Do You Consider Visual Novels To Be Games?

SPOILER NOTE: I’d prefer if we avoided them entirely in this thread just so that it’s safe as a theoretical discussion topic. Tag spoilers if you absolutely must use them but only if there’s no better way to make a point.

A bit of a strange question, I know, but one that I think is a bit fascinating. The writeups for Higurashi and Umineko at times assert that they are “games;” the MangaGamer release of Higurashi even asserts that they are “games, not novels.” Do you think this is the case?

I think it’s fairly complicated and somewhat disagree. At first glance, certainly Higurashi/Umineko don’t look like games at all. You read them start to finish and don’t really interact with them. Most kinetic novels of that sort seem very much to be closer to a book or film/play than a video game, other than where you play them.

At the same time there are plenty of VNs with choices in them. You’ve got your dating games with route choices, but how much more of a “game” is there to choose a storyline? Then you’ve got examples of routes flagged by in-game choices, which is considerably more “gamey” than the prior example, but is this a game? You’d then end up with things like Tokimeki Memorial where you’ve got flags and choices but also gamelike elements like scheduling and stat management. People would probably consider that a game in common thought, and certainly something like Phoenix Wright is thought of as at least sort of a game. Point-and-click adventure games and most Interactive Fiction would also be seen by most people as games, and these are arguably the closest cousins of the VN in the video game spectrum. The addition of a purpose or objective beyond merely “finishing the story” might be a sign of game elements, but even that’s kind of abstract; is getting the route you want to read in a route-based VN really “winning,” especially if you eventually intend to read all the routes?

If there is a line, where is it? If the author says that his story is a game, is it? If a book contains an interpretive mystery, is it a game? Is a Choose Your Own Adventure book a game? What about something more esoteric like Pale Fire or Infinite Jest? Is a “game” defined by how the participant approaches it? Does that mean movies can be games? Does that mean “video games” of certain types might not be games, if they’re interactive yet have no goal or end condition? Is it a game just because it’s sold on Steam?

Most people I know who refer to VNs usually say they’re “playing” them, but occasionally someone will say they’re “reading” instead. In my mind there’s a huge difference between playing a game and reading a book. You may still engage with the author and interpret the story to figure things about about it, but you don’t necessarily consider yourself to have a direct outcome on the experience (though someone brought up the point of reader input on serial works, which could influence Higurashi/Umineko thought). In general my take on VNs would be that they are closer to novels but that some contain games in some capacity. Sometimes these games are primarily in service of the greater story, other times they are a significant portion of the experience. And to be honest with you, I’m not sure where to draw that line or if I even can.

What do you think?

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I think of them as video games, choose your own adventure novels are books, and a lot of visual novels are not very game-y games, though that varies through all of the examples you gave. I do think it is interesting to think about what the different implications of “reading” vs “playing” might mean for the one using the verb though.

I tend to use a different verb based on my audience I think, and what my goals are. For instance I would probably think of reading/playing higurashi as interchangeable here because forum goers know what I mean, among friends who don’t really play visual novels though I usually use “reading” so as to set that kind of expectation.

I will say that games like Toki Meki and Phoenix Wright would always be play though. They have enough mechanics involved where they are just games to me.

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There’s a definite gray area when talking about visual novels with some form of gameplay in them, such as Tokimeki Memorial and Sakura Wars. However, most visual novels are either of the adventure game type where the gameplay boils down to making the occasional choice that defines the ending, or the purely linear kinetic novel. I don’t think either form counts as games, because the only challenge presented is the patience to keep reading and see how the story ends.

In most games, whether they be platformers or shooters or RPGs or rhythm games, there are very clear obstacles obstructing the player’s path. Through persistent effort and the patience to try again and again every time you lose a life or don’t score enough points, the player will eventually overcome the challenge and move on to the next level. There’s a sense of accomplishment present in games that I don’t think carries over to visual novels the same way. Sure, you might feel accomplished after completing a route, but for me it doesn’t feel as satisfying as finally beating that one boss that’s been giving you trouble for hours or even days on end.

On a similar note, the level of immersion required for both games and visual novels is different as well. Games require the player to be constantly active, responding to prompts and making the correct button inputs to make sure they at least reach the goal alive. Visual novels have a level of immersion more akin to books, requiring that we invest ourselves in the relatively-fixed scenario set for us. Like a book, there’s a greater focus on observing how the setting and characters unfold over time, rather than having a sense of being an active part in those events.

