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 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) 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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, 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
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.
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.