What is a Visual Novel?

VN is new to me, as a term I mean. I presume it means virtual novel which has been knocking around since the 80s, but is it a full blown thing now? What system do VN’ers prefer and why? How do VN’s differ from text adventure games and IF?


Me too. Didn’t have a clue what people were talking about up thread :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

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VN stands for “visual novel,” the kind of game that you make in Ren’Py or TyranoBuilder. They’re normally choice-based games with on-screen art depicting the characters; most of the text is usually dialog. The art often has an anime/manga look to it.

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What Dan said - Visual Novels are IF adjacent. They tend to have a low ratio of choice to time spent reading, but often will branch widely and the choices tend to be dating/relationship style “which characters are you spending time with?” Often there is a running clock or calendar and they might have sim-elements and some stats - spending a morning in the library might improve your intelligence and perhaps will give you new conversation options with a smart character or open up branches you wouldn’t have before.

The basic gameplay is usually a background of the location and paper-dolls of the characters (which are often quite varied in expressions and sometimes animated) slide in and out from the sides as they talk, or have portraits next to their dialogue scrolls at the bottom of the screen. Occasional choices pop up over the screen in a list that the player selects, though some games will have more extensive interfaces, clickable maps, or occasionally even 2D or 3D navigation.

Doki Doki Literature Club is actually not a standard VN (major spoiler: it’s actually a stealth psychological horror game that plays on the meta of the Virtual Novel genre), but if you were to only watch the first 45-60 minutes of a play through of that game, it lovingly leans hard into the dating-sim VN tropes and is a good example of the style and feel these games usually have. There are probably better examples of basic VN, but I was really into this game for a while based on the meta-tricks it plays.

I actually reviewed a Visual Novel that was entered into Spring Thing 2018:

The most common VN authoring engine is Ren’py, although there is the commercial Visual Novel Maker (from the makers of RPGMaker) and I’ve also heard of Tyrano Builder.


That’s correct. Renpy is so powerful that you can use it for just about anything, but I don’t see any new significant games for it. Unity also made a showing recently, especially with their Adventure Builder.

The thing is that game companies built custom engines for their games. So much that basically it’s no more difficult to just get Unity 3D and build the system from scratch. But that’s expensive and something hobbyists don’t do.

I’m not aware the situation over in Japan, where VN are really popular. Presumably, they publish more VN than ever over there. I think Tyrano Builder is popular over there?

Here is a list from the Ren’py site where they try to keep track of all games made for it. (Doki Doki Literature Club just got a new release on Switch and is actually a remaster with new content.)

Here’s another best list from June.

I don't think Ren'py keeps track of eroge/erotic games...

Visual Novels are kind of a perfect milieu for erotica, and if you’re into that there are tons of them if you search on sites like itch.io. Unfortunately, a lot of heterosexual VNs seem to tend toward misogyny and fetish as much of AIF does. LGBTQ+ selections also abound: Ladykiller in a Bind made a huge splash a few years ago and is possibly one of the more popular ones (BDSM on a Boat!), Coming Out on Top is a well-made and written (and very X-rated) bro-gay VN. Dream Daddy is a queer VN minus actual sex and is squeaky-clean for people who just like the relationship part. Oh and furries. Lots of Furry erotic VNs.


I only tend to see the visual novels that make it into the top of the IGF festival. This includes Across the Grooves and Seers Isle (from Nova Box), and Christine Love’s Ladykiller in a Bind from a few years back.

There’s typically an assumption that you’ll play through more than once to try out different branches or different relationships. So the engines have strong support for replay – rewinding chapters, or replaying early chapters quickly.


Very true. Most visual novel engines include an option to “skip seen text” to accommodate this - it will fast-forward to anything you haven’t read already. And most of them have an option to turn off the “type out text letter by letter” option which really makes a difference.

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Thanks Dan!


Visual novels (VNs) were invented in 1982 because it was discovered that early text adventures didn’t compress Japanese kanji enough to fit on the low-memory computers in use back then. It’s been a full-blown thing in Japan since the late 1980s, but it was only about 15 years ago that English-language visual novels started becoming common in the last decade, when English-language tools became accessible enough for indie developers to make games they felt confident releasing commercially.

Visual novellists prefer, from what I’ve seen, Ren’Py, NaniNovel (a plug-in for Unity 3D), Visual Novel Maker (a plug-in for GameMaker), Visual Novel Maker, TyranoBuilder, Ethornell, Buriko General Interpreter, KAG, Ren-engine, Kirikiri, Novellate and Twine (the latter may surprise some people) - a lot of tools have appeared in the last five years to challenge the longer-standing Ren’Py. They’re not in any particular order, but I see the first three (as well as people building visual novels in plain Unity and GameMaker) more often than any other options available to the general public - especially for small indie commercial games (as distinct from free VNs, which can use any of the above and others). Larger commercial concerns often use significantly-modified versions of multiple of these options, mixing and matching according to the strengths of each platform. (Bonus for them: harder to pirate a “hybrid” creation than one created entirely in one platform).