Granted, I think visual novels shouldn’t necessarily classify as books, either. They have a little more interactivity than books, which always have clear and straightforward beginnings and ends. The addition of music, visuals and voice acting makes them easier to follow than most adult fiction books, although it doesn’t leave as much up to the imagination. I think the visual novel medium deserves more recognition by software publishers even though they’re not technically games, as there’s a lot of creativity put into the medium to make them more accessible and enjoyable to read.

If I HAD to provide a straight answer to this question, I would not classify kinetic novels like WTC as games, but maybe games like Steins;Gate or Katawa Shoujo as games because of the interaction. Ryukishi, around when EP1 came out, posited that Umineko was a “game” in that it was a duel of wits between author and reader, but this description does not fall under the classical definition of “game”.

My personal opinion on the matter, which isn’t really an answer but a perspective:

(As an aside, I’m slightly salty at how the common notion that “VNs aren’t games” is often used as a way to discredit the legitimacy of VNs as an interactive medium. I won’t go deeper into that component of the discussion because it doesn’t address the fundamental question.)

I do think this is a largely arbitrary and meaningless distinction altogether.

If Umineko isn’t a game, what happens? Does it change the way you approach it? Ideally, I would say it shouldn’t, because you should approach a work based on its own terms instead of your preconceived notion of “what this should be like”, but realistically speaking it probably does, and I think that it is actually pretty harmful to these kinds of games altogether. As tech-savvy people, our attitude towards digital media is unconsciously situated in the notion of “gaming”, and something that doesn’t fall in line with our expectations of “gaming” is treated as “other”, or “foreign”, which can have numerous consequences on people’s perception of the artifact.

Somewhere along the line, the term “interactive media” has been conflated with the term “video game,” most likely due to how the history of interactive media has been centered on games (PONG, Space Invaders, w/e)

As someone whose professional research intersects with studies in digital media, I think the label of “game” is incredibly reductive. “Game” has a specific connotation which doesn’t apply to a lot of digital media artifacts yet is constantly used to place the near entirety of interactive digital media under a single umbrella. On top of that, the term “game” and in of itself suggests that the purpose of all of these artifacts is to entertain like a typical game (e.g. board game) does.

I think at the center of it all is the way that our expectations of the experience we will get out of the artifact is mixed in with the medium’s label itself:

The term “book” describes the format in which textual information is presented, but doesn’t reveal the kind of experience we get out of it.
The terms “movie” and “film” describe exclusively the format in which visual information is presented.
The term “game”, on the other hand, implicitly suggests the kind of expected experience one would get out of the artifact.

Coming back to reality, how does this actually affect real people? Anecdotally, I see a kind of cycle happen a lot with non-VN-savvy friends:

This computer program is made for entertainment -> this is a game -> this game is boring because I can’t really interact with it -> this isn’t ACTUALLY a game

And, a least from personal experience, the disparaging “this isn’t ACTUALLY a game” often follows.

In general, I would much prefer to divorce the broad classification “interactive digital media” from the actual term “game.” It doesn’t serve artifacts like Umineko and Higurashi justice and, in the end, you’re comparing apples and oranges, except we live in a world where the term “apple” is the same as the term “orange.”

EDIT: @Renall it might come off this way but I’m not trying to discredit your discussion (there is a lot of insightful discussion that arises from this question) but rather address a larger, recurring discussion in the community.

I do think this situation has gotten better over the years, but there still is that “game”-centric bias there. The fact that the question “are VNs games?” is such a large one in the community betrays the fact that our “gold standard” for interactive media is in gaming.

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From a strictly technical perspective, I’d have to say that kinetic novels are not games while the rest can be counted as such because they feature interactivity, not that I think I could write a proper definition of a computer game. However, it’s utterly bizarre to think Umineko and, say, Ever17 are different mediums when they are in essence far more similar than a ‘regular’ game and a VN.

I’d consider VNs as their own medium, but it just does not feel as distinct to me, perhaps because of its relative minusculity compared to books or games.

So, I take the practical approach and say visual novels are a subset of games (mostly derived from “software used for fun or enjoyment”), which rings the most true for me despite being technically wrong.

Visual novels are simply a medium. Before the release of Fate the most popular visual novel was Kichikuou Rance (a hentai-game so be warned if you want to look it up) and it actually has quite a complex amount of gameplay in it. To consider it “not a game” would be foolish. Other more modern ones like Zero Escape are definitively games.

