For 41-year-old father of two Drew Pan, creating games has always been a dream. But the plucky game developer and freelance writer took a leap of faith during the COVID-19 pandemic, and spent his time in lockdown working on his dream.
The result is Gloom and Doom from Neo Tegoel Games, the one-man studio Pan created.. It's a visual novel set in the year 2000, but features a 90s feels, mostly thanks to Pan's penchant for his love of that decade.
The plot features a wraith, Gloom, who wants to kill a girl named Wynona as his final task. Wynona, on the other hand, believes she's the Doom Bringer who will end the world. It's a fresh tale set to pull you in, despite the slow pace of this storytelling game.
"I wanted to make my version of a 90s slacker movie, like the ones I love. Reality Bites, Clerks, Dazed and Confused. Gloom and Doom has demons and angels, but it's a slacker story at heart," said Pan.
Pan added that the 90s was really the heart of how he structured his game, from moments such as the Christina Aguillera and Britney Spears feud, the transition from 2D to 3D gaming, or even 90s song lyrics as dialogue.
One thing that Pan paid close attention to was the pacing, something he was very keen to get right.
Drawing on his experience as a scriptwriter and creator of the upcoming TV series, The Teenage Textbook The Series, Pan was able to keep the game's dialogue and pacing not fast-paced like an action movie, but "still and reflective".
Long time coming
Having loved games for as long as he could remember, Pan always had the dream to create his own personal game. He's read the Wing Commander manual cover to cover at 12, picturing a world where he would write his own game manuals. He's tried steering his career towards this dream, working as a reviewer for a videogame magazine, learning 3D animation, but never quite crossed the line.
Five years ago, Pan pushed himself to join an indie horror game project as a writer, but told Yahoo Southeast Asia that the studio was a "bit too ambitious and not well thought-out", which then failed. Giving up was something that he was not good at, and he revisited the idea of his own game when production for his TV series stalled due to the pandemic.
He had only one thought in mind this time — he had to ship.
Starting from scratch
With no coding skills to speak of, Pan looked around for tools that could help him with his project. Eventually, he settled on Ren'py, the game engine behind Doki Doki Literature Club.
It was a steep learning curve, as he had to code in Python, but following the built-in tutorial and looking up answers online helped. Online communities on Facebook, Reddit, or even the game engine forums were useful as well.
"All this time, I thought game design required C++ programming skills, so it was always too daunting for me to seriously consider," said Pan.
"But once I dug a little bit deeper, I found out that there are all these game engines put there. You've got 3D ones like Unreal and Unity that power a lot of modern games, and you've got 2D ones like RPG Maker that can help you easily create an old school game like Final Fantasy on the SNES."
Then it was down to getting the artwork done, which Pan did all by himself.
Nathaniel, a skateboarding owl-carrying angel, was his favourite to draw. The blind faceless angel was based on Pan's favourite skateboarder, Rodney Mullen. Pan chose to emphasise the angel's Zen-like aspects as a tribute to Mullen, and added a psychic owl to explain why a visually impaired angel could skateboard.
As for Gloom, Pan played around with the themes of bitterness, and added a shredded cloak based on his own ragged sweater. Gloom's form of smoke and gas was also meant to represent a hollow, empty feeling.
"I had pretty strong ideas for who they are, and in some cases what they need to represent. Once I had those firmed up, it was a matter of figuring out how to visually represent that," said Pan.
On 17 January, Gloom and Doom was ready to launch. With his wife and son by his side, he hit the Release button on the Steam platform. His daughter, the inspiration behind Wynona, was unfortunately in school and missed the moment. Pan said his son "freaked out" when Steam took too long to process the release and asked if they should hit the cancel button.
While sales haven't been the best — Pan admitted that it was pretty much a niche game — he's happy to have gotten positive reviews from sites and streamers that have tried out the game.
He had been mentally and physically exhausted from the late nights, the stress, and the pressure of shipping the game. But when he saw that a review had gone up, and that the reviewer had understood what he was trying to do, he started sobbing out loud.
"At that point, I felt so vindicated. I had taken this big chance of writing something really painfully honest, and a reviewer had connected with the story because of that." said Pan.
"I've since received other reviews that echo this same sentiment, so while Gloom and Doom is not the next Minecraft, I still feel like I achieved exactly what I set out to do. And you know, it's not often in my life I get to make that claim."
Should you make your own game?
Pan also wanted to tell budding game developers to just do it. He said that the best advice was to make it small and realistic — as being wildly ambitious may see you ending up empty-handed.
Creating something that didn't exist before is something everyone should experience, he added.
Lastly, the bad news. There will not be a sequel — Pan wants to tell a different story for his next project. And it's likely it will be all about a digital marketing team working in an old-fashioned company with the most toxic working environment.
Positively riveting, that.
Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com
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