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Creating a Slacker Movie-Style Visual Novel as a Solo Developer

Game developer Drew Pan shared how he entered the game industry at the age of 40, explained what tools he used to bring the Gloom and Doom project to life, and discussed his approach to creating the game's plot.


My name is Drew, and I joined the gaming industry late in my career. After studying Fine Arts at university, I started my career as a journalist (covering movies and games) and then did some industry switches to 3D animation and then digital marketing.

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, a project I was working on stalled so I had some free time which I used to learn some coding, and then I used this new skill to adapt an old story outline I had into a visual novel called Gloom and Doom. After writing about games for so long, I finally got the chance to write my own at the age of 40! So if you're thinking about making games but you think your chance has passed, think again because it's never too late to make that switch if you truly want to. 

The First Video Game Project

When I was 11 years old, my parents bought me Wing Commander while we were on a holiday, so I couldn't play the game till we got home. But I kept reading that game manual from cover to cover because it was such a clever way to set up the world of Wing Commander and explain the key concepts of the game – by conveying all that in the form of an in-world magazine. Coding and making games seemed so inaccessible but I thought, "Maybe I can write game manuals when I grow up."

Since then I tried a few different ways to get into the games industry: I tried as a writer, an animator, and even on the marketing side of things, but the opportunities and timing never quite worked out. I volunteered as a writer at this indie studio that was developing a horror game, but the project was never completed.

Then I came across a program called RPG Maker. For 2 weeks I spent my commutes to/from work watching YouTube tutorials on the bus and tinkering with the software after work. At the end of that, I made a simple fetch-quest demo game called Get the Kids to School (which is basically a recreation of my daily trials with two uncooperative kids). This wasn't a particularly innovative or complex game by a long shot, but it was proof that I can make something small and simple on my own.

3D and Game Dev Market in Singapore

The community in Singapore is larger than I thought it would be, and I've met so many different people working on different things. Yet at the same time, it's small enough that everyone seems to know each other. It strikes a nice balance in that sense. You would think that a small community and a smaller overall industry would make it a little cutthroat and have people clawing each other to get the projects, but it has been nothing but supportive and encouraging. 

The Gloom and Doom Project

Gloom and Doom was originally a movie I was trying to write 20 years ago. I had watched this horror movie called Ju-On: The Grudge, and I went off on a tangent and ended up on the premise that "the only thing scarier than the ghost is being the ghost" because endlessly haunting people for eternity sounds like a pretty bad way to live. I had this interesting story concept, I had an image of this brooding undead protagonist named Gloom leaping across rooftops at night... but I didn't have an ending for it. 

20 years later, the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns happened and I found myself in a similar emotional space where I felt lost and grappled with despair. I wanted to turn all these volatile emotions into words and ideas, something that can maybe help other people going through similar turmoil. Then I remembered that old story I had stored away. 20 years ago I didn't have an ending for it, but I'm a father now and parenthood inspired the missing element I needed to complete Gloom's story. That's how I created Wynona, the suicidal antichrist, and how becoming her guardian gave Gloom purpose. 

Still, the topics of depression and suicide are pretty bleak, and early playtesters said that they found it hard to go through the game even though they enjoyed the story. That's when I made the decision to lighten up the mood and make it more accessible. I am a big fan of 90s slacker movies like Heathers, Clerks, and especially Chasing Amy, so I started adding in the 90s music and movie references and jokes.

Tools That Helped Bring Gloom and Doom to Life

I decided early in the project to make Gloom and Doom a visual novel – this was because I knew I had to do most of the work myself, and this genre required mostly 3 resources that I could do or can feasibly learn: coding, writing, and 2D art. There aren't that many visual novel engines out there, so I landed on Ren'py, which was the one used to make Doki Doki Literature Club. I was initially skeptical of Ren'py because it required learning a bit of Python script, but I found it pretty easy to pick up and there are so many helpful resources available out there, from the forums to Twitter. 

Aside from Ren'py, I used Photoshop to draw my art and After Effects to composite some animated cutscenes and the trailer. 

The Gloom and Doom Plot

It's cliched advice, but it's really helpful to write what you know. I don't know anything about being a wraith assassin or the antichrist, but I do know what it's like to feel like you have no direction in life and to work in a job that just doesn't feel right. From these foundations, I was able to establish the main dramatic needs of the two main characters, and then plot out the journey they needed to take to find themselves.