Kinetic novels may not necessarily be game, but is it necessarily the case where they are not games? That… I believe is very subjective an answer.
Riddles written on a set of cards could be considered a form of game - tho that would probably be more the case if the people used them in a set of rule (for instance each player draws a riddle and try to answer it and accumulate points when they succeed). Would a single player reading a riddle and attempt to solve it be considered a “game”?
I believe the answer for Umineko and Higurashi falls into this.
Some people would argue that the mystery aspect of Higurashi and Umineko are secondary to it’s story. That they are primarily anti-mysteries even if they can be enjoyed as mysteries, so that we can’t consider them games.
That is most likely correct in the end. We cannot say that Umineko or Higurashi are games - they are fictions and their primary purpose is to tell a story.
It could however be said that they are tales that can be enjoyed as a game but doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyed as a game.

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I make a distinction between ‘game’ and ‘video game’ anytime this question comes up, because I often feel like people who argue VNs aren’t games are really arguing they aren’t video games. Since being a ‘video game’ usually comes with the assumption that there’s gameplay which is the one point VNs (often) defy. I certainly understand where the argument is coming from, but at the very least in practice with VNs being the niche they are I don’t think there’s much of a point in making the distinction. In terms of how you experience it and what the general target audience is VNs are definitely closer to video games than any other medium, and VNs just aren’t big enough a thing to justify a separation.

Now when it comes to games in the broader sense it’s a different matter. I know a lot of people define games as requiring a “failure state” to be classified as such; I beg to differ, personally. For me a game is defined by the existence of a goal throughout the experience. Be that winning a competition, clearing a campaign or even just solving a mystery. And this is why I have no problem calling the When They Cry series games; because there is an underlying goal, which is - in my eyes - to understand the story and the characters. You could bring up that this is the goal of any story in any medium, but WTC makes it pretty unambiguous, and to me the clear ‘intention’ here is what makes the difference. It was written as a game, therefore it’s a game.

This topic’s been phrased a bit broader than the original conversation was but I’ll drop what I said in there here regardless.

I’m coming in late to this discussion but theres definitely some value in what Visual Novels you can refer to as games
I’ve always been of the mindset that any VN without choices was not, and any VN with choices was, because by controlling the story you are playing the game
WITH THAT SAID Higurashi has kind of thrown my stance on that out the window a bit, I definitely can see the idea that Higurashi is indeed a “game”, a challenge to the reader to analyse and speculate and solve the mystery
Renall mentioned in response to that idea earlier with “by that logic isn’t every book a game” and the answer to that is flat out no
Harry Potter is not a game, Lord of the Rings is not a game
Specifically, mysteries can be games depending on how they’re written and whether its possible for the player/reader to solve the crime before the reveal
Higurashi actively gives you stuff to work with and actively challenges you, even listing the game’s “difficulty” in the introduction screen on each title so far. So I definitely see it as a “game”.

Obviously no, not every Visual Novel is a game in the same sense as the book argument. But if it’s being actively written and intended as a game to the reader, and you’re just deciding its not, I feel like you’re just ignoring or devaluing the work.

Let me also append this, which is literally a screenshot from Higurashi Ch.3.

You can choose to personally not see them as games, but I don’t understand why you’d want to lessen the experience for youself. These are very clearly intended to be “played” and he wants you to take on the challenge, so why deny it just because of the medium it’s presented in?

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This is something I brought up in the Discord discussion that inspired the post, and perhaps it wasn’t clear from the original post that I wasn’t really trying to pass a value judgment. In most respects, I agree with what you’re saying here.

There was an intriguing argument a while back (it was picked up on by the Extra Credits YouTube series among others) about whether “RPG” is even a genre. The argument essentially ran that “RPG” is more a set of elements present in certain games to varying degrees, such that any one game called an RPG could be put up against another game generally not considered an RPG with the exact same overlap in design elements. The argument was that “RPG” was a reductive term as a genre and that arguments about what was and was not an RPG were essentially trying to shoehorn a toolkit into a genre label where it didn’t properly fit.

As others have said, there’s probably some distinction to be made there, and the “video game” label tends to be assumed for computer-based entertainment media. Maybe less so than it once was, since YouTube and Netflix and other streaming sites exist, but even then it’d be somewhat difficult to argue that a VN is… well hrm, actually maybe not. But that’s beside the point you’re making, which is probably accurate.

