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Have you ever wanted to write a story with branching paths that you could share with your friends? Or do you want to build a game 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games Have you ever wanted to create that game that's been bubbling in your mind for years? What if I told you that the possibility wasn't all that farfetched? The past decade has seen some massive... Read More for a full retail release, complete with character stats, challenges, and persistent decisions? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you owe it to yourself to check out Ren’Py. It’s a free, open source Python based visual novel engine that’s flexible, well supported, and can empower you to make games both big and small. Learn what a visual novel is, and then see if you’d like to make one yourself, or play a popular one.

What Is A Visual Novel?

A visual novel is a kind of video game that’s popular in Japan. It’s similar to a gamebook (like these for iOS Pick Your Own Adventure: The World of Gamebooks on iOS Pick Your Own Adventure: The World of Gamebooks on iOS The life of a gamebook adventurer is rough! Are you ready to face down savage foes and clever traps? Read More ) in that you’ll mostly be reading a story and making decisions for the main character. The way visual novels differ from gamebooks is that they keep illustrations of the current scenes and characters (usually in an anime or manga style) visible to the reader as the story progresses. Some have each character in several different emotional states so that the game can display an appropriate version based on the character’s mood in the current scene. Others may include high detail, unique illustrations of a scene to be shown at a particularly dramatic moment, or tracks of music that play alongside scenes in a specific setting. Still others may include simple games to test the player’s skill or strategy, with the game’s resolution having some bearing on how the narrative plays out.

As you can see, there are many variations on the visual novel, but the bottom line is, if you’re reading a story alongside images of characters and backgrounds, and making decisions for a main character to determine how the story plays out, you’re probably reading – or rather, playing – a visual novel.

Ren’Py

Renpy-Tutorial
Ren’Py is great for both first time game makers, and more experienced ones who can make use of all of its advanced features. The program features an extensive tutorial that’s actually delivered as a visual novel, so you can get an idea of what a complete visual novel looks like while you’re learning how to make them. Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of learning Python to make your game. Once you’ve learned about a few simple things like labels, say statements, and menu statements, you’ll have all the tools you need to write a basic visual novel with branching paths. As you get more comfortable, you can start trickling other mechanics into your project.

Renpy-Sample-Code
Look at the code from The Question, a sample game included with Ren’Py that you can play, or just open in the script editor to see how it works. Other than the few tags involved with showing images and choices, it looks a lot like natural prose, doesn’t it? If you keep your project simple, and only learn new commands as you need them, there’s no reason you can’t make a small, fun story in a single afternoon.

If you’re a more advanced user planning on making a deep, detailed game, you’ll appreciate Ren’Py’s options to animate sprites, zoom images, show movie files for particularly cinematic moments, or even track stats like health and magic points to run an RPG style adventure.

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Recommended Visual Novels

If you’ve never played a visual novel before, or even if you’re just looking for inspiration, try some of these.

Ren’Py Games List

If you’re comfortable browsing a big library, check out the Ren’Py Games List. It doesn’t have quality reviews attached to the games, but it does include tags to help you find games based on your preferred style, age appropriateness, and potential relationship matches in the case of romantic games.

Winter Wolves Games

Winter-Wolves-Free
Winter Wolves has four free visual novels that you can play right in your browser without downloading them. Love stories and dating simulations are common types of visual novels, and all of these free options star female protagonists on a journey with at least some romantic potential. If you end up liking their free games, Winter Wolves has a variety of full retail release visual novels on their site, including everything from sci-fi epics to sports sims.

Hatoful Boyfriend $4.00

Hatoful-Boyfriend
Hatoful Boyfriend is a game where you play a human girl who attends a school for pigeons. With that sentence alone, you probably know whether you’re in or out for this bizarre game 6 Bizarre Browser Games You Can Play Now 6 Bizarre Browser Games You Can Play Now Buckle up, because it's about to get weird. Each of the following browser games is a hot slice of crazy from the far corners of the Internet that you have to see. Read More , but its serious, heartfelt drama juxtaposed with photos of actual pigeons makes for an experience you won’t get anywhere else. Enjoy the free demo version at the link, or buy the full version and see your avian romance through to the end.

