredibly porous that any definition becomes useless.

Again, I suspect this might be your intent. :)

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12 hours ago, Deep Blue said:

Planescape: Torment is a visual novel then mmm my world is upside down now!

¡ǝnlq dǝǝp 'llɐɟ ʇ,uop

Torment is one of my favorite RPGs, but it fails #6. While it's a text-heavy game, reading doesn't constitute the overriding bulk of the experience. It's just one of many other game systems in the title: combat, exploration, inventory management, adventure-gamey fetch quests, etc.

Also fails #7. It's not framed. By virtue of its gameplay mechanics, moment-to-moment experiences on Torment are remarkably open-ended.

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1 hour ago, Palas said:

Because you see, I seriously want Digital: A Love Story or Emily is Away to be considered VNs, yet it's not visuals that make it up but the interface (which are visual but this is not the point).

We're in agreement. I want them to be considered VNs, too. Their interfaces are visuals, and that is the point. Diegetic visuals are still visuals in my book. We can take this to absurd lengths, of course — "My intentional lack of visuals are my visuals!" "The choice of Times New Roman is my visual!" — but at that point, we might as well just burn it all down and live in caves because we've decided definitions are useless.

1 hour ago, Palas said:

And why must this someone who recognizes and organizes the narrative be you and not the player? You dumping all of Groucho Marx's letters on my desk is not a narrative, but me trying to figuring it out and understand what happened is, in itself.

Is a box of refrigerator poetry magnets a poem or the potential for a poem? Again, I think there's a difference between a ludic text that allows for play and discovery within a structure — House of Leaves, I'm looking at you, baby — and something that has absolutely no form without play. Both are very interesting, but they're very different beasts. For the sake of useful conversation, I'd offer that it's best not to conflate them.

1 hour ago, Palas said:

Uh, yes. Because you see, there's no line between "VN" and "game" to me. That's where I'm actually coming from, not going to.

You're basically arguing against genres. This is entirely defensible — and often useful in academic discussions. But for a working definition, which limits the potentially limitless so we can discuss it, it's not very practical. There is a difference between a VN and a platformer, and if I generally like one and not the other, I want a way to usefully signify that.

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2 minutes ago, Palas said:

But then you'll always have visuals. There's no written text that isn't visual. The question is whether that's contributing in any way to the narrative or not and, in the case of your common novel, it isn't, whereas in Digital, it is.

Even in the "common" novel, the text is a contributing visual. Set a beer down in front of me and I'll talk your ear off about typography. Depending how you typeset it, a given text can be received in surprisingly different ways. An author can also choose to be more explicit in their use of typography as visual — again, see House of Leaves. William Wharton also did this a lot in his novels, using multiple fonts for various voices and effects. Faulkner even wanted to chronologically color code all the text in As I Lay Dying. (There's a version published that actually does this, btw.)

There is always a visual aspect to the rendered narrative. We just need to pick an arbitrary dividing line: where do visuals become so much a part of the narrative that they help us define something as a visual novel. And finding that line isn't science; it'll always be up for debate.

26 minutes ago, Palas said:

I'm arguing for genres, for VN to be a genre within the overarching medium "games", in which the platformer is a genre (that is, a certain set of conventions based on a core principle) and the VN is another and, because of that, hybrids are possible because in the end both are just systems that can coexist in the same environment.

Then we're arguing the same thing, since I also believe VNs are games. (I mean, hell — there are walkthroughs for most of them!) I explicitly called out hybrids in my definition, but I think my own shorthand was my downfall there. In my brain, "games" meant "all other entertainments more commonly recognized as games" and "VN" meant "the specialized sub-genre of games known as VNs." You've made some very good arguments regarding that distinction, though, and I plan to clarify that in future drafts of the definition.

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6 hours ago, Darbury said:

¡ǝnlq dǝǝp 'llɐɟ ʇ,uop

Torment is one of my favorite RPGs, but it fails #6. While it's a text-heavy game, reading doesn't constitute the overriding bulk of the experience. It's just one of many other game systems in the title: combat, exploration, inventory management, adventure-gamey fetch quests, etc.

Also fails #7. It's not framed. By virtue of its gameplay mechanics, moment-to-moment experiences on Torment are remarkably open-ended.

I knew you were going to say that! :P and I disagree, the exploration is probably a 20% (30% maybe?) of the game, the combat is avoidable (by using text) 90% (maybe 100% i cant remember right now) of the time if you have the right stats, the inventory management is not even needed to beat the game, you spend almost all the time reading dialogues and choosing options, so I think #6 doesn't apply to torment.