That said, I don’t think anyone specifically requires fail states to define a game per se. Many adventure games have no fail state beyond “you can’t figure out what to do next so you can’t continue until you do.” Most people do consider those games. Some people play Boggle or Scrabble or Gin Rummy or Cards Against Humanity and don’t keep score, which eliminates the only win condition, and just play until they get bored.

To some extent I feel that this is over-reliant on the opinion of the author, who is not automatically right about what his work actually is. It is not for the purpose of denigrating the author or his work that one disagrees with categorical arguments he (or it) has made. For instance, the argument you’ve advanced also makes Pale Fire a game even though Nabokov didn’t classify it as such. And Pale Fire and Umineko have a number of major points in common (not so much Higurashi), including contentious and valid arguments about why they are not mysteries, and if not mysteries then possibly not games.

It’s also important not to impute a character’s opinion or motive on the author who created them. It is theoretically possible to have a book where the narrator is firmly convinced the story he exists in is a mystery and be wrong. New Wave Sci-Fi author Gene Wolfe is famous for this sort of thing; the protagonists of Peace or Book of the New Sun are meant to be engaged with, doubted, and their opinions and statements questioned. Severian places a sort of divine significance on events which may be nothing quite of the sort, and BotNS toys with this in both directions to make it hard to fully trust or distrust his narration.

It is not a settled matter whether a mystery novel is a game, whether Higurashi or Umineko is a mystery, whether mysteries need to be solvable to be games, and so forth. But I figured I’d try to limit the discussion to one particular issue since we could go a million different ways with this. I mean, we can do that if we want. I guess. I’m not stopping anybody.

As my hobby is writing long, boring philosophical forum posts no one wants to read, I decided this would be a good topic to post in. Feel free to skip if you don’t want to read lots of philosophy. I don’t have a tl;dr.

Do you consider visual novels to be games?

This involves language, which means it really involves the philosophy of language. We can see the importance of it simply by glancing through the posts: a lot of the topics, points, and distinctions are made based on how we use the words “game,” “video game,” “visual novel,” etc.

Well, that’s language, which is a tad more complicated than one might imagine. There’s a whole school of philosophy dedicated to it (analytic philosophy, though it deals more with the method of logical proof they use; and even that is debated), and in particular, a man whose name you might’ve heard in passing: Wittgenstein.

Time for some history of philosophy.

Early Wittgenstein was, in some respects,the founder of logical positivism: in one of his early works, he proposed a so-called ‘logical language’ in which every statement corresponded directly to reality; or, really, he was speaking about the way language should work, to a degree.

It was a language where every statement had a particular meaning: a state of affairs in the real world. Any sentence that didn’t correspond to that had no meaning, because it had no “sense” (a real thing which the sentence references). Metaphysics had no “sense” because we couldn’t observe the reality of metaphysical statements; but we could see the reality of physical ones.

There’s more to Early Wittgenstein (this was all from the Tractus), but we’ll stop there.

However, Late Wittgenstein (i.e. Wittgenstein in his later years) contradicted the entire premise of his earlier work. Language isn’t precisely logical like that at all, nor can it be. Instead, language consists of “language-games” which are determined by their context. His example is simple: take two construction workers, Jim and Bob. They develop an elementary language-game: Jim can say the name of an object and a place, like “Beam, north cross-section”, and Bob will know that he means to take a beam to the area to the north with the cross-section. It’s a very simple idea, but it illustrates an important point: that language isn’t where we define each word and then combine them to form ideas. It’s the other way around: we form ideas and then use words to describe them, and sometimes that means our understanding of what a word means can be unclear. If any of you are translators, you know what I mean; some words and phrases “literally” mean something wholly different, and some words are really defined by their context.

You may not agree with other claims that Wittgenstein mixed into his philosophy, especially regarding his beliefs on whether we can say anything meaningful at all, but his point about language-games is a very good one: language isn’t something we can really divide from context very easily. Some things, sure: names of physical objects. But other things are nearly impossible. Even metaphysics has this problem: people can easily get confused and understand the terms ‘form’ and ‘matter’ as things different from what they’re meant to mean. One of the biggest problems of philosophy is understanding what on Earth the other philosopher means.

…now back to this discussion.

You can’t divide the use of certain words from their context. So let’s take the word “game,” as we’ve used it here. Like this statement:

This is a problem of differing language games. “Is a mystery novel a game?” Depending on the “language-game”, that sentence can mean all sorts of different things. For example, the Detection Club used it as so:

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event.

