Welcome our lovely readers to what we hope is the beginning of a semi-regular series of game jam highlights, bringing to your attention the particularly interesting VN-related game dev events and the most worthwhile projects that get created thanks to them. Our take on this year’s NaNoRen0 is, as probably most of you realized by this point, ridiculously delayed – the jam itself was in March and our initial plan was to put out our coverage within a few weeks… Still, because of how rich and diverse the output of this event always is, it would be hard to find a better post to open this series with and we decided to go through with it regardless – in the future, we hope to deliver our impressions and recommendations in a much more timely manner. Also, all feedback on the format itself and the kind of VNs you would like to hear more about will be highly appreciated.
So, to the main topic! NaNoRenO, the biggest annual visual novel jam on Itch.io, is a long-running event that always attracted many talented Western VN devs and spawned dozens of memorable titles, including ones such as Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story or NomNomNami’s Her Tears Here My Light. At the same time, the occasional gems are always hidden among dozens of demos, prototypes and amateur projects that are less interesting for an average reader. Because of this, we’re hoping this post will help you find the most worthwhile experiences from NaNoRenO 2021 – all of them free games you can enjoy just by using the Itch.io links below. So, without further ado…
Genre: Slice of life
Length: ~1 hour
Watercress is a team of NaNoRen0 veterans that usually create emotional, experimental VNs that dive deep into very specific themes. In their latest project, Vignette, the leading motif is environmental storytelling – the whole game happens within a single room in an abandoned building, changing over a long period of time. At the beginning, the location is discovered by a pair of siblings, a male teenage protagonist and his younger sister, who decide to use it as their “secret base”. We see them making the decrepit room, probably a part of a long-defunct store, “theirs” – modifying its interior to better suit their needs, bringing new things in and removing some of those related to its original function. And as the main characters grow, change and build new relationships, the room and the way it’s used follow suit – up to the point it has to be abandoned for good.
Vignette’s core story is pretty short and arguably rushed, with loosely connected scenes of the siblings interacting with each other. They often hint at the challenges they faced growing up and struggling to find their places in life, but without going into detailed descriptions. The game’s most interesting feature, as hinted earlier, is the focus on the same, but ever-changing scenery. Every major event is reflected in the game’s background with either subtle or significant changes, making for a really impressive number of variants of what normally would be a single, static background. Characters are also portrayed without abstract sprites or portraits, but through more natural and dynamic placement within the space of the room, making for an unusual, but very comprehensive and immersive use of 2D art. In the end, Vignette is still more of a proof of concept than a deep narrative experience, but its novelty factor and solid execution should make it worth checking out for most readers.
Loveless on Lockdown
Length: ~1,5 hours
Loveless on Lockdown follows a female protagonist suffering from pandemic-induced social isolation. Stuck in her apartment and away from her family, she has little beyond frequent chats with a close online friend to distract her from her loneliness. That is, until she decides, against all odds, to make that internet relationship a bit more real… Or maybe to, on impulse, ask out a good-looking man manning a fruit stand in her local store?
Structurally, this VN is a rather traditional romance game, from an author that previously made more experimental titles dealing with themes of identity and social pressures faced by people in minority groups. What makes it still stand out from your average short otomege is the quality of its writing and the hopeful approach to the topic of pandemic-related anxieties. The misunderstandings and minor plot twists it weaves into the story are mostly connected to the peculiar time of Covid-related restrictions which we only partially (if at all) left behind. Things like masks and social distancing, all hindering normal communication and the ability to bond with other people, are major factors shaping the plot, but are also things the protagonist can eventually overcome (of course, with all necessary precautions). And apart from the wholesome, satisfying romance, we get really pleasant, polished visuals (including nice character art and well-stylized UI) and decent, well-utilized music. It’s still a small, simple game that won’t shock you with tons of depth or a large number of CGs (there are two proper ones within the whole story), but it’s very good at what it does and if short otome VNs are something you enjoy, you’ll definitely find it satisfying.
Genre: Fantasy, Dark Comedy, Yaoi
Length: ~1,5 hours
Nemlei is an author creating excellent dark comedy VNs with a unique visual style. While their two previous games, Jack-In-A-Castle and Divilethion relied on unusual fantasy settings and unrelentingly macabre writing, Better Half is slightly toned down – which doesn’t necessarily mean “standard”. It tells the story of Thiu, a deeply depressed nobody desperately looking for a remedy for his constant misery. With little, if anything to lose, he visits a shady mage willing to remove all of his unhappiness – a process that sounds good in theory, but in practice creates at least as many problems as it solves…
It’s hard to say more about Better Half’s story without spoiling it, but with its small cast of quirky characters and a varied selection of endings (ranging from really dark to hilarious), it’s a fun and highly unique experience. It can be slightly meandering in the middle, introducing story threads that aren’t elaborated on much and don’t receive proper resolution, but these are relatively minor complaints. The main character is also not particularly appealing, showing mostly negative traits all throughout the story, but his struggles can be quite relatable and lead to many funny and interesting interactions. With expressive visuals added to the mix, I can easily recommend this VN to anyone looking for something different and uncompromising in its storytelling – if there’s one thing that can be said about all Nemlei’s projects, it’s that they are not afraid to stand out from your usual game jam EVNs.
