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How this charming life sim tells a coming-of-age story that echoes back to your first job out of college.

John Harris

December 19, 2023

15 Min Read
Image via Paul Jessup.

Candlebook Island (out on Itch.io and Switch, with a Steam release forthcoming) is a pretty laid-back game. You’ve got a new job as a veterinarian for monsters on an isolated island. There are only six other people living on the island, and one of them is a robot groundskeeper. Every in-game day, you check up on the peaceful monsters that live there. Sometimes they come down with illnesses, with names like bramble cough and sloopy poops (ew). If you don’t already know how to cure an illness, you can visit the local library to find out the solution, then visit the apothecary to buy the cure. You get money for cures by checking your mail crow once a day for your paycheck. You have three stats, Body, Spirit and Mind, that fluctuate and affect what you can do.

Your money, your stats and the business hours of the different businesses present a dynamically changing set of obstacles to your work, but it’s still not that challenging on the average. After the sun sets, most of the residents get together at the cafe, and you can talk to them and find out about their lives and dreams. It’s like a simulation of a fictional place, with relaxing music and pleasant hand-drawn pixel graphics. While the beasts you treat are made-up creatures like wanderfoxes and cannibal mermaids, the life of the game ebbs and flows in a pleasingly realistic way.

The creator of Candlebook Island Paul Jessup answered some questions we had about its design and how it was made.

Game Developer: Who are you, and what is Candlebook Island?

Jessup: I'm Paul Jessup, the solo developer behind Riddlefox Games, a small indie game company that I run out my home office. We make cute, cozy, fun games to relax to. The gameplay is based on SNES-style RPGs and life sim games, mixing them up and having fun. Our first breakout game was Bad Writer, which was made last year in a little less than a month. For some reason, it took Twitter by storm, and in less than a week became a best seller at Itch.io. From there, it went onto the Nintendo Switch, where the sales were 10x those on any other platform.

Outside of gamedev, I'm also a short story writer and novelist. I've won a few awards for my fiction, and am an active pro member of HWA. Last year, one short story of mine ended up on the Stoker Awards Recommended Reading List. All in all, pretty cool stuff.

Candlebook Island is a fun little game about healing sick monsters at the titular monster sanctuary. You wander around the island, talk to your coworkers and learn their life stories, as well as heal any monster that comes down with an illness. A fun side note: all the monsters and characters in this game are based on friends of mine, as well as writers and publishers I've known in the publishing industry. It's a silly little thing, but a lot of fun. I do like to combine my literary world and video game world as much as possible, even if it's just with little inside jokes like these.

The first screen says "Made with LÖVE." LÖVE is a free and open-source game engine. What is working with LÖVE like? Would you recommend it, and was there any difficulty getting your game ported to the Nintendo Switch because of it? Did you consider other frameworks, such as Unity or Godot?

I've been working in LÖVE for about 13 years now, maybe a little more? Back when it was just called Love2d. I found it to be good for the way I work when I make games. I got my start in the '90s, originally with TandyBasic, then Qbasic, and then onto C++ and Allegro. When I was doing C/C++ coding, I would extend my engines with Lua, since it was extremely easy to hook into my code. When I discovered Love2d, I realized that they had done a lot of the stuff I was doing already, with a lot of additional features that I hadn't even thought of, so I started slowly migrating over to Lua and Love2d for my games.

I find it easy for me to get something up and running, but that's because I've built a large library of code for making 2D games over the years, a lot of it ported over from my C++ days (and some even stemming all the way back to my Qbasic days!). Because of this, I would also hesitate suggesting it for other people to use. It all depends on how much control you like having over your game, and how it works. If you don't know how to do collision detection, or sprite animations, or lighting, it might be easier to go with some like Godot or Unity, since you just download a module/package/library, install it, and use it.

That's not to say Love2d doesn't have a lot of modules and libraries as well. They exist, they're just harder to find, and take a bit more work to get running and working than point and click on a windowed interface. But for people who love to create their own physics and functions, and find graphical coding cluttered and confusing (as I do- it takes me forever to find a checkbox in Godot that I could do with one line of code in Love2d/Lua), than I say give it a whirl! You might be surprised how powerful it can be. Some people are making some great games with it, some way more complex than the ones I've been working on.

