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June 16, 2023
7 Min Read
The Still Dancer, featured on Ren'Py
Among all the game development software we've been listing as part of our coverage on free and low-cost tools, narrative game engines and toolsets kept coming up. We even ran a TikTok showing a few of our favorites, with tools like Twine, Narrat, and Ren'Py making a strong showing.
This resource is an expanded version of that, with a selection of free tools to make story heavy or dialogue-based games. These tools are useful for a number of genres: some are laser-focused on interactive fiction, while others are great for visual novels, dialogue-driven RPGs, adventure games, or other work where words and choosing among text options are a huge part of the experience. All of the tools on this list are free, and most are great for beginning developers or narrative designers/writers who want to branch out.
Table of contents:
Twine is one of the most established tools for interactive fiction on this list (or out in the world.) It's a free, open-source tool that doesn't require any coding knowledge to get started, making it ideal for folks who want to try out game development for the first time, writers looking to branch out into an interactive format, and really, anyone who wants to write a story where the player makes choices along branching paths. You can also extend the tool with plenty of bells and whistles if that's your speed!
From the Twine website:
Twine publishes directly to HTML, so you can post your work nearly anywhere. Anything you create with it is completely free to use any way you like, including for commercial purposes."
There's a huge community of Twine users, including a Discord, plus materials listed on the homepage like the Twine Reference and Twine Cookbook to get users of any experience level up and running.
You can use Twine on Mac or Windows in its desktop app, or work completely in browser.
Inklewriter has been around for over a decade, with a robust interface for writing interactive stories. From the studio's site:
"The inklewriter lets you write as you play, branching the story with choices, and then linking those branches back together again. It keeps track of which paths you’ve finished, and which still need to be written.
There's no set-up, no programming, no drawing diagrams – so there’s nothing between you and the empty page. Oh, and it's free to use. And once written, you can share your stories with whomever you like."
It's meant to get you up and writing quickly, and it comes with a very friendly tutorial right from the jump. It's also possible to use the tool for bigger and more media-rich projects (The Banner Saga is an example project on the page, as well as Inkle Studios' own work, in games like Heaven's Vault).
Inform 7 is a natural-language tool for writing interactive stories: with nearly endless possibilities for scripting incredibly deep interactions. It's been called a "design system for interactive fiction" and it's been widely used in prototyping: but you can certainly use it on it's own to make rich, interesting game worlds, scenes, and every imaginable flavor of interactive fiction.
As Inform is more of a language than an app the way other tools on this list are, it might require a little more tutorial juice to get started: YouTube user Professor Dennis G. Jerz has a useful series on getting started with Inform and making sense of what's going on under the hood.
Narrat is a tool for making narrative adventure/RPGs in the style of Disco Elysium: think stats, skill checks with dice rolls "under the hood" that have a chance of success displayed via text to the player, and multiple characters and "voices" in play.
From the Narrat site:
"Narrat is a game engine for making interactive narrative RPGs packed with features.. Create your game by editing with a Simple scripting syntax. It supports Skills with skill check rolls, an Items inventory, and has a Quests System. The script system is very powerful and allows branching choices, functions, variables and conditions."
There are a number of sample projects on the Narrat page for new creators to get a feel for the tool and its unique flavor of adventure.
We highlighted Yarn Spinner in our free game making tools piece, so we'll point you in that direction for all the details! Briefly, Yarn Spinner is a free tool that works with Unity and allows writers to draft up dialogue and scripts in a very writer-friendly format (Yarn scripts feel a lot like screenplays) and it's easy to get up and running with strong documentation, tutorials, and other community resources.
We went over the finer points of Ren'Py in our free game making tools piece, so we'll keep this brief as well: Ren'Py is a free, open source tool designed for creators wanting to make visual novels (or similar adventures with visual elements and dialogue) with minimal scripting (or with plenty if you want to dig in with Python). It's free and has fantastic tutorial resources, including a quick start guide on the site.
Decker is a free, desktop or browser-based tool for making hypercard-like experiences, including games of all kinds. From the Decker itch.io page:
"Decker is a multimedia platform for creating and sharing interactive documents, with sound, images, hypertext, and scripted behavior. It draws strong influence from HyperCard, as well as more modern "no-code" or "low-code" creative tools like Twine and Bitsy. If Jupyter Notebooks are a digital lab notebook, think of Decker as a stack of sticky notes."
Decker can be used for making:
And much more!
In addition to its many use cases, the tool has plenty of learning and community resources linked on its itch.io page. You can work in Decker directly in browser or grab the tool on itch.io and run it in Windows, Mac, or Linux.
FAQ: What should you consider when deciding on a narrative game engine?
Game development support
No matter what tool you decide to go with, you'll want to pick something with solid resources for learning the tool and for support if you have questions or run into issues. We've included tutorial or community resources here in each entry, so you can take a look at what support looks like. Generally, all of the items on this list have strong tutorial resources and communities of active creators.
Game development toolset
Some engines will have a toolset that simply makes the most sense for your workflow. Are you looking to make interactive fiction with a sole focus on words and branching choices? Twine may be perfect for your needs (though it can also support plenty of extensions for images and sound!) Are you seeking to make a more robust adventure game with puzzle elements and more complicated scripting? Inform 7 may be your thing. Would you like to combine dialogue or Visual Novel frameworks with other types of complementary gameplay? Yarn Spinner and Ren'Py can accommodate some very complex scripting, or be used in simpler games. Think about what you'd like your story to accomplish and what suits your ambitions!
Game export Tools, publishing and platforms
Once you have a game you are happy with, it's time to share it with the world: either on a commercial storefront or other platform. Be sure to check the documentation in terms of the licensing and publishing, but most of these narrative tools have fairly permissive policies for individual creators.
As with our previous piece, we'd love this list to be a living document, and we're eager to add to the list with other developers' suggestions for free narrative tools!
About the Author(s)
Danielle is the editor-in-chief of Game Developer, with previous editorial posts at Fanbyte, VICE, and Polygon. She’s also a lecturer in game design at the Berklee College of Music, and a hobbyist game developer in her spare time.
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