Envixer March 15, 2021 When to Use Descriptive Text in Visual Novels (Almost Never!)

When to Use Descriptive Text in Visual Novels (Almost Never!)

There’s nothing worse than picking up a visual novel and clicking through a bunch of the narrator’s (or MC’s) inner thoughts describing what’s on the screen. Unless it’s an optional extra for the visually impaired, the whole point of a visual novel is that it tells the story both in visuals and in text, with minimal overlap. This is something Visual Novels share with television shows; unless there’s a very good reason for it in the show’s plot, you’ll never hear a character in a TV show describing everything that the viewer can see for themselves.

When you’ve set up a beautifully posed, composed, and post-processed render, or a painstakingly hand-drawn work of art, there’s always the desire to show it off, or try and point out all the cool things about it, or, if you’re a novelist like I am, you just want to drop in some very cool prose you wrote in your head to describe the scene you’ve put together.

The thing is, there’s a reason why people say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If your render or art is on the screen, the only reason to force someone who can see the art to also have to click through several lines of descriptive text is at best, boring, and at worst, a masturbatory act on behalf of the dev to artificially increase the play time of the game.

However, there are a (very) few places where some descriptive text can be useful, and can actually help to progress the story.

The Obvious Exception

Obviously, describing things that can’t be shown visually, like the aroma or taste of food, or the sensations someone might be feeling when blindfolded, are an exception. However, unless you’re catering to a specific type of food fetish, there’s no real reason to spend too much time on exposition before continuing with the story.

The only time to write a lot of exposition is if there’s no visual on screen, and when you do that, it’s best to switch to NVL mode (or its equivalent in engines that aren’t Ren’Py). Have your text fill the screen if there’s nothing else to show so that the text can be read comfortably without having to keep clicking over and over.

The Less Obvious Exceptions

The few times when writing a little bit of descriptive text is useful includes times where there is either a character’s feelings associated with what’s visible on the screen, or when pointing out something that’s not in the character’s field of view but is in the scene. Here are some examples.

God, her goofy smile made me weak at the knees.

Had I looked up, I might have realised the danger I was in.

Now, both of those lines can actually stand on their own and evoke an image without actually having an image present. Still, they can, with limited use (as in one-liners, not ten lines of exposition), enhance an image and either attach an emotion or identify a plot point.

Subtle exposition like this can enhance the visual experience, but overdoing it means you might as well not have any art and just publish the game as a novel.

The simple rule is this: Don’t do double duty and force the player to wait for some actual plot by telling them things they can already see. If your story isn’t weighty enough to get you the amount of play time you want, write more plot, add more characters, or add something else to the plot that will make it a little deeper. If you really really want to talk about all the little visual details, add a blind best friend for your MC to describe everything to. There’ll be a reason for the exposition, but it won’t make it any less boring.

Remember this simple guideline: In a Visual Novel, the writing is the plot, and the visuals are the descriptions.


Photo by Gülfer ERGİN on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/@gulfergin_01


Writer and developer. Plus, I play with virtual dolls.

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10 days ago

I agree with the general message of the article. If I play a visual novel, I want to look at pretty images and not read a regular novel with some images sprinkled on top. The old principle “show don’t tell” can definitely be used here. If there is a way to visually explain something, than prefer this over explaining it in text form.

However, I’m not sure if I would agree to your point about filling the whole screen with text if there is no visual for a scene so that you don’t have to click through it. Solely speaking as a player (as I’ve never developed any games myself), I am always repelled by large walls of text and don’t have much motivation to read them. I rather prefer clicking through it in small chunks. But don’t get me wrong, showing a black screen with a single line of text is not good either. I would always try to find at least one single static image to display in the background while going through a longer passage of text.