Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Spooktober Judging Takeaways

Sometimes it’s great to try new things. Coach a kids sports team. Take a cooking class. Help out at the animal shelter.

Or… read 90+ visual novels in less than 3 weeks.

You know.

As you do.

The Spooktober Visual Novel Jam is a sponsored event that happens each September, attracting hundreds of hopeful visual novel developers with its promise of cash prizes and recognition.

Since making /Reality, in 2017, I've been a member of the original devtalk community and the subsequent devtalk+, the discord-based home of the jam. In 2021, my team and I participated in Spooktober and won 2nd place with Stardander Revenant. Last year, we couldn't participate but I eagerly awaited the end of the jam and was thrilled to read many great entries.

This year, I decided to be a willing sacrifice volunteer to judge the competition.

Judging was great fun, not a little stressful, and surprisingly eye-opening. You can't help noticing and learning a few things after reading nearly 100 VNs in such a condensed amount of time. This blog post is half my personal reflection on the experience of judging, and half helpful tips and takeaways for anyone working in the field of visual novels or narrative games (myself included).

The Process

Here’s what the experience was like for me. Skip down to Takeaways if you don’t care about this part.


a screenshot of the #game-jams discord channel on devtalk+ at midnight on Oct 1st
Submissions closed at midnight on October 1st, and I began judging entries on October 2nd (coincidentally also the day Stardander School for Witches launched in early access 🎉🎉). This was the easy phase! I was assigned about 85 games from the ~220 total entries that were submitted this year. All I had to do was give a “Yes” or “No” answer to the question “Could this make it into the top 10?”

Usually the answer was quite obvious within the first few minutes of reading. My job was to give everything a fighting chance. I tried to skim as much of each entry as I could tolerate. It was enjoyable and satisfying to take a small taste of each entry and make a determination. Two judges were assigned to each entry in this phase, so it wasn't just my opinion that mattered.

Within 5 days, I narrowed my list down to 13 top contenders and 4 honorable mentions. I pulled some late nights and worked as quickly as I could during this first week, since I knew I’d be busy putting together my kid’s birthday party the following week.

Final Judging/Scoring

I took a few days off judging for birthday party weekend and the subsequent “kid got the flu and is home from school” scenario that followed.

When I got back into it, the other judges had finished their lists, the shortlist was complete and it was now time to start deciding on scores. I needed to read a bunch more entries I hadn’t looked at yet since they’d been shortlisted by other judges. This took me a long time since I now wanted to actually get to the end of each entry (including ones I had only skimmed earlier). I started feeling stressed that I was falling behind the other judges.

Giving a numerical score to entries was also trickier than I expected. I needed some kind of metric to judge by - and I wanted it to be internal to the spooktober competition, since participants only have one month to develop their entries. I didn’t want to give scores in relation to commercial VNs or games in general. 

I decided to make a “0” conceptually be at the level of the least-worthy entry I tried during shortlisting, and a “10” be my favorite entry of all. I know other judges had completely different systems for scoring, but that was okay. As long as our systems were consistent within themselves.

By the end of the scoring phase, I had given out scores between 4.7 and 10 (with exactly one 10). My average was a 6.8.

A completely out-of-context list of the scores I gave, sorted from lowest to highest! The dashes were disqualified due to crashing before I had a chance to try them. T_T

Even with this system, it was challenging for me to conceptually convert my experience of a visual novel into a numerical score. Since the entries were so varied, it was definitely like comparing apples to oranges.

I found myself mentally grouping the entries into personal categories based on theming, length, depth, quality of writing, quality/quantity of characters, and quality of art. For VNs that felt similar to each other in some way, I would compare how each handled the elements they had in common and decide which deserved a higher or lower rating.

This didn’t work for everything - there were a few outliers that stumped me for a long time. And some of the top contenders were so, so good in very different ways. Even though I tried to be as fair as possible with every entry and keep my reasoning scientific, it sometimes came down to the fairly unquantifiable question: “is it fun?”

I made handwritten notes on the shortlisted entries in the back of my 2022 spooktober planner, which felt very meta. I finalized my scores on October 20th, and breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t made the other judges wait on me. I got through both main judging stages in about 19 days, not counting a little time afterwards to revisit entries and consider nominees for the special categories like best Character Design, Best Cinematography, Best Voice Actor, etc.


By the end of the judging process, I had learned a lot about my visual novel preferences. And my brain was full of inspiration and ideas.

Things that didn’t surprise me (but are still very important!)

