Games that are just books

Back in 2021, I was persuaded to play a little game called The House in Fata Morgana. It’s a Japanese epic visual novel that follows a series of tragedies across the ages, each with multiple twists and turns, and a mysterious thread connecting them all. Throughout that entire time, the player only makes a handful of choices.  We might say that the game is basically a book–and a fairly long one at that, taking me 35 hours to finish.

I enjoyed it enough that I would play a few other long visual novels over the years. I read a couple furry visual novels—Echo and Adastra—and the Japanese visual novel STEINS;GATE. I’m currently reading Umineko When they Cry, which has about a million words, the length of a whole series of novels.

Something that occupies way too much of my brainspace, are those snide comments about visual novels on gaming websites: “It’s not much of a game if you’re not making any decisions.” On the one hand it denies the legitimacy of the visual novels–and on the other hand, it literally does nothing of the sort. After all, visual novels can be legitimate without being video games. Just as novels and movies don’t need to be games in order to be legitimate, neither do visual novels.

I suppose the reason it bothers me, is that in the context of a gaming space, there’s an implicit suggestion that visual novels need to prove their worthiness to even be mentioned in that space. They need to try to be games, and appeal to the gamer crowd. The thing is, I really prefer when visual novels don’t do that. I think visual novels are at their best when they do their own thing.

Choices as gameplay

Among the VNs mentioned above, the one I hated most was STEINS;GATE. It’s about a group of teens who created a time machine. They use time travel to change several characters’ lives, and then they have to revert the changes because it’s the sort of time travel story where changing history is bad actually.

Aside from all the other issues, I hated the choice structure in STEINS;GATE. It has semi-invisible choices involving interactions with your phone. At various points throughout the game, you can use your phone to reply to text messages.  There are usually two or three options, or you can choose to ignore the phone.  Most of these decisions don’t matter.  But there are a few choices across the novel which, if selected correctly, will give you alternate endings.

These choices are “gameplay” in the sense of creating a bit of friction, making you feel that much more satisfied when you overcome the challenge to find the secret endings. But it’s kind of shitty gameplay. In practice, the choices are so opaque, that the only reasonable way to see all the endings is by looking up a guide. If you use the guide in a first play through, you have to check repeatedly to see when you’ve reached a crucial decision point.  If you use the guide in a second playthrough, you have to fastforward through the whole thing to reach those decision points.

I looked up a synopsis of the secret endings, and I hated that as well. The “true ending” reverses one of the major story outcomes, muddling whatever the VN was trying to say. It’s like the old urban legends that said you could revive Aerith in Final Fantasy VII by taking some secret combination of actions—only here it’s not an urban legend.

Choices in games can serve several purposes, and in visual novels they often serve as a bit of “what if?” storytelling. That’s alright. But what I don’t like are choices as a form of friction, a form of challenge.

The fact of the matter is that long-form visual novels already have friction. Length is friction in itself. Furthermore, you also have to actually understand what you’re reading, form opinions and interpretations.  I find Umineko pretty challenging, because it wants me to solve like a dozen murder mysteries using information that is presented literally hundreds of thousands of words later. And yet Umineko is 100% linear, with no choices whatsoever. We all accept that a book can be hard to read, and so can a visual novel. Making a visual novel “hard” by forcing players to save-scum and consult a guide is the least interesting and most irritating way to do it.

But that’s just my opinion. I observe that one of the popular VN subgenres is the dating sim. And it’s common for dating sims to use choices as a form of friction. Make the right choices, and you can achieve the strongest relationship with the character you chose to pursue. Clearly a lot of people like that sort of thing. But for my part, I actively avoid dating sims. I’d rather read a romance novel.

If it were a book, would I read it?

There are some obvious and important differences between visual novels and books. Visual novels tend to show portraits of characters with a variety of expressions. This lends itself to more dialogue-focused stories, where the tone is conveyed through artwork (or voice acting).

But I think there’s an equally important difference in how I select which visual novels to play in the first place. Because, see, selecting books to read is a whole thing, a whole ordeal. There are a ridiculous number of books out there, and it’s quite difficult to vet them. I try to narrow it down by focusing on a few genres at a time, and lately I’ve been reading queer mystery and ace romance. There are still too many books, and it’s very hit or miss.  Whereas for visual novels, I just go with a few popular ones. There are only so many visual novels, and even if they’re not exactly what I want, *shrug* what can be done?