Then what does “intellectual game” refer to? Van Dyne, in saying that, was really referencing the very battle between author and reader that he’s referring to. In other words, his use of “intellectual game” is meant to mean the experience of “the detective story” as he and his fellow authors and readers experienced it.

So Van Dyne can’t be wrong in his statement: it’s a tautology. But it might seem wrong to someone else, because “intellectual game” might mean something different to them. They may consider “intellectual game” to refer to “an intellectual activity that engages the mind,” and they formed that definition of “intellectual game” after considering it for a moment, or maybe they developed it from some other context.

In that case, who is right?

There’s no right, because there was no argument to begin with. You were claiming different things all along. Van Dyne was equating X with X. Jimmy was equating X with Y, though he used the same word(s) as Van Dyne did. Two different meanings.


Ultimately, what is my point?

First, that there are language-games, as described before.

Second, that our use of “game” lies within multiple language-games.

Third and finally, that the answer to this question is really a discussion about the context in which these words are defined and whether said meaning applies to the meaning of the other words in the context that defined them.

To say it more simply, argument should come only after we’ve discussed the exact meaning you mean a statement in; only if you both mean “X = Y” can you argue whether it’s true or not. If you want to say “Visual Novels are not Games,” you should outline the context of definition of “visual novel” and “game.” Then it’s just a logical analysis: if “visual novel” = “a bunch of these computer programs I played” and “game = a bunch of these different activities that involved play and X, Y, Z, w/e”, then we can say: “well, ‘visual novel’ isn’t exactly the same as one of those bunches of activities, and those bunches of activities seemed to carry common aspects X, Y, and Z. Should we call a ‘visual novel’ a game?”

In reality, you can do either. Set an arbitrary definition for the category “game” and then you’ll know if “visual novel” settles into it. But it doesn’t change the fact that “game” in your language-game (and others langauge-games) doesn’t precisely mean that.

Unless you do want a standardization of language (then you should just copy-paste dictionary definitions), you can just end there, once you understand what you meant by “game” and “visual novel” in our respective language-games.


EDIT: I thought of a simpler way to say all of this.

Saying a “visual novel is a game” is really trying to say “visual novels have these qualities ABC that we associate with the word ‘game’”.

But due to differing language-games, we start to argue over whether “visual novels are games” is true or not, when it’s really a matter of differing language-games.

To solve this, just bypass the useless step. Instead of insisting “visual novels are obviously games, because they have X, Y, and Z, which games have,” just say “visual novels have X, Y, and Z!”

Since that’s what you wanted to point out by saying “visual novels are games.”

It’s more direct, and it cuts out the unnecessary arguments about how we use the word “game” in different language-games. Even if the gaming and VN communities agree on a standardization of “game” for the industry, people will still approach that word from outside the industry with their own understanding of it in their own language-game.

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True, but part of the problem is that “Visual Novels contain X, Y, and Z!” is not true of all VNs. Some classifications are based on content; a mystery novel by definition contains a mystery. There are many things a VN can have, but that not all VNs do have. I’d argue that a “game” in the broadest linguistic sense probably does contain some set of properties that all games have, and a subset that games may have but that not all games do have. In that context, some VNs would match all necessary properties and some secondary ones, while other VNs would only match some necessary properties or none at all.

I’m honestly OK with definitions like “I’ll know it when I see it,” because almost any rigid definition applied post-hoc is going to over- or under-constrain.

Loose definitions might be useful here, like, “Here is a list of X common unique properties of VNs, a digital artifact that satisfies N of these properties can be considered a VN.” (Because, in essence, that is the common cognitive process that occurs when attempting classification.)

I’m not sure if this is universally agreed upon, but I think that games are generally expected to have conditions for victory and failure. You can’t really “lose” a kinetic novel like Higurashi or Umineko - you just keep reading until you get to the end. Visual novels with branching paths are a little more in the gray area, but I think whether they count as “games” or not would depend on whether certain endings are considered to be failure states or not. Even then, I would argue that such games are not compelling on the basis of your ability to win or lose at them, but rather they entertain with their narrative. A game that consists solely of choosing two options and seeing the outcome isn’t very compelling in and of itself - usually things like this have something added to make them more exciting (like a game show where money or prizes lie in the balance, or a visual novel where the choices leads to different story lines to read).

