Alfred Reinold Baudisch

Oct 8, 2021

9 min read

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.

Scenes from my Van Gogh game, “The Blue Bedroom”

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.

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.

“The Bedroom” and I in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

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.

Going through the letters during the game jam

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.

Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition. The English edition is sold out all over the world, I got mine via the Danish Royal Library. I mean… I keep borrowing it from the library!

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…

Flowchart outlining which letters, paintings, and connections to use

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?

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.

“The Bedroom” zoomed in “Google Arts & Culture”

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).

How the letters are displayed in the game (without the red highlight)

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.

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.
Van Gogh painted this portrait as a gift to Paul Gauguin, where he wanted to show himself as a Buddhist monk. But in the game I use the portrait to express that he is “getting distressed, so he’s losing his hair”.

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.
The game developed in the Godot Game Engine

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.

Clickable overlays for the bedroom

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.

Can’t get enough of Van Gogh…

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.