For those who have never heard the term, the contemporary concept of a Sound Novel is your book as displayed with pictures, music, and sound effects. Your text, with appropriate backgrounds and sound effects or music while people read. EPUB v3.x is supposed to be this very thing but if you have bothered looking into it, you’ll know that it’s only half-cooked right now: Incomplete, unfinished, and requiring manual coding for everything but the basics.
Ren’Py is a Visual Novel engine; Mainly used for those morally dubious anime dating sims. While its features are not focused on the Sound Novel, they will facilitate your needs, if you bend them appropriately. For instance, you may want to completely remove interactivity from the user so the story can flow uninterrupted. This goes against the whole concept of a Visual Novel. Also, you will likely want to control the speed of the text. You can’t have a crash in the middle of a sentence if you don’t know where the reader is. By forcing the text to appear at a controlled rate, you can drop in a sound effect or change a background where it is needed.
Though Ren’Py is all manual coding, the final product is worth the effort; Many advanced techniques like animation, transitions, and full screen effects are possible. The forums are full of examples and helpful people, and most of your learning curve will be spent there. On its own, Ren’Py could use some sprucing up in the ‘new user’ department; I spent less time coding a completely new transition than I did finding a way to connect two lines of text together.
Beyond this you can also include voice, someone reading the story as it appears. There is text-to-speech (horrible), and there is a play-by-play method using recordings. The latter is much harder to do at the moment, but could be simplified and expanded if demand is there as Ren’Py is open source and anyone can contribute. Also, you can create stand-alone applications for Windows, Mac, Linux, and even mobile. The phone apps require a little more fiddling than the computer counterparts, but that has to be expected.
I decided to convert the prologue from A Blue Horizon to Sound Novel format as a test. However, instead of software, I wanted to record to video and post it on YouTube. This is not a function of Ren’Py, and required I do-it-myself; Using OBS Studio to record from screen to file, I then trimmed using LosslessCut, and finally uploaded to my account. This way, not only can people experience it without installing anything, it can be used as a promotional trailer – albeit a lengthy one.
The project took longer than I had anticipated, but most of the time was spent learning the Ren’Py programming language (Python Scripting). Locating creative commons images and sound effects was also a somewhat arduous process – just because its free, doesn’t make it good. There are many resources on the net, most wanting money for access, but I found everything I needed using the free CC Search engine. As far as sound effects go, FreeSound had a huge library that I could mash together to create what I needed. PSA: Almost nothing is made to order. These resources are offered for free, but accept donations. If you plan on making money using their work, be fair and compensate accordingly.
To get around faces and advertising, I decided to blur all the images just enough to avoid legal issues and The Gimp did everything I needed. All sound is expected to be in Ogg Vorbis format for its patent-free usage, and Audacity took care of editing and exporting. Music proved to be a tricky issue. Again, there are many free options available, but I found everything I needed in a single royalty-free bundle that I purchased. You will have to do some searching if you want to go this route, but I found the quality I wanted just wasn’t available for free.
At the conclusion, I was happy with what I created. Sure, I wish I could have the velvety-smooth tones of Morgan Freeman speaking those lines as you read them, but I have to be realistic. This is the smaller version of the full-fledged, voice acted, unabridged radio play that I would fund in a minute – if I had the cash. I may go on beyond the prologue, or create the actual apps if there is enough demand, but in the meantime I’d love to hear what you think.