Sometime during the mid-eighties in the outskirts of Sheffield, a young boy spent half his childhood playing video games and the other half tearing through the woods. He went on to make text adventures on the ZX Spectrum with his sister, and as a teen, to experiment with game development using the Microsoft XNA and Flash.
In April 2015, he took part in the Ludum Dare game jam; the theme was ‘An Unconventional Weapon’. His entry, Mable: The Journey, would go on to place 26th out of 2821 games. Developer Andrew Stewart had come a long way from the woods of High Green, but it was only the start of his four-year journey to bring Mable And The Wood to fruition in GameMaker.
Mable And The Wood is not your typical Metroidvania. The titular and newly resurrected Mable is unable to run or jump. She has a sword so heavy that she can’t lift it, so she drags it slowly across the ground. However, Mable has the ability to shape-shift into a tiny fairy, and as she flies onwards, she will inevitably drop her sword.
When she recalls the sword to her hand, she resumes the form of a young girl, while the sword eliminates anything in its path. Mable also has the ability to take on the form of any bosses that she kills, which then changes the player’s navigation of the world, and paves the way for different endings. These forms grant Mable new powers such as the ability to sneak past enemies, turn them into stone, or even smash through them.
Interestingly, the game can be completed without bloodshed. Numerous power-ups and secret abilities are hidden throughout the game, which gives you the opportunity to carve a non-violent path through the world. However, a peaceful solution is unlikely to be relatively painless; the world is populated with numerous unfriendly inhabitants.
Even if you pick up the controls rapidly, Mable will have to do plenty of careful shape-shifting and dodging if you want to avoid any conflict. Bear in mind that the cult that resurrects Mable believes in an ancient prophecy that says she will hunt down great beasts, take their shape and save the dying world. But the prophecy is so very old, and its meaning may have become garbled over time – what if the cult is wrong? How will Mable save the world? More pressingly after the game jam in 2015, however, how would Stewart’s game development journey continue?
In early 2016, Stewart ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to commission an original soundtrack for the game, and purchase additional art and equipment. He continued to work on the game in his free time and was grateful for the support of his Kickstarter backers.
That support helped him to get through family tragedies, a broken computer, and stressful periods. “My wife Sarah’s support during development has been absolutely vital, and without it, I wouldn’t have been able to work on the game at all,” Stewart says. “I need to get the game finished soon though, or she’ll have forgotten who I am!”
Stewart’s typical work day varies depending on what he’s working on. “For example, when I’m designing the sprites, even though it’s pixel art, I always start with pencil and paper. I try and think about what would be a unique visual motif for this sprite and then sketch my ideas around that,” he says. Mable And The Wood may initially seem quite simple and stark with its pixel art and bright colours, but the layered backgrounds give a surprising depth to the game’s 2D plane.
For a long time though, the biggest challenge was simply getting the work done. As we saw in Wireframe issue 13’s look at life as a solo developer, making an indie game is no mean feat, and requires an incredible amount of perseverance.
“I’d get home from work, get the kids in bed, and only then start working on the game,” Stewart recalls. “I’d try and get in two hours a night, but for a while, the kids were waking up several times a night, so I was getting three to four hours of broken sleep a night for weeks on end. That was tough.”
Stewart met all of his collaborators through the TIGSource forums, with the exception of Maarten Boot, who was recommended by a friend. “I worked with Chris Early during the Kickstarter, and he helped with the fonts and typography while Maarten Boot worked on the world map art,” he explains.
“Swonqi is a great pixel artist, and I basically just message him on Twitter whenever I’m not happy with the pixel art I’ve done for something. For example, I did about seven or eight different versions of the puff of smoke that appears when you kill an enemy, and I was unhappy with them all. Swonqi took maybe half an hour to come back with the perfect animation.
“And I did a game jam with Fat Bard Music a while back, and the music was awesome, so I knew that I wanted to work on Mable And The Wood with them. We’re trying to get a SNES RPG feel to it, reminiscent of Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger. I want it to be the kind of soundtrack that you can enjoy on its own.”
As the release date draws closer, though, Stewart says he feels a growing excitement at the thought of people finally getting their hands on Mable And The Wood. “I’m really excited to see how everyone reacts to the game, and to see which of the secrets they find,” he says. “I’ve hidden quite a bit in there. And a few things are very well hidden.”
Format: PC / Mac / Linux / Switch / Xbox
Developer: Triplevision Games
Publisher: Graffiti Games
Release: Summer 2019