A ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ for Visual Novels

John Ohno

In 1995, Graham Nelson (in his short book The Craft of Adventure) wrote A Player’s Bill of Rights for interactive fiction. In the name of encouraging the kind of theoretical understanding around visual novels & the norms and expectations around them that the interactive fiction community has enjoyed for three decades, and with the understanding that visual novels have drastically different tendencies, tropes, and tics, I would like (with apologies to Nelson) to present an alternative list.

  1. Unexpected death or dead-ends must always provide new information
    Where players of both parser-IF and point and click adventures are focused on solving puzzles (i.e., their goal is to win the game), players of visual novels are focused on understanding the characters and world. To that end, visual novels have enhanced technical facilities to make save-scumming and back-tracking easier (such as multiple save slots & the ability to fast-forward through or skip already-seen segments), meaning that unexpected deaths are completely acceptable. However, the extra effort necessitated by unexpected deaths or dead-ends, while minimized, is still non-zero, so every death must have a reward (in the sense that it provides a clue for some future play-through).
  2. When choices have locked the player into a particular route, this must be telegraphed
    It is normal (for logistical & technical reasons) for VNs to lock players into a particular route or arc, often based on flags set earlier. In other words, VN stories are tree-shaped. It’s good practice to provide a non-interactive transition between an introductory or prologue section shared between routes & the second portion of the game, where routes are completely separate — and it’s good practice to indicate which route you are playing during that transition. If routes overlap substantially, then such a transition is not necessary.
  3. Other routes, past lives, and ‘future events’, to the extent that they are accessible in multiple play-throughs, should add to the experience
    VN players, because they play for the sake of learning about the characters and world rather than getting some arbitrary ‘good end’, tend to be completionists — playing through to at least the ‘good end’ of every route, and often trying to view every single scene. The game should reward this behavior, because games that do not reward it will be seen as dull by the player base (who will play to completion anyway). While easter eggs are fine, the best way to reward player effort is to make it so that each route one plays through adds depth to the other routes (with a new perspective available to someone who has played through all the routes). Often, a hidden ‘true end’ route is unlocked only when the player has played through every other route (and in dating sims, this is often the ‘harem route’), and such a route is most satisfying when it reframes the other routes.
  4. Only narratively-meaningful interactivity should be provided
    Unlike most IF, the VN form has extremely coarse-grained interactivity. Used properly, this is an advantage, because it means that VNs are much more ‘story-like’ than ‘game-like’ . Because interactivity is available, it’s tempting for developers to create minigames or joke interactions. However, such interactions tend to come off as cheap, unnecessary, and distracting. If interactivity is provided, every option should either progress the narrative or provide meaningful characterization. Minigames almost never do either of these things, and so they should generally be avoided.
  5. Any extended period of non-interactivity should function as a story
    Because of the coarse granularity of interactivity in VNs, there are often long periods during which players make no choices. (Kinetic novels are entirely non-interactive.) People who think of VNs primarily as games will sometimes write these sections without making them narratively compelling, & sections written this way are a slog. Never write a non-interactive section of a VN that, were it a movie with exactly the same dialogue and events, you would not watch. VNs need to succeed as screenplays, movies, and games, while also being (generally) many times longer. This means that all of the normal tricks regarding exposition and pacing need to be applied.
  6. Character should always be emphasized
    VNs are bought and sold on character appeal. They are marketed on the shallow appeal of character designs & stock types, & their payload is in character development. VN fandom is built on the personal attachment players get from spending tens of hours interacting with particular characters & getting to know them. In other words, if your major characters do not have hidden depth, you are scamming your players. To the extent that throwaway or gimmick characters exist, they must justify their existence by being entertaining. Plot does not need to be compelling, if the characters are sufficiently charismatic (as any popular dating sim shows).
    Where the basic operation in IF is movement, the basic operation in a VN is speech. Where the skeleton of an IF game is a map, the skeleton of a VN is a dialogue tree. This should tell you how important character is in VNs.
  7. Reward dedication and effort
    The VN medium is a medium for completionists. Most players will try to see every single scene. So: make every death unique and satisfying, make running jokes that get funnier with repetition, give your characters hidden depths that are only revealed deep in other characters’ routes, make every piece of throwaway dialogue add to the experience of the world, make full use of lietmotifs and refrains in your soundtrack, take advantage of intertextuality — do everything you can to make sure players do not feel like they are wasting their time, by making sure that looking closer is always rewarded. Players who play only one route (or do not play a route to completion) are not your core audience, and while you shouldn’t scare away players early, it is more important to reward obsession than to cater to casuals.
John Ohno

Written by

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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