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Visual Novel (VN) is a widely recognizable genre of narrative-focused games that has grown in popularity over the past decade. Surprisingly, despite being so widely recognizable, there is not a singular definition to help guide the design and analysis of such games---with academic definitions and implementations ranging from "interactive textbooks" to "adventure games with multi-ending stories". In this paper, we present a unified definition of VNs drawn from an analysis of 30 prior academic definitions. We also examined 54 existing VNs to further refine our definition and employ a deeper analysis of the interactivity within VNs. We highlight key features of VNs that arise in our definition, and discuss resulting implications for the design of VNs. This work is relevant for narrative game designers and researchers, affording a more unified structure and clearer guidelines to identify, analyze, and design future VN games.
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285
What is a Visual Novel?
JANELYNN CAMINGUE, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
ELIN CARSTENSDOTTIR, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
EDWARD F. MELCER, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
Visual Novel (VN) is a widely recognizable genre of narrative-focused games that has grown in popularity over
the past decade. Surprisingly, despite being so widely recognizable, there is not a singular denition to help
guide the design and analysis of such games—with academic denitions and implementations ranging from
"interactive textbooks" to "adventure games with multi-ending stories". In this paper, we present a unied
denition of VNs drawn from an analysis of 30 prior academic denitions. We also examined 54 existing VNs
to further rene our denition and employ a deeper analysis of the interactivity within VNs. We highlight
key features of VNs that arise in our denition, and discuss resulting implications for the design of VNs. This
work is relevant for narrative game designers and researchers, aording a more unied structure and clearer
guidelines to identify, analyze, and design future VN games.
CCS Concepts: Human-centered computing Empirical studies in HCI.
Additional Key Words and Phrases: Visual Novel, interactive narrative, meta-analysis, video games
ACM Reference Format:
Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdottir, and Edward F. Melcer. 2021. What is a Visual Novel?. Proc. ACM
Hum.-Comput. Interact. 5, CHI PLAY, Article 285 (September 2021), 18 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3474712
1 INTRODUCTION
The Visual Novel (VN) is a widely popular and recognizable narrative-focused game genre that
originated in Japan [
12
,
28
,
67
,
77
]. Their popularity has been steadily increasing outside of Japan
with 2,272 VNs currently available for purchase on Steam within the US
1
, and 27,140 VNs archived
on community run websites such as VNDB
2
that aim to document the production of VNs. This
popularity has been bolstered further still with the increase of free VN game engines such as
Ren’Py [
18
]. VN engines like Ren’Py provide a simple scripting language and easy to use graphical
user interface, which have made the genre accessible to designers and authors without technical
backgrounds. This in turn has made VNs simple to construct and beginner friendly for novice
designers, while simultaneously allowing expert designers to produce complex and engaging work.
Furthermore, the overall ease of creation, distribution, and accessibility for players at a variety
of skill levels with respect to VNs has also led to their frequent use in academic research—most
commonly in high-impact domains such as education [
4
,
13
,
26
,
29
,
31
,
40
,
49
,
51
,
68
,
87
] and health
1Number collected on April 18th, 2020
2The Visual Novel Database — https://vndb.org, number collected on April 18th, 2020
Authors’ addresses: Janelynn Camingue, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA, 1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA, 95064,
jcamingu@ucsc.edu; Elin Carstensdottir, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA, 1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA, 95064,
ecarsten@ucsc.edu; Edward F. Melcer, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA, 1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA, 95064,
eddie.melcer@ucsc.edu.
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contact the owner/author(s).
©2021 Copyright held by the owner/author(s).
2573-0142/2021/9-ART285
https://doi.org/10.1145/3474712
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License.
© 2021 Copyright held by the owner/author(s).
2573-0142/2021/9-ART285. https://doi.org/10.1145/3474712
285:2 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
[
77
,
93
]. This highlights the signicance of VNs as an area of study in their own right, and the
value that improving understanding of such designs can provide.
Unsurprisingly, as a result of the popularity of VNs both commercially and within research,
there have been a number of denitions created to provide a high-level description of key design
features underlying the genre. However, these denitions can vary wildly, which in turn has
substantial implications for the design of such games. For instance, denitions have included "VNs
are interactive textbooks" [
87
], which is in substantial contrast to “Adventure Games born in Japan,
that makes use of attractive characters, narrative engagement, puzzles and other interactive features
to maintain user interest while submerging players in complex stories" [
77
]. This wide range of
denitions can prove problematic for both designers and researchers of VNs, providing notably
dierent (under and over constrained) interpretations of the potential design space for such games.
Despite this lack of consensus on a clear denition of VNs as a genre, they are still easily
identiable as such by the publishers who produce them and the community of players who enjoy
them. Examples of this consensus can be seen through fan community documentation eorts
on VNDB
2
as well as the community genre labels on Steam. Furthermore, IndieDB
3
(a popular
database for indie games) has a specic genre section for Visual Novel, as well as Twitch
4
(the
largest platform for streaming games) which also has a tag for Visual Novel. This indicates that
there is a set of very specic criteria that can be used to identify VNs, which also implies that a
more unied denition and formalized understanding of VNs is achievable.
