Evan Dahm, an Illustrator’s Guide to Game Development

Evan Dahm is not your typical GB Studio developer. While his background is in graphic novels, he explained the Game Boy is something he often ponders on: “I’m a cartoonist living in New York; I’ve been making and mostly self-publishing big fantasy-adventure graphic novels since 2006. I had no experience doing any game development stuff before making something with GB Studio, but I’ve had Game Boy games rattling around in my head since the mid-90s.”

His inspiration for making Usurper Ghoul came from his love of stories and creating worlds for characters to live in: “I was much more interested in building a little narrative space, and playing with the aesthetic of little walk-around-on-a-grid games than I was in doing something really ‘gamey’. I like the idea of making a weird intricate story using the extreme mechanical and graphical limitations of a game like the Game Boy Pokémons, Final Fantasy Legend, Link’s Awakening, or similar. So that was my starting point, though there’s some effort to make it a little bit of a puzzle-box thing.”

The cover art for Usurper Ghoul

Evan found the great tools in GB Studio helpful for the kind of game he wanted to make: “It’s easy to understand and really good at doing certain types of things, which mostly lined up with my interests.” However it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the fledgling developer. Evan quickly realized there was more to game development than just having a great idea: “After going through this project, though, the value of actually learning how to engage with the programming more deeply ended up becoming clearer. But I don’t have time to do that.”

He had to learn to think differently in order to get the game working, and the simple nature of producing a puzzle adventure-style game proved challenging: “Just wrapping my head around the logic, which isn’t even very complicated for this game! It’s a very particular type of thinking I hadn’t tried to do since the one programming course I took in college long ago.” Evan got through it all and explained: “It was around two months, as a side project.”

The part he liked the most came back to the narrative-driven parts of game development. Usurper Ghoul presents itself is a mystery requiring the player to sit back and ponder what happens next. Solving one mystery usually leads to another problem presenting itself. Its mix of adventuring and puzzle solving is certainly charming, and Evan clearly had the vision to make it work: “I am really interested in presenting involving settings and encouraging a reader or player to move through their initial disorientation.”

Evan released the tileset for Usurper Ghoul on itch.

It wasn’t just the excitement of presenting his stories in a new way, Evan felt he learned a lot about how a video game comes together. He explained that GB Studio made the process straightforward and its tools were suited to the kind of game he was developing: “It was a great introduction to a lot of principles of video game making, for me. Very streamlined and easy to understand, and good at the particular areas of its focus.”

When asked why gamers still enjoy Game Boy titles today, Evan felt that it was because the industry lost some of its charm in the pursuit of impressing audiences with fancy graphics: “I really am not in touch at all with video games right now, but the relentless push towards ‘realism’, and energy-intensive graphics and superficial slickness is so exhausting, and so obviously a creative dead end, to me. I think there’s a lot of appeal in looking at what can be done in a technologically limited framework. In particular, an actually limited framework like the Game Boy’s hardware, not just the aesthetics of that technological period slapped onto a more powerful modern game.”

Evan also opined on why developers still enjoy making games on the Game Boy: “It seems like a nice way to engage with the older technology and its aesthetics. I think there’s a lot of value to working within the limitations as they really existed at the time. And there’s no reason why any medium, no matter how dated or clunky-seeming, can’t still be a place for something new and interesting.” We couldn’t agree more! Thank you Evan for the time to chat about his experiences.

A screenshot from Usurper Ghoul

We featured Usuper Ghoul in a previous spotlight you can read here. The game can also be played on his itch page. You can find Evan’s work on his site: http://rice-boy.com/

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