Visual Novels: Video Games and Books, Except Not Really

I’ve debated with myself for a long time whether to talk about these as books or as video games. Ultimately, I decided they’d be best placed in the Wednesday slot. Cause in my experience, these things can hardly be considered video games.

Visual novels are like the cockroaches of my Steam page. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get away from the damn things! They crop up again and again because the Steam algorithm thinks “Oh, you downloaded Doki Doki Literature Club and uninstalled it an hour later! You must fucking love these things! Here are seventy-eight more that are basically just hentai!”

Fun fact: if I wanted hentai, I’d go into incognito mode and look for fucking hentai! But I digress.

These things are fucking weird, dude. They feel like an anomaly in the logic of reality. Like they shouldn’t exist, but they do. Not only that, but they exist in frighteningly large quantities! There are thousands of these damn things! And from my point of view, they’re all the same thing!

What makes a visual novel? Well, typically:

  • An anime art style
  • Little to no gameplay (they’re either choose-your-own-adventure books or just regular books that you need to click to flip the page)
  • Writing on par with a Harry Potter fanfiction written in 2006
  • Are either romance, horror, or hentai stories (or all three, if you’re really lucky)
  • Will be sold at a price far too high considering what you’re actually getting

Now, to be fair, I can kind of understand. Writing a novel is hard; drawing a comic is harder! With a visual novel, all you gotta do is draw each character a few times, draw five or more backgrounds, make some full-page drawings, and write the dialogue! Bada-bing-bada-boom, you’ve put a story together!

Granted, it doesn’t have the strengths of either a comic or a novel. But you finished it. And all sarcasm aside, that’s more than some people manage.

And, despite my cynicism, I’m sure there are some genuinely good visual novels out there. Granted, I personally haven’t found them myself! But I refuse to believe that all of them are bad, given the sheer quantity of them! I’m sure that somewhere, on some platform, there is a VN that’s well-written, well-drawn, and is genuinely compelling.

Press X to doubt.

I’m sorry, but I can’t stand these things! Not just on a writing front! But in terms of presentation, I can’t say they’re all that interesting either! Sure, the artwork can be nice! But what’s visually compelling about two characters standing perfectly still? The only movement is the change in expression or the slide in and out of the frame!

Part of what makes a comic interesting to read is the panel structure. In a well-made comic, the panels should flow into each other with ease, making it super easy to read! The structure of the comic itself is part of what makes them visually compelling! Even if the writing itself is only meh, a comic with great art and paneling can still turn out amazing!

Cough cough Demon Slayer cough cough.

Then there’s a normal novel. The strength of this one is simple: imagination. You, the author, describe a setting, the characters within it, and set them on a journey. The reader then takes these descriptions, interprets it in their own way, and brings it to life within their own head. That’s why, if you were to look up fan art for a character in a novel, none of them would look the same! That’s part of the fun and engagement: taking in the words on the page and bringing them to life in your head.

A visual novel has neither of these things. All you get is to stare at two practically blank images standing in the same background and talking for faaaaaaar too long. I don’t care how compelling your dialogue is; if the characters on-screen aren’t doing something interesting to go along with it, I’m gonna get bored quickly.

It’s like a dialogue exchange in a bad movie. Instead of doing something creative and interesting with the camerawork, the director said: “Fuck it, just put a camera over their shoulders and we’ll cut between them over and over again until the scene ends.” If you’re putting a visual medium together, you need to have interesting visuals!

They’re called visual novels for a reason! So why are they so boring to look at?!

Am I being too harsh? Maybe. Despite my fury, these things are ultimately harmless. And plenty of people do like them! It’s just that they aren’t my thing. It takes an especially devoted weeb to love these things. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to take that plunge.

I should probably stop slacking and go read an actual book now…

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