Check out the game page! https://friendlyoverlord.itch.io/the-first-date-vn-game-jam-2021
I imagine you may have just a few questions after reading that title. The first is probably something along the lines of “Didn’t you just play your first visual novel like a month ago? Aren’t you skipping some steps?”
Yes, both of those things are entirely true. I cannot deny either of them. Next, you’re probably wondering why I decided to do this then. Well, that requires a little bit of storytime.
Where it Began
It all started around January 10th or so. I had just gotten done playing Little Busters, and I really enjoyed it. It made me want to play another visual novel soon after. So I booted up Steins Gate, which I had already bought earlier.
While playing through it, I started to think about how it was made. That sowed the seed that would eventually bloom a month later. I thought about messing around with my own visual novel and all of the things it might take to create one.
That may sound like quite a leap in logic, but it makes sense. If you want to learn an instrument, you play the instrument. If you want to learn how to write better, you write. The best way to learn something is to do it. So logic dictated that the best way for me to learn how to make a visual novel was to create my own.
I started to look into ways to make that happen, and I found Renpy. A visual novel creator that makes your life so much easier by removing mostly all coding from the equation. It’s a tremendous help. Doki Doki Literature Club was actually made with Renpy to give you a taste of what this fairly simple tool can do.
So I messed around with it somewhere near January 13th, if my laptop is to be believed. This was nothing crazy. I was just adapting the first chapter of a story I wrote into visual novel form to help me learn some of the ins and out.
This is where I started to see how little-prepared I was. You need character portraits, music, backgrounds, all of these things someone who can’t create music and can’t draw would have trouble with.
So I started looking for free assets I could use. That led me to itch.io and to a creator by the name of NoranekoGames. I just want to give a special thank you to Nora because I wouldn’t have been able to do make this without the wonderful artwork. So go check it out. What are you waiting for?
Nora is doing a very nice thing by giving back to the community. I, and I’m sure many others, appreciate it a lot. Of course, I have more people to thank, but I did that on the game page. I needed to thank Nora, especially because I wouldn’t even know about the jam. One thing led to the next, and I went on Twitter to see more artwork.
Next thing you know, I see there’s a visual novel game jam going on soon. For those of you unaware, a game jam is basically a competition (though this one doesn’t have a winner) where you build a game within a certain amount of time based on a particular word or theme given to you.
The theme was, of course, “love,” as this was a VN jam for Valentine’s Day. So I thought about my next move with all of the consideration of a 5-year-old asking his mother to take him Chuck E. Cheese after work and decided that I would make a visual novel for the jam.
I mean, come on. I had been messing around with Renpy for like 2 days, and I had a little over 40 days to make something. Surely everything would be fine, right? Well, I did manage something, at least.
I really wasn’t sure what to make at first. By the time I had joined the jam, I still didn’t have a clue. I just knew it had to be about love in some way. I decided that the best way to do that would be to make a VN solely about love. Not other stuff mixed in—just a pure love story. No frills.
I then needed to figure out how to present that love story and how to make a game out of it. Unless you can make decisions to influence the outcome, I don’t think it really counts as a game. That wouldn’t work for a game jam now, would it? Though, I suppose this was a “VN jam,” and not “game jam,” so it would, but that’s beside the point.
So I needed some love-related plot that could be altered by the player. I decided to go very basic with it being about two people on a date. And the outcomes would be determined by choices the player made on that date.
Because I was going for such a simple premise with so few characters, too, I needed those characters to be decent and to have them work off of each other well. This led me to make Rin (the heroine) and the main character childhood friends.
I did this for a few reasons. I always get bummed out that the childhood friend never wins in love, so I wanted to write a story where they do. I also figured that them knowing each other forever would give them good chemistry and allow me to write good jokes and plot points because of that.
I thought a cute plot for a love-inspired VN would be for these two friends to finally confess to each other and have the plot be centered around their first date. Based on what the player does, it affects if they go on another one or how the date ends.
With that set, it was time for me to finalize some other aspects of the VN.
When I set out to make this VN, my expectations were way too high. I planned to do so much more than was capable in the amount of time I had. I originally wanted 6 different date routes and 3 endings to each route with a few joke endings scattered about. I realized early this wouldn’t happen.
As the days went on, I needed to get my priorities straight if I was ever to make this work. So 6 became 5. That became 4. Finally, I settled on 3. I really didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into or just how much work it would take.
Since the beginning, I felt like I was constantly struggling against time, and it was a little stressful, to be honest. Even now, it’s the same. To give you some insight, I’m writing this on February 23rd. The VN still isn’t entirely finished, but It’s just about there.
The deadline is the 28th, and I should make it fine. But as I’m writing this, I have tissues shoved up my nose because I got sick yesterday. So now I’m on a tight schedule, and I’m pretty sick to boot. But ya know, I’ll be playing Persona 5 Strikers soon, so that’s pretty cool.