Along the way, I decided that it was important to give this story a strong sense of hope for anybody who might be feeling the same way. I reached out to a friend who is a child psychologist, and I also befriended a trauma psychiatrist through the Twitter gaming community. I sought their advice because suicide and depression are serious topics and I wanted my game to not only be relatable but also responsible from a medical perspective. 

When it came to the game's art, I again went to the philosophy of "do what you know". Traditionally, visual novels tend to adopt a manga art style, but I read a lot of X-Men comics in the 90s and I started my drawing journey by copying the art of Andy Kubert and Jim Lee. It made sense to go with this art style for Gloom and Doom because it suited the game's 90s vibe plus the story has a more Westernized structure to it. 

So it was big black blocky shadows, rough lines, strong colors, and exaggerated facial features. I'll admit the art put a lot of traditional VN fans off, but I'm happy to say that quite a lot of the game's supporters have said they can't imagine this game with manga art. That said, I will definitely admit that art isn't my strong suit, and there are lots of areas where something could've been drawn better. But I am proud of the character designs, as a lot of thought was put into them and I am thrilled that many reviews have specifically mentioned how varied and memorable the various characters are. 

Some of the characters, like Nathaniel the Angel of Wisdom, were designed based on a core concept – in Nathaniel's case, I was inspired by a TED Talk by my favorite skateboarder Rodney Mullen. His zen-like approach to inventing skateboarding tricks led to Nathaniel being designed as a skateboarding angel.

For that added bit of mystery to offset the image of the skateboard, I made him faceless and blind. Then I thought "actually, how does a blind person skate?" and that led to the addition of Aristotle, Nathaniel's psychic owl. Thus, we end up with a unique-looking angel with an owl, a skateboard, and a calming presence. Others like the Anxious Customer at the video store were designed to fulfill a need in the story. In her case, it was to show the player how the trivial and minor choices you make in daily life could have a significant impact on other people, except you're rarely made aware of it. 

Being a Solo Game Developer

There is so much involved in being a solo game developer other than just developing games. You also have to market the game, engage and grow a community, and possibly source for a publisher.

For most devs, their one true passion will be in the development of the game itself because there will always be new features to implement, bugs to fix, plot holes to fill, and cutscenes to draw. But even the best game in the world isn't going to promote itself; you'll have to devote your time to push it out there, and this is a humbling experience because as a first-time dev, nobody will really care too much about your project at first. It's a repetitive process of looking for the right audiences and communities and putting in the time to engage them. 

I admit that the first time I started doing it, I went out with the intent to get everyone talking about my game. That didn't go well. But then I switched gears and started engaging with other game devs just to talk about game development. That's when I really started befriending other indie devs, reviewers, and indie enthusiasts on Twitter, Facebook, and Discord. 

Advice to Aspiring Game Developers

My advice to those who wish to try their hand at indie game development is: "Do it!" Making games seems like a complicated and daunting task because AAA games are made by gigantic teams, but a single person can make a simple game using free resources. Just keep it small and concise. Don't over-extend yourself and try to make Grand Theft Auto but with vampires vs ninjas. Just do a simple, tiny little game and make it a personal project.

I made mine as a project with my kids and had them help with choosing colors in character designs, and I even included scans of my kid's art in the game. That made them feel so included and proud of the project, and we really bonded over it. I feel that a lot of people go into game dev with the intention to sell something big and immediately switch their careers to full-time game dev.

I say just keep it small. Make it more akin to shooting a short film with your friends, or coming up with your own Lego creation. Once you free yourself from that monetization mindset, you can truly explore and play around with this virtual sandbox and create a little game that only you can make. Express yourself!

Drew Pan's Roadmap

I'm currently working on another visual novel called Toxic Boss Fight. This time I'm not going down the "depressed demon" route, but rather tackling the subject of finding fulfillment at work. What does it take to make someone happy at their job? A good boss? Supportive peers? Meaningful work? I'm aiming for The West Wing meets Office Space, with a quirky cast of characters (some you might recognize from Gloom and Doom). 

Toxic Boss Fight will incorporate a lot of the feedback I've gotten from Gloom and Doom, so expect it to be lighter, longer, and with a much more controlled amount of 90s pop culture references! I would love for it to be ready in 2023, so fingers crossed!

Drew Pan, Game Developer

Interview conducted by Ana Kessler

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