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The market for visual novels outside of East Asia is small, though a number of anime based on visual novels are popular among anime fans in the Western world.

Visual novels are distinguished from other game types by their generally minimal gameplay.

An otome game (乙女ゲーム, meaning "girl"/"maiden" game) is a story based video game that is targeted towards women.

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Typically the majority of player interaction is limited to clicking to keep the text, graphics and sound moving (many recent games offer "play" or "fast-forward" toggles that make this unnecessary), while making narrative choices along the way.Another main characteristic of visual novels are its strong emphasis on the prose, as the narration in visual novels are delivered through text.Decision points within a visual novel often present players with the option of altering the course of events during the game, leading to many different possible outcomes.An acclaimed example is Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, where nearly every action and dialogue choice can lead to entirely new branching paths and endings.Visual novels are often produced for video game consoles, and the more popular games have occasionally been ported to such systems.

The more famous visual novels are also often adapted into the light novel, manga or anime formats.

This distinction is normally lost outside Japan, where both NVLs and ADVs are commonly referred to as "visual novels" by international fans.

Visual novels and ADVs are especially prevalent in Japan, where they made up nearly 70% of the PC game titles released in 2006.

More importantly, visual novels do not face the same length restrictions as a physical book.

For example, the total word count of the English fan translation of Fate/stay night, taking all the branching paths into account, exceeds that of The Lord of the Rings.

This significant increase in length allows visual novels to tell stories as long and complex as those often found in traditional novels, while still maintaining a branching path structure, and allowing them to focus on complex stories with mature themes and consistent plots in a way which Choose Your Own Adventure books were unable to do due to their physical limitations.