#7 is a very subjective point, you can force a game to fit in that description or not,  why does it have to be framed? What does it mean to be framed?  yes there is gameplay but it's really linear, the "open-ended" part it's an illusion in torment, it's not like others rpg were you can go wherever you want, the sandbox map is really not there, you have a map that looks big and feels big but there isnt much to do and you can go anywhere either. 
But like you said "this one’s a little tricky." :illya: just as point #6

There are so many VNs with rpg elements and they are still consider vns yet torment is not consider a vn despite the fact that it has more text than your average vn, maybe it's not your traditional VN per se but it definitely can fit into one.
Btw I think torment it's an rpg and not a vn but I'm just saying that by your requirements or 7 points test it could be considered a VN.

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On 6/11/2016 at 0:21 AM, Kaguya said:

I'd argue that the majority of visual novel fans come from the anime medium, and that they are visual novel fans because of that anime-ish eroge style, and that the actual presentation of the text as, well, a novel that utilizes visual elements and everything else you elaborated on the post isn't actually that relevant. 

Because of that, while the definition is coherent, I don't see any advantages of using it since it needlessly broadens the term to include a lot of things it wasn't meant to include in the first place. 

I call this the “Italians never intended pizza to have pineapple on it, so ham + pineapple pizza shouldn’t be considered pizza” Argument.

Let’s be clear: putting pineapple on a pizza is an abomination. If I catch you doing this, I will give you the hairiest of eyeballs. But it doesn’t make something not a pizza. Even if pizza originally didn’t have pineapple on it. Even if most fans of pizza expect sauce + cheese with meat and/or veg on their slice, not fruit. As much as I hate it, that pie still fits under the common definition of “pizza.”

Which is to say, non-anime visual novels are the pineapple pizza of the VN world.

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53 minutes ago, Darbury said:

I call this the “Italians never intended pizza to have pineapple on it, so ham + pineapple pizza shouldn’t be considered pizza” Argument.

Let’s be clear: putting pineapple on a pizza is an abomination. If I catch you doing this, I will give you the hairiest of eyeballs. But it doesn’t make something not a pizza. Even if pizza originally didn’t have pineapple on it. Even if most fans of pizza expect sauce + cheese with meat and/or veg on their slice, not fruit. As much as I hate it, that pie still fits under the common definition of “pizza.”

Which is to say, non-anime visual novels are the pineapple pizza of the VN world.

Is having a clear definition of the term really worth it when you're letting all sorts of unintended/unwanted things to be part of that definition with it, though?

The current context/gut based approach is more than fine, imo. 

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1 minute ago, Kaguya said:

Is having a clear definition of the term really worth it when you're letting all sorts of unintended/unwanted things to be part of that definition with it, though?

Who says they're unintended or unwanted? :D

And even if they were, it doesn't change anything. I find Harmony Korine's films repellent, but I'm not going to craft my definition of cinema specifically to exclude him. A film is a film is a film.

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13 minutes ago, Darbury said:

Who says they're unintended or unwanted? :D

And even if they were, it doesn't change anything. I find Harmony Korine's films repellent, but I'm not going to craft my definition of cinema specifically to exclude him. A film is a film is a film.

The majority of the VN-players, I'd say. 

The term is there to identify a series of games. It just looks like you're trying to add more stuff to it for the sole sake of technical precision by ignoring some aspects of what makes the identity of a visual novel, which becomes moot when you start including stuff that wasn't intended to be part of the term in the first place. 

If I take a lasgna and spread the layers of it into a circle is that a pizza? Maybe you could call it one, maybe not. But you're probably much better off just calling it a lasagna. It's probably better to find a new term for the other stuff that you're including into visual novel than it is to make the first term that broad. 

But again, what do I know. I'm generally pretty silly, after all :P

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1 hour ago, Kaguya said:

The majority of the VN-players, I'd say. 

And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between a preference and a definition. 

1 hour ago, Kaguya said:

The term is there to identify a series of games. It just looks like you're trying to add more stuff to it for the sole sake of technical precision by ignoring some aspects of what makes the identity of a visual novel, which becomes moot when you start including stuff that wasn't intended to be part of the term in the first place. 

But what exactly is this essential "identify of a visual novel" that I'm ignoring? Where can I find it?

Are we saying VNs must use anime-inspired spritework? Would that mean this or this don't qualify? Or are we saying VNs can only contain "things otaku like"? Which would be a very curious definition indeed.

1 hour ago, Kaguya said:

I'm generally pretty silly, after all

I don't doubt it for a second. :D

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