Every time I settle down to play — or even to write about — a visual novel, I’m reminded of how much I love the medium.
I use the word “medium” when referring to visual novels rather than “genre” because in many cases, it’s not entirely accurate to call them “games”, despite the fact that they tend to be festooned in the trappings of video games. Most tend to include some sort of metagame element, be it a simple checklist of endings, a CG gallery with a completion percentage or, in the case of more complex games like the recently localised Steins;Gate, even achievements. Most of them are presented in a distinctly game-like fashion, with console-style main menus that make pleasing noises when you click on them, colourful but clear text boxes with a little spinny thing in the corner that tells you when you’ve reached the end of the current paragraph, and all manner of other things.
And yet they’re not games. Not really. They’re interactive stories — some having no more than one or two meaningful choices over the course of the entire narrative, and some even eschewing the element of choice whatsoever — that make use of multimedia presentation to distinguish themselves from, you know, reading a book. The combination of static background images, static or lightly animated characters, music, voice acting, sound effects and text all combine to create a very distinctive effect — and one that can be a powerful poke to the imagination.