The experience of judging majorly confirmed these points in my mind:

Writing quality matters. Entries that had not been proofread or were written/translated by someone who does not have an excellent grasp of English could not get a high rating from me. I’m such a stickler for proper grammar and syntax. I have a preference for clear, concise, non-flowery writing (but I can also appreciate a good poetic turn now and then).

Also - please, please end your sentences with periods. All of them. Thank you.

Art quality matters. Art is the most important factor for whether a visual novel gets sales/plays. My personal art standards are very high. I love good art. I love consistent art. Character art should enhance and compliment the character’s personality, not clash with it. The background art, sprites, cut-ins and UI design should work together harmoniously, not fight with each other. If you don’t know what that means exactly, you should show your work to someone who has an eye for that kind of thing and can give you constructive criticism.
a dramatic screenshot from Satan is an Astronautan exciting screenshot from Beary the Hatchet where Pearl is playing her electric guitar.
    Although their styles could not be more different, Satan is an Astronaut (top) and Beary the Hatchet (bottom) both had incredible art direction and very unified looks.

Things that DID surprise me!

I didn't fully realize how critical these points were until judging:

Music REALLY matters!!! Music and sound design create a very strong impact on me from the moment I arrive on a title screen. I had assumed that the title screen art or animations might be a stronger mood setter, but that wasn't the case. Entries with great music instantly sucked me into their world, got me immersed, and made me want to keep reading.

Content Warnings matter. Participants did well warning readers of potential triggers or sensitive subjects, overall. However, a few things still slipped through the cracks. I don’t want to point any fingers, but several entries on my list involved psychoactive drug usage which was not labeled anywhere (within the game or on their itch.io pages). This is a very triggering subject for me. So that was not fun.

Writing is more important than Art. There were several entries that had stellar art but were dragged down by poor writing or lack of proofreading. And while I really, really wanted to recognize the effort made by these art teams, I could not give high ratings for VNs with poor writing. Proofreading, editing, checking your grammar and syntax, checking the feel of your dialogue (trying saying it aloud, does it sound natural?) - these are all super, super important. Surprisingly, the opposite scenario did not bother me as much - when an entry was well-written, I was much more willing to make allowances for amateur sprites or a rough-around-the-edges UI design.

UI, usability and accessibility really matter.
I had no idea this would make a difference to me, but it really helped when entries had friendly, clear, visible user interfaces, good/intuitive control schemes, all the standard visual novel features such as rollback, autoplay, skip, and the like. Additional accessibility options such as more readable font options and turning off special effects such as chromatic aberration were very appreciated as well. At the very least, I expect to be able to save and load my progress. If you do not have a save and load functionality in your VN, please… question your life choices.
Undead Air not only allows you to toggle their CRT filter, but also gives you the option to test how the game appears with and without it.


Here are some thoughts I plan to keep in mind as I continue developing Stardander and any other VNs in the future.

Choices should feel distinct

Choices need to feel emotionally and/or conceptually different from the other options on the screen. It’s okay if the choice options don’t actually have any consequences. It just needs to seem as though they might.

A choice screen from Long Time No See. A: Let Avery Come! B: Boys rule, girls drool
The choices in Long Time No See felt very emotionally distinct to me.

This rule can obviously be broken in rare circumstances for a different sort of emotional impact, although my personal preference is for keeping this style of choice to a minimum.

3 options in Red Zero 1. run! 2. RuN 3. RUN
Sometimes it makes sense for all the choices to be the same. From Red Zero.

During judging, entries that continuously had choices that didn’t feel distinct from each other felt extremely tedious to me. I’d rather just read a kinetic novel than be asked to click the screen for no reason at all.

Music Track Now Playing

I thought this might bother me at first, but I actually liked the “now playing” popup for music tracks whenever an entry had it. Instead of being annoyed at being taken out of the story for a moment, I appreciated knowing the track titles and the mental nudge to notice that the music had changed.

Grea, a grim reaper and main character from Reaplaced in a screenshot
The "Now Playing" popup From Reaplaced - this screen also shows their excellent and clear UI.

CG Gallery / Music Gallery / Ending List

They might seem extraneous, but I actually love these. Showing off what makes your VN special right from the main menu feels so fancy and exciting to me. And slowly seeing the locked content unlock as you progress will make any achievement seeker’s heart happy.

The gallery screen from So Below.


The most heartbreaking moment in reading an entry was when I reached an ending where… there was no ending. There needs to be an ending. Any ending. Something that makes an attempt at wrapping up the story. I wouldn’t say go full Eva, but I WILL go so far as to say that a poor ending is probably better than no ending at all.