Long Live The Queen $9.99

Long-Live-The-Queen
Don’t let LLTQ’s pink princess style fool you. This visual novel with school simulation elements has you playing Elodie, a princess who will be queen in 40 weeks if she can survive all of the monsters, dark sorcerers, and assassination plots standing between her and the crown. The cool part about LLTQ is that Elodie is whatever you make her. Play her as a fierce military leader, a gentle Disney princess, a total flake, or a heartless brat. Marry into another family for love, or political advantage, or just go it alone. Some of the branches in this story take lots of extra effort and planning to reach, so make time for multiple playthroughs.

Conclusion

Making a game can seem like a huge undertaking, but by limiting yourself to the visual novel style, you can keep your focus on great storytelling, and decisions with consequence. Even if you don’t want to make a game, try out a free visual novel and see if you enjoy the genre. Great stories are out there waiting for you!

Is this your first time hearing about visual novels? Try one of the free ones at the links above, and tell us what you think in the comments.

  1. teapartyinvitations
    October 16, 2016 at 9:36 am

    I'll be sure to let the murder know to finish off the AMA for me after he finishes raping my corpse

  2. Lisa O
    July 9, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Never thought I'd see Ren'Py here in MUO. Visual Novel as a genre still carries a big of stigma, especially if it originates from Japan. That aside, I urge anyone who have stories they'd like to turn into game to learn Ren'Py. It's easy for beginner (once you have the story, you just need pics and musics, even stock ones to start!) and catering enough for the more advanced (there's a framework for turn-based battle, if you like).
    I only think it's a pity that you only mention WinterWolves' browser games as the free option. Lots of people might not want to shell out money to see what kind of games Ren'Py could produce. There are actually a lot of decent free titles out there if you're just testing the waters.
    If one does not like Ren'Py, another popular VN engine is Novelty, but it haven't been updated for a long time.

    • Robert W
      July 9, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Lisa.

      I think if we can get a greater diversity of creators making content in the VN medium, it can absolutely break that stigma. That's part of the reason I wanted to introduce Ren'Py to the MUO audience. Hopefully, we'll see more voices telling a wide variety of stories in the medium as time goes on.

      As far as more free options are concerned, I did link to the Ren'Py Games List as well. Can you recommend some additional specific free titles for the community to try? It sounds like you have some expertise in the area, and your recommendations would be welcome.

    • Lisa O
      July 17, 2014 at 4:16 am

      I am by no means an expert, simply someone who happens to be around the circles. Yes, I agree, Visual Novel has more potential than boys-pursue-girls variations (although there are some very good romance-based VN out there, of course).

      For starters, maybe you'd want to try Christine Love's 'don't take it personally, babe,it just ain't your story'. Don't let the title put you off. I don't pretend to understand why the developer chose such a horrible title, but it's actually a decent story with interesting premise. Might be slightly disturbing depending on your tolerance level, but it touches on controversial topics such as privacy and sexuality in a bold narrative. My second recommendation, something more lighthearted, is Soyasushi Production's 'Re:Prince of Nigeria'. I think anyone in IT or at least have received one of these scam emails would appreciate the parody. It's very short, but deserves the mention as 'one-of-a-kind' idea.

      I've played a lot more, but I think these two would serve well to get one to see just how diverse the VN world can be.

  3. Alex D
    July 7, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    What's great about Ren’Py is how easy it is to learn Python honestly. Plus, one of my favorite visual novels of all time was made wit hthis engine. While it's definitely not safe for work at time I have to mention Katawa Shoujo. A beautiful presentation and story all around. With amazing characters too.

    • Robert W
      July 7, 2014 at 7:52 pm

      Katawa Shoujo would have been included did it not run afoul of some of MakeUseOf's content policies. It's very well done, but some of the subject matter meant I couldn't recommended it as part of the article proper. Good pull though!

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