Relatedly, there’s a huge difference in how people review visual novels vs books.  People review visual novels like they’re video games, talking about vibes and how it felt to play. They avoid saying anything about the actual content of the story because that’s spoilers. There’s a long tradition of judging video games by supposedly objective qualities.  So when people enjoy a visual novel they just insist on how amazing it is, without giving much of a hint about who it would be amazing for and why.  I often pose to myself a question: if this were a book, would I read it? And I have to admit that the answer is always “no”, because I would lack confidence in a book that I knew so little about.

In book reviews, it’s understood that there’s a high barrier to persuading people to read it, so people will say a lot more about what’s actually in the book.  It would never be enough to hear that a book is amazing, I would also like to know what qualities the story may have that would appeal to my tastes in particular. Because what a reviewer likes and what I like are obviously going to be quite different from one another.

(ETA: in the interest of presenting examples, compare the Steam reviews of The House in Fata Morgana with the Goodreads reviews of a book I recently read, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.)

Treating VN-readers like an undifferentiated audience is all the more bothersome when I have a particular preference for queer stories. Queerness rarely gets mentioned in visual novel reviews. The House in Fata Morgana, as it turns out, has a major trans character. I understand that this is tied up with spoilers, but if I had known that beforehand, I would have been much more sold on it. STEINS;GATE, on the other hand, had a “trap” character who is infuriatingly mistreated. I did not learn any of this from the reviews, because the reviews are far too afraid of spoilers.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with the annoying gamer commenters, who say visual novels shouldn’t count as games. It’s not that they can’t be games, I just don’t think they benefit from the category. Visual novels are just fine without the gameyness, without player choice. If anything, we could learn something from treating visual novels more like books.


  1. ionopachys says

    “Gamers” can be obnoxious (sometimes worse), but I can see a bit of logic there. Might these visual novels be more akin to the old choose-your-own-adventure books than D&D? Maybe they should be defined as a unique genre rather than a subset of video games. Of course, having never engaged with visual novels, or dating sims for that matter, I suppose I don’t have enough experience to have an educated opinion.

  2. lanir says

    I’ve read lots of novels and played through several visual novels. In some ways it’s probably worth comparing visual novels to audio books more than their ink and paper counterparts. Like with an audio book, a visual novel gives a way to express the story that doesn’t depend entirely on word choice, spacing, and the imagination of the reader.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these formats as long as the purchaser has a chance to see and understand what they’re getting into. I haven’t heard of any visual novels deliberately misleading consumers into thinking they’re purchasing a game so I don’t really understand the criticism. It seems to be based on the idea that there is a “right way” to play games or enjoy stories. Everyone plays differently and gets different things out of gaming. That’s something that started to get popular attention in tabletop RPG scene in the 2000’s. But despite playing MMOs for most of the last 20 years and tabletop RPGs for most of the last 30 years, I’ve never once met someone who played like me. I’ve met plenty of people with overlap but nobody’s just like me.

  3. Naughty Road says

    I get really frustrated with those crappy choices where if you randomly chose “blue” instead of “yellow” about 45 minutes of reading ago, you end up with some really unpleasant plot twist because of that.
    I create visual novels myself (in fact, there’s a very vibrant indie visual novel community out there, mostly focused around erotic content), and many of my players seem to have been trained by years of developer, well, ‘abuse’ if you will, with seemingly trivial actions leading to wildly different story outcomes and even dead-ends, into not make a single choice without consulting a walkthrough about the exact consequences.
    Interestingly, that gives rise to an ecosystem of walkthrough mod makers that provide an add-on that hooks into the game code to guides the players through a mostly random path through the available choices, while ensuring them that that is in fact, the “best” path, and soliciting a donation of a few bucks for their efforts, which these players will gladly pay. Or course, these players will never venture off the path they are assured is the best one, so they never realize that that “best path” was just random, and they missed out on a lot of the good stuff (and then write scathing reviews on how there was so little good stuff), and those mod makers continue to peddle their random paths, but that’s another discussion entirely.
    Anyway, in my game, I make it a point to clearly telegraph the impact of choices, as well as providing a ton of more or less inconsequential choices that allow players to “voice” their character throughout the game. Both, I feel, make a visual novel a nicer experience to play by addressing the issues of the unrelatable protagonist and of random outcomes based on arbitrary choices, which are two frustrations that I as a player experienced and wanted to avoid.
    But even if I put a lot of effort into building trust with the player in the story, and ensuring them throughout the game’s not about to do a rug pull on them, I’m still accosted by players that are absolutely petrified about the possible impact of the choices provided, and demand I provide them a “best path” through the game. Which is silly of course, because that would mean alternative paths, (which are all about personal preference in my game, and never about good or bad outcomes), are to be avoided at all cost, and by implication a waste of my time to implement.
    Anyway, fully agree on the awfulness of the way choices sometimes work in Visual Novels, and how that’s shaped the way players look at those choices and their expectations of the developers.