While there is evidence of an implicit understanding of VNs illustrated above, there is no clearly
dened census on the set of features that dene them—as exemplied by the 2,556 tags used to
describe features of VNs on VNDB
5
. Furthermore, these tags pertain to both the content and
structure of VNs. A lack of clear denition impacts the ability of designers to create VNs and realize
the full potential design space of the genre, and similarly makes classifying and analysing VN
games dicult for researchers. Ultimately, creating a unied denition of VNs as a genre as well as
understanding the key elements of a VN’s design allows us to better inform future work in the area
of VNs and interactive narrative.
In this paper, we propose a unied denition of VNs developed from analyzing existing denitions
of VNs as a genre and playing through a corpus of 54 VNs to rene the analysis. We then discuss
key features from our unied denition and their implications for the enhanced design of future
VNs.
2 RELATED WORKS
2.1 Game Genre Studies
Game genres are conceptual tools used to understand games and their contexts [
20
,
21
,
33
,
83
].
While not the only tool to classify games [
3
,
8
,
20
,
24
], genre is arguably the most widely used
manner to describe, group, and contrast games based on their dening characteristics. For games,
genre is commonly conceptualized, and sometimes named after, specic sets of mechanics, control
schemas, player goals, narrative structure and more, e.g.,Metroidvania, Walking Simulators, and
Role-Playing Games (RPGs). As an illustrative example, the well established rst-person shooter
(FPS) genre broadly consists of rst-person camera perspective, where the core gameplay consists
of the player pointing and clicking to a location where a projectile or eect is meant to make an
impact of some description, often requiring movement of the player’s camera perspective through
3https://www.indiedb.com/
4https://www.twitch.tv/
5The Visual Novel Database — https://vndb.org, number collected on April 18th, 2020
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
What is a Visual Novel? 285:3
a virtual space. FPS games most often present this interaction via an entity carrying and using a
gun, hence the name.
Game genre not only allows us to classify and describe games, but provides a common ground
to contextualize and understand contributions to game design broadly as a research eld [
33
]. This
makes the study of genre and its construction of great importance for the game research community
as a whole.
Construction of genre has been widely discussed in academic literature [
3
,
8
,
20
,
21
,
33
,
38
,
55
],
as well as in commercial and consumer communities. Within the context of commercial game
genre denitions, there is a tendency to rely too heavily on the representational characteristics
(i.e., visual aesthetics) of a game [
8
]. In contrast, game researchers have argued that games and
their genres should also be i) described with respect to their interactivity and how a player non-
trivially progresses through a game [
8
]; ii) described through their game architecture in the form of
high-level design patterns [
54
]; or should be iii) described in terms of a simulation since knowledge
and experience—and by extension the story—is created through player actions [
2
]. With respect
to academic explorations, this more detailed analysis has been done in a number of past works
categorizing and dening games and their genres as a whole [
3
,
27
,
91
]. These game genres have
included idle games [
5
], educational games [
61
,
63
], serious games [
56
], games for rehabilitation [
74
],
games for dementia [
19
,
59
], exertion games [
65
], aective games [
52
], and games and simulations
[48].
There are a number of approaches to the construction of game genres. These include formula-
tion of guidelines [
21
,
33
], development of models [
38
,
83
], and using both quantitative [
55
] and
qualitative methods [
6
] to study existing games and meta-data associated with them. Building on
this related work, we employ a mixed methods approach, utilizing meta-data like Steam tags to
identify what the broader community considers to be a part of the VN genre as suggested by Li and
Zhang [
55
], and utilizing an extensive review of the literature,—similar to [
38
] to identify which
features and design elements existing work used to dene and refer to the genre,. Both of these
techniques are used in tandem to guide the analysis of existing and commercially available games.
2.2 The Visual Novel Genre
Visual Novels (VNs) are a highly popular genre of interactive narrative games. For instance, VNs
have been released on a large range of platforms such as PC [
76
], mobile [
88
], and PS Vita [
69
].
The VN player community has also created VNDB, a community managed database for tagging
and reviewing VNs with over 27,000 entries as of April 18th, 2020. Furthermore, commercial VNs
have also seen recent interest as a subject of study in academic papers. E.g., Carstensdottir et
al. [
15
], examined the structure and narrative progression of various interactive narrative games
including VNs such as Doki Doki Literature Club and Long Live the Queen. Similarly, other popular
commercial VNs such as Hatoful Boyfriend have been the subject of work analyzing how the VN
subverts tropes and conventions of Japanese popular culture [30].
