Making a Van Gogh game in just 3 days

I made a historically accurate short game about Van Gogh, specifically about his stay in the city of Arles, France, where in a matter of around 450 days, he produced a staggering amount of more than 180 paintings, including many masterpieces such as The Sunflowers, The Bedroom, The Yellow House, Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin, Terrace of a café at night and The Night Café.

It’s also the period where one of his most critical mental breakdowns took place and he ended up cutting his ear off — which he also turned into a masterpiece, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

The game has been made in 3 days all by myself, during a game-development marathon — a game jam, Ludum Dare — that happened from October 2nd, 2021 to October 4th, 2021.

What does it take to make a historically accurate game of the most beloved and most prolific artist in the whole world? Going even further, what does it take to make such a game in just 3 days?

  • Simple answer: it requires being obsessed with Van Gogh.
  • Elaborate answer: you have to have read all of his letters, in order to be able to create a narrative that makes sense in a game. Almost 900 letters to be precise.

Van Gogh Letters?

The letters are the window to Van Gogh’s universe. The letters express: as literature, as a chronicle of an artist’s life, and Vincent’s own sketches from his works and ideas.

Vincent’s correspondence falls into two parts: the letters he wrote himself — 820 in all, 651 of them to his brother Theo and 7 to Theo and his wife Jo — and those he received — 83, including 39 from Theo and 2 from Theo and Jo. By far the most letters are to his brother Theo, his best friend and loyal supporter. Theo kept Vincent’s letters with great care. Vincent was less careful — he threw lots of letters away, or burned them.

See more:

My Process to make the game “The Blue Bedroom”

Visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

You have to feel his paintings in person, you have to notice the passion and intensity of every stroke.

Of course, I haven’t done this in the short time that I have developed the game, but it helps a lot.

Watched all movies about Van Gogh

All movies, documentaries, and TV shows. The most relevant one for the context of this game is Lust for Life:

Of course, I haven’t done this in the short time that I have developed the game, but it seems to me that watching his letters coming to life in a movie, is one of the most important steps in order to feel the emotion of his words.

Read all of Van Gogh’s letters… twice!

Having have read all of the letters twice was the most important step in the creation of the game. I knew where to go and what content to look for.

Of course, I wanted to make sure that I was getting the right material and the correct paintings, during all my time working in the jam I referenced the website Vincent Van Gogh — The Letters and volume 4 of the 6-volume book collection Vincent van Gogh — The Letters The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition multiple times.

For obvious reasons, I haven’t read all the letters during the game jam, but this is the second most important step in making a game about Van Gogh. How would you suppose to know what to make the game about, if you don’t know his own words?

Brainstormed the narrative and the Game Design

With all the knowledge I acquired with the other steps, this is where I truly began working in the game…

Having the knowledge of all of Van Gogh’s timeline and paintings, I then brainstormed and sketched the storyline, the outline, and the structure of the game. I asked and answered questions such as:

  • What exactly from Van Gogh do I want to show with the game?
  • What practical events and paintings can I show from Van Gogh that are related to the theme “Unstable”? (during game jams, you have to make a game about a given theme, and the theme I had for that weekend was “Unstable”)
  • From what letters can I extract Van Gogh’s own words to portray those events?
  • How can I exhibit his mood and his soul by using both his paintings and his letters?
  • How to mix all of that together, while keeping it as accurate as possible, but without making it boring and time-consuming? I.e. how to make a game about that, after all?

I couldn’t move forward before finishing this step, because I needed to know EXACTLY what to look for, to then go to the relevant letters and paintings, the ones that are part of my answers.

Selected and extracted the relevant letters

In the note-taking application Joplin (as I always use for EVERYTHING in my life), I copied and pasted all the relevant letters from Arles related to what I wanted to show in the game.

Downloaded high-resolution versions of the relevant paintings

I downloaded the highest possible resolution of the relevant paintings from Google Arts & Culture and from the Van Gogh Museum websites.

Some of these files are 120MB JPGs! Huge! In the end, I needed only The Bedroom in its maximum resolution. For the others, a mere 1080p-resolution JPEG would do it.

