Why Phoenix Wright is not a VN

The term ‘visual novel’ is a rather poorly defined one, most definitions don’t go into much more detail than ‘something combining words and visuals’. To add to the confusion, the Japanese and English usage are very different. I’ll focus on the English meaning of the term.

Visual novels differ from the adventure game genre that brought them forth in the balance between story and gameplay. Most adventure games are heavy on plot, but wrapped around core gameplay consisting of puzzle solving and exploration. Visual novels on the other hand contain little or no gameplay. Narrative with some interaction, rather than interaction with some narrative — novel versus game. Dating sims are simulation games and I wish people would stop confusing them with visual novels, they’re little alike.

Now, this brings us to Phoenix Wright and the question: is it an adventure game, or is it a visual novel?

Well, what does a (Japanese) adventure game look like? A world divided into screens, navigated by some sort of move command. On each screen you can perform a number of actions: look, talk, etc. Often, knowing when and where to use the items in your inventory is the core gameplay.

OH, OOOOOOOHH. The investigation part exactly matches the description of an adventure game. But wait, there are still the courtroom parts — those are much more text-heavy. Even there, the text only serves to frame the interrogation (gameplay) parts.

Does it even matter if Phoenix Wright is an adventure game or a visual novel? Why yes it does: using "visual novel" to refer to dialogue-heavy adventure/puzzle games quickly dilutes the term to meaninglessness. The whole point of calling things visual novels was to distinguish them from those types of games. I’m tired of seeing adventure games, simulation games and RPGs advertised as visual novels.

Phoenix Wright is at least similar enough to a VN that I won’t get omega-butthurt when it’s categorized as one. What I don’t like is when people drag it out as an example of what a visual novel is — because it isn’t.

4 thoughts on “Why Phoenix Wright is not a VN

  1. Your argument is mostly-valid because everything you say is 100% true. I use PW as an example of “this is what a visual novel is kinda like, if you enjoy it then you may enjoy visual novels with less gameplay”. Then I typically introduce them to 999 and the like, which really are visual novels that just have short gameplay elements between much longer stints of story.

    But then… The game is credited as a visual novel on the official website. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means that… it’s officially called one by the creators and translators. So that muddies the water a bit.

  2. I think the thing is… ordinary people exposed to popular “western” culture are familiar with:

    a) Reading books digitally on kindles and tablets
    b) Reading “choose your own adventure” and other gamebooks
    c) Video games
    d) Listening to music while reading
    e) Books with pictures in them

    but to most, I expect “Video games” looks like the odd one out in that list.

    When trying to explain the concept of “visual novel” to another gamer, the mistake is to think “what’s the nearest video game I can think of that’s popular enough for an ordinary person to have heard of?” …and so they end up at Phoenix Wright.

    I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, I think the Ace Attorney games are enjoyable enough to lure people into getting interested to see what else they can read on a “gaming device”.

    I also think it’s a lot better than touting things like Professor Layton games as visual novels; as far as I could tell, the first one was like a collection of brainteasers found in Christmas crackers rolled together – nothing even slightly resembling a visual novel.

    I really think visual novels could be a hit in “the West” if only they were advertised as novels, especially on a digital reading platform.

    Sometimes I think to myself ‘If only VNDS could be featured under “books” instead of hidden under “games”… and came bundled with something as notoriously trashy and saucy as the most popular of books there…. but then I come to my senses. ;)

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