Despite relatively simple core mechanics, VNs have incorporated a variety of themes ranging
from Horror Survival (e.g., Spirit Hunter: Death Mark [
46
]) and Murder Mystery (e.g., Danganronpa
V3: Killing Harmony [
82
]) to Historical Fantasy (e.g., Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms [
42
]) and Romance
(e.g., Amnesia: Memories [
41
]). The increasing popularity of VNs, coupled with the introduction
of free and accessible VN authoring tools, has raised both interest and awareness for the use of
VNs in other applications such as education [
13
]. However, the question of how to dene VNs as a
genre has remained elusive.
The genre’s heavy use of text and emphasis on reading as a central activity has prompted repeated
comparisons to books and seen VNs referred to as their interactive counterparts, such as in [
87
] and
[
10
]. Notably, some literary genres have made a successful transition between the two narrative
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
285:4 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
mediums, with both straight and queer players recognizing romance VNs as “romance novels in
interactive visual form" [
60
]. However, while similar, VNs remain distinct from their non-digital and
non-interactive counterparts for several reasons. First, VNs only show one snippet of text at a time
as the player interacts with the game [
31
], the snippet being dependent on player action or choices
and even shaping future interaction. Further, while VNs share many traits with choose-your-own
adventure books [
10
]—a legacy shared with most modern interactive ction and storytelling design
in video games [
34
,
62
,
64
]—VNs often incorporate more involved mechanical and constraint based
gameplay to impact the progression of the story and the relevance/complexity of player choice
[15].
As a whole, the VN genre has ultimately not been extensively explored and researched [
12
].
While VNs have had a number of denitions in academic and commercial literature, most of these
denitions have focused primarily on the aesthetics of the games [
11
,
16
,
26
,
28
,
29
,
31
,
40
,
49
,
57
,
66
68
,
70
,
71
,
75
,
79
], structure and choice [
7
,
10
,
22
,
28
,
29
,
36
,
57
,
67
,
71
,
71
,
80
], and story quality
[
12
,
16
,
49
,
53
,
79
]. Surprisingly, there has been a limited focus on interactivity within existing
VN denitions, primarily referring to interactivity as being minimal or lacking [
4
,
26
,
36
,
40
,
67
].
Notably, there is some disagreement to what extent story quality and other elements like interaction
inuence how VNs should be dened. For example, it has been argued that VNs are "reliant on
the text and the actual content instead of interactivity" [
12
], while others describe certain types of
input performance and interactivity—such as the classic click-to-continue interaction where the
player clicks to receive the next part of story—as being a part of VNs [7,36,40,57].
More directly related to the work presented in this paper, Lynch et al. [
58
] focused on a broader
understanding of VNs where they examined six existing VNs and their feature sets—three of which
were in the top 100 most popular games on VNDB. Although it did provide a wider perspective of
VNs, this work was mainly focused on how a game engine could implement the features found in
their data set and did not fully dene features that were essential to all standard VNs. This work
also did not consider or compare existing denitions of VNs. Instead, the focus was on the problem
of how to make a VN and not what is a VN.
Ultimately, most denitions of VNs as a genre only contain a small number of elements, leaving
out concepts deemed as central to the genre in other denitions. A unied denition would allow
for a more comprehensive view and approach to the study/design of VNs, as well as to the use of
VNs in development of various high impact application areas, such as education and health, where
their accessibility and ease of use has the potential to be leveraged with great eect.
2.3 Serious Applications of Visual Novels
VNs have been used extensively as a tool to address numerous serious topics such as education,
health, and disabilities, to name a few. For instance, VNs have been employed to teach topics such as
second-language acquisition [
25
,
86
], chemistry [
89
,
92
], life management [
49
], research skills [
87
],
and cooking [
44
,
45
]. Recent work has even constructed a taxonomy categorizing how VNs can
deliver educational content [
13
]—describing the dierent teaching strategies currently employed
by educational VNs. With respect to health applications, past work has focused on teaching health
concepts such as nutrition [
77
], explored how an individual VN can improve patient perspectives
and support desired health outcomes [
93
], and addressed complex health related topics such as
disability [17,84].
Another frequent serious application of VNs is exploring narratives and issues faced by under-
represented communities/populations, such as gender inequality and queer narratives [
90
]. For
instance, recent work by Salter et al. [
79
] has examined the design of Buttery Soup and its portrayal
of queer identity and experience. Schaufert [
81
] has similarly analyzed the design of Dream Daddy,
highlighting that it normalizes the "queer daddy gure" yet can create negative feelings as well.
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
What is a Visual Novel? 285:5
Notably, Dream Daddy also became an exceptionally popular and successful VN—where in 2017,
it replaced rst-person shooter Overwatch "as the most-discussed videogame on Tumblr for the
rst time in more than nine months," and it was at the "top of Steam’s global sales chart, unseating
battle-royal phenomenon PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds" [
39
]. The growing use of VNs as serious
contexts highlights the potential impact VNs could have beyond entertainment, and underscores
the importance of having a unied denition for VN in order to support research and design for
serious applications.
Fig. 1. An overview of the methodology used to construct a unified definition of VNs.
