Narratology vs Ludology
There is an eternally ongoing debate about what constitutes a visual novel, with people disagreeing on the classification of a number of games. In deciding whether or not visual novels qualify as video games, it is important to first address the concepts of narratology and ludology. People who play any kind of video game usually pick one side or the other when it comes to defining the purpose of games themselves. As the word implies, narratologists see every video game as having some kind of narrative and believe that games should be viewed through the lens of the story they tell. On the other end, ludologists believe that we should focus on a game’s design and rules. They are not anti-narrative in games, but generally more concerned with the system than the existence of a story.
Obviously visual novels favor the “narratology” belief, with little-to-no gameplay and a clear goal of storytelling. However, they do require technological development skills, however minimal, and usually involve some degree of coding. They are also distributed as games on platforms like Steam and itch.io, and playable on a variety of gaming consoles. Minimal gameplay shouldn’t remove the label of game; it just makes it a type of game that might not be suitable for more action-oriented players. For better or for worse, there are a wide variety of definitions for video games that don’t always agree. Visual novels fit into some, but not others. Some people see them as an evolution in books, but inferior in terms of video games. Some even prefer to think of them as independent beings that are neither books nor video games, but something all together separate.
I guess the real question is, even if a visual novel has a linear storyline and no blatantly impactful choices (known as a kinetic novel), is it still a game? Their existence as interactive media built to entertain without a clear win-or-lose finale could be seen as an example of how the horizons of video games have broadened. When I interact with a visual novel I consider myself to be playing a game, despite the sheer amount of reading involved.
Ultimately I believe that people who underestimate visual novels are missing out on the valuable experience of interacting with beautiful, immersive worlds that are capable of sharing a story in ways that other form of media are not. Many visual novels do offer ongoing opportunities to craft your story experience and explore multiple routes in a way that makes them far more sophisticated than the average Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and even kinetic novels are vastly different from text-only readings.