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A Working Definition of the Visual Novel (v2)




After some great discussion regarding v1 of this working definition, I brought it back to the shop for some tweaks and tinkering. The results are posted below as v2 of the definition. And I'm sure I'll repeat this cycle many, many more times.

So, without further ado...

A 5-point test for visual novels

1. It must be read/played on an electronic device that outputs to a screen.
Fairly self-explanatory. Computers, game consoles, handhelds, phones — 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 an authored narrative.
By narrative, we mean an organized account of true or fictional events, actions, thoughts, etc. In other words, the visual novel has to tell a “story.” 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.

By authored, we mean the narrative must be an act of transformative intent by its author. 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 visual novel.

To put Rule 2 in more narratological terms: both the story and discourse of a VN must be deliberate acts.

3. It must use art & copy as the near-exclusive means for conveying that narrative.
Art: A visual novel must have visuals. Crazy talk, right? It doesn’t matter if those visuals are 1-bit pixel art, hand illustration, 3D renders, photography, or video. Ideally, these images will also be germane to the narrative.

Copy: At the heart of any VN is the act of reading — eyes looking at words and turning them into meaning. A VN should be structured around this. If significant portions of the story are delivered as voice-over/video without text, then title isn’t a visual novel. If the text can be turned off — e.g., captions, subtitles, etc. — then the title isn’t a visual novel.

4. Uninterrupted reading must comprise the near-entirety of one’s experience with the title.
For the purposes of our discussion, let’s assume a continuum that looks roughly like:

non-reading gameplay (0%) >>>> reading as gameplay (100%)

Past the 98% mark or so, we can usefully consider a title to be a straight-up  “visual novel.” From 50%-97%, we can usefully consider that title to be a VN-hybrid (a cross between a VN and another genre of game, such as an SRPG). Below that point, we don’t consider it to be a visual novel at all, but we can still discuss its VN-like elements (or lack thereof).

5. It must possess a defined “page” structure that’s generated in real time and is, to some extent, controllable by the reader.
Page structure: Unlike a novel seen in a word processor's window, a VN intentionally constrains what we may read and/or see at any given time. A VN-creator is almost like a film director in this respect, breaking a larger narrative into individual shots — in our case, screens or “pages” — for dramatic effect. Such narrative chunking is one trait that helps us distinguish visual novels from things like web novels or e-books. There are different conventions for such page display — ADV, NVL, diegetic, etc. — and each contains its own assumptions about how a story will be displayed. 

Real-time generation: Feel free to fight me on this, but a pre-rendered PDF is not a visual novel. A “Let’s Play” of a visual novel is not, itself, a visual novel. While it seems an arbitrary distinction to make, I’ll make it nonetheless. A VN must use a real-time engine of some sort to assemble art + copy for display.

Controllability: 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. But why have this requirement at all? (If you remember, I intentionally chose to omit it in v1 of my definition.) It's here now because, at their core, VNs are both literature and video games. Can you have a novel without mechanical interaction? Sure; I argued as much in v1. But can you have a video game that allows for no interaction or control? Not really; it'd be a machima at best, indistinguishable from a video. And yes, I know Mountain exists, and there's still some small level of control there, if not meaningful interaction.

A VN may also…
A VN may offer a non-linear/branching narrative… or it may not.
A VN may feature sound and music… or it may not.
A VN may feature a story and/or visuals rooted in the anime/manga tradition… or it may not.
A VN may be made by Japanese developers… or it may not.
A VN may feature erotic content… or it may not.

Extra credit
"This is stupid. I know a visual novel when I see one."
Well, what about the visual novel you haven’t yet seen?

"Can't a visual novel be just text and no images? Why are we privileging one form of content over another?"
You can create such a beast in a visual novel engine, sure — but it's not a visual novel. It's something like a visual novel, something I haven't yet seen an agreed-upon name for. I invite you to propose one here. Why do we make such a distinction? Genre lines are arbitrary, but we do have to draw them somewhere. Otherwise, anything could be considered a visual novel, which doesn't make for useful discussions. "This tree stump is telling me a visual story about its history, bro. And the tree is the author. And nature is its game engine. And I'm playing it right now." And Domino's stops delivering pizza to the dorm lounge at 2 a.m., so you better finish up wondering if we're all living in an exact simulation of the universe sometime soon. Bro.

"Can't a visual novel be just images and no text? Why are we privileging one form of content over another?"
See the above.

"But when you get right down to it, what’s a 'story' anyway? Or a 'narrative'? And is an 'author' even necessary? Or 'readers'?"
All good questions. They’ve been debated for hundreds of years, and they’ll continue to be debated for hundreds more. Suffice to say, we won’t solve them here. Go ask Stanley Fish or something.

That's right. Go Fish.


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5 minutes ago, Nosebleed said:

It's only game. Why you heff to be mad.

You find that out in an unlockable route. Read the walkthrough.

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