  4. says

    RE: decisions and games, I feel it’s worth pointing out that most games have a lot less decision-making in them than people pretend. Most games run on rails and your only decision is whether to sit in the seat to the right or the left. You can shoot the alien with a rifle or a grenade, but at the end of the day the game doesn’t advance unless you shoot the alien.
    I’m reminded of “The Stanley Parable”: Your only actual choice is to stop playing. Any supposed choice the game presents you with is a decision a programmer already made for you, or it wouldn’t be in the game at all (glitches excepted).

    So, I’ll grant that visual novels aren’t games, as such, but I’m not sure that’s a more relevant distinction than pointing out that a platformer isn’t an RPG. They’re just different things. It’s a style of media and if you don’t like it, pick something else.

  5. says

    @Naughty Road,
    Echo & Adastra, which I had mentioned, are from the indie visual novel scene. I’ve kept an eye out for other furry visual novels (since it’s virtually guaranteed that they’re queer), through Keith Ballard’s Let’s Tries–and yes, it’s obvious that a lot of them are erotic. I haven’t really picked any out yet because they’re mostly incomplete serials and I’d rather wait for them to finish.

    I’ve never heard about these walkthrough mods. That sounds so frustrating, as it removes any capability to use choice in a meaningful way. But I suppose players must lack trust in how these games handle choices.

  6. Naughty Road says


    Those mentioned mods don’t technically remove alternate choices, they just point a really big green arrow at one of them saying “this one is good, the others are a crap, trust me”. Which is really the same thing as, as a player, you’d be stupid to go with a bad option, right? (given they’re taught by many such games that such a mistake leads to some very unpleasant outcome an hour down the line)
    As a creator, it’s incredibly frustrating to create branching, reactive dialogs where a player can agree or disagree with a possible love interest as they please, and in doing so define something about the protagonist and their view of whatever the topic of conversation is, while getting to know the other character and their views as well, or maybe just end up having a really funny exchange, or an unexpected heart-to-heart. And then to have someone come along and usher those players through that dialog picking the blandest, most non-committal options possible while loudly proclaiming “there’s nothing but awful stuff down that other option, don’t click that”. Especially if they’re just bluffing their way through themselves and never looked hard at what effect a given choice actually has.
    But there’s a clear demand for that type of add-on, and you’re right, it comes from player not trusting choices, and from expecting that there is a “game” to picking the right choices and be rewarded with some outcome for doing that, or punished for missing the mark, which often requires the protagonist to act like a smarmy, spineless, and/or dissembling douche in order to coin up some love interests or game an unfolding development.
    It’s symptomatic for a larger problem in visual novels I guess, which is that even developers don’t always seem to be entirely sure how to classify their creations either, and try to use the visual novel mechanics to try to create something challenging, or to create replayability (which in my opinion makes little sense in most visual novels where 90 percent of the content remains unchanged regardless of the path, as even with a good novel, you’re not likely to want to reread it directly after finishing it).
    In visual novels, I feel choices should be rewarding in a narrative sense, and challenges should come from narrative too. For instance, you took the challenging path of sticking with a hard-to-like character, you might end up being rewarded by that character opening up to you, giving you an understanding of what made them act so hard to like. The puzzle in this case is for the creator to create a compelling path that makes sense for the choices the player makes, not for the player to figure out what choices to make in order to stay on a path.
    There’s nothing clever about tricking a player to roll the dice and then go “and this is the result of some random choice of yours, like it or not” many hours later (like your example with the phone interaction). It’s neither challenging nor rewarding, and if any urge to replay comes from that, it’s born from frustration. It’s just a bad design choice really.

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