I regard visual novels as part of the IF category, as a particular way of telling a work of fiction in a way that facilitates interaction but keeps the emphasis on the story more than other elements of gameplay. Some people classify IF more strictly and would disagree with that definition - I’ll let them state how they’d distinguish visual novels and IF.

Text adventures are different to visual novels because they rely on text to tell the story. (Some text adventures have illustrative/augmentary graphics, but if graphics are the main way the story is told, it’s not a text adventure but something else). Updates to these graphics are generally because the player did something that would logically cause that change (the castle image appears because you moved there and the compass rose shows you can’t continue north because the moat bridge is up and you’ve not solved the puzzle to bring it down yet). Traditionally, there is a parser which accepts text (either from a keyboard - physical or on-screen - or speech-to-text), although some text adventures have experimented with the form. There is also typically a focus on puzzles and/or high-concept exploration, although the last 20 years have brought a wide variety of ways to make text adventures interesting.

Visual novels, on the other hand, typically have the graphics doing a lot more work in telling the story - although rarely does a visual novel have anything in the pictures that is not at least implied in the text. The use of graphics typically resembles a cut scene from other sorts of game, but with simplified animation (a nod to 1980s computer limitations that is sometimes subverted these days). These graphics most often change simply because the player clicked to see the next part of the story, rather than because the player took a specific action (the castle appears because you were talking with another character on the road and the game assumed you were going to the castle, and the compass rose probably isn’t there because you have to read another 10 lines of dialogue and make 2 choices before you’ll next move location anyway, 1 of which determines if the drawbridge will be lowered).

Traditionally, there’s a limited number of options each time there is something for the player to do (assuming the visual novel has any - unlike text adventures, some visual novels are strictly read-only). All the ones the player can choose will be spelt out right there on the screen, and players choose the one they want using arrow keys, a mouse or their finger. One result is that conversation-as-puzzle becomes easier to code - and convincing, consistent object-based puzzles, depending on the tool used to create the visual novel, may be more difficult. Hence why, in my example, the drawbridge puzzle became a conversation choice. Unsurprisingly, this suits genres of game where conversation is expected to form the bulk of the game - dating sims being the classic example.


Great description.

FYI, linear text is called straight fiction/ebook, and branchless VN is called kinetic novel.

No. There are quite a few no-choice visual novels that reject the term “kinetic novel”. Strictly speaking, “kinetic novel” refers to one visual novel company’s brand for their no-choice visual novels (specifically, Visual Art). While that company hasn’t sued anyone else using that label, some creators of no-choice visual novels are nonetheless not comfortable with their visual novel being described as a “kinetic novel” for that reason.

Linear text is called any of several things depending on the context in which it is found. Like IF itself, it’s a broad category including several items. A no-choice visual novel would be a form of linear text, just like a book or ebook.


I’ve always wondered that, as the two types seemed to be misnomered: “kinetic” gives the impression something is dynamic and changes with choices, whilst “visual” sounds more like a linear reading experience. Thanks for clearing that up - it makes sense that it’s more of a brand name for a specific company’s works.

Hmmm. I’m unaware of the situation. Thank you for letting me know. Can you give me some references so I can research this kinetic novel situation? Which companies are they?

Edit: I see that there’s a company called KineticNovel under Visual Arts brand. But considering that people use the term Kinetic novel as no-choice VN, is that the case of a company branding an existing term, or the other way around?

I imagine it’s the same amorphous situation as the question “What is Interactive Fiction?” where you’ll get 20 different answers from 20 different people. There are so many hybrids and exception cases that you’ll never pin down an exact definition.

(This is not in any way a cue to start up the “What is IF?” argument again, please. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: )

Does anyone have any good recommendations for visual novels? I enjoyed the ones entered in Spring Things and IFComps recently, and the French Comp had an amazing one that made me cry. But I haven’t tried a lot of mainstream ones. I know there are tons of them (a lot more than parser games or Twine games???), but finding one or two great ones would be nice.


It’s exactly that. Kinetic started the trend (or at least were most popular). It’s identical to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” situation.

Some VNs don’t require any input other than clicking next, but the medium affords it other features that standard paperback novels don’t, like graphics, music, voices, sound effects, etc. It’s much like how comic books collected in a volume (graphic novel) are not really “novels” but also share enough similarity as to be given a similar term. The term “visual novel” is a pretty accurate description of what it is.

“Dating sim” and “ADV” (adventure game) tend to get lumped in with VNs, but they’re not actually VNs. They just share features which is why they confuse people. It’d be like saying 80 Days is a VN because it has dialogue with character portraits. It’s not a very accurate.


I think that’s subjective. Kinda like asking “Any recommendation for a good book?”

Assuming that you’ve gone to the usual research routes, all the reco will be off beat ones.

I have a strange taste regarding these things, but I recommend “Planetarian”, which they made an anime out of it. It’s Kinetic novel type.

That is, in fact, entirely the purpose of this post, to request subjective recommendations. Thanks for your recommendation!


We’re not arguing. We’re… um … having a … “mostly civil” … discussions. :sweat_smile::kissing_smiling_eyes: