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Take your time and live life: David Chen on developing the Pokémon-inspired 'Spiritwell'

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ACMI & RMIT 2019 game prize winner David Chen has won Film Victoria’s latest round of production funding. One of eight to be picked, Chen will continue to develop his fantasy RPG adventure game, Spiritwell, using pixel art to tell the story of a lost child who falls down a well into a world of spirits. Amber Gibson (ACMI X Community Coordinator) spoke to David about the game’s inception and inspiration, and life as a solo game dev.

Amber Gibson: David, congratulations on your success in the latest round of production funding from Film Victoria, can you tell us a little bit about your game Spiritwell

David Chen: Thanks! Spiritwell is a character and story driven adventure RPG that follows the journey of a child who falls down a well into a world of spirits. I heard it’s pretty cool and has at least one frog in it. I currently only have plans for a PC release, but we’ll see how it goes from there. Did I mention it has a frog in it? 

AG: What are your plans for further development now you have a little more funding to work with?

DC: It’s going to continue as it originally was, but I can focus more time on development and collaborate with people, which is cool because being in your head all the time as a “solo” developer can be very limiting. I’m working closely with a really talented musician now and hope to work with some cool artists and designers soon. 

AG: What year did you first come up with the concept for the game? And how did it progress from there?  

DC: I’d already been slowly working on my own custom RPG and textbox engine in Game Maker Studio in around 2016. Over the next few years, I started sketching characters and scenes, filling up Google Docs with any ideas that came to me and building on the RPG engine in GMS. Progress was always pretty slow, and there were months where I’d barely work on it. I’m glad I took my time, though. I think it’s in a better place now because I’ve gone through so many bad ideas, took time to research, reflect and just live life. 

As far as the name goes, I came up with it in around January 2019 when I had a vision of the scene of how the game would begin (which included the eponymous well). I decided to work on it throughout my final year at RMIT, both in the first semester as one of our three design sprints, and second semester, as my capstone project. The final semester really pushed me to get something concrete done. Now, I know what feelings I want to convey with Spiritwell, but how that’ll end up turning out is still a mystery to me. But hey, what’s the fun in already knowing everything? I’m looking forward to finding out more about the world of Spiritwell myself!

A screenshot from 'Spiritwell'

AG: What are some of the challenges you face tackling development on your own? 

DC: I guess it’s no surprise having to do almost all the work on a game can get quite overwhelming, but that’s only when I stop to think about it! So, I guess I should never stop to think about it… When I first started making games, it never really felt like work, but more like play and magic. There were no expectations or deadlines, and every small achievement felt so new and incredible. I still feel like this from time to time, but definitely not as often as when I was just starting out. 

Game devs love to talk about how “soul-sucking” and <insert a whole bunch of negative adjectives> game dev is, and I can see how it can be, but I think it’s about perspective and context, and not that there’s something intrinsically soul-sucking about making games. It’s simply the fact that we’re adults and that colours everything we see. For adults, the curtains of reality have been lifted and life in general doesn’t seem as magical anymore. So, I guess one of the challenges of game development in general is how to make it feel like magic again. I wonder how, though… Game devs are good at making the curtains, but that inherently comes with being able to see behind them. What a conundrum! Maybe it’s good enough to just be able to make those curtains for others. 

AG: We’ve heard you’re producing your own soundtrack for your game. Tell us more about your process. Have you ever produced something like this before? 

DC: That was the original plan but I’m now working closely with Danna Yun, a super talented local musician and composer. I’m still contributing some music, though! I would have loved to have done all the music but I’m still quite new to it. Hearing Undertale’s soundtrack inspired me to pick up FL Studio as I wanted to be able to make music for my own games. Making the entire soundtrack for a game would be awesome one day, but I’m very happy to be working with Danna for now! 

To learn, I arranged existing songs I loved (mostly from videogames like Undertale and Chrono Trigger) and whatever original stuff I felt was interesting, and just started playing around and gradually familiarising myself with shortcuts and different features of FL Studio. I watched YouTube tutorials and constantly sent music I made to friends and strangers for feedback. As for composing, I usually just come up with ideas on my keyboard, record it on my phone’s voice memos and transcribe it in the DAW. 

A screenshot from 'Spiritwell'

AG: What are some of your go to games that inspire you to create?

DC: Pokémon made me want to become a game developer. I sunk probably way over a thousand hours into the early Pokémon games as a kid and I loved them so much I just had to try make my own. I started writing, drawing comics, learning pixel art and eventually discovered Game Maker through a fateful Google search in my first year of high school, in hopes of being able to build a game like Pokémon myself. I started making and contributing to Pokémon fan games and learned so much trying to emulate the original games. Ah, such carefree times… 

I also played Undertale, Earthbound and Mother 3, and Chrono Trigger in the last 5 years, all of which left very deep impressions on me. I think the first time I ever cried to a videogame was the ending of Mother 3. After high school, I reluctantly decided to let game dev just be a hobby and pursue a more traditional degree. I hated it and became miserable as I felt like I was wasting my time. Then one day, I played Undertale. It gave me the courage and determination to pursue game dev wholeheartedly. I think because of this, it feels like a lot more than just a game to me. Probably a rash decision, but I don’t regret it at all [hahaha]. 

AG: Are there any unique features in Spiritwell that you’re working on at the moment? 

DC: ********************************... Huh, weird… every time I try to type a spoiler, it automatically bleeps it out… **************************************************. Oh well, guess you’ll just have to wait and see!

AG: What are your hopes after the completion of Spiritwell

Who knows! Probably take a break and travel if lockdowns ease up. Maybe I’ll make another game, oh, and an artbook would be cool… but who knows… I wanna be surprised too!

To keep up to date with developments, visit the Spiritwell website.