3 METHODOLOGY
Creating a unied denition of VNs requires identifying their essential core design features. To
do this, we performed a comprehensive search for VN papers and denitions—resulting in the
identication of 30 existing denitions from the literature. These denitions were then analyzed
to identify key theoretical design features underlying VNs. Simultaneously, we also collected a
VN corpus of 54 games in order to analyze playable instances of VNs in comparison with the
theoretical denitions. Each VN was played or at least 10 hours or until nished, whichever came
rst, and common design features that emerged during gameplay but weren’t identied in the
theoretical design features were recorded. The VN corpus was then played through and labeled a
second time utilizing all features from both the theoretical and emergent feature sets. The labeling
using the larger set of design features was then analyzed, resulting in a set of core design features
that occurred in 95% or more of the VN games from the corpus. See Figure 1for a visual overview
of the process. These core features were then used to construct a unied denition of VNs.
For feature labeling, we employed a single researcher approach. This was done to keep the data
consistent across the study by avoiding the creation data inconsistencies caused by individual
dierences between researchers. Importantly, this approach has been employed successfully before
in prior game research—specically for analyzing narrative games [
15
] and educational visual
novels [
13
]—and is therefore a reasonable method to employ for this kind of analytic research.
However, in order to mitigate individual researcher bias, the researcher that performed feature
labeling also met weekly with two additional senior researchers to present, discuss, rene, and
nalize all identied features and labeling.
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
285:6 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
3.1 Academic Definitions
Collecting denitions
. First, the researchers compiled academic papers that addressed the topic
of VNs. These papers were identied through a systematic review of proceedings of recognized
venues for technical games research, game studies, and interactive narrative—specically FDG,
DiGRA, ICIDS, CHIPLAY, Game Studies, and Transactions on Games. This was then augmented
with a search through Google Scholar. The keyword "visual novel" was used across all searches,
and papers that did not provide an explicit denition of a VN were excluded. All papers selected
for the analysis were required to contain an explicit VN denition. This requirement was included
to prevent accidental researcher bias from interpreting and/or extracting denitions from papers
that didn’t explicitly provide one. This process resulted in 30 papers, each containing a denition
of a VN. Afterwards, a table was constructed for analysis. The rows consisted of the 30 denitions
collected, and the columns consisted of all VN features identied in the various denitions—these
features are explained in more detail in section 4.1. In one specic case, for the concept of level of
interactivity, the researcher recorded the varying degrees of interactivity that were detailed in each
denition—ranging from only pressing a button to advance the story (no interactivity) to providing
choices that impact the story (moderate interactivity) or minigames and puzzles to complete (high
interactivity). A rst pass was done to nd commonalities and dierences between the general
features that each denition covered. The result was then used to inform what specic features to
identify on the rst play through of the games.
To further reduce bias, the researcher performed a second pass, where they performed detailed
review of each denition with two additional researchers. Another table was constructed to describe
exact keywords for the identied VN features. One by one, the researchers reread each denition,
highlighted the key words within that denition, and if that keyword was not already in the table,
the keyword was added as a new column. Otherwise, if the keyword already existed within the
table or a very close synonym existed, the researcher marked down that this denition contained
this existing keyword. Notably, this approach helps to compare the explicit wordings of denitions
without interpretation by the researchers. These keywords were also ultimately used to construct
the nal unied denition.
3.2 VN Search Strategy
In order to identify which features from academic denitions were also commonly found in VNs
(and ultimately aid in constructing a more grounded unied denition), the researchers constructed
a corpus of games. Notably, this approach of collecting and analyzing of a large corpus of related
games has also previously been employed in other genre dening work, e.g., [
5
,
38
,
55
]. The
researchers began their search by formulating a set of three selection criteria. First, the game is
tagged as a VN on its respective distribution platform. These tags are usually assigned by publishers,
developers, and in the case of Steam by players. Games that fulll this criterion are representative
of the industry and players themselves identify as VNs. The second criterion was that the game’s
published description, or an academic paper, explicitly identies a particular game as a VN. This
criterion helps lter for games that developers or academics consider VNs. The third criterion was
that the game must be documented in VNDB, meaning they are considered VNs by the player
community. The researchers collected the initial set of VNs from previous academic literature that
explicitly identied VNs. These games fullled the second selection criterion. The researchers then
collected an additional sample based on critical acclaim and popularity within the VN community.
The researchers then looked for VNs that fullled one of the three selection criteria on three
dierent distribution platforms. These platforms were Steam, Itch.io, and the Google Play Store.
The researchers chose these three as they are currently the largest distribution platforms for PC
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What is a Visual Novel? 285:7
games (Steam), indie games (itch.io), and Android mobile games (Google Play Store). The researchers
collected 54 games in total. This provides a substantial sample and additional games would yield
diminishing returns for this study. 19 of the games within the nal corpus were educational.
