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Apple Quest Monsters DX is a book of charming monsters and their descriptions, all for a game that does not exist. Not that this mattered for Splendidland, developer of Tender Caves of Death, as this look at monsters detached from a game carried that sense of discovery that came with cracking open strategy guides for Earthbound, Banjo Kazooie, and more, creating a digital space within the reader’s mind that called up imaginary game worlds.
“I used to love reading strategy guides for games I never got to play, so why not make a guide for a game nobody has played? I loved the guide of Banjo Kazooie because it had so many different characters, and I still haven’t played that game!” says Splendidland.
A strategy guide, or a feature in an issue of Nintendo Power, often came with unique artwork and character descriptions for the games they covered. While these were meant to be informative on the games they covered or to help flesh out a narrative, there was still a creativity, curiosity, and excitement contained within the artwork and words alone. Arguably designed to help make playing a game easier, these guides were still made with a love for storytelling and play that made the guides themselves fun all on their own.
This is the spirit Splendidland looked to capture with Apple Quest Monsters DX. “I love monster bestiaries! I read the Pokedex in Pokemon Yellow so much as a kid that I could memorize the cries of each monster. I am developing a game called Tender Caves of Death that also features a monster encyclopedia, but it’s going to take a while to finish, so I wanted to make something where I don’t actually have to program a game around them.”
There is a sense of getting to know these digital places that is captured within the pages of the book, and whether the reader ever gets to go there, a familiarity is built through looking at the artwork and maps while reading the descriptions. What manner of place would have creatures like these? How would they move? It kickstarts the imagination and helps create a sense of place within the reader’s mind whether they play the game or not.
For some, this can even replace the playing of the game altogether, letting them experience the game through text and visuals without any input. “RPGs are typically quite lengthy, and I think there’s a lot of people who want to have the feeling of playing one without the time investment, that was one of the feelings I hoped to capture with the book,” says Splendidland.
Guides and features can give the reader that sense of having been there, or of learning of a place in a way that carries a different kind of joy all its own. Splendidland tapped into this sensation with Apple Quest Monsters DX, letting the reader feel as if they’re transported to an RPG they can play through in their imaginations.
What thoughts go into creating the monsters for a game that doesn’t exist? In telling a game world’s story without the game world itself?
It was something that felt comfortable for the developer. “I’ve played video games since I was 6, and it was the medium I found the most compelling, so my art has always been inspired by video games,” says Splendidland.
“I feel like the most important thing is for them to all be memorable in some way. The Dragon Quest series is well known for its unique designs even though a lot of the enemies are things like ‘Slime’ and ‘Skeleton’ and ‘Golem’,” says Splendidland. “When I designed the monsters, I had a little grid, with all the Type and Habitat combinations, and I came up with one monster for each, trying to make them appropriate while also including a lot of variation. The puppet type of the plains habitat is a robot simply because I wanted to have a robot, and it seemed like the best place for one!”
The look wasn’t the only key part in making Apple Quest Monsters DX‘s monsters feel like they had a game world to belong in, as their descriptions, which laid out the monsters’ personalities, were a large part in making them feel like they belonged in their own digital worlds.
“I tried to give each monster their own personality as well! A lot of people loved certain monsters not because of their design, but their accompanying flavour text being what the kids would call ‘a big mood’. The Zombie monster mentions having dysphoria because it can’t stand the appearance of its rotting body. I think small details like that go a long way to making even a generic monster more interesting,” says Splendidland.
These descriptions went beyond giving the monsters an identity, but also established an overall sense of this imaginary world’s mood. The Slime is described as “It’s the weakest of all monsters, but don’t let that stop you from loving it,”. The Power Beetles boss “always compliment each other to boost their self-esteem.” They give the monsters these hopeful, cheery identities, but also bring to mind a world that is hopeful and helpful. Their descriptions immediately call up thoughts on the world they would live in, and help the reader establish more about them on top of their cute designs.
A final step, one familiar to those who’ve ever enjoyed the Earthbound strategy guide, was to give the monsters their own real interpretations. Seeing these adorable beasts brought into reality offers this sense of touch that makes them feel more realistic, in a sense, and may bring back memories of flipping through that particular guide and seeing these creatures in vibrant color and touchable material.
“I was actually just going to paint the cover or make it pixel art. The models were a last-minute decision that probably delayed the books release by a month! I’ve always loved making models, and this is my first book, so I wanted to make it special! My favourite game, Wario Land 3, also had a physical model of the music box the game takes place in on the cover, and I was always so enamoured by it!” says Splendidland.
Not that this decision was motivated by nostalgia for that old guidebook. “I never had a SNES, and even if I did, Earthbound wasn’t released in the UK. I didn’t get to read the guide until long after I’d already played the game on emulator, but what a guide it is! You could just read that instead of playing the game (though you should play the game anyway because it’s good for your soul),” says Splendidland.
Still, this final step created a connection to reality and color that makes the monsters seem to spring to life in Apple Quest Monsters DX, their cheerful looks creating a sense of adventure and play. Within the creatures’ designs, we can get a sense of their places within the world, and are captivated by the details that make them stand out. Likewise, Splendidland’s cheerful style runs through each, creating that sense of cohesive identity and place that ties them all together, and their descriptions give them, and the world, a further sense of personality. In reading this, we know a digital place, even if it isn’t real.
A Game In the Mind
For those who ever leafed through a guide book for a game they didn’t own, how much did it truly matter if they never got to play that game? Did they not find joy in that world in their own way, or get a sense of knowing the place and having seen it in their imaginations? Our games are but constructs of code assisted by our imaginations in becoming real, so a guide for a game that isn’t real isn’t necessarily a leap. As such, using artwork, style, text, and physical models, Splendidland captured that feeling of knowing a place through game guides and features – of reading and seeing a world to life.
Apple Quest Monsters DX is available for £10.00 through Splendidland’s online store, or £2.50 for a digital copy on Itch.io. For more information on the book and the developer, you can follow them on Twitter.