Something like Phoenix Wright is more of a game - you can lose and have to start over a trial, or you can get stuck on the investigation sequences because you can’t find the next clue or where you’re supposed to go. I’ve personally found myself blocked and unable to advance in the Phoenix Wright games because I’m too stupid to figure out what I’m supposed to do next. I tend to consider visual novels which are only reading and choices to be more like interactive forms of reading with visual and auditory accompaniment. And I don’t think that takes anything away from them - they’re just different kinds of interactive media and we engage with them in different ways.

People have mentioned mysteries and how solving them is like a game. I would agree with that, but I feel like it’s more on the meta level. The mystery is a game presented in the story, which you can choose to participate in as you read. But it’s the same as other games mentioned in the story, like Mion’s collection of board games or the majhong sequences. You could go and play these games yourself, but you don’t have to play them to engage with the story. The mystery is the same way - you don’t have to solve the mystery to read the story. That’s why I would argue that, while trying to solve the mystery may be a game, the visual novels themselves are not.

I personally consider something a game if you can play it and immerse yourself in it, and that’s what VNs do. There are some VNs where you interact beyond choices (like in Hatoful, in one end, it goes full on RPG), and some where it’s just reading and maybe choices. But to say that they aren’t an art form is selling them short. I’ve felt more immersed in Steins;Gate and 07th Expansion works than I ever have trying to play Halo (though to be fair I suck at shooters). A lot of them, it’d be nice if they didn’t stick to only one route being true and hammering it as such because it makes the other routes feel like you shouldn’t even bother with them, but otherwise, as a genre, VNs are good, and many games are borrowing elements of them to enhance their games (Persona, anybody?)

I think it’s rather simple. Lets look at it this way.
We don’t view books or PDF’s as games do we? With that in mind.

PDF’s -

  • Can be read
  • Can have implied goals, such as solving the mystery
  • Need little to none interaction from the user
  • Don’t have sprites
  • Don’t have music
  • Don’t have text appearing in small chunks
  • Don’t have voice acting (but neither do a lot of amateur VN’s)

So if we assume VN’s are games, then the line between games and non-games lies somewhere in the points above.

When I say “game”, most people will immediately jump to “video game”, but there’s a different kind of “game” that may actually share more traits with visual novels than most typical video games do:

Tabletop RPGs.

The most basic form of a tabletop RPG only needs two things: a game master, and a player. Leaving aside the fact that bedtime stories technically fulfill these criteria (would they be the kinetic novels of tabletop RPGs?), it’s a very similar setup to most visual novels; the author (or game master) has prepared a story, but how it plays out can be influenced by the player.

You can throw more advanced mechanics in there - dice rolls, stat sheets, charades, intentionally vague rules for the sole purpose of spurring amusing arguments between players… just like how a Visual Novel may throw in a battle system or a baseball minigame, but the core elements remain the same.

I’m not actually sure what my point is, this is just a potentially interesting observation.


Without trying to discredit your point, I’d just like to point out as a side note that PDFs can actually be coerced to do all of these things. The format is a glorious, turing complete mess of things thrown in there just because why not.

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Assuming that you can, in fact, “play” a VN, or at least a kinetic VN that could in theory be read start-to-finish in auto-forward mode and never interacted with. The question isn’t one of immersiveness; no one is debating that VNs are a highly immersive medium due to their ability to combine reading with visuals and sound/music. Movies are basically the same and are certainly immersive, and video games often have all of the above plus the possibility of interaction on some level.

How much “interactivity” constitutes “play” is a different question, but not an easy question to answer.

In addition to @uppfinnarn’s objection, a problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s possible to argue in isolation that each of these elements is present in something that is unquestionably not a game:

  • Books can be read, and books are definitely not games categorically.
  • A math or physics problem has an implied goal – utilize pure knowledge and previously-derived information to explain an observed or theoretical phenomenon – but I think people would tend to say that a math problem in isolation is not a game even though it can be worked through and solved.
  • Movies require little to no interaction from a viewer and movies are not considered games. In fact, more cinematic video games are often criticized for being movies instead of games.
  • Georges Seurat’s pointillist technique creates sprite art of a sort, but you’re not going to find anybody who thinks A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is a game.
  • Concerts aren’t games, neither are (most?) albums.
  • Pamphlets, PowerPoint presentations, and other things trying to convey information or persuade people in a short amount of time all parcel out and pare down text, but this is not for the purposes of a game. Doing it this way is just a very effective way to be persuasive without being annoying.
  • A play is not a game, and there are not many plays without lines.

