Aussie Indie Artists: David Chen talks about his Adventure RPG SPIRITWELL

Aussie Indie Artists is a new series of interviews with lesser-known Aussie creators across all forms and fields.

The goal is to share exciting new works, find new angles towards the art, and peek behind the scenes.

The adventure RPG Undertale starts with a kid falling down a hole into a fantastical world of silliness and monsters; Studio Ghibli’s film Spirited Away begins with a kid crossing a river into a world of Japanese spirits and folklore; Somewhere in the middle is Spiritwell, David Chen’s adventure RPG starring kappas, tanukis, and walking pears. 

For the past four years, David has been working to create a funny, charming and richly-detailed world alongside composer Danna Yun. SPIRITWELL was the first winner of the ACMI + RMIT Games Prize and has also won production funding from Film Victoria.

I recently got the chance to chat to David about the birth of this wondrous world, its icons, and its dreams.

Now that you’ve created it, crossing Studio Ghibli with Undertale is clearly a match made in heaven. Was there a moment of inspiration when SPIRITWELL was born?

Funnily, there was an actual moment (how dramatic! hahaha) but there were a lot of ideas and images swirling around in my head for a while already. I was reading about symbolism and psychology at the time, and there were recurring themes specifically involving water and the unconscious mind across completely different books. I think all this helped lead to that spontaneous moment somehow…

In the original vision I had, the child was going to walk into the middle of a shallow lake and suddenly be pulled under by a mysterious force, but I felt like it would make for too awkward of a transition from the human world to the spirit world. Anyway, the imagery and symbolism of a well just made more sense after dwelling on it for a bit, not to mention the many, many interpretations of what exactly a well can be… (fun fact: I kept the lake and put the well in the middle of it as a vestige of the original vision.) 

I’m aware of the similarities to Undertale in terms of the overall premise at a glance (child falls into another world), but I can confidently say this was never intentional and water has always been key to SPIRITWELL.

Screenshot from SPIRITWELL

I haven’t seen any classic RPG-style battling, are you taking a different approach to the genre?

I’m obviously inspired by classic RPGs, and I honestly tried making a unique battle system when I first started making SPIRITWELL, but I couldn’t come up with anything that was interesting, unique and within reasonable scope to make a full game with… So it’s not going to have battles! Instead, you play through non-violent, tailor-made scenes in the overworld, most of which are filled with silly little details. This turned out to be quite a lot of work in its own right anyway… but I get a lot of creative freedom with it. 

Besides the big stars like Ghibli, Undertale, and Earthbound, which artists have influenced SPIRITWELL?

One Piece! I’m the biggest fan of One Piece. It’s a huge influence on the tone and worldbuilding, and a big reason why I want to keep the overall tone lighthearted. Of course, SPIRITWELL is nowhere near the scope and size of One Piece. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on life in general and what’s truly important to me in recent years too. Writing for SPIRITWELL has been a good excuse to do just that actually and I’m sure it’ll come through in the final game. 

And you’re not just the pixel artist, but also the coder, writer, and joke writer. Since humour looks to be a big part of the game, what’s been making you laugh recently?

I laugh at the dumbest stuff… That Mike O’Hearn ‘Baby Don’t Hurt Me’ meme had me dying for no reason recently lol (yes, I know it’s probably already out of the TikTok algorithm cycle). 

Screenshot from SPIRITWELL

Are there any fun SPIRITWELL moments you’re itching to share?

Yes, and not just fun moments! There’s still so much I haven’t made yet. I know it’s been a long time on paper but development hasn’t always been full-time or smooth. Somehow, I’m still very eager and grateful to be making this game. I have scenes and moments and even single lines of dialogue in my mind that still make me feel that giddy feeling of “I just have to make this game!” You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned any specific moments yet… and I won’t! That’s for YOU to find out when you play the game!

And how about behind the scenes, what’s been memorable on the development end?

You really learn a lot about yourself through game development. It’s incredibly lonely at times but also utterly joyful when you see it resonate with someone. Most surprisingly to me is the sheer amount of faith and grit required. I often find myself asking if my work will mean anything to anyone, and have even pondered giving up altogether at times (I won’t, though!). There’s not many models for emulation either so I’ve learned to become a lot more confident in just doing what I believe to be right and following my heart. 

I’m not saying this as a complaint but in complete gratitude. Game development is often talked about negatively by developers but it’s what we chose, and we’re honestly really lucky to be able to do it. Child me (who wanted to be a writer and animator at 10 years old) would have been stoked to know that I didn’t give up on his dream and am still doing it through game dev! I’ve grown to appreciate any shipped title big or small, and I’m not just talking about games either. So to anyone undertaking any kind of project, I salute you and DON’T GIVE UP! 

Anyway, sorry for the long answers. I know this was meant to be short, but it seems I have a lot I wanted to share after all… 

Not at all! Thank you for the peek into your delightful world beyond the spirit well, and for the development insights. I can’t wait to see even more as the game continues!

Thank YOU! This was fun!

You can check out the Spiritwell site for its teaser trailer, and for more game development updates, check out the Spiritwell Twitter page