How to Make Your First Visual Novel Game in Six Steps

As the creator of The Otaku Box (the best anime subscription box ever), I’m deeply connected with anime, otaku culture, and anime gaming. Due to their popularity, I often see anime games adapted to the screens as TV shows. Hits like Steins;Gate and Fate/Stay Night are adaptations of visual novels, a game genre focused on interactive storytelling.

If you are creative and wish to create your first game but don’t know where to start, this guide will provide a reasonable basis for achieving your goals! 

What is a Visual Novel Game?

Be it for profit, hobby, or study, the more you know about this game genre and its related terms, the better. A solid foundation ensures you can create your project, find information, and identify the right audience.

But the first thing to know is what a visual novel is, regardless of your ultimate goal.

Visual novel games are digital interactive fiction that originated in Japan. They are heavily focused on the narrative with illustrations and sound effects that help connect the player (typically the protagonist) with the story and its characters.

Often, the gameplay is reduced to minimal interaction, consisting of keeping the text moving or making choices that lead to different endings. However, some developers increase the level of interaction between the player and the story.

Minigames, problem-solving gameplay, and multiple endings are common resources to enhance the story. If you need extra information, consider playing some games to get a feel of what you’re about to make!

Standard terms related to visual novels worth knowing include the following. 

Kinetic Novels:

Visual Novels with linear storylines. They have only one possible ending.

Branching Narrative:

It’s common for visual novels to have non-linear storylines where players’ choices in dialogue affect events and unlock different endings.

Script:

Similar to a screenplay, scripts describe scenes, the characters in each one, and their lines and reactions. In Visual Novel Projects, scripts also consider story branches and events that must be triggered after players’ choices. These can be more related to actual coding.

Character Sprite:

These are the pictures of characters shown throughout the story whenever they are present in a scene, especially when talking. They often have various expressions or slightly different poses to demonstrate their feelings.

CG:

This means computer graphics. In this context, they are impactful illustrations shown at key moments of the story, like cut scenes.

Otome Game (Otoge):

Games aimed at female demographics. They usually revolve around a female protagonist choosing a bachelor.

Dating Simulator:

Visual novels and dating simulators aren’t the same; however, people get them mixed up because they share visual characteristics. Date simulators are games where the point is to choose a partner and raise intimacy with them. It often leads to more gameplay and less narrative. 

Let’s get to the steps for creating your first visual novel game.

Step 1: Choose and Familiarize with an Engine

You can start your project now that you know what a visual novel is. Your first task is to decide what platform you’ll use to build your game and learn what features it allows.

You don’t have to go into details yet, but it’s advisable to know beforehand what your tool can do or not and what you need to make the most of it.

Visual novels have several game engines, including paid and free options. One that certainly stands out for creating computer and mobile games is the open-source Ren’Py. It’s free for commercial use and includes Python programming language support.

Step 2: Outline Your Story

The second step is to plan what the game is about. Knowing what you can do on your game engine will show how far your project can go feature-wise.

Remember, the main focus of a visual novel is the story. So get this part done before moving to anything else. But you don’t have to get into the fine details just yet. 

First, get a clear picture of the story you’ll tell. Is it romance or a mystery? Who is it aimed at? 

What kind of characters will be in it? What is their relationship with the player (usually the protagonist)? What are the possible outcomes?

Don’t worry if you change your mind or need to adjust later. Remember that the more complex your story is, the more you must invest (time, money, effort, or all) in the following steps.

Step 3: Create Your Characters

Before you get to the script, you need to envision the characters that will be part of your story. Know how they will look, behave, and affect the story. This applies to all characters, including the protagonist. 

If the protagonist is asked an embarrassing question, what kinds of answers can they give? Will any of the other characters act differently as the story progresses?

Take notes of everything so you don’t miss any fun details!

Step 4: Write the Script

As you can see, the planning stage of a project is long but worth it. It would help if you had a solid idea or guide to what your first visual novel game will look like.

And with that done, it’s time to work on each scene, event, possibility, and dialogue. This can be a long process, and you might need to go back and forth a few times until you are satisfied. There are various tools to help you with this, but even a regular text editor will do.

Again, the amount of detail you put in your script affects the workload or money you’ll need.

Step 5: Prepare Your Assets

Your game is starting to take shape. The next step is to find suitable character sprites, background pictures and music, sound effects, and CGs for significant events.

To enhance production, some creators include customized GUI (definition) or graphic user interfaces (buttons, icons, etc.) and even voice acting!

There’s no right amount or order here. Whatever suits your taste, budget, and story will do. 

If you have artists on your team or can commission them, your game will have a unique touch. But generic files are also free, which can do the trick.

Step 6: Developing Your Game (Finally)

The last step is mixing everything in the game engine of choice and seeing your visual novel come to life.

Keep your flowcharts, lists, drafts, and everything else you prepared until now close so you know exactly which option triggers what artwork or sound. And which answers lead to a happy or sad ending.

You may even find tools that don’t require coding, but knowing the basics of the programming language (see why here) that works with your game engine can improve outcomes.

Final Considerations

Congratulations! You now have your first visual novel game! All that’s left is to share or advertise it to the right community. And I’d love to see how it turned out! 

One last tip for your first visual novel game is to keep it short and straightforward. After hearing players’ feedback, you can update the game, release new chapters, or create a second, improved project.