Visual Novels Are NOT Games!
By mikey
Monday, August 15, 2005

The signs of a theory.

What kind of "game" do you "play"
on a DVD Player? A visual novel
like Amusement Park?

When reviewing visual novels, many reviewers of classic games are quick to point out that in reality, these aren't really games, upsetting many of their dedicated fans. Usually followed by the obligatory few outcries of bishoujo game fans who claim the reviewer doesn't understand the concept of visual novels.

But try this: What if we have been horribly wrong all this time? What if they are right about this? What if visual novels are not really games and we are all just used to calling them games, because of a lack of a better term? Or maybe it is too insulting for us to say they are interactive picture books? Are we all in denial?

Well... I think so.

1. You don't influence the outcome, you choose it.

Some VNs like Adam, have elements
of point-and-click adventures and feel
a little more like games. But do they?

They all teach us this: Visual novels are something in between a novel and a game. They are even called games. But let's just stop here for a while. In visual novels, you have the freedom of choice - the very definition of a game, you actively influence the outcome... but do you really?

Of course... you don't. See, all the story branchings are in themselves yet another stories, just like a "what-if" comic or a spin-off TV series - simply put into one package and you more or less actively choose which story is going to be told. There is nothing dynamic defining the outcome, and the individual paths are written and not alterable. You won't get a different result for typical gaming skills like quickness or skill. So don't blame reviewers calling them non-games when their only challenge is to guess what choice1 will do different than choice2. In effect, they never really participate. They are spectators, choosing rather than playing.

2. The game vs. movie equations.

So what are visual novels, if not a bridge between the (illustrated) novel and a game? Well, they are a bridge between the novel... and a movie. Wow. Another outrageous claim. But why not? There is a given (set of) story(ies) and a graphical presentation. Often, animations are involved. Visual novels first and foremost tell a story and give it to you in graphics and text. There's more of a movie in a visual novel than there is of a game. Or, put differently... there's more of a novel in a movie or a visual novel, than there is in a game.

The cast info: Not unusual for a VN,
not unusual for a movie.

Care to try an experiment? Visit any web site that sells bishoujo games. If they have a detailed description of the game, along with the screenshots they will also have introductions of the characters. These descriptions are as essential as the game description itself. Face it - in normal games, be it firstpersons or RPGs you rarely look at who the characters are, but mostly look at what they can do in the game. Why is that?

Naturally, because in normal games, the characters presented are the selection that you can be in the game. The characters in bishoujo games are ones that you can get. That's why you never wonder what kind of color your RPG mage likes - because that's going to be you. But you probably want to know everything from blood type to favorite flower if it's the girl who is your potential girlfriend, someone who is not you. After all, visual novels are mostly bishoujo games, meaning the focus of the game is on the girls themselves (bishoujo).

3. Scripted action theories.

Phantom was an action visual novel.
And it was more movie-like than
any first/thirdperson shooter.

Remember the last game you played? Yes, that one! It almost doesn't matter, but we'll take Metal Gear Solid. Oh, great action, sneaking up on guards, going for the silent kill, you were immersed in playing... But then you had to stop playing because a cut scene was triggered! Seeing that scripted sequence you couldn't skip you were begging for the game to decide once more whether it was really a game, or just the backup plan of one Hideo Kojima with shattered movie directing ambitions. Games are not movies. They are in their nature interactive and everything static is just wrong.

But let me also flip the coin and take a classic action scene from Letterier's movie The Transporter, where Jason Statham beats the hell out of a bus full of thugs. It's a two-minute scene and it's as light-hearted as it is explosive and just a joy to watch, in case you happen to be a fan of action movies. Now, suppose someone had the idea of bringing this excitement to a game. In a word - impossible. It would take a great deal of game designing, inevitably a very controversial camera and control system, and it would still be just button mashing for the player. I'll just mention all the current movie-licence games...

Do You Like Horny Bunnies? 2
Just like watching anime.

Well, notice the similarity to visual novels? They are in essence very scripted, just like movies. Almost the static anime equivalent of what was once known as interactive movie. Gamers never really accepted them. They were more movies than games.

In an example, you go can go through any of the main plot lines of Do You Like Horny Bunnies? 2 by making four choices. Suppose you had your automatic text forwarding mode turned on, which makes the text jump to next lines after a given amount of time. This way you can "play" through the game by watching your monitor and clicking a grand total of 4 times. So much for a game. In case you still wondered though, clicking to advance text is not playing.

... and a final statement.

Games or not, visual novels deliver
an experience that other forms can't.

Actually, not that I would (or should) care. The visual novel is a great medium that is certainly related to others, such as books, manga, games or movies, but at the same time incomparable to any of them. It offers possibilities none of the above mentioned has and I have to confess I will still call them games.

Their closest friend, the dating sim certainly is more of a game than the visual novel. It will retain most of the limitations, but also advantages of this specific medium family. In the very same manner as the "games turned movies", the visual novel will also face the "visual novel turned anime" discussions. But while this last sentece might rightfully suggest, that visual novels and games do have some common elements, as far as this reviewer is concerned, a visual novel still is not and never will be a true game.

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mikey runs ATP Projects, has released several English bishoujo games and maintains the
English Bishoujo Games Encyclopedia.

"Visual Novels Are NOT Games!" © 2005 mikey. All rights reserved.
Contents of this article are purely the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect those of Ren'Ai'ai

Content© 2005 &, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.