One last thing: I'm not sure LÖVE/Love2d is a game engine; it's more of a framework. There is a lot you need to do that game engines usually do for you. And that's why I like using it, that and its portability. I remember the days having to recompile with makefiles for all the different OSes, and with Love2d, it's far simpler. Right now, I know there isn't any official support for consoles, since it's an open source framework (and consoles usually use NDAs for their tools, libraries, etc). I do know that there are a few publishers out that support Love2d on these platforms, and the one that works with me (mazette!) is fantastic. They take care of all the work with porting and the support of any issues that crop up afterward.

Candlebook Island screenshot

What other tools did you use to construct it? What was your workflow like?

I use Aseprite for pixel art, as well as a Hurion graphics tablet. I won't ever go back to using a mouse for pixel art ever again, once I switched over a year ago, it just made my whole art pipeline move so much faster. Esp. with larger images, like character profiles, and the nifty looking houses in Candlebook Island. For maps, I used TileD, an excellent open source 2D map editor, one that easily integrated into most engines and frameworks. Funnily enough, I know the guy who made TileD, Thorbjørn Lindeijer. We go way back, and I was there when he first built this awesome tool. We both co-ran a website called RPGDX, which was a community for people making SNES-style RPG games online, and giving them away for free.

I've been using Aseprite for about as long as I've been using TileD, going way back to my C++ and Allegro days. Aseprite was originally made with Allegro, and part of that gamedev community. It's really cool how important these tools are these days, and I think it's great that I still use them to this day.

Other than that, I don't use much else. I do use a lighting library for my games called Luven, which is simple and fantastic and gives cool-looking results. I have a publisher, mazette!, that ports the game to the Nintendo Switch. They may use a custom library or tool for that, I'm not sure.

The basic research and curing play is mixed up a bit by the stat system of Body, Mind and Spirit, and they can fluctuate throughout the day. If one gets too low, it makes some tasks impossible, and forces the player to prioritize and put some tasks off for later days. It's a simple system, but it makes an element of strategy possible. I like the idea of taking a simple kind of game and introducing this dimension that makes it a little more complex than it'd otherwise be. Would you care to walk through the inspiration and design of this aspect of Candlebook Island?

When I realized I wanted to make a game about curing monsters, I had to figure out the best way to make this fun for the player that was also unique, and interesting. I've seen a lot of other games take different approaches when you play a doctor or a healer, for example, that one potion game where healing people is a mini-game like Tetris or something else like that. As interesting as that idea is, games like that take me out of the main narrative of the game itself, and in a way, it breaks the fourth wall for me. I'm sure that's not the case for everyone. But I didn't want to go that way for that reason, as cool as mini-game collections can be.

And so I thought back to Bad Writer, one of my earlier games, and how I approached what some thought to be an impossible task: make being a writer into a fun video game. It worked by having a happiness meter that worked like a health meter, and so the gameplay revolved around keeping your writer "happy." Which, a lot of writers now, is honestly true to form. For this game, I thought, what if it was something similar? How would that work for being a monster veterinarian?

Later that day, I read an article about work-life balance, and I remembered what it was like to be just out of college, in your twenties, and at your first real job. You're excited; this is going to be your career, and you want to be the best you can be! After all, this was what all that work in the last four years of your life has been all about. It's so easy at that age to overwork yourself, trying to prove something to your new employers or just that you can do this. And I remembered my time working at the Great Lakes Medieval Faire, and how exhausting it was to wake up at the crack of dawn and walk all over the fairground, all day long. It wears you out. By the end of the day, you just want to collapse.

And I thought, that could be a fun take on the whole happiness meter idea: have Body, Mind, and Spirit all interact with each other, each one affecting the other stat, and each stat affecting Fiona's interaction with the world. It took a bit of work getting all the dialogue trees worked out and tested, but I think it was worth it in the end. It can be very surprising, especially when you notice Fiona's snipping at the NPC's, or walking too slowly because she is tired.

Riddlefox Games is a small operation. The credits say that you did practically everything but the music! How long did it take you to construct the art and code? How successful has your work been? Are you satisfied?

So, I created a basic game engine last year using Lua and Love2d to make it easier for me to make RPG-like games. Text-heavy, menu-based gameplay, basically. The first game I made with it was Bad Writer. After fine-tuning a lot of the controls and some of the way it handles sprites and maps, I created Catacomb Kitties. That was much better, and I found that the engine was pretty extensible, and easy for me to use and drum up this style of game fairly quickly. Bad Writer all together took maybe two weeks, tops. Catacomb Kitties took around two months. After that, I started working on Candlebook Island. This one, the art and the writing, took longer than anything else. The pixel art alone took close to five months. I was really pushing myself, and my abilities, I think. Originally, I was going to add in some animations too, but that was a bit outside of my skill set, and the game was taking a lot longer to make than I originally anticipated.

