An explanation of Visual Novels

Posted on July 30, 2012 - 12:05pm by Elrood


Visual Novels are text-heavy and give the reader a visual presentation of the current scene. The most basic form of interaction is a choice-system, which influences the flow of the story. There are many sub-genres of visual novels out there. Some focus more on story and atmosphere others on "pervy" stuff.

Since my next review is going to be a visual novel, I figured that I might as well give you a quick rundown on what a visual novel actually is.

Visual novels originated in Japan and many people refer to them as something like a book. This is true, to a certain extent, but not quite right. I rather see them as their own type of media.

They are usually quite text-heavy, but they also add a visual presentation thus “visual novel.” The story is accompanied by background images and dynamic sprites of different characters, as well as music and sound-effects. Since a visual novel is still a game, some sort of interaction has to be present. Do you remember those books where you could choose between different choices and had to browse to a certain page, in order to see the result of your decision? This choice-system is the most basic form of interaction in visual novel. Choices will influence the flow and outcome of the story. Of course, there are unlimited possibilities to add gaming aspects to visual novel (RPG, RTS, Card-Game etc), but the most common one is the choice system.

The combination of all those elements: text-heavy, backgrounds, interaction, sprites (representing the mood) and the music, are what make visual novel so special for me. They can combine the strength of books (story-heavy) and games (visual presentation, audio, interaction). Depending on how well a visual novel can work with its tools it is capable to completely suck you into its world.

So that’s a visual novel in general. But there are actually several sub-genres of Visual Novels out there. Let me show you the most common ones.

Sound Novel

Much like a visual novel, but instead of visuals the focus is more on sound (duh). One would be "Higurashi No Naku Koro ni

Higurashi is a Sound Novel with mystery and horror elements.

Dating Sim

Basically like a Visual Novel but the structure of the story tends to follow a particular way. You will usually have multiple love interests in those games. The aim is to “get together” with one of the heroines to finish their story-arc. After you are done with that, you will go for the other ones. The structure is something like that.

  • First, the “neutral arc.” You get to know all heroines and can interact with them.
  • Second, the “heroine arc.” Depending on how much time you have spent with one of your love interest in the “neutral arc,” you will be able to continue their story.
  • The whole game will now be about her. Other characters step into the background.

Also, a Dating Sim may have romantic scenes, but it doesn’t actually show anything explicit. At the very most, it will give a hint, but nothing more. An example for that is "Clannad

I know, the hair looks ridiculous, shut up.


An Eroge splits itself into multiple categories, but I’d rather like to keep it short. The only thing you really have to know about them is that the focus of those games is regularly not the story, but pure sexual relief. That is not to say that they can’t tell a good story (again different kinds), but most of them aim to show you some, well “saucy” stuff. Like "Yume Miru Kusuri" for instance. 

Hope that doesn't go over a certain line. If it does, that's just prude man.

In Conclusion:

Visual novels are text-heavy games that tend to offer you just a minimum of interaction. The most common one is a choice system. The story is accompanied by background images and dynamic sprites of different characters, but also music and sound-effects. Visual novels split themselves into multiple sub-genres. Some focus more on story and atmosphere others on sexual elements or something different altogether

I think that covers the basics of Visual Novels. I personally like them for their ability to make me feel completely involved into a story, like no other games ever could. Sure, there is more hentai out there than, “valuable” content, but the ones that have it, are just really, really good and I highly recommend you to check some of those out. Talking about recommendations…

My Recommendation:

If you just want to take a quick look at visual novel, I’d recommend you to check out Narcissu. It’s free and about two young people that are terminally ill. Both of them decide to leave the hospital to conduct a trip across Japan. It is a very simple visual novel, but one that might leave an impact on you. The download not only has the regular game but also the prequel in it.

If you want the full package I’d go for “Katawa Shoujo.” You can also download it for free on the creators site. The setting is as followed: You take the role of Hisao, a fairly regular guy that attends high school. But things dramatically change when he has a heart attack and needs to be transferred to a school for disabled people. I’d call this game a Dating Sim, since it is structured around 5 heroines. There are some sex scenes yes, but you can just as easily turn those scenes off via options and they are definitely not the focus of the story.

But wait, a love interest that is disabled? (Not mentally) Isn’t that a rather touchy subject that can just as easily be handled horribly tasteless? Well yes, it had the potential, but luckily the whole, and you can quote me on that, the whole game manages to handle the theme disability in a tasteful manner. So yes, that’s my recommendation for you. There are five story arcs in total and their quality varies a bit depending on which arc you choose to play (every arc had a different writer), but it’s still a truly beautiful game as a whole and one of the damn best I’ve played.

So take aside your prejudices and explore the magical world of “visual novel”!

Note to reader: “There is a lot of confusion going on, how sub-genres ofvisual novel are actually defined. Please take into account that my sub-genre definitions are solely based on my personal experiences with those games. That is not to say I’m not confident in the things I’ve written, it’s just that they are people out there, who might disagree with me.”

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