Likewise if we examine VNs under the same criteria:

  • It is possible for me to conceive of a VN that has no text, and while I don’t know of any I bet some exist. I would consider something like that to be a VN depending on its format and presentation.
  • Not all VNs have a goal, explicit or implicit. Stories of course don’t have to, other than to be told.
  • You could read Higurashi by setting text auto-advance and sitting back and reading the text as it appears.
  • I would argue that some Interactive Fiction is functionally equivalent to a VN despite not having sprites in it. Arguably a “Sound Novel” deemphasizes the importance of sprites and might have only backgrounds or abstract computer-generated visual patterns or nothing at all, but would probably be made in similar engines to VNs and categorized by the average person as VNs.
  • Not all VNs have sound. One might argue this is necessary and failing to do so is poor craft, but even then what kinds of sounds are necessary is an unclear thing. Does a VN need a soundtrack of music? Does it need sound effects? Does it need voice acting? I think that’s more a craft question and varies by the intent behind the work and the realities of production (doujin works can’t get voice acting easily, e.g.).
  • NVL-style VNs could be, and in the case of 07th Expansion or Type-Moon works often are, quite wordy on a per-click or per-screen basis. At least equivalent to a printed page.

Now this is something that is not unfairly pointed out by @DaBackpack : Merely because I can find a counterexample for each specific point of possible definition, that doesn’t mean that I have reductively demonstrated that VNs do not exist or cannot be defined. I think his point was that some definitions are constructive rather than reductive, in the same sense that not all bread is leavened and not all bread is flavored and not all bread is made from the same grain, so the mere fact I can point out that some bread isn’t baked in an oven doesn’t disprove that there is some essential definite quality that makes something bread which might just be “some combination of being made of a grain, being baked, being leavened, having a particular texture, etc.”

I would argue that most people would say a bedtime story isn’t a game of any sort, and they wouldn’t categorize it with tabletop RPGs on the expectation that there has to be some ruleset there.

A better example might be two kids out playing make-believe. There is no formalized rule structure (hence “I shot you!” “No you didn’t!” and so on), yet most people refer to kids doing that as “playing.” Arguably they do so because it’s a participatory exercise between multiple people, and we’ve already all pretty much agreed that competition or cooperation are not necessary aspects of games. But they might be a contributory factor; that is, things that are competitive or cooperative are highly likely to be gamelike.

So I was about to approach this topic coming in with the whole “All issues of semantics can be solved by looking up the definition in a dictionary” but as I was getting my thoughts in order, I suddenly remembered that I answered this question before, and not coming from the perspective of semantics, but from the perspective of Game Theory. Original source and discussion of my thoughts can be found here

[quote=“Pepe”]I will be approaching this from the perspective of Game Theory. For those not familiar, it is a sub-branch of actually numerous topics, such as Economics and Computer Science. I actually took this course from Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/course/gametheory so those interested in further learning may want to take this one up :smiley: It does look at things sometimes from a mathematical perspective, so be warned!

Anyway, to organize what I wrote on the chat, in Game Theory, the most simple way to describe a game is through Normal Form. In order to be able to describe a game through normal form, it must have the following:

  • A finite number of players (VNs have 1)
  • The actions the player can take (Which would be the choices in a VN)
  • The “profiles” of actions of all players (Which is the list of actions made by each player)
  • And a “utility function”, given the strategy profiles of all players (Which is the ending of your VN)

If we were to classify a VN in normal form, then it could work as a game. The outcomes that result from the utility function give a certain “payoff” which could be the good end, bad end, true end, etc. Now, working with Game Theory isn’t as simple as classifying these games. Here we can assign certain values to each outcome, say, 1 to good end, -1 to bad end, 5 to true end. Then we could attempt to calculate the optimal decisions that need to be made to reach the best outcome. Like if the player had to play some bad ends to reach the good end, we could single out the least number of bad ends needed to get the most payoff from his game. But a lot of that is debatable. Is assigning a negative outcome to a bad end really fair if the player himself wishes to see the bad end?

Furthermore, we could also classify VNs into separate games. Is getting into a character’s route already an outcome? Then the route itself would be considered a new game. Indeed, for most VNs, once you get into a character’s route, the choices you make in the common route have absolutely no effect on the rest of the route; only the choices made during the route affect the outcome. Of course, I can think of a few exceptions, like in CLANNAD and the goddamn Kappei route which required you to interact with Yoshino in common so that you could get the good end, but my experience tells me that isn’t very common.

