Since 2005, every March, visual novel veterans and novices alike have come together to create games from scratch within a 31-day period.
Where does the name come from? NaNoRenO doesn’t really stand for anything; it just happens to bear a phonetic similarity to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a “month long writing project” that takes place every november (think of it as a game jam for writers). “Ren” is a callout to Ren’py, the free visual novel software that serves as the engine for most NaNoRenO projects, which itself is a callout to Ren’ai, Japanese for “falling in love,” and a common term for Japanese dating sims. NaNoRenO started on (and continues to be organized on) the Lemmasoft forums, which serve as the de-facto discussion board for the Ren’py visual novel software.
Despite the name, Ren’py (the engine) and NaNoRenO (the game jam) don’t limit themselves to dating sim or romance games, and among the released titles, you can find a variety of experimental titles, from Farewell, Bunny Boy, the tale of a rabbit who ventures into the world, and Banality Man, which describes itself as “a game about the joys and agonies of punching things.”
Among the romance titles, you’ll find some earnest, like Speed Dating on the Citadel a fan game set in the Mass Effect universe, and Cute Demon Crashers, an otome game (or “game for girls”) about a female university student who spends her spring break with four sex demons. Others NaNoRenO entries take a more ironic approach to the idea of creating a romance game, like Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim, which advertises itself with the tagline “GAY ORCS available in YOUR AREA.”
One NaNoRenO game which is notable mainly due to its “pedigree” is pXt, a satirically “unoriginal” gag game created by several members of Four Leaf Studios, the team responsible for Katawa Shoujo.
What makes NaNoRenO different from other game jams?
Most of the games that come out of NaNoRenO are what you might expect from a game jam: a collection of ideas from different creative, who decided to prioritize shipping a (technically) functional product over everything else. The games are often limited in scope, sometimes featuring artwork or scripts that are incomplete; most successful projects are short in length, often offering a play experience between 5 and 20 minutes.
One of the things I’ve always been surprised by is how NaNoRenO games always seem to find an audience. My own game (released in 2015) was downloaded over 3,000 times despite a lack of promotion anywhere apart from a thread in the Lemmasoft forums, and it’s rare to find a forum thread for a NaNoRenO game that doesn’t have at least a few comments and several dozen downloads, even the low-effort submissions.
Perhaps it’s the games’ brevity that makes people so willing to give them a try. Visual novels, as a game genre, overwhelmingly tend to rely on bespoke content more than any other game genre. Every moment of gameplay has to be accompanied by unique dialog or illustrations, so it’s difficult for a game made in under a month to offer a long play time, and low-effort games in particular tend to be shorter.
The fact that visual novel progress typically isn’t “gated” also raises the floor on the potential frustration of bad experiences. A poorly-designed platformer can be frustrating to play and progress through if it is too hard, but even the worst visual novel can be completed just by clicking-through them as you skim the text.
(You will occasionally find exceptions to the “bespoke content” rule of visual novels in the form of games like 6.8×1014 First Dates, a 2015 NaNoRenO Twine game that advertises itself as a procedurally-generated dating game, featuring completely (and mathematically) random partners.)
The “proving grounds” and success stories
While many NaNoRenO participants are veterans, it’s also an opportunity for new developers to enter the scene, and NaNoRenO has given a number of individuals and teams to “cut their teeth” and get started with visual novel development.
Christine Love’s first visual novel project, Digital: A Love Story was a NaNoRenO game, as was the sequel, don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story. (For those paying attention, Analog: A Hate Story, the title of Christine Love’s first self-published commercial VN, is a callback to the original NaNoRenO game name.)
Dischan Media was another notable “NaNoRenO debut;” the team’s first project, Juniper’s Knot, was completed as part of NaNoRenO 2012, and the team went on to raise $67,450 CAD on Kickstarter for their next project, Dysfunctional Systems. (Dysfunctional Systems was later canceled after releasing its first episode.)
Some NaNoRenO projects have gone to be released as commercial titles and sold through platforms like Steam, such as Kinmoku’s One Night Stand.
Meeting co-founders and going commercial
If you’re an aspiring artist, writer, programmer, or otherwise looking for a way to “break into” the world of visual novel development, NaNoRenO can be a good time to look for a team, as it tends to be a time of the year when other people are also looking to start new teams. Month-long game jams provide a chance for experienced developers to work with new talent, as the low stakes and short time frame of the game jam make it a good opportunity to try working with new developers to see how you get along.
One team that followed this path is Cyanide Tea, a visual novel production team that consists of artist Auro Cyanide and writer Lorelei. The two members originally came together to create Ristorante Amore for NaNoRenO 2014. Since then, the team has released three additional free games (The Elevator, Nachtigal, and Taarradhin), as well as two commercial projects, Where We Lay Our Scene and Break Chance Momento.
Community and Inertia
What began as a community game jam in 2005 with six released games has grown to an event that resulted in the release of 84 new games collectively created by hundreds of participants in 2016.
In certain ways, NaNoRenO is a self-fulfilling prophecy: people are drawn to the Lemmasoft forums in late February in search of teammates, and via the community recruitment boards, they find other aspiring devs, also drawn to the forums in search of development teammates. Like other game jams, NaNoRenO also serves as a reminder of just how much people are capable of shipping when that ship date is their top priority. NaNoRenO participants begin working on a project for the purpose of releasing it in March 31, and with that as their top priority, very few projects remain in limbo at the end of the month, even if it means reducing their scope.
Interested in joining in? Mark your calendar for March 1, 2017. Or better yet, mark it for mid-February, when you can hop onto the Lemmasoft recruitment forum and look for other developers interested in spending a month pursuing the same goal.