Singapore’s Circuit Breaker measures to tackle COVID-19, which involved keeping everyone home and limiting external movement for inhabitants of the whole country, was an effective way in managing the pandemic in the tiny Republic, but it also exposed the five million residents to the concept of loneliness and solitude. It also inspired at least one writer to look deeper into himself, and do better.
Having recently left his full-time marketing job and with his freelance projects delayed due to COVID, Drew Pan, 41, could have several things to manage his time, finances and career, or lack thereof, but instead, the time to himself, when he was not looking after his two young ones with his wife, was to a notebook and started writing.
And not just any writing, but for a game that Pan was looking at creating for a long time. Except that he never intended to do it from scratch, and handling all aspects of it, from coding, drawing, designing and publishing, and everything in between.
The end result after 11 months of painfully hard work, Gloom and Doom, is a visual novel with a rich throwback to the 90s. Layered on with a visual style reminiscent of comics from that era, players follow the adventures of Gloom, a bitter old wraith, and Wynona, who’s cursed to bring about the end of the world.
Sounds like something one can cook up alone.
“I took out my old notebooks for this story I’ve always wanted to write. Realized it wouldn’t work as a visual novel. Took out another notebook for another story idea. That one worked, so I went full steam ahead on it and wrote a 10,000 word Game Design Document. I downloaded Ren’py and started actively tinkering with it,” explained Pan as he started to put development into motion.
For folks who might not be aware, Ren’py is a free visual novel engine based on Python. If you’re a fan of visual novels, Doki Doki Literature Club is one of the more famous works brought to life with the engine.
Having been writing for most of his career, that part came easy. However, it was the coding of the game itself which proved to be much more challenging. If there was one thing that Pan learned looking back was that swallowing bitter pills right from the start meant that development could have moved along quicker.
“Ren’py wasn’t my initial first choice because it’s based on Python and requires you to learn how to code. I tried Visual Novel Maker because it was an easier drag-and-drop interface, but that one totally crashed on me so I bit the bullet and downloaded Ren’py.”
With Ren’py, Pan quickly found a community and folks who have walked the same path as he did before.
“Everytime I hit some kind of snag, I would be able to find a solution or the beginnings of a solution in the documentation or forums. I should’ve used Ren’py from the start. The learning curve is a little bit steep and looking at your game as code instead of a GUI is daunting, but it became second nature after a while and I was writing the game so much more quickly than with the other engine.”
In the game, players have a wraith who’s stuck in a rut having to kill demons for the angels. The catch? Gloom has been promised that once he’s slain enough demons, he’ll be able move on with “life” and walk through the gates of heaven. Sadly, the goalposts keep moving with no end in sight. If that sounds like a 9 to 5 job, it absolutely is.
With Wynona, we see someone plagued with destiny. By day, we see her slaving in a dead-end job. By night, she’s haunted by dreams of doomsday which she eventually brings about. While she makes numerous attempts to end this cycle, she can’t die as the clock ticks down to her eventual fate.
Borne from Singapore’s pressure cooker society, it’s perhaps fitting that Gloom and Doom was birthed amid the lockdown in Singapore, since it also bears plenty of resemblance to mental health and how it affected us in a lockdown. Aside from his immediate family at home with him, Pan was mostly alone in this endeavour and he channeled everything into the game.
“2020 was a terrible year for everybody, and I know I’m not the only one that ended up thinking very poorly of myself. I feel that more people needed to see themselves in a better light, so I featured that idea heavily in the game.
Right at the beginning of the game, a character says that while our choices may not seem to have any impact on our environment, they define who we are and will have consequences later.”
At this point in time, it does seem that this might very well be a major hint in the game where player choices might affect change further into the game. When probed, this was something Pan was coy and didn’t want to reveal more. Choice, in a visual novel, is quite apt when applied to real life. After all, how often do we hear of friends being stuck in a rut or living their lives in loops but fail to bring about positive change. In some ways, this was one of the ideas Pan latched on to bring Gloom and Doom to life –
“I took inspiration from friends unhappily working dead-end jobs, those in toxic relationships with emotionally manipulative partners, and my own lack of direction in my early 20s. Then when it came to actually writing the game, I spent a lot of time reading the r/Depression subreddit to understand depressed people a bit more.”
It would have been easy to allow personal implications, coupled with the lockdown, to spiral into negativity, but Pan used it as fuel for creativity instead.
“Reading those stories really got to me, and I realized that a lot of people just want to be heard and not feel alone. That’s when I decided I wanted Gloom and Doom to be more than just a story about a ghost – I wanted it to help people understand that they’re not alone,” he noted
“Two major themes in my game are hopelessness, and anxiety. The Gloom character is a wraith that has spent 400 years working towards a goal that he never seems to reach, and the Wynona character places a lot of pressure on herself to prevent an impending apocalypse. I could channel all my bad thoughts and anxiety into my characters to make them more fleshed out. I had a psychologist check my game for authenticity and she was like, ‘Oh no… poor Wynona. Those are very realistic feelings,’ and I was like ‘Yep. I’m living this right now!’
You heard right. Writing with a foundation and inspiration is one thing, but to do so without knowledge? To ensure that Gloom and Doom was spot on in its depiction, Pan went the extra mile and roped in a psychologist friend and psychiatrist gamer to ensure the victims of anxiety and isolation were portrayed in an authentic manner.
And Pan is thankful for the support he has been receiving, not only from his family, but also his new found friends in the game development community. And therein lies another lesson he has to offer, that no matter how alone you are, reaching out and asking for help can always bring about new revelations.
“Once you start, you’ll find there are lots of people who are willing to help if you can show that you are genuinely trying to make something worthwhile. The Singapore scene has folks from the Singapore Games Association (SGGA) who are so wonderful and proactive about helping and growing this industry,” Pan recalls with a small smile.
In some ways, this positive change is also one of the recurring themes in Gloom and Doom itself. For all its art and rather serious themes, there seems to be proper arcs in the game and seeing if Wynona actually brings about the end of the world.
That’s not to say things were smooth sailing once he had all his ducks lined up for the shot. There were still hiccups that cropped up, and Pan aptly described his solo game development journey as “a series of unending trout slaps knocking me backward”.
Each time he felt that his game was back on track, he was constantly stumped with obstacles cropping up along the way.
“Once I learned the engine, I was stumped by the juggling act of writing/coding/art. Once the game was in a decent state, I was stumped by the Steam developer interface. Have you ever tried uploading a game to Steam? It is 100x more difficult than downloading one from it. The documentation and tutorial videos are outdated, plus all the terminology is so foreign to a newcomer,” recalled Pan.
With Gloom and Doom out, Pan has looked back at the process and sees more positives in the months he’s worked on his game, sharing an easter egg which he has incorporated.
“My first piece of fan-art also came from my son. He drew a picture of the main character Gloom, and while it was a kid’s drawing I could instantly recognize the character from the shape and colors. I felt so proud of it, that I scanned his drawing and put it into the game – you can see it as graffiti on a ramp at the skatepark.”
“I truly got to bond with my kids while making Gloom and Doom and that’s one of the best experiences I’ll take away from the process.”
Guess it was lockdown time well spent indeed.
Gerald currently straddles between his love of video games and board gaming. There’s nothing that interests him more than trying out the newest and fanciest gadget in town as well. He dreams of publishing a board game sometime in the future!