When it comes to methods of conveying stories, humanity has gotten pretty good at coming up with different ways the same story can be conveyed. You can produce a movie, tell a story to someone verbally, create a play, make a video game, or as is perhaps most common for mass market fiction, you can write your story down as a book.
For many, books offer a world of storytelling powered by imagination. By the very nature of the medium not every possible detail can be put to the page, so there’s a degree of filling in the details and building your own mental picture somewhat unique to books as a medium.
That said, for many, books may not always be the most accessible way to digest a story. There are a variety of disabilities where reading and focusing on a book can be difficult.
So today, on Access-Ability, I’m going to be talking about visual novel video games, and how their storytelling method may for some be more accessible than reading traditional books. We’re going to look at a few groups of disabled users who may benefit from their stories being told in an illustrated and interactive format, as well as some groups of readers who may find Visual Novels more difficult to engage with than traditional books.
Let’s start by getting a few areas of accessibility out of the way which are not exclusive to this discussion. While hardback books feature limited font sizes, preset languages, and default fonts, many digital ebook readers support changing fonts to more accessible alternatives that may alleviate dyslexia, increasing font size for partially sighted readers, and automatic translation of text for those who may not share a language with the text. While these benefits also extend to visual novels, they’re not going to be the focus of this video.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about some groups of disabled readers who may benefit from visual novel storytelling methods over those of traditional books.
As a gamer with Aphantasia, a condition where I lack a visual imagination and memory, I really struggle to engage with purely written fiction. I can read, internalise, and enjoy the words, but the experience of a vivid description in a book allowing them to imagine the scene visually has never applied to me. I struggle to visualise where people are relative to each other in a scene, or the overall tone of a setting, in a way which can at times make following written fiction difficult for me.
Visual novels may not be as visual a storytelling medium as movies, but their presentation of backgrounds, character art portraits, and changed facial expressions for characters allow me a sense of scene and setting I often struggle to get from traditional books. That small amount of visual information helps me to get and stay engaged with a narrative, by showing me information other people can imagine for themselves when reading.
For many readers who struggle with focusing on a single topic, such as people with ADHD, reading big walls of text can be difficult. In a book you have paragraph breaks to break the book into chunks, but a given paragraph is often itself a big block of text, with other big blocks of text around it, and keeping focused on reading through that can be difficult.
Many readers of books with ADHD have to use methods such as reading with a ruler underlining the current line of text, or following their current word with their finger, and even then still struggle to not lose focus and mentally tune out.
The experience of reading a book, zoning out, realising you’ve not processed any information from the last few pages, and needing to go back and reread a chunk of text is very common for many readers with ADHD.
Visual novels typically help alleviate some of these issues. Their text is delivered at most one or two lines of text at a time, with moving on to the next completely in the hands of the player. There’s no distracting additional text, just the current couple of lines you are on. This can make text easier to isolate, and mentally process, without mindlessly skimming through.
Additionally, the addition of audio and visual elements in the form of a soundtrack, and images to illustrate what is happening, can keep an ADHD brain that’s seeking multiple sources of input to not get distracted, engaging with the story without as much urge to multitask.
However, visual novels are not an automatically better way for disabled players to engage with storytelling, as they come with a few drawbacks of their own. Perhaps most notably, breaking text up into much smaller chunks can cause problems for players with chronic pain conditions, or those who struggle with repeated button presses.
Visual novels rely on the player pressing the same single button a great many times, essentially requiring a button press for each sentence in a narrative. This necessitates a lot more button presses than a book would require page turns, and this can cause issues for some disabled players.
Many visual novels offer an option to automatically move through text boxes without button presses, which can fix this issue if your reading speed matches the automatic scrolling speed of the game’s text. Many visual novels lack a setting to alter the speed of this automated text progression mode, which can limit the usefulness of the setting. I’d love to see text progression speed sliders become more common as a visual novel accessibility feature.
While not useful for everyone, if you’re someone who struggles to imagine visual information, or struggles not to get distracted by big blocks of plain text, visual novels approach of breaking up text into smaller and more manageable chunks, supplemented by art and music, can be a real gateway into engaging with written stories.
I see a lot of people who downplay visual novels as a storytelling medium, largely due to their use popularly as a way to tell at times tacky dating stories, but I think there is some real value to the medium that’s not always appreciated.
Someone who plays through a visual novel has read that story. It’s not less of a reading experience because it was served alongside visuals and audio, or presented a sentence at a time. The player is still reading a story, and if those accommodations make that easier, that’s a wonderful thing.
I really hope in the future we see visual novels taken more seriously as a medium. It doesn’t take much to make stories more enjoyable and digestible to many disabled players.