3.3 Collecting VN Data
A single researcher played all 54 VNs. Each VN was played for at least 10 hours or until completion
if that occurred rst. The researcher, to the best of their ability, attempted to get as many endings as
possible if the game indicated that it had multiple endings. Additionally, cheats and walkthroughs
were used when available in order to explore and uncover as much of the content and design of
the VNs as possible during a play session. Furthermore, the researcher also created an illustrative
mapping of the story tree as they played the game in order to help organize understanding of
the structure of the story. The researchers chose to play the VNs instead of watching footage
since gameplay is vastly dierent than watching a playthrough, providing more authentic results
than video. This is also the typical approach in existing game research which generally relies on
gameplay rst and uses videos as secondary sources when necessary [6].
When playing the researcher identied and took note of the design features of each VN. A feature
in this context is an audio or visual element of a game (there were no kinematic elements—i.e.,
touch feedback and motion based interactions—for any of the games in our corpus). For analysis,
the researchers constructed a table of features identied from the earlier academic denitions in
order to record how they mapped to the design features of each VN. The features extracted into
the table were directly mention by each academic paper’s denition. Each column of this table
represented a specic feature. In this way, it was possible to identify how well the games t into
existing scholarly denitions, and a game and an academic denition could be compared visually
by seeing which columns were empty or lled out.
After playing each game, the researcher recorded a "1" for that feature if it was present and "0" if
it was not present. Additional features were also added to the table if an appropriate match did
not exist. Specically, four features were generated through playing games in the VN corpus, i.e.,
linear story structure,includes traditional text box,includes non-traditional text box, and on-click
progression for text box. On a second pass the researchers replayed games and grouped together
similar keywords/features to form nal unique design feature categories, i.e., axial coding [
78
]. In
total, there were 22 unique design features identied.
4 RESULTS
4.1 Comparing Definitions of Visual Novel
The data set of academic denitions of VNs consisted of 30 denitions, and collectively converged
on a set of four design categories: Art and Aesthetic, Narrative Structure, Interaction, and Story
Quality. Each VN denition incorporated one or more design feature from these categories, and
6.19 features on average out of the 22 unique features identied through analysis. See Figure 4for
each design feature and its frequency of occurrence in the academic denitions. Also see Figure 2
for the relationship of each design feature to the four design categories.
Art and Aesthetic
refers to elements like imagery, graphics, and art style. Aesthetic elements
are identied in 14 VN denitions and surrounding discussion, e.g.,[
4
,
22
,
26
,
28
,
29
,
40
,
47
,
49
,
57
,
68
,
71
,
75
,
77
]. The denitions varied in the way images were dened or described. For example,
some described static images or illustrations [
29
]. Other denitions specify the use of images as
backgrounds [
31
,
68
] and character art [
4
,
28
,
31
,
71
,
77
]. Several denitions specically identify the
Japanese inuence on both the art and general aesthetics of VNs, with 4 denitions stating that VNs
have anime-inspired aesthetics [
28
,
29
,
67
,
71
]. Specically, Faizal [
29
] describes VNs as containing
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
285:8 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
Fig. 2. All 22 features and their relationship within the 4 larger design categories identified in academic
definitions.
mostly static images commonly represented in "anime cartoon" style, and Navarro-Remesal and
Longuillo-Lopex’s denition [
67
] similarly argues that VNs "derive from manga". Emi and Okuda
[
28
] describe VNs as featuring "static graphics and anime-styled characters". While Pratama et al.
[
71
] specify that VNs "have static backgrounds, dynamic characters that are generally manga or
anime-styled and sound eects". However, while VNs did originate in Japan, they are now widely
developed outside of it and convey stories outside of its cultural context, e.g. [
32
,
73
]. Notably,
a total of 9 denitions do not specify the art style of VNs [
4
,
26
,
40
,
47
,
49
,
57
,
68
,
75
,
77
], likely
reecting this shift.
Narrative Structure
refers to structure pattern types and structural elements, and are promi-
nently featured in 14 denitions. More specically, narrative structure is featured in the form
of specic structure patterns such as branching structures [
10
,
22
,
36
,
57
,
67
,
71
], and structural
elements like endings and choices [
7
,
28
,
29
,
71
,
80
]. Furthermore, some denitions specied that
VNs included multiple endings as a result of player choice [
28
,
29
,
57
,
80
], which can indicate the
presence of a branching structure to a player. This suggests that branching structures were included
implicitly in more denitions than explicitly stated.
Interaction
within VNs was incorporated in a variety of ways for almost all of the VN denitions
(23 out of 30). Notably, some denitions specied that VNs have limited interactivity [
4
,
36
,
40
,
67
]
or minimal gameplay [
26
]. However, denitions did not agree on how limited interaction was
dened or quantied, with descriptions of limited interaction varying from "limited" to "making
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
What is a Visual Novel? 285:9
decisions that aect the progress of the game" [
4
,
12
,
40
,
47
,
49
,
57
,
67
]. In terms of design elements,
choices were frequently used to describe how the player might be able to mechanically interact with
and impact the narrative [
4
,
7
,
10
,
12
,
28
,
29
,
40
,
49
,
50
,
57
,
67
,
75
,
80
]. More specic descriptions
of interaction within the denitions identied the click-to-continue interaction, where the player
clicks to receive the next part of story [
7
,
36
,
40
,
57
]. At least one denition identied the dialog box
specically [
71
], which is where story content is often delivered via click-to-continue interaction.
