Making of…a visual novel part 1

You’d be forgiven if you immediately thought a ‘visual novel’ was akin to a graphic novel, something lavishly illustrated accompanied by some text perhaps. I would have thought the same until a few years ago when I started to play more computer games. Yes, it’s a type of computer game.

Visual novels are an interesting part of the computer game family. They’re quite accessible for players, as they often require minimal gameplay, and quite accessible to create, offering those with little programming knowledge an easy way in to creating games. That’s why I’m here.

Via Twitter, I saw a fabulous game artist (@bitmOO) post about NaNoRenO, a game jam focusing on visual novels. After shelving many wonderful plans I had for my ACE application, I plucked out the folklore idea and thought I could turn it in to a visual novel style game. A chance for me to start dabbling in making games. I’m realistic about it all, I doubt I’ll get a whole game finished but I’m aiming to get something working.

So here I am, taking you with me on my game-making mess adventure :)

Let’s start with a quick run-down of visual novels. Very popular in Japan, they’re usually played on computers and rarely make it to consoles (some notable exceptions being Virtue’s Last Reward, Danganronpa, and Hatoful Boyfriend). The emphasis is clearly on storytelling and characters, often with branching plots and multiple endings. It could be likened to those ‘choose your own adventure’ books but with more depth.

Some visual novels go a step further and add more game functionality, like levelling up skills, picking up items, etc. No topic or genre is off-limits, though some are definitely more popular than others. The mainstay seems to be highschool and adult romance but you can get some fab mashups, like mystery-murder-highschool in Danganronpa or law-mystery-drama in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. (Hatoful Boyfriend is romance in a school for birds. And you’re the only human. Yeah.)

Visually, there are some common features – static backgrounds, minimal animation on character sprites (but they do have a big range of expressions), text boxes, and some special effects like camera shake. This is not a definitive list, as some games go beyond these features.

A search on itchi.io will give you some great (and some adult-rated ones, beware) free ‘home made’ visual novels. And a visit to Ren’Py, popular software for making visual novels, could also prove fruitful.

As a visual novel hinges on its underlying story and character interactions, I’m at the planning stage of my adventure. And let me tell you, it is tough.

All of these pages are literally just thoughts and notes, trying to wrangle a story in to place that I can then turn in to a game xD You can’t just write a story and let your players read through it (actually, you can, this is called a kinetic novel but it’s not what I want to do). If you’re aiming for multiple endings, it’s like you’ve got to chart several possible beginnings, middles, and ends. And then think about how you move through each possible thread. I’m confused already!

Thankfully, I’m keeping it simple and having just a handful of endings, and endings that are like good or bad endings in other games. So, things you find out along the way and actions you choose will help determine the final ending. As an example from my story, you have three spirits to lay to rest. You can either free them all, free two of them, free just one of them, or even free none of them. This may be too simple, especially compared to other visual novels, but it’s what I think I can manage.

The next challenge now is writing dialogue and ‘chapters’ to make all of that happen.