Pavel, a young character from protoViolence, says "I mean it. You are very good."
The ending of protoViolence was one of the strongest, most emotionally impactful of the jam.

Content warning

When you are formulating a content warning for your work, you should be very mindful of subjects that might seem “fine” or “normal” to you, but potentially difficult for others. More than one person should be responsible for putting together the content warning.

It's all about the Process

This might seem like a poor mindset if your ultimate goal is to be commercially successful with your VNs. But I've found it immensely helpful to try to mentally seperate my feelings about the work itself and the real-world outcome of sales, winning a competition, etc. Before winning Spooktober, I had done a bunch of different game jams (several 48 hour ones too!), and our work had never been recognized before. That was disappointing, but in the end, we still learned a lot from each jam - and we had so much to be proud of!

This Spooktober, there were so many participants that truly poured their hearts into their work, and I could tell. Entry after entry was bursting with so much effort, talent, and creativity. There were many incredible entries that I absolutely loved that did not walk away with any award. But hopefully, those developers are walking away with a sense of accomplishment and determination to take any lessons learned forward with them on their journey. <3

A character from "The Final Prize is Soup" says "I am the judge of the Eleventh Court of Hell"
At least I only had to judge people’s visual novels, not their souls. Phew!
Screenshot from The Final Prize is Soup.


Go read some spooky Visual Novels! ^_^

Now that I’ve read my 90+ required for judging, I’m actually not sick of visual novels, if you can believe it. I'm excited to try out some of the entries that didn’t make my radar as a judge. You should too! ;)

four young witches above a glowing cauldron with the text "Stardander School for Witches"

And if you’re looking for something particularly witchy and very special to me, Stardander School for Witches is now available in early access! It can quickly and easily be wish-listed if you would prefer to wait for the ending to be released in the spring!

A screenshot of randomized entries in thumbnail view on the itch.io Spooktober 2023 jam page
A tiny random selection of all the awesomeness created for this jam! Congrats to all who participated!

Reflections from other 2023 Spooktober Judges!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Commission Information!

: Commissions are CLOSED.
  • Yes: Characters (human and non-human), animals, portraits, objects/items, illustrations, landscapes, fan art. Character design, logo design, and UI design are also options.
  • No: NSFW, excessive gore.
  • PayPal (all prices are USD)
  • Email nataliemaletz@gmail.com or DM me on twitter: @NatalieDMaletz.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Success, Progress, and Plans!

Happy New Year, everyone! Guess what? We did it! We successfully funded our visual novel </reality> on Kickstarter, reaching 124% of our goal, with 194 awesome backers! Yay! ^_^
And today, we released a beta version of chapters one and two of the game!

Chapter one (the demo) is freely available here: http://www.indiedb.com/games/reality1/downloads/reality-alpha-demo-0163

Chapter 2 has been released to beta-access backers via Steam keys. Here are some screenshots from chapter 2 (click to view larger):

</reality> Development Progress
Here’s what we’ve been up to during the last few weeks:
  • David and I did a bunch of script editing on chapters 1, 2 and 3.
  • I finished more sprites - character sprites are now nearly done!
  • I finished two new background scenes - backgrounds are now nearly done!
  • I finished two new CGs.
  • I made several new expressions for Ben and Lilya.
  • I revised/updated Ben’s sprite.
  • Chase finished a new music track and is currently working on another.
  • David added new sound effects and transitions/visual effects.
January Plans
We're looking forward to making a great deal of progress on </reality> this month. Here’s the plan:
  • The next two weeks will be spent doing a major editing pass through the entire script. We will be finalizing all of the endings, tying up some loose story threads, and making sure everything from our long list of story notes and ideas has been thoroughly addressed.
  • Once the script has reached a really clean state, we’ll be on-boarding a new artist to create the Ending Panels. This will help us stay on schedule!
  • Chase (our composer) will be working on getting us more music tracks - finalizing music for Vitalia and making some new beats for time spent at InterMense.
  • Somewhere around the 18th, we’ll be moving our focus back to art - creating new characters, backgrounds, CGs, and expressions for Chapter 3.
  • We hope to release the beta version of Chapter 3 by the end of the month!
  • We also plan to open late-backing and pre-order options within the next week.
Look forward to more updates as development progresses!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

</reality> on Kickstarter!

</reality> has been live on Kickstarter for one week.  So far we have raised 45% of our goal, thanks to 80 awesome backers!! Hopefully we can continue to push forward and make it to our goal.

For more information on the project, check out our Kickstarter page and our most recent updates!

^The most recent piece of art I've completed for the game - now on to some new characters!