Video games began very humbly in the 20th century. The very first games such as Tennis for Two and Spacewar! utilized massively powerful computers to draw rudimentary graphics for players to interact with. In the 80s, we saw some graphical titles but also a swarm of so-called text adventures which featured copious descriptions and no visuals. As technology increased, the vast majority of video games switched over to visually intensive experiences filled with expansive worlds and copious interactivity.
Not all genres have modernized in such a way, though. The visual novel (VN) is something which has remained very similar throughout the history of gaming. Because of that, many even question whether they can even be classified as games. For the unaware, a visual novel is a lot what it sounds like. Playing one consists of reading a great deal of text and sometimes selecting choices for the character to make or what they will say. Yep, they were using Mass Effect style conversation wheels long before that series even existed.
With that said, a great deal of VNs offer very few player-prompted choices at all. In either case, the average game tends to have static images of characters and backgrounds to accompany the text. So, you can basically consider it to have the “video” component of games — but what of actual game elements? For example, some of these titles have only one choice throughout the entire play time! Does that really count as interactive?
It definitely isn’t as interactive as a typical video game that most are used to playing. To some, a VN sounds much more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than anything else. This is a fairly accurate assumption until you realize that most VNs offer more than one choice. Many span dozens of hours and offer tremendous amount of player selection. Of course, this still may sound like an adventure book. Where things change are when you look at how each choice can split players off down very divergent paths. Many games are known for having a great deal of complex paths as well as a multitude of endings. VNs are, if nothing else, far more sophisticated than any adventure book could be.
That brings up another point which is that adventure books are considered games. No, they are not video games, but they certainly are a game media. After all, the term “game” encompasses a whole host of things from board games to card games to other non-video pursuits. So, what is it then that defines video games so specifically to exclude visual novels?
Of course there is the video aspect which we discussed in part earlier. That, too, is up to debate considering that most VNs offer visuals to accompany text. But it’s reasonable that some would not find this enough. In that case, we could bring up the fact that there have been video games released that actually have no graphics at all. There are certainly not many, but the genre has been touched at least a handful of times over the years. Video games do not necessarily require video to be games.
Mainly, it seems that the distinction of video game relies on the fact that it is a series of coded instructions run through a computer of some form. Whether that computer is housed inside a Game Boy or PS3 shell, it still carries out the instructions it was programmed for and allows users to interact with it. With this description, the classification of video games is incredibly broad. It would include anything that has interactive elements. So then, is Microsoft Excel a game? Most certainly not. It seems that even this definition requires fine tuning.
Video games are not simply coded programs that allow for human interaction. They are something which requires interactivity but elicits some form of “gameplay”. That means, basically, what you’re doing has to fit within some sort of ruleset. In a visual novel, the goal may be to date a certain character. In a Mario game, the goal may be to collect all the various stars or coins and complete all the levels. Even in Minecraft, a game all about creation, there are rules in place such that you can only create X with Y pieces and so on. Visual novels have structure and gameplay value, even if most find reading heaps of text laborious rather than fun.
Now that we have a very crude concept about what a video game is, then it seems visual novels fit right in. Sure, they are not the average game, but they are still working within the constraints of the term. Naturally, this is just one definition of a video game, and anyone else is free to come up with their own. Overall, it seems trying to invalidate VNs as games is done primarily to keep them in their niche. As long as they are not majorly popular, developers will not see fit to implement elements of them into already established genres.
Even still, we have already seen some hugely popular VNs out in the wild. Hybrid VNs (combining RPG or puzzle gameplay with more traditional elements) are the most successful, such as the Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape series. We will likely never see Call of Duty: Visual Novel Edition, but that’s just fine. As a host of other genres exist, visual novels will keep existing beside them. As far as I’m concerned, visual novels are just a different breed of video game.