Now, I did a bit more research after the skype chat and found this resource: http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/general/whatis.htm which seems to imply Visual Novels fall more under Decision Theory. Although, most decision theory involves risks where there is a probability for the outcome to change despite your decision. Despite that, perhaps VNs would be more classified as “Decision Making” rather than “Game Playing”

Another resource here: http://assets.cambridge.org/052181/4626/sample/0521814626WS.pdf seems to assert that “A game must have two or more players, one of which may be nature.” (p.4, under Terminology). The example it gives to a single player game such as Solitaire is that nature plays first by shuffling the cards.
However, in p.6, the author states that “Games of skill are one-player games whose defining property is the existence of a single player who has complete control over all the outcomes. Sitting an examination is one example. Games of skill should not really be classified as games at all, since the ingredient of interdependence is missing.”
This seems to describe VNs right on the dot, because the single player has complete control over all the outcomes based on his decision. Therefore, if we use this author’s words, then VNs “should not really be classified as games at all”. And yet they are still called “Games [of skill]”. :stuck_out_tongue:

So, after all this rambling about Game Theory, what do I think? I think that the normal form that I described earlier is merely a way to convert Visual Novels into a means to be thought of from a mathematical perspective, which does not necessarily guarantee its status as a game. What it can do, on the other hand, is allow the player to devise an optimal solution to his desired outcome, which takes a lot of skill. Anthony Kelly (author of the book I linked above) does seem to describe it quite well with his explanation of “Games of skill” and that jives in with looking at games from the normal form. Any idiot can click and attempt every possible set of actions, but it takes someone with skill to decide what actions to take to maximize his own payoff.

But, as he said, they “should not really be classified as games at all” ;)[/quote]

So after I missed the existence of this thread and created an entirely redundant one, I’ll just paste what I put in that one here.

One of the commonly accepted definitions of a game is that it has to have a definitive “win” state, and a definitive “loss” state. In other words, at the end of the game, one has to be able to definitively say whether or not they’ve won or they’ve lost according to the rules of the game. Strictly by this standard, all linear visual novels fail; without any interaction from the “player”, there cannot be a distinction between a win or a loss. So in that sense, kinetic visual novels are not “games” in the same way that, say, Counter Strike is, with a definitive winning state and losing state.

On the flip side, one could also argue that a win state and a loss state can be subjective. Because in reality, not everyone has the same goals because people desire different things. For example, when I play Counter Strike, I obviously like to win, but a game where my team loses by the skin of its teeth is far more entertaining than a game where we sweep the other team 16-4. So in a sense, my objective when playing Counter Strike is not to win the game as the game defines it, but simply to have fun while playing the game. Therefore, when considering whether or not a visual novel is a game, one could argue that if the reader feels like they’ve fulfilled whatever they intended to fulfill when they set out to read the novel, then they have “won,” in a sense.

This is especially true of a mystery novel such as 07th Expansion’s. In both Higurashi and Umineko, a series of questions are presented over 4 chapters, which are then answered over a series of 4 more chapters. So, by asking the readers these questions, 07th Expansion is giving them an objective; they’re asking the reader to figure out what happened in each chapter. So the “game” is to figure the answers to the questions presented in the question arcs. You’ve “won” if you correctly figured out what was going on in the question arcs as explained by the answer arcs. Conversely, you “lose” if your theories turn out to be false. Therefore, despite not having the player interact with the storyline, a game emerges.

I don’t know if you could tell by the difference in the length of each argument, but I do believe that such visual novels qualify as games. If you go by the strictest definition that games must have a definitive win or lose state, then a lot of games actually become… not games. The one that pops into my mind would be Dungeons and Dragons; I’m sure most people would consider it a “game,” but the best written DnD campaigns are the open-ended ones where the players choose the path of the story. They may not end up defeating the dragon, and the town might be reduced to ash, but that doesn’t necessarily matter as long as the players achieve whatever it was that they wanted to achieve.

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I really like your argument to this.

I remember feeling so accomplished with Umineko when I figured out things down the line while it was still on-going. It was fun reading all the theories while also coming up with my own with help from friends and man counting down comiket days to read the spoilers. It really felt like a challenge between an author and their readers.

After finishing a VN, I feel so fulfilled with having finished it all. I got to the true end, I went on a journey and back, invested in characters, and just feel like I won or if it’s a bad ending “how did I lose this???”

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