When you’re 14 years old and set out to make a game, you don’t anticipate it will take 16 years to complete. Nor do you imagine the hero of your RPG to be a balding, tubby knight based on your father. Adam Rippon certainly didn’t expect any of this, and his game, Dragon Fantasy, is all the better for it.
Ogden Thomas’ hairless head shines with the intensity of a polished shield. His armour snugly fits around the paunch he gained when he traded in his abs (plural) for a pudgier ab (singular). He’s old, he’s bald, he’s out of shape, and he’s exactly what most role-playing game heroes would look like if they did nothing for thirty years.
“The first chapter of the game is about Ogden, a 46-year-old knight who, when he was 16, was the awesome hero from all the role-playing games,” says Adam Rippon, the creative director of Muteki Corporation and the developer of Dragon Fantasy.
“He went out, slayed all the dragons, saved the princess, and when the princess who he rescued became queen she made him the captain of her royal guard… and then he didn’t do a damn thing for thirty years.
“So the story of the first chapter is really about somebody who hasn’t been out there in a while … someone getting back into the scene, getting his life back.”
It’s a quirky subversion of the genre -- a game that wriggles its old-man buns at the generic youthful RPG heroes who look like they’re 12, act like they’re five, and have bigger hair than most sculpting products can support. But the desire to tell a different kind of story -- a quirkier story -- is only a part of the reason why Dragon Fantasy exists.
The Loss Of A Father, The Beginning Of A Game
“In December 2010 my father passed away,” says Rippon.
“I don’t even remember the first three months of last year.”
Rippon’s father, Thomas, had been a character in the game he’d started working on when he was 14. As a teenager Rippon had fallen in love with RPGs -- the grandiose stories, the oceans of Gummi Bear-like pixels, and the promise of an adventure beyond what was visible on the screen. He’d taught himself to program and began work on Dragon Fantasy, which was at the time tentatively titled Talisman. At the time, the game was also tentatively rubbish. Rippon worked on it with his friend Bryan Sawler (who is now his business partner), but it kept falling to the side. The two were busy building careers as programmers -- they made games for Electronic Arts, Disney, and Other Ocean -- there was no time to focus on a game about an old, chubby knight.
In 2011, on his father’s birthday, Rippon decided to crack open Dragon Fantasy and give it one last shot, except this time he would be taking out all the excess characters. This would be his father’s story.
“I didn’t even tell Bryan about it,” says Rippon, who managed to keep the revival of the game a secret for a month until he was caught working on it during work hours.
“We had a long-standing thing where we weren’t going to make an RPG because it takes too long, but then we looked at it and we decided to just go for it.”
Over five months they would work in their spare time to tell Odgen Thomas’ story. But the game wasn’t just about the aging bald man. It was Adam Rippon’s story, too.
“The theme is important to me because I got into video games because I wanted to write the stories, and I spent 11 years in the industry not doing that,” he says.
“I didn’t even get close to writing anything -- nobody wants to hear the programmer’s story.
“My dad was a big inspiration to me -- he was an artist, a sculptor, a teacher, and he encouraged me to be an artist. By trade I’m a programmer but I went to art school. What he wanted me to do was to make substantial works. When he passed away, I realised I had not,” Rippon says.
“I’ve done games for other people -- some of them good, some of them not-so-good, some of them terrible, but I hadn’t done anything for me. I hadn’t done anything where I could say ‘This is an Adam Rippon game’, and I hated that feeling. I decided I had to do it.”
Chapters Of Gummi Bear Pixels
The story of Dragon Fantasy is told in chapters; the first tells Ogden’s story and subsequent chapters reveal new characters and explore who they are, where they come from, and where they’re going. Each chapter stands alone, but they’re all connected. In the third chapter an uncle and his niece find themselves trapped in a desert kingdom -- one of them escapes but the other doesn’t. The escapee eventually meets with the characters from the first two chapters and they begin their quests together.
In many ways these chapters are your typical 8-bit RPG -- there are battles, there’s loot, and you level up, but the 8-bit is not used as a gimmick. Rippon knows how to meaningfully use the 8-bit aesthetic.
“I think there’s a comforting sense of nostalgia with 8-bit art and it really engages your imagination because there’s not much fidelity presented on the screen, so it’s a great opportunity for your mind to just run wild,” Rippon says.
“In Super Mario World, the Overworld map is my favourite part of the game because there are all the places you go to, and there are all the places you don’t go to… you see those places and you can’t help but think ‘What’s going on over there?’
“I tried to recreate that feeling in Dragon Fantasy. I tried to put little things here and there where if you were to just think about it you might put together a story in your head.”
Many of the characters in the game are loosely based on the people in his life. But basing character on people he knows -- especially people as close to him as his father -- is not without its difficulties.
“It’s a challenge,” Rippon says.
“What I try to remind myself is that the characters aren’t [my friends and family], they’re characters loosely based on them.
“So I try to make sure that Ogden does the right thing. He doesn’t talk like my dad does. It’s weird. One of the things I want to do at some point is have my mum show up in the game and have Ogden have a love interest.”
How does he feel about making a game about his parents hooking up?
“That’s going to be a big challenge and I don’t want to think about them hooking up!” he says.
“Maybe they could meet and be friends and I’ll leave the rest up to the player.”
A Tribute To Thomas Rippon, A Game For You
Dragon Fantasy has been a critical success, with Notch from Mojang recently inviting Rippon to show Dragon Fantasy at MineCon.
“We showed the Minecraft chapter at the show and when the doors opened we were at the booth and all these kids poured in,” he says.
“They were all 12-15 years old, and I was like ‘Ah shit, kids aren’t going to want to play an 8-bit RPG about a bald guy!’ They came and looked at it and said: ‘It’s Pokémon! With Minecraft!’ So I was like… Pokémon… perfect!”
The Minecraft chapter was officially released later with the blessing of Mojang.
Rippon is currently working on the fourth chapter of Dragon Fantasy where he will continue to tell the stories he’s always wanted to tell and pay tribute to the man who inspired and encouraged him to create.
“He did so many great things for me and I wanted to do something for him,” Rippon says.
“I miss my dad a lot. The realisation that you just can’t call the guy any more…”
Rippon has used the memory of his father to motivate himself to continue making the games that he is passionate about, that he believes in. It doesn’t matter whether players understand the role Rippon’s father played in the game, or how long it took for the game to see the light of day. Being able to tell stories gives Rippon a great amount of satisfaction -- he just wants to tell a good story, to make people laugh, and if his game can extend further than that, then it’s a bonus.
“I received some fan mail from a guy I didn’t know,” he says.
“He was a father who had two kids, five and seven, and he was playing the game with them, reading the words to them. It was a father and son-bonding thing -- I liked that a lot.
“He closed his email with: ‘And the next day, I went out to the backyard and one of my kids was playing Ogden and the other was playing a shopkeeper selling him weapons’.
“I called my mum almost immediately and said there’s a kid somewhere in Kansas who’s pretending to be dad right now, and I had to explain to her what I meant because she’s not familiar with video games.
“It just made my day. It made hers. I liked that.”