* Some of the paintings in the game are not from the Arles period.

Summarized the content of the letters and created connections between everything

Most of Van Gogh’s letters are very long, translated using language from the 1880s. I couldn’t simply paste them into the game. Nobody would read and it would also be very boring and time-consuming.

For that reason, I invested a great deal of time, making simple and straight connections between the letters that I selected, and then, I took only the relevant parts, that tried to emphasize Vincent’s mood and his plans. I won’t go into detail here, play the game to see what I mean :)

I also mixed and matched some letters, to make a more engaging connection between them. So while all of the content has historical accuracy, some of the letters were chronologically changed (but just a bit).

When I had the first draft, I then stripped the content even more and added bold to the most important words and phrases.

All of this text work was also done inside the note-taking app Joplin.

Mood progression (or regression)

Since the game starts with Van Gogh in a very elevated mood and shows his moods degrading until his breakdown where his ear is cut off, I tried to convey these emotions by combining:

  • The two most important items: extracts from the letters that pinpoint exactly that and all the different self-portraits when he looks into the mirror in the game.
  • Showing different skies outside of the bedroom window
  • Music
  • From colorful to darker paintings
  • Sound effects

Selected self-portraits to match the progression of his mood

I actually solved this step when I was brainstorming, because I outlined scenes based on his self-portraits:

  • Just arrived from Paris: self-portrait with a Parisian hat.
  • Excitement about the arrival of his friend: Self-portrait with a palette.
  • Getting distressed: bald.
  • Play the game to see the rest :)

The self-portraits aren’t in chronological order either. They come from all his oeuvre. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have much choice if I stuck only to Arles for this purpose.

Development

All of this was also done during the 3 days of the game jam, all by me:

  • Coded a simple but complete point-and-click framework with the free Godot game development engine, with object interactivity, UI, secrets, room and scene transition, and more.
  • Sliced and layered paintings with Photoshop. For example, I wanted to be able to open and close the window from his Bedroom, I also wanted to make objects clickable, so I sliced elements from the paintings.
  • Animated Van Gogh's mental breakdown, broken mirror, ear slicing, and more, also using the Godot Engine (mentioned above).
  • Music and sound were taken from Zapsplat and Freesound (royalty-free assets).
  • Added the User Interface and the hidden secret paintings.

One of the most important rooms in the game is the mirror. In this case, I used the ultra-high-resolution version of The Bedroom and then sliced the mirror and added the bedroom as a reflection. Then I layered the “glass”, where I could show Van Gogh approaching the mirror and his different self-portraits appearing.

Published it!

Excitement! For my personal enjoyment, and in my opinion, the game turned out to be even better than I anticipated. I got emotional when playtesting my own game… Precisely because by reading the letters, feeling the music, and looking at the connected paintings, I can also feel Van Gogh… again.

Play the game!

The game is completely free, can be played on the browser (Chrome, Edge or Firefox) or downloaded (Windows or Linux). Check it out in the Itch.io platform.

Direct link: https://splitpainter.itch.io/the-blue-bedroom

Being made in less than 3 days (I had to work Monday, and came back to work on the game only at night), the game is not perfect. Also, many features and more letters were left out of the game, because I had no time to add them. But it still tries to show in a logical, and at the same time, emotional way, his stay in his “Yellow House” with Paul Gauguin.

Extras…

Let’s say… I’m a little over the top when it comes to Van Gogh, and I collect a lot of things and books related to him. But most importantly, I feel really connected to him after having read all of his letters.

This game is my small tribute and I hope you can also feel connected with Van Gogh while playing the game, even if for just a few minutes.

More Van Gogh Content

Van Gogh Learning Journey: Follow Van Gogh’s footsteps in his journey to learn how to draw and how to paint, his first sketches, his course of actions, and more. A detailed study with extracts from his letters.

Van Gogh Journey with The Potato Eaters: With The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh’s first major work, he wanted to depict peasants as they really were. In this article, let’s explore his journey while creating this masterpiece: from the first studies to the idea until completion and shipment of the painting.

Autistic Savant software engineer with 25 years of development experience. By night, a game developer and artist.