Making a Van Gogh game in just 3 days

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

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

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:

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
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!

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
  • 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?

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”

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.

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

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 :)
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”.

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.
The game developed in the Godot Game Engine
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.

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.

Can’t get enough of Van Gogh…

More Van Gogh Content

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Alfred Reinold Baudisch

Alfred Reinold Baudisch

Autistic Savant software engineer with 25+ years of development experience. Also an indie game developer and digital artist.