Interestingly, more complex interaction elements such as mini-games and puzzle gameplay, as seen
in well-known and successful VN series like Danganronpa and Phoenix Wright, were not widely
incorporated—with only one denition including RPG elements like puzzles and minigames [68].
Story Quality
was identied as another signicant part of VN design, with 8 denitions specify-
ing the quality of the story itself and its elements as being an integral part of VNs. For instance, VNs
have been described as "reliant on the text and the actual content instead of interactivity" and that
characters play a large role in that content [
12
]. This is echoed by Salter et al. [
79
], stating that VNs
are inuenced by character-centric forms of storytelling and rely heavily on dialog. Moving beyond
discussions of importance, there were also several notable story quality elements identied by the
denitions. Cavallaro [
16
] highlights "plot depth and subtle characterization" as key elements of
VNs while Korhonen and Halonen [
49
] list immersive storytelling. Romance, a popular literary
genre of VNs 6, was also included in 2 denitions that focused on romance and dating simulation
elements [60,79].
4.2 Interactivity in Visual Novels
Although almost all academic denitions of VNs incorporated interactivity in some form, the wide
variety of ways it was employed warranted further exploration. For our study the denition of
interactivity was any aorded, provided, or forced action needed to progress within the game.
An interactive action, in the context of our investigation has to have some meaningful cognitive
load or decision making. We measured the level of interactivity based on perceived cognitive
load, frequency, and physical activity of an interaction. In particular, the focus on low amounts
of interactivity—and subsequent lack of more complex interaction elements such as puzzles or
minigames—could be examined by measuring the frequency of interaction for each game within
our game corpus (see Figure 3).
In order to determine the frequency of interaction, we set a timer for thirty minutes and replayed
each of the 54 VNs. We chose the thirty minute sampling as VNs in our corpus rarely had extensive
or elaborate tutorials and generally established their core loop and rhythm of gameplay early.
Before deciding on the sample method, each VN was evaluated in terms of whether the rst thirty
minutes were subjectively similar to their overall gameplay by the researcher who played each
VN extensively. On average, the rst thirty minutes were concluded to be representative of the
VNs overall gameplay and thus deemed to be sucient to indicate overall gameplay interaction
frequency.
As a VN was being replayed, we noted down how many interactions, such as menu choices, were
provided within the given time. Afterwards, the total number of interactions per game was divided
by 30 to calculate the frequency per minute. These values were then normalized to a range between
0 and 3 by dividing by the max frequency of interactions (i.e., Pastry Lovers at 2.36 interactions on
average per minute) and multiplying by 3.
Surprisingly, most VNs had less than one interaction per minute, with an average of only 0.37
interactions per minute. Furthermore, the only exceptions to this extremely limited interaction
6
Romance is tagged as the fth-most popular sub-genre of visual novels in VNStat [
1
], a community-ran site that identies
trends on the Visual Novel Data Base (VNDB).
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285:10 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
Fig. 3. An overview of the frequency of interactions per minute within the first 30 minutes of gameplay for
each of the VNs. Values were normalized to fit the range 0 to 3.
frequency still had less than three total interactions per minute. Overall, the ranges for number of
interactions per game varied quite substantially. A total of 9 games had 0 interactions, due to a
heavy focus on narrative, whereas stat-building VNs like Long Live the Queen and Pastry Lovers
had 51 and 71 interactions respectively.
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What is a Visual Novel? 285:11
4.3 Craing a Unified Definition
In order to craft a unied denition for VNs, we rst determined the set of essential core features
that would be incorporated into the nal denition. Breakdown per feature can be see in Figure
5. A core feature was identied as applying to at least 95% of the VNs included in the corpus. We
chose 95% as the cuto point since it gave us a high degree of condence that the corresponding
design feature was highly prevalent in VNs beyond just our corpus. We identied 10 core features
of VNs: Narrative-focused, Interactivity Required, Background Art, Static Characters, SFX, Music,
Includes Traditional Text Box, On-Click Progression, Action Menu Choices, and Dialogue Menu
Choices.
Using these core factors, and analysis of the VN corpus, we propose the following new denition
of a VN:
A Visual Novel (VN) is a digital narrative focused game that requires interactions where the
player must be able to impact the story world or the story’s progression. The story and interactions
are most commonly presented through a text box and often employ additional forms of interac-
tion including menu choices—which often contain sets of actions that the player character can
perform—or dialogue options representing the player character’s speech or thoughts. Crucially,
VNs have On-Click Progression, where the player clicks, taps or presses a button to see the next
part of the story. The aesthetics of VNs are most often conveyed through static images of characters,
background art, sound eects (SFX) feedback, and soundtracks.
