Visual Novels are a kind of story which is primarily common in Japan. Unlike usual novels, they are enhanced by graphics and sound. Being an electronic medium, they can only be read on computers or other interactive multimedial devices.
The stories themselves are not much different from those which you can find in books. They don’t only describe the actions, like comics for example, but also the thoughts of the characters – just like novels do. They only save the words which usual novels use for the description of the scenery. Visual Novels describe the scenery with pictures and sounds instead.
In contrast to book novels, you can not read the story page by page. Text is presented in small bits, spanning a few lines at maximum. When you click, the next bit of text appears.
The eponymous element of visual novels are the graphics. Events in the story are shown – more or less – graphically. Often you only see the setting in which the action is taking place – for example a hall or a train station or a green meadow.
Characters are seldomly shown acting. Although characters appear regularly, they are often shown in a very neutral pose which is reused plenty of times. They bear some similarity to avatars in chat systems or forums – a general picture of a character without reference to the concrete moment. The graphical style usually resembles anime-/manga-styles.
Text and graphics being the most obvious elements in visual novels, they involve yet another sense: listening. There is sound design for the atmospherics of the sceneries. When there is a beach scene on the screen, for example, then you are going to hear water, wind and gulls. Occasionally there are also sound effects like explosions. Sometimes – yet not always – dialogs are recorded so that you can hear the characters of the novel speak. It depends on the novel if there is voice acting for each dialog, for some dialogs, or not at all.
Considering the auditive elements, a more fitting name for these novels would be Audiovisual Novels. 🙂
Apparently there are stories which involve some degree of interactivity. I haven’t read one of those, though (additions are very much welcome in the comments).
Despite the visual, acoustic and interactive extensions, Visual Novels still are novels which are not too different from printed novels. The vast part of the story is told in the text. This includes everything which can’t directly be told with pictures and sound like thoughts and emotions.
Visual Novels are primarily known in Japan. Accordingly, the vast majority of publications are in Japanese. English works are still rather uncommon, but there are a few examples. A Visual Novel in German is not known to me.
There are free demos available for many Visual Novels. Those are usually very extensive so that you can read a demo for quite some time. Some Visual Novels are even completely free and available for download.
„Ever17 – the out of infinity“, for example, tells the story of a boy who suddenly finds himself in a maritime theme park below sea level. The park, LeMU, is mysteriously deserted. All exits are blocked. Together with four other young characters, the protagonist tries to get behind the secrets of LeMU – and tries to escape, of course.
Narcissu is the story of two patients who find themselves at “Station 7F” at a clinic for mortally sick people. 7F is usually the last station, which such pations get to. Or, how the authors put it:
This is a story of disease and suffering; of medication and adverse effects; of thoracotomy scars and cellular poisons; of the living who cannot help but to die and of the dying who cannot help but to live; of a resting place other than “on 7F” or “at home”.
There are plenty of free Visual Novels out there – more than I can mention. If you can understand German, Dennis’ Visual Novel Blog provides several nice reviews. Otherwise, Google might help…