A New Don
Length: ~1,5 hours
A New Don, the newest project by the game jam veteran Heiden, is among the most compelling games in this year’s NaNoRenO, despite not being particularly innovative with its structure. Following a Fia, a country girl who’s unexpectedly chosen as an heir to a prohibition-era crime family, it’s a small gem when it comes to building climate and creating compelling characters in a short story. Fia herself, while initially overwhelmed with her new circumstances and expected by everyone to fail, quickly adapts to the rules of the game and shows enough wit and charisma to survive in the harsh world she found herself in. The two romance options represent the uneasy bonds and rivalries she has to navigate to establish herself as the new leader. Andino, the loyal enforcer of the old don, is the closest thing she has to an actual ally, but is also entangled by secrets and questionable dealings of the family that make his true loyalties hard to pinpoint. Giacomo, the last member of the old don’s bloodline, seems furious about his exclusion from his grandfather’s will and dead-bent on claiming the leadership that he thinks is rightfully his – but also, there’s more to his anger than just hurt ambition… In the end, it’s up to Fia herself to both avoid the many deathtraps sep up on her way to power and build relationships necessary to suceed in the long run.
While maybe not exactly “realistic”, A New Don does a really good job at selling its story, both not shying away from gruesome details of organized crime and balancing it with effective humour and colourful lead characters. The motivations of Fia and those around her, frequent dead ends signifying the extreme danger she found herself in, the somewhat-cynical, but satisfying good endings… They all create a very solid mix, only strengthened by the period-appropriate soundtrack and well-stylized art. With a longer, better-paced story it probably could’ve been even more impressive, but for a game jam entry, it’s hard to seriously complain about anything it offers.
Genre: Sci-fi, comedy, romance
Length: ~1 hour
Including Pirated Code on our recommendation list is maybe one positive consequence of it being late – while only a demo of this VN was released during NaNoRenO, a full, also freeware version followed two months later. This minimalistic sci-fi game offers a short, but well-paced and engaging story with a touch of transhumanist themes. Dex, a small-time smuggler, steals a data chip on one of his travels which happens to contain an advanced AI of unknown origins and function – Seren, the protagonist of the VN. After installing themselves on Dex’s courier ship as an automatic co-pilot, Seren has to navigate the uncertain situation with their mostly-incompetent host and hopefully uncover the mystery of their original purpose. And in the end, it might be the trust and understanding between them and Dex that makes the difference between a happy ending and a catastrophe…
The presentation of the VN is very simple, reflecting the unusual perspective of Seren – we experience everything essentially through remote communication, in which the protagonist either participates or just listens in on. With just character portraits and a static background, there’s not much visual flair involved, but the solid character art and many minor touches (like animations of opening comms and visual glitches that show up at certain parts of the plot) never allows the game to feel cheap or unpolished. The only actual complaint I have about it is the length – with the witty writing and limited branching the game flies by really quickly and the concept probably deserved more development and romantic buildup to fully show its potential. Even as it is now though, it’s a very fun, short distraction – exactly what you want from your average game jam VN and if you approach it with proper expectations, you’ll definitely get your share of enjoyment out of it.
Author: Neon Polygon
Genre: Fantasy, romance, Slice-of-life
Length: ~40 minutes
Monster Café is a short, but stylish and cute VN following a mostly undefined protagonist, who finds themselves working in an interdimensional cafe, meeting a great variety of non-human patrons. The game follows interactions with two of the cafe’s regulars, who share their thoughts and struggles with the main character – depending on how you interact with them and how good of a service you offer as a barista, their visits might bloom into a deeper relationship, either friendly or romantic in nature.
This is maybe the least innovative or unusual entry on our recommendation list, however, the quality art, climatic soundtrack and witty writing make it a very enjoyable, bite-sized experience that is hard not to enjoy. I the same category, I can’t help but give an honourable mention to Yuki’s 4P by Milkkylemon – an absurd (and ridiculously cute) yuri game that leans more into pure comedy, but offers a similarly charming, cosy experience to that of Monster Café. What both games might lack in long romantic buildups and story depth, they more than make up for with humour and personality.
And this is all for our recommendations from NaNoRenO 2021! Of course, this is very much our subjective selection and depending on your tastes, there are more VNs from the event worth checking out. There are also interesting demos and in-development projects that we will, in general, not include in our game jam coverage – we want to spotlight complete and freely accessible VNs above anything else, as those are the projects that offer the most value to an average reader, but rarely reach broader audience due to the niche nature of game jams themselves.
Hopefully, you found something interesting among our propositions! Thank you for checking them out and see you next time – possibly quite soon… 🙂