Previously existing academic denitions of VNs included an average of 2.17 explicit mentions of
the 10 core features. The most comprehensive existing VN denition, by Lu [
57
], incorporated the
highest number of core features with 7 out of 10 features included. Overall, this demonstrates that
our unied denition of VNs is far more comprehensive than existing academic denitions, and
provides a number of clear, identiable features for the design of VNs. This denition also accounts
for visual novels in contexts beyond entertainment, such as education, and holds true for the 19
educational visual novels within our corpus.
5 DISCUSSION
5.1 Design Implications
Our ndings show that there is some mismatch in terms of emphasis between academic denitions
of VNs and existing work categorized as VNs. Some academic denitions in our sample specied
that VNs are interactive but overall focused more on the quantity of interaction rather than the
design features enabling it.
VNs have an inherent set of interaction aordances that manifest as a result of their use of
on-click progression of story content presented via text boxes and menu choice selection. While the
majority of academic denitions in our sample did not include features like text boxes and on-click
progression, these features were observed in all the games in our corpus. Likewise, 53 out of 54
games had menu choices presented with an onscreen menu, but these were not present in the vast
majority of denitions collected for this study. The notable exception here is Burn Your Fat With
Me!! [
43
] which did not have any choices presented to the player but did ask them to follow along
with exercises presented in the game in the real world. These interaction aordances make up core
design patterns or game architecture [
8
] of VNs. Use of these patterns allows players to "experience
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285:12 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
Fig. 4. All 22 features mapped by how many academic definitions they appeared in from the 30 collected
academic definitions.
Fig. 5. All 54 games mapped by feature, across all 22 features identified in the study. Core features were
identified as being present in 95% of the games in the corpus, represented by a cut-o line in the figure. The
core features are identified by a doed paern in the figure. All values were scaled by a factor so that all 54
games were visible.
variety while remaining within the scope of a familiar and appreciated game experience for which
they are already competent" [
8
]. In other words implementing the features players expect to be
present for the genre, such as the core features identied in our study, improves the usability of
the game and aligns with a player’s game literacy. Not including the core features might confuse
players and violate their expectations.
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What is a Visual Novel? 285:13
The aordances provided by VNs combined with limited interaction frequency supports the
genre’s ability to deliver educational content. On average VNs within the corpus had 0.37 inter-
actions per minute within the rst thirty minutes of game play. Recall that levels of interactivity
are measured based on perceived cognitive load. Common interactions in VNs, such as click to
continue progression, are relatively simple and require limited input from the player [
13
]. This
reduces the need for players to spend excessive cognitive load to play the game. Players can instead
cognitively engage in understanding material instead of engaging in learning new mechanics.
Story structures, like branching and linear structure patterns, are often used to describe the
nature of the inuence the player has when interacting with a story. Branching structures allow
for more variety in experience than linear structures, by allowing the player more opportunities
to inuence and shape the story and its outcomes through branching choices. Notably, 9 of 30
denitions in our sample included a requirement that VNs contain branching stories. However,
while branching structure was heavily utilized by VNs in our corpus, linear structures were also
notably prevalent, where 10 out of 54 or about 18% of the corpus did not include a branching
story structure. Most notably popular games such as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy [
14
]
and Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony [82] had a perceived linear story structure. Therefore the
denition of VN presented by this paper does not include the restriction of specifying a particular
structure type for VNs, instead leaving that design decision exible to the designer and goals of the
VN.
5.2 Improving the Design of Educational VNs
One benet of having a unied denition for VNs is that it more clearly outlines the potential
design space for such games. Notably, this also allows us to examine designs within important
subgenres such as educational VNs. Of the 54 VNs from the corpus, 19 were focused on educational
applications. In this subsection, we analyze these 19 educational VNs with respect to our unied
denition as a test—highlighting the ecacy of our denition for identifying underexplored design
features and potentially improving the design of future educational VNs.
These VNs shared many common design decisions with their entertainment focused counterparts
including personalization options for the player (e.g., choosing their gender or changing the player
character’s name) [
25
,
45
,
45
,
89
,
92
], having romantic love interests [
43
45
,
72
,
84
,
86
,
89
,
92
],
minigames [
25
,
37
,
43
,
72
], and branching storylines with multiple endings [
44
,
45
,
84
,
86
,
89
,
92
].
However, there were some notable dierences between the two where educational VNs often
utilized less of the design space within the VN genre—resulting in a number of features that could
potentially improve their designs and learning outcomes.
