Visual Novels are a strange creature, with the term only now really reaching mainstream Western culture through such avenues as the Phoenix Wright series and the newly minted Zero Escape series, originally known as the game 999 – Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors. Arguably, visual novels have been present in the west for ages, though not recognized as such.

Visual novels have a bit of an identity crisis. This is perhaps because of the broad definition. Stripped to the most basic elements, it appears that visual novels require a graphical element and a story conveyed through the written word.  Most visual novels include music and sound effects, they often include animation, and an increasing number are partially or fully voiced.  So, by the strict definition, a visual novel can encompass anything from an illustrated ebook (which many would consider a stretch) to a fully animated, fully voiced presentation – essentially a movie with subtitles and user prompts.  Visual novels generally – but not always – have choices at pivotal points, in the vein of Choose Your Own Adventure books.  So, to qualify as a visual novel, it appears to require the visual element, the text element, and user-prompted progression, often with a multiple choice element.

Definition aside, the general approach of Visual Novels is a text window with a background designating the location and portraits of the characters interacting with the main character (generally portraits from the knees up). At key points when the text description seems insufficient, there will be a CG (I’m guessing it stands for Custom Graphic, but the acronym’s never actually been explained to me).  Again, this is not the ideal for Visual Novels – it is only the norm.

Likely due in part to the unclear identity, there is discussion and debate over whether Visual Novels can be considered Video Games. From a technical standpoint, they bear a strong resemblance to video games, packaged in a similar manner, with a presentation bearing many of the tropes of video game design (i.e. save/load feature, “victory” and “defeat,” etc.) The waters get muddied even further as Visual Novels mover further and further away from static images and text. If we were to classify Visual Novels as a sort of Video Game, they would likely be the most obvious form of non-Toy video game.

999 is pretty universally considered a Visual Novel.  Oddly enough, there appears to be less certainty that Phoenix Wright is a visual novel, despite the seeming closer adherence to Visual Novel conventions. 999 has loads and loads of text, a Forking Multipath structure, and a few (limited) animations. 999 is also an example of a Visual Novel hybrid. In between the visual novel sequences, there are “room escape” segments, in which you explore a room Myst-style (or Monkey Island), use random objects in resourceful ways, all to find a way to get out of the room.  In this way, 999 is half Toy and half Visual Novel.

Phoenix Wright also presents the loads and loads of text, portraits and text boxes, and actually has arguably less Toy to it.  The Investigation portions are a quasi-Network narrative (i.e. much more Linear with the appearance of choice), while the Courtroom portions are a heavily Branching Linear with pre-decisional looping (i.e. everything repeats until you make a decision).  This ties into an entirely unnecessary failure condition to give a weak appearance of Toy. Strictly speaking, the entire Ace Attorney (i.e. Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice, Investigations) series is a terrible Toy, yet is more likely to be considered a video game rather than a Visual Novel.

I would argue that the reason Ace Attorney is considered a Video game is because it has a strong similarity with the Adventure games of yore, such as Monkey Island, King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, etc.  However, each of these games hold some similarity to visual novels.  Many JRPGs also resemble Visual Novels, with a plethora of portraits and text boxes.  Arguably, the Mass Effect Series is a visual novel – instead of 999‘s room escapes, it has third-person shooter segments with RPG elements. Considering it is the narrative and choices that people talk about with Mass Effect, not the mediocre third-person shooter, it could be argued that Mass Effect deserves to be considered a Visual Novel.

There is, however, one notorious element which relegates Visual Novels to a marginalized class – the eroge.

What is an eroge?  Like Visual Novel, the term is broad and vague. It’s a Japanese-originated portmanteau of English words (they do that a LOT).  It is a combination of “erotic” and “game.” If a game contains sexual content, it’s placed in the eroge bucket.  Mass Effect and Monkey Island fans don’t want to be associated with Japanese fetish porn (can’t blame them), so they distance themselves from the concept of a Visual Novel, because Visual Novels are associated with eroge. And yes, if Mass Effect is a Visual Novel, it’s also an eroge.

Not all eroge are created equal. On one end of the spectrum, you have a half-hearted attempt at plot to serve as an excuse to hop from one explicit scene to the next.  Those are porn, plain and simple. Then you have an actual effort at a story, sprinkled liberally with explicit scenes.  This is harder to categorize, because there are some truly compelling stories, buried under layers of porn.  Some of the stories had later versions with the explicit content removed, but most never receive a clean rerelease. So, for the most part, you have the narrative equivalent of an ice cream sundae drizzled with motor oil, which is a shame.  Finally, there are stories which happen to have explicit content, but the content is properly contextualized in the narrative.  With the game elements of many Visual Novels, this becomes an unfortunate “Sex as a reward,” though not always the case.  Even at that, this latter category seems to have a very strong stigma against it.  This likely ties to the perception of Visual Novels as Video Games, Video Games as Toys, and Toys as being purely for kids.  There are several movies which have explicit content, often entirely gratuitous, and they receive critical acclaim.  When a Visual Novel has explicit content, even if it is measured, tasteful, and relevant to the plot, it is dismissed as some sort of twisted juvenile porn.

Whether or not it is proper to address explicit material in a narrative is a question of art as a whole. There are several factors, as I have previously addressed, but it is not a judgement that can be made on the basis of medium, only on content, intent, and interpretation. And even then, the final element of the experience is the individual.  An individual, in the proper (or improper) disposition, can find pornography in great art, or great art buried in pornography.  One should obviously avoid the former, but it must be a solemn and well-considered decision to attempt the latter – the experience will change the individual, so it is best to be prudent in determining what should be experienced.