The Video Game Drawn by Hand

We speak to the artist behind Paper Sorcerer, an entire RPG video game created on paper.
Paper Sorcerer, an entire RPG video game created on paper.
Paper Sorcerer, a video game created on paper © Red Bull UK
By Red Bull UK

Creating a hit video game usually requires big teams and lots of roles, but there’s one that Jesse Gallagher thinks is sorely undervalued in the process: the artist. After all, it’s the illustrators and designers that are responsible for what you ultimately see on your TV, laptop or phone screen when you play.

Unlike most armchair critics though, Gallagher decided to do something about it. The Washington state native and art school student, who freelances in video game quality assurance (QA) and design on the side, decided to make his own title, and set up Ultra Runaway Games to do just that.

“I mainly have a traditional art background but I've always had a great love of videogames,” Gallagher tells Red Bull UK. “I've worked on some small hobbyist teams with friends, on games that didn't go anywhere. I was disappointed with how little input the artists had into the overall game design, so I decided to go the solo dev route.”

Making your own game is no easy task, especially when you have to compete against the teams of scores or even hundreds on big new blockbusters for next generation consoles like the Sony PS4 and Xbox One - but the software now available to do so has made it possible.

“It was when I discovered [cross-platform game development software] Unity that I realized that I could really do this on my own,” he says.

“I had started making some simpler games that I wasn't as passionate about. At the same time, I’d been working on my art, trying to find a style that worked for me. From working in 3D, I became really interested in creating hand-drawn textures, the experience of being able to move around inside a drawing was an exciting feeling for me. The first time I had finished a prototype, a character that you could move around and interact with the environment, that was the moment of inspiration, when I thought, ‘I can actually do this.’”

© Red Bull UK

It’s even more difficult though when you decide to draw the whole game by hand. Yet that’s exactly what Gallagher did. The result? Paper Sorcerer, a turn-based RPG with a beautiful old school animated style, 300 different skills to learn and a sprawling 41 Gothic dungeons to hack, slash and sorcer your way through - plus nine more to unlock if you can make it through them all.

What made him choose an adventure game, rather than a shorter, self-contained platformer? “It's a genre that I really like and I felt that I might be able to take a fresh angle on it. I wanted to try to make something, but deemphasize grinding and focus more on strategic battles and fun puzzles.”

Gallagher estimates that the game will take as much as 20 hours to complete, but even if you make it to the end, the various character types on offer mean you can replay it an entirely different way. Puzzles have multiple solutions, and multiple consequences: if you’re a thief you can pick a lock, if you’re a warrior you can bash it open or if you’re a mage you can burn it open - but you might damage what’s inside along the way.

Paper Sorcerer character artwork.
Paper Sorcerer in the making © Red Bull UK

It’s all been intricately thought out - as has the meticulous, analogue animation process.

“Once [everything’s] drawn out in pencil, I go over it with fine point pen for the final line. Then I do a shadow pass with brush pens and scan it in. I clean up and do additional inkin [on computer],” he says.

“For the environment, I do a couple of general sketches to get an idea of how the environment for the scene should look. Then I'll model whatever assets I need in 3D. After that, I draw and ink a texture for each material involved, scan them, then I apply those textures to the models ingame. Even though it takes a little longer to draw by hand and digitize each asset, I think it goes a long way toward giving the game its distinctive look.”

In the course of the year long production, Gallagher estimates he’s gone through more than 600 pages in his sketchbooks, 200 pages in notes, two six-packs of markers, and three bottles of ink.

“I lost track of the pencils, but I know my favorite Frankenstein Halloween pencil is a nub now,” he says. “The hours are uncountable.”

A screenshot from the RPG game, Paper Sorcerer.
A screenshot from the RPG game Paper Sorcerer © Red Bull UK

Digitally, the project is spread across three computers and gone through more than 70 revisions already.

The art style, which Gallagher says was influenced by “classic Dungeons & Dragons illustrations and nineteenth century illustrators like Will H. Bradley”, presented its own unexpected problems however.

“Since it's such a high contrast art style, the biggest artistic difficulty was in finding numerous small ways to reduce the visual intensity,” he says. “In testing, I've found that some have difficulty playing for extended periods because the contrast is hard on the eyes, so I adjust for things like that in subtle ways that don't break the art style. Otherwise, I find that I'm more creative when I have limits, so if anything, it's been focusing my creativity.”

Paper Sorcerer might not have been possible were it not for the backing of fans on crowd funding site Kickstarter - last year he raised a cool $13,151 (£8,500) to help create the game, and Gallagher has some tips for other developers turning to the site.

“Kickstarter is basically selling dreams, things that aren’t made yet that creators are passionate about. My advice: make the kickstarter goal reasonable: there's a lot of big teams doing Kickstarters now, but I still think there's room for the little guy as long as you have polished presentation. Having a cohesive visual style really helps, and show images that represent the dream you’re selling.”

Don’t get too detailed though. “For descriptions, don’t give too much away about the gameplay too early - tell the reader enough that they can get an idea for how it plays, but don’t go into minute details because that could change. Most people aren't interested in super granular detail at this early a stage, and those that do will feel betrayed if you change it. I also find that telling people the exact details of game mechanics chains me down to that idea and stops me from iterating on the gameplay to make something that’s more fun.”

A screenshot from the RPG game, Paper Sorcerer.
A screenshot from the hand drawn Paper Sorcerer © Red Bull UK

Gallagher maybe a one man band (Well, almost - “My girlfriend helps me with keeping me on track and some PR work”) but he’s aiming big with a cross platform release for Paper Sorcerer by the end of August.

“I'm planning on a simultaneous release for iOS, Android, PC and Mac. I'd love to bring it to other platforms but I want to deliver a tight experience with the platforms I've already committed to. I've got a friend who is trying to twist my arm into releasing on Ouya, so I'll look into that after the release. I'd also like to try to get it out on Linux, but that depends on having the ability to create a high enough quality port.”

Gallagher won’t say what he’s planning to do next - that all comes down to the success of Paper Sorcerer. If it takes off though, expect plenty more.

“If everything goes well, I'd like to keep making games instead of doing freelance work to pay the bills,” he says.

“I sure have enough ideas for games to keep making them for the rest of my life, as long as I have the means - I’d like to just continue making indie games until I fall over dead at the keyboard.”

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