For instance, none of the educational VNs employed any story-based customization—i.e., choices
that alter the player’s character and aect the story. However, this is seen commonly in enter-
tainment VNs that use stats such as Dandelion - Wishes Brought To You [
85
] and Monster Prom
[
32
]. In both of these non-educational games, the player chooses activities for the protagonist
which increase or decrease certain stats. These stats then alter the route of the story and possible
choices presented to the player. In contrast, educational games relied more on menu choices as the
main form of interacting with the story. While menu choices are simple, clear, and a direct way
to communicate with players, story-based customizations have the potential to better represent
eects of long term decision making. For example, in Dandelion - Wishes Brought To You every
activity has a trade o. If the player chooses to do homework their character’s art skills increase
but their character’s stress also increases. This models the idea of a work-life balance, since the
player will reach a game over state if they don’t carefully manage all stats, and presents it in a more
intuitive form than possible with standard menu choices. This type of day planning could possibly
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
285:14 Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdoir, & Edward F. Melcer
be used to enhance educational games with stats focused topics such as nutrition, infection rates,
or ecosystems to name a few potential examples.
Similarly, none of the educational VNs featured player-centric interactions—i.e., interactions
that assist the player but ultimately do not aect the story—while a number of the entertainment
focused VNs did. For instance, Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms[
42
] and Valentyne Stories Necromancy [
9
],
had a glossary or journal that included important key words for the player to reference. It served as
a way to explain and give context pertaining to the story for the player. Educational visual novels
could benet from implementing similar features. Just as the glossary provides context in games
such as Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms, a glossary in an educational VN could remind players of previously
taught concepts. For example, the game After-Party Chemistry[
92
] assumes that the player already
knows basic chemistry and attempts to add on to that knowledge. A glossary in this case would
help the player understand and remember new terminology or recall terminology they may have
forgotten.
6 LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE WORK
When identifying features from the denitions from academic papers, three keywords were judged
either too broad or not suciently dened to be applicable during the analysis process, and thus were
excluded. These three keywords were "limited to reading," "complex stories," and "minimal gameplay".
While broad they represent constructs relating to both interactivity and content complexity. The
former was at least partially incorporated via analysis of frequency of interaction, while content
complexity of the story itself was deemed outside the scope of the work.
It is worth noting that while a signicantly sized corpus, 54 games might not be fully representa-
tive of the entire genre. Future work should aim to improve methods of constructing representative
sets of games for genre construction and games research more broadly, so that the eld can more
eectively study and contextualize its ndings.
In addition, certain features identied in the study warrant further exploration. One example is
story structure. Story structure, in the context of this work, was described in terms of how it was
perceived by a single researcher. Having more than one researcher play and document the games
would introduce variation in descriptions that could be of interest. Further, there are more structure
types and patterns that have been identied in the literature than strictly branching and linear
story structures, such as fold-back and hidden story structures [
15
], which might have further
impact on VN experiences.
7 CONCLUSION
The Visual Novel (VN) is a widely popular and recognizable narrative-focused game genre whose
popularity has been steadily increasing in recent years. Their popularity has been bolstered even
further with the increase of free VN game engines, such as Ren’Py [
18
], which have made VN
creation more accessible to novice designers while allowing expert designers to construct complex
and engaging work. In addition, the accessibility of VNs to a variety of players and skill levels has
led to their use in high-impact domains like education [
4
,
13
,
23
,
26
,
29
,
31
,
35
,
40
,
49
,
51
,
68
,
87
]
and health [
77
,
93
]. Accessibility for players is key in such domains to reach as many individuals as
possible, and its popularity and narrative focus make it a highly suitable choice of gameplay for a
variety of domains. Thus, the value of studying and improving VN design within HCI and Game
Studies is signicant. While existing academic work on VNs has provided a variety of denitions
of VNs, these denitions can vary wildly—which in turn has substantial implications for the design
of such games. Creating a unied denition of VNs as a genre and understanding the key elements
of a VN’s design allows us to better inform design and research of VNs, not just for entertainment
but also their application in high impact domains such as education and health. In this paper, we
Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 5, No. CHI PLAY, Article 285. Publication date: September 2021.
What is a Visual Novel? 285:15
propose a unied denition of VNs developed from analyzing existing denitions of VNs as a
genre and a large corpus of commercial and educational VNs. We discussed key features from our
unied denition and their implications on the design of VNs for both entertainment and serious
applications.
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... Resilient IN is built for Windows machines using Unity and the ink plugin 1 to script the game's interactive narrative. We chose the interactive narrative genre for Resilient IN's design since interactive narratives are a highly accessible genre of games due to a low demand on player actions, focus on storytelling, and role-playing elements all helping to engage a larger audience [11,69]. This accessible aspect of interactive narratives has made them highly popular with men, women, and even novices to games [12], as well as for educational/training purposes both commercially and in academia [11,18,46,50]. ...
... We chose the interactive narrative genre for Resilient IN's design since interactive narratives are a highly accessible genre of games due to a low demand on player actions, focus on storytelling, and role-playing elements all helping to engage a larger audience [11,69]. This accessible aspect of interactive narratives has made them highly popular with men, women, and even novices to games [12], as well as for educational/training purposes both commercially and in academia [11,18,46,50]. Furthermore, the role-playing nature of interactive narratives has been shown to be highly effective at improving player attitudes [24,25], motivation [23], knowledge [45], and skills [44]. ...
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