Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games.
Note: It’s hard to discuss the history of Ren’Py, visual-novel culture, and the ‘90s craze for “girl games” without falling into strong gendered language and binary thinking. I don’t endorse or espouse this thinking. Increasingly, visual novels don’t either.
Last week I talked briefly about the history of browser games as part of the background for Fallen London. But the ease of building pages from text in early browsers led designers and coders to make sprawling, interactive sites made one page at a time with fresh HTML each time. Visual novel games were popular with early video game consoles because their static art was less programming intensive. For web coders, static art was often the only way to do what they wanted. And so the two goals converged during a brief flourishing of “girl games” and otherwise in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Japan led the way stylistically, with existing genres of manga and anime that were written and drawn with girls in mind. Early text games were often adventures that involved fussy puzzle-solving, and early video games were mostly one-off shooters or fighting games. These are fine things that everyone can enjoy, but there was interest in more writing in games, and women game designers especially were interested in targeting girls and young women. Burgeoning research into video games showed a “female” market for games that had a more introspective and interpersonal focus.
Ren’Py was built using Python, but a specialized Python library called Pygamed, which put a lot of game-development tools together in one slightly more user-friendly package. This meant Ren’Py users didn’t need to understand the mechanics that underpinned their games unless they wanted to, slotting it easily alongside other “what you see is what you get”/WYSIWYG technologies at the time.
Indie developer Georgina Bensley, the founder of Hanako Games, said in 2008 that she always wanted a career in games but felt the field was too crowded. Instead, she worked in a library until circumstances and the rise of indie game culture and technology enabled her to take the risk and make games full time. Hanako Games was born in Bensley’s bedroom.
Because of Bensley’s high profile among visual-novel fans, she has become an accessible role model for a lot of indie developers. In 2013, she told an interviewer how she’d tinkered with Apple’s HyperCard language and other early ways to try to develop narrative games as a kid in the ‘80s. (Amy Hennig described this as a time when “five-figure” computers and software were required to make major game art and environments.)
PC Gamer talked with Bensley in 2017 about Ren’Py and why it’s a good fit for Hanako and beginners alike. “I also consider it a plus that it is beginner-friendly but still requires looking at and editing script files, rather than a graphical drag-and-drop interface, because I think it’s useful to get people over that hurdle of thinking that code is scary,” Bensley said.
“Once you’ve made something that other people can play, even something simple, it can change the way you feel about yourself and your ability to do things.”
One of the earliest widely available Hanako games is 2010’s Date Warp, a cross-platform visual novel you can pick up for $3.99 during Steam’s summer sale. You play as Janet, one of Hanako’s trademark young women heroines, as she goes on a blind date and ends up lodged in a space-time rift. If you’ve never played a dating sim, this one is a fine exemplar: there are six male characters who have different archetypal personalities, and you choose to spend time with one or the other.
A classic visual novel might just have you choose story options, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book rendered in screens. Date Warp adds a puzzle twist where you have to tweak and complete circuitry in order to move the plot forward. This fits with the game’s overall sheen of “mad science” and secrecy surrounding a mysterious house in the woods.
Bensley loves Rocky Horror Picture Show and has talked about how the game takes some overall cues from it: Brad and Janet, lost on a stormy night, ending up in a “Date Warp” in a house trapped in time? It’s a charming game, and a good place to start.
Hanako’s 2015 game, on sale for $7.99 on Steam this week, places you in the student government of a prestigious, vaguely Gothic Lolita-styled private school for girls. You’re the freshly elected class president and must corral your administration to solve small mysteries in your school. Who’s vandalizing the gym? Why are two roommates fighting? You choose minions to assign to each case you need to solve, and they all have personality traits that are more or less likely to help with a particular case.
On top of this “case of the week” mechanic, you find out there’s a traitor in your administration who wants to sabotage both you and your school’s reputation. Each weekend, you can spend time with one of your minions and get to know their personalities and interests. Over time, this builds to your deducing and accusing the traitor in your midst. The traitor is randomized, and it’s genuinely tough to find out who it is. Each traitor script has a little bit different writing and outcome, so you’re incentivized to play through a few times.
And uncovering the traitor is just one of several escalating mysteries in the school year. Like any good private school mystery, there are anonymous notes, thinly veiled threats, and menacing meetings with the headmistress. Your minions fight amongst themselves for your attention, and their personalities are fleshed out in thoughtful ways. That’s important, because they help decide if you survive the year.
Long Live the Queen
Fourteen-year-old Elodie is a princess and heir apparent to the crown of Nova, a low-tech fantasy world with underpinnings of magic. As with Black Closet, there’s a case of the week, in the form of Elodie’s lessons with a tutor. But with more than 40 skills to choose from, each week poses a tough question: what threats will Elodie encounter that week, and how can you best avoid them?
The overall story of LLTQ, also on sale for $3.99 right now, hits the same beats, but there are huge variations depending on choices you make in each run. So you might decide you can plan ahead by studying a certain skill in the early weeks, but that puts you at a disadvantage for another decision. As in Alexis Kennedy’s ambivalent worlds, Elodie rarely has a clear best option.
In the story, Elodie feels neglected by her father the king, and her mother has been dead for a long time. She’s still a young teen but the court politics swirling around her are very serious and dangerous. Because of this, her moods are variable and affect what you can learn each week, with penalties and bonuses to different skills when Elodie is depressed, lonely, or cheerful.
Of the three Hanako games I’m highlighting here, LLTQ has the most branching variants and potential for replay. It’s easy to skip through content you’ve seen before to make it easier to get to new content in a particular run. And where Black Closet’s consequences range from rare fatal ones to just being embarrassed or expelled, Elodie will die in every unsuccessful run of LLTQ. The achievements gallery in the game has an entire section of her many deaths.
Hanako has released a dozen other games in Bensley’s 15-year games career, and they’ve expanded to developing other writers’ work under a new sub-brand called Hanabira. Bensley herself continues to be visible and accessible for folks in the indie development world, especially visual novels, and she promotes other creators and their work. (It’s worth noting that the heroine of Date Warp is Indian-American and the heroine of Black Closet is black.)
Bensley is a proponent of Ren’Py in the same way Emily Short is a proponent of the IF platform Inform, and Hanako is almost synonymous with Ren’Py-built western visual novels. Bensley is often referenced in the same breath with Christine Love, and both have helped make visual novels more mainstream and accessible.
And visual novels do not need to hew to Ren’Py. The surprise success of 2015’s Hatoful Boyfriend, originally a one-note joke that its creators made into a full game over several years, was enabled by the Unity engine. Twenty or even thirty years on, choosing to make a visual novel still means focusing on fewer pieces of high-quality art and little animation, making it an accessible choice in a variety of different coding platforms.