Monster Cafe 1

The Best Visual Novels from NaNoRenO 2021

You may have heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novelist Writer’s Month), but there’s also the visual novel equivalent called the NaNoRenO, which is an annual, month-long game jam that ran from March 1st to April 3rd. The challenge is, of course, to make a fully functioning visual novel within a month. And in fact, NaNoRenO has been running since 2004!

Unlike the event it was inspired by, NaNoRenO isn’t exactly an acronym, but a reference to the open source engine Ren’py, which is commonly used by many developers to make visual novels.

That said, it’s also a brilliant opportunity to check out a variety of remarkably inventive visual novels–ranging from adorable dating sims to existential tales about the nature of dreams. Check out all the entries if you like, but here are some of the best visual novels in NaNoRenO 2021:

Annulus Break

Even for a visual novel, Annulus Break is a tad verbose at first, but it’s worth clicking through to the crux of the tale: a macabre story about the inexplicable happenings taking place in a strange, secluded island. You’re travelling with a crew of scientists and engineers to uncover the fate of a missing research crew, eventually running into a spore-like entity that is too keen to make conversation with you. Only you.

What’s most fascinating are the attempts to grasp the flow and context of the conversation—a palpable struggle that eventually gives way to the excitement of finally getting at some sense of the disquieting truth.

Yuki’s Palpitating, Passionate, Phenomenal and quite frankly Proficient quest for a (hot) girlfriend

Full of sugary sweetness like a strawberry parfait, Yuki’s Palpitating, Passionate, Phenomenal and quite frankly Proficient quest for a (hot) girlfriend puts you in the shoes of a hopeful lesbian named Yuki, who runs into three, very eligible ladies—all of whom thinks she’s cute as a button. Seize the opportunity to get to know them better, bring them all out to dates, and then decide who you’ll want to date for eternity and after. No break ups!

From the saccharine-sweet conversations to the heart-warming backstories of each character—who are, admittedly, only a slight shade deeper than the typical character tropes of dating sims and anime they embody—Yuki’s Palpitating, Passionate, Phenomenal and quite frankly Proficient quest for a (hot) girlfriend is a breezy, charming tale that assures you that you deserve your own happily ever after, too—and that they may just be a few moments away.

Pirated Code

Decades of science fiction have informed us that AIs are only a hair trigger away from destroying humanity and dooming us all, but as an advanced sentient AI yourself in Pirated Code, you’ll have the freedom to decide whether you’ll want to do so.

Stolen from the clutches of an intelligence officer, you’re now installed as a co-pilot of a smuggler’s ship, with no inkling as to where—or even what—you are. Your fellow co-pilot, too, is a laid-back wastrel named Dex, who is enormously bad at his job, and prefers to take naps. It’s a light-hearted story with genuinely likeable characters, as well as friendly banters that will make you chuckle. At the same time, there’s also a more sinister undertone about the true nature of the AI personality, which you can hopefully uncover in future chapters.

Dream Team

There’s an entire universe swimming around in your head when you’re asleep, and Dream Team seeks to shed light into this previously unknowable world—with the help of the most basic of geometric shapes that make up the bulk of everyday objects: Triangle, Circle and Square. Each with their own distinct personalities, you’ll follow along in their journey as they discuss and discover the purpose of their existence. Not only is this trip an entertaining and even comical one at times, but it’s also surprisingly affecting. 

Dream Team brings to mind the deconstructionist platformer Thomas Was Alone, which also features simple shapes you can’t help but feel affectionate towards. And by distilling some of the most well-worn features of visual novels into parables about self-actualisation, Dream Team tells a compelling, inspiring tale about reaching your fullest potential. What a journey.

A Monster’s Insight

There are plenty of layers to A Monster’s Insight, but its intricate systems belie an elaborate backstory about an unrelenting, eldritch universe, where monsters and other cosmic beings have to ruthlessly consume one other in order to stay alive. As a silver-tongued—a monster that subsists on their charm and wit to exploit other monsters—you have one of the most exquisitely difficult jobs: to barter with another monster and convince them to give up their souls for you. To do so, you have to gather crucial information, make emotional bargains, and choose the right words to win them over. Succinctly capturing the game’s hellish atmosphere are the ghastly illustrations of these monstrosities. Never has devouring terrifying, otherworldly horrors been so invigorating and cerebral.

Midnight on the Milky Way

How’s it like to wake up in a cosmic train towards nowhere, only to find that you’ve not only misplaced your memory—but also your face? This is the gist of the dream-like Midnight on the Milky Way, where you’re a foggy-faced individual who is simply trying to find their bearings and trace back their steps, in order to recover your identity. You’ll also run across a bizarre cast of passengers and crew: an inscrutable devil, a rude cat that will only speak in puns, and an infant bunny who can’t stop bursting into tears. As the surreal gradually bleeds into the fantastical world of Midnight on the Milky Way, you’ll find it tougher to pull away from the visual novel’s hypnagogic allure.

A Forsaken Place

The gulf between humans and demonkind has grown ever larger in A Forsaken Place, a short but captivating tale about a hapless enchantress who has summoned the Demon Prince to her realm. Now both bonded to one another, the duo have to work together to free themselves, while uncovering the truth between a war waged between the both races centuries ago. A Forsaken Place is both emotive and hilarious, as it deftly replicates the growing affection between two unlikely companions. Can they fall in love? Of course. Will you shed a tear while you’re at it? Perhaps. 

Monster Cafe

More than just a dating sim, Monster Cafe is a visual novel about empathy and connection, as well as celebrating the mundane beauty of deeply ordinary lives. Stumbling across a local coffee shop that’s looking for a barista, you gladly took on the job after a short, fuss-free introduction to coffee-making. It’s here in Monster Cafe where you juggle your time between brewing beverages for the cafe’s quirky bunch of patrons, as well as providing a listening ear to them. 

A simple slice-of-life tale reminiscent of recent barista games like Coffee Talk and VA-11 Hall-A, it’s the magnetic personalities of its monster patrons that elevates this game beyond the other entries in this year’s NaNoRenO game jam. Keep in mind that Monster Cafe is the team’s first game, which is also developed in the brief span of one month, making this achievement all the more astounding. Drop by the cafe for a visit some day.