As you might expect, I’m not super happy right at the moment, but by the time you see this, the VN will be done, and all will be right in the world. But as of now, I’m dodging my nostril tissues as I try to feed myself spoonfuls of oatmeal. But enough about that.
I learned very quickly how much I could reasonably get done. And when I started to be more realistic, I was able to work on other stuff. So the main advice I would give is just to be realistic. I learned a lot about the way this stuff works, and if you try to bite off more than you can chew, you’ll just end up choking. So be cautious of that.
What I never expected was just how many things I had to learn to make this all work. As I said, I didn’t realize everything that went into making a visual novel, or at least I didn’t stop and think about it before now. There was a lot more to take into consideration than just writing.
Because I’m not an artist or a musician, I needed to find other people’s work that I could use. The problem then became how to use existing things to craft the story I wanted. That meant lots of digging through music until I was happy, and then also some creativity on my part.
See, I wanted the VN to only feature one main character besides the nameless protagonist, who I lovingly refer to as Shinji. So to be able to use Rin’s portrait that Noraneko had made work for that, I ended up having to edit Rin’s head on different outfits because I wanted each route to feature Rin in something different.
This led me to having to figure out how to make the new portraits look good because, again, I’m not an artist. However, I do have a little bit of knowledge of photo editing now, so I managed.
I also had to learn how to animate things. Because I wanted my VN to at least feel distinct even know it would be using many default Renpy things. So I crafted my own menus for many things, changed the color scheme to fit with the blue and pink vibe it had.
So I had the idea for the CTC, which is the little thing that tells you to click to continue the text, a heart with an arrow going through it to fit with the logo I made. If anything, I just learned that if you want something to feel unique, it’s often best to make things yourself or have things made for you, but it is a lot of work.
On top of all this, I also had to write the plots, which weren’t always easy. Luckily, they all came to me fairly quickly, and I never really got stuck writing them, but I did have to actually sit down and write them while working on everything else I had to do.
And then attempting to write a mix of decisions that altered the story and decisions that just gave funny dialogue was a whole other can of worms. I could have done better with it, I admit, but considering it was my first time ever attempting something like this, I was pretty satisfied with how it had turned out.
I also had to learn how to loop music, which is surprisingly simple. I had to put together a page on itch.io. I had to learn how to make scrolling credits. Then I had to learn how to write proper credits now that they could scroll. Basically, I learned far more than I had expected. I’m happy about it, but I didn’t think it would happen a month ago.
The big takeaway is that if I ever make another VN, I would be able to do it much, much better. The learning curve was very steep, but I learned a lot about many different things because of it. If I went into a fresh visual novel knowing what I know now, I could make something far better, which is really all that’s important.
What I Learned
The biggest thing I would like anyone who reads this to take away is that you should learn how things are made. I know for some people, seeing that everything is just a bunch of 1s and 0s ruins the illusion for them, but I can’t explain to you how much more of an appreciation you get when you try to learn the ins and outs of something.
Seeing that VNs are made of backgrounds, images, music, text, pulling back the curtain on all of these things was really, really fun. And that’s the main reason I participated in this jam. It was to have fun. To have fun and to learn, and I did both of those things. Some of the things I learn will help me outside of just VNs as well.
Why I stretch how important I felt this experience was for me is because of how it makes me feel. When I look at visual novels, I will no longer see something mysterious. I’m not going to look at it as a completed thing, but more the many small aspects that make it up.
And when you stop to consider that – consider all the little things that go into crafting the finished product you love – it makes you love that thing even more. When you understand something, for me, at least, it doesn’t take away from it; it adds to it.
As some of you may know, I’m very new to visual novels, and seeing the inner workings of them, really made me love them a lot more. There’s nothing quite like peeling back the layers and seeing what makes something tick. For me, at least.
Shoutout to all those people that make free assets for not only visual novels but for games in general. People really do appreciate it. Also, good work to all the people on itch.io and other places that work hard to make visual novels. They’re making their dreams come true, and that’s a special thing to witness.
This whole experience made one of my dreams come true as well. I’ve always wanted to make a game. Sure, I didn’t need to code anything really, but I learned some of the basic structure of a game and made a finished product. I’d say that’s pretty cool for now.
Thank you very much for reading
What experiences have you had that made you appreciate something more than you already did? I think it’s very fascinating to learn what makes things up because you realize it’s really just many little things that make this one grand thing we all love. It’s pretty awesome, honestly.
And of course, I highly recommend you check out all the other submissions to the game jam. I’ll tell you what. I’m looking forward to taking a nice break from creating and doing just that. This was a blast, but relaxing and just getting a chance to play some things sounds really nice.