Also, all the systems I created for Candlebook Island took a while to balance, too: the Body/Mind/Spirit, how it affects gameplay, not making it too hard or too easy. The various random things that happened in the game and making sure not too many monsters got sick at once and overwhelmed the player too quickly. I think I spent more time balancing and debugging this game than all the others, and unlike the last two, I ended up debugging and balancing after release as well. I have a feeling this will be the kind of game I make a lot of updates on in the future, but I'm leaning into it. I plan on adding more monsters at some point and adding in some more subplots involving the minor characters: optional things that might be a fun surprise in further updates.

I figure, since this is the kind of game that seems to require that kind of work, I might as well make it fun for the player when I do add these things in just so it's not a small patch fixing a walking bug, or an A* bug, or something along those lines.

My games have had different receptions for each one. Bad Writer was a runaway hit, which surprised me a lot. Catacomb Kitties and Candlebook Island both did very well too, exceeding how much I thought they would sell. Am I satisfied? Both yes and no. Yes, I am satisfied with these games and their sales. But also, no, because I itch to make something even better than everything I've done before. I really think that's a good thing, though, to constantly be improving. I have a few small games planned, and one large game. The large game will be a very big JRPG-style game, using Mode7 for pseudo 3D-style combat. Think Golden Sun mixed with the Final Fantasy games on the PlayStation 1. The smaller games will be some couch co-op games for the Nintendo Switch. I've played them with my kids a lot, ever since getting the Switch about five or six years ago. And we've all wanted to make one of our own, to join in on the fun.

What are you the most proud of in Candlebook Island?

The art is probably the thing I'm most proud of with this game. It took a long time to get the look and feel right, but in the end, the tone is exactly what I wanted to capture when I started working on this game. I wanted it to feel like so many places I've visited, especially at night, when you walk around under street lamps, and visit people in the evening hours. Like when you go off on vacation, and walk around a hotel at night, or the nearby streets. Or when you go to an amusement park at night or visit a Renaissance fair.

The colors, the way the lighting worked, and the character designs are key to this feeling, especially the houses I drew. This was probably the first game I made primarily with a graphics tablet, and since there were so few houses in the game, I wanted to make each one distinct, and show off the personality of their character. So, with Mr. Wood, you have his library in the mummified corpse of a grumpy old wyrm. Lady Barron is in the skull of a giant witch, while Todd lives in a tent and the Crowspeaker lives in the trunk of a dead tree.

What do you hope to accomplish with your game?

I wanted to capture what it felt like to be just out of college, and working a job like Renaissance Faire, or an amusement park. Something like that (I've worked both): the kind of just graduated job where you're not doing anything important just yet but a job where you make friends, and live on a campus, and take care of each other. The emotion was a key part of that, and getting the characters just right, in order to make them interesting. I thought the actual gameplay loop would be a simple one, involving money management, and taking care of sick monsters.

That was another thing I thought would make it fun, and unique. Not fighting monsters, not trapping monsters and using them to fight for you like Pokemon, etc. But instead, caring for them, like it was a zoo. A place that was a haven, of sorts, from the outside world. Originally, I was going to have visitors come to the island, tourists, that kind of thing. But time didn't quite allow for that, mostly due to the amount of art that would be needed.

But it was important that the monster part of the game be simple and fun and the characters interesting and memorable, with some side stories that play out during the course of the gameplay if you wanted to participate. I'd named some of the characters after writer friends I knew, and a lot of the monsters are also named after writers and publishers, just as a kind of inside joke between friends. For example, Silvia the Eldritch Being is named after Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, Jeff and Anne the Vanderfoxes are named after Jeff and Anne Vandermeer. It's a little nod that makes me smile every time I play the game.

And I think that's also key. The game is meant to be simple, peaceful, and relaxing. A game that makes you smile. Something to play at the end of the day when you want to unwind for a little bit. But not a game you feel like you have to play, that you get caught up in for hours on end. But instead of one that is just a simple experience that makes you feel good inside for a little bit, and that you can set it aside and do something else if you need to.

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John Harris

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John Harris writes the column @Play for GameSetWatch, and the series Game Design Essentials for Gamasutra. He has written computer games since the days of the Commodore 64. He also maintains the comics blog Roasted Peanuts.

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