With the boom of indie games in recent years, it’s harder than ever to stand out from the pack in a meaningful way. Pixel art games are more common than zombies, dragons are in every other game, and metroidvania platform RPGs are more popular than either Metroid or Castlevania themselves ever were – it’s a crazy time for the game industry. So, how then exactly does someone get their small indie game created by two people noticed? Well, making something that’s both fun to play and interesting is a good start, and A Dragon Named Coal is just that.
But creating something that’s worth playing with such a small team isn’t easy to do. “I dropped out of school and am a self-taught artist,” Rachel says, one of two members, along with Ash, that make up the husband and wife duo of Clever Crow Games. While they have people helping out doing music, and art, and voicework here and there, the overwhelming majority of the game is being created strictly by Rachel and Ash. “I knew that I needed to build up my portfolio and I had doodled a little sketch of a dragon that wanted to be a knight. I really liked how it turned out so I made a short illustrated fable about it,” Rachel said. “And hence, our pixel art adventure was born!”
While the original concept for A Dragon Named Coal may have come from those short illustrations, make no mistake – it’s no longer a few simple sketches in a notebook – now it’s become a large and sweeping tale of adventure. “We wanted to tell a story more than we wanted to make a game,” Ash says. “We actually have close to one million years of history and backstory built up for this universe,” which may seem like overkill to anyone that’s unfamiliar with world building, but it’s an essential part of the process. Not only does this give them room to work with in terms of settings for the game, but it brings validity to events and characters. “In addition to the Game Design Document that’s already pretty long,” Rachel says, “we actually have what we are referring to as our Game Bible. It has over a hundred entries describing characters and places so we can keep track of who everyone is and what everything means in this world.”
And with all of that thought and care that went into creating a world and adventure for Coal to explore, came a lot of self-reflection as well. “A lot of inspiration for this game comes from our childhood,” Ash said. “Rachel and I were both bullied a lot growing up as kids and we view Coal as a representation of our childhood – sort of like an embodiment of us growing up. We felt like we never really fit in,” which is precisely how the player is introduced to Coal at the start of the game. As a dragon that’s interested in human culture and learning more about the world, Coal is eventually labeled as an outcast and sent away from his kind. “Then from the point of view of the humans, Coal is just a dragon, a monster. Coal finds himself in this weird middle ground and never really belongs to either side,” which is surely something anyone can relate to at some point in their life.
In fact, you may have noticed that I’ve deliberately avoided the use of personal pronouns such as “he” or “she” when describing Coal and that hasn’t been an accident, since “Coal is actually a non-gendered character,” Ash told me. “We’ve avoided using any gender-specific pronouns in the game when referring to Coal,” Rachel said. “No gender identity really fits for Coal because we view it as a merging of life experiences between Ash and I – so Coal just doesn’t fit into any of our pre-determined boxes.” It’s a surprising experiment, as I noticed myself subconsciously thinking of Coal as a “he” while playing. Perhaps it has to do with my mind’s association to the relatively masculine name “Cole”, or perhaps it’s just because I am a male myself.
Either way, I can honestly say that I cannot recall another instance I’ve experienced of a dragon wielding a sword. It’s a charming quirk that adds a lot more character to the otherwise stoic dragon than you’d think. You’ll be running and jumping around levels, solving some puzzles, performing some light platforming, and doing lots of fighting as well. All the while the story will slowly unfold before you as you adventure deeper into the world. “It has a very Thomas Was Alone feel to it,” Ash said. “As you progress, it will actually narrate different components of the story to keep pushing you forward.” But it’s not just surface level exposition – you can interact with the world and its characters as well. In fact, “all the companions have their own personalities and will make comments to you throughout the game,” Rachel says. This is something I actually experienced in action, as the small girl that I rescued earlier in my session would make funny remarks about the environment and my surroundings. Ash and Rachel took the time to create fleshed out companions that are more than just hirelings for combat – which is a lot more than what you see from a lot of AAA studios these days.
A Dragon Named Coal is far from being finished. They still have more areas and towns and gameplay mechanics to incorporate before it even begins to approach a more completed state, but it’s off to a great start. “The story has changed a lot through development in order to accommodate our other ideas for the engine, or mechanics, or music,” Rachel said. “Everything has just morphed together into this one big cohesive experience and it’s all been so exciting to see!” Talking with a team that is so passionate and talented can quickly turn anyone into a believer.
They are currently planning to release A Dragon Named Coal on Steam via Greenlight to be compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems – including controller support. You can find links to all of their relevant pages down below. Check the demo out for yourself at one of the links and leave your comments here to let us know what you think!