What counts as a game? You’d think it would be an easy enough answer, but many self-proclaimed ‘gamers’ like to point fingers, accusing others of being ‘fake gamers’ or ‘not real gamers’ due to their choices in entertainment. One of the targets for these claims are visual novels, games that are often more story-driven than player-driven, with minimal interaction. But is a lack of gameplay really enough to condemn them?
To start things off, let’s define what I mean by visual novels. A quick search tells us that a visual novel is “an interactive fiction video game genre, featuring text-based story… and interactivity aided by static or sprite-based visuals, most often using anime-style art.” A couple key elements here are the text-based story, sprite/anime anime art style, and branching narratives. So… what’s the argument? It says ‘interactive fiction video game’ right there, doesn’t it?
Ah, not so fast!
One main argument against visual novels is that they’re essentially mixed-media novels, with the only real ‘interactivity’ being equivalent to turning a page and advancing dialogue. You wouldn’t call a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ book a game, would you? However, this argument can lead to a very slippery slope when defining what does or doesn’t count as interactivity. Is a movie interactive because you can start or stop it? Not to mention that choose-your-own-adventure books are a pretty unique genre among books to begin with. The vast, vast majority of novels are a linear narrative with a single ending. Sure, you can debate what an ending means, but they don’t have nearly the branching structures that some visual novels hold. And speaking of, how many big-name games also have a linear, railroad story where your choices don’t really change anything? Mario always rescues the princess at the end, regardless of what path you took to save her. How interactive is that really?
Genre also has a significant effect on how people perceive the ‘game’-ness of games. It’s no coincidence that a large number of visual novels are romantic games or dating sims, categories that already draw skepticism from critics. However, genre is used to great effect in the psychological horror game Doki Doki Literature Club to subvert players’ expectations and provide an eerie horror experience. Or consider another top seller in visual novel games, the Danganronpa series of games. With 3 main series games, a third-person shooter spin off, various manga and novel adaptations and spin-offs, and 2 anime series, I think it’s fair to say that this game series was widely popular.
Surprisingly, in researching this article, I also discovered that the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series is considered a visual novel game, though it’s cross-listed with adventure games.I think this is where the main division lies: adventure. Do games need adventure and challenge to make them games, or is it enough to merely create a story? I think not. Games by definition are hard to pin down, and I’d like to lean on inclusivity rather than exclusivity.
Games are fun, interactive things that should bring us together, not lead to shouting and accusations (though I’ll admit it’s fun on occasion to shout ‘Objection!’) Play what you like as a gamer, and make what you want as a developer!