The five-year journey to make an adventure game out of ink and paper


“I couldn’t walk away from the pen and ink thing,” says John Evelyn, creator of The Collage Atlas, a dreamlike storybook adventure recently released on Steam. The entire game is hand drawn, from tiny flowers and insects to huge buildings and the clouds that float over them. Exploring this world unwraps its dreamlike story, with environments folding out in response to your approach.

“I had been drawing for many years before that […] and I’d always draw with ink straight away, without any kind of prior pencil work or sketching,” he says. “I liked all the incidental details and the accidents that come out along the way.” He compares it to improv music — “actually, sometimes it goes horribly wrong!” — but says that the feeling of getting into a stride and being surprised by unexpected outcomes was important to the whole game.

It’s because of this that the art style underpins the rest of the experience. Where individual pieces of game art can fall into the background, The Collage Atlas requests your attention to detail — and rewards it. At the very start of the game, a pinwheel appears from a grassy plain; look at it, and it begins spinning. It was one of the first things that Evelyn created, for what was originally an app meant to accompany a picture book.

The book, a follow-up to a self-published work called Asleep As The Breeze, was intended to explore themes of agency and the feeling of disempowerment that can come from traumatic or chaotic life experiences. “You can start to feel like life is something that’s kind of happening to you rather than something that you have meaningful control or authorship of,” says Evelyn.

While experimenting with that theme, “everything clicked into place,” when the pinwheel spun, he says. “It suddenly made sense that, actually, this was the crux of what I was trying to talk about. That, actually, even when it doesn’t feel like it, just your presence within the world is genuinely meaningful and actually does have an impact on it. Even your gaze and your observation is also meaningful.”

“Even your gaze and your observation is also meaningful.”

Evelyn built on the app idea for a short art experience, which he exhibited at the Leftfield Collection at UK gaming convention EGX in 2016. At the time, he says, he had no intention of continuing to expand it into a game that would eventually make it to Apple Arcade and then Steam. Instead, he says, it was “something that I personally felt like I really needed to do.”

“I had gone through a pretty bad run of years,” he says, “and I was finding it difficult to find media that spoke to me about the things I was experiencing.” Other media seemed deeply specific to others’ situations, whereas Evelyn wanted something broader. “Things that just nudge at universal themes I find really useful.”

At the show, people connected with his piece. In particular, Evelyn was swayed by the attention of “business-type people,” who would ask him how long the full game would end up being. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Oh, do you actually think that people would want that?’” He says he was swayed by them because, if they were coming at it from a “fairly cold financial standpoint” and thought there would be an audience for it, he might be able to believe it himself.

Image: John William Evelyn

He knew that he wanted the experience to be something that could “slowly absorb you” — meaning a couple of hours, rather than 10 minutes. For the next four years, he threw everything at filling out that scope. Although he had experience and knowledge from a career that included time making Flash games, working in freelance illustration, and releasing music EPs, he also had a lot to learn. “The day that I started The Collage Atlas as it is now, not the little demo version, that was the very first day I opened up [game engine] Unity,” he says.

In order to convert illustrations to 3D, a process he had never done before, he began by creating the models in Unity before printing their maps and drawing in the details with pen. Once scanned back in, those textures were readded to the model to create the world of The Collage Atlas and everything that makes it up.

“Works don’t have any kind of permanence — they can just vanish.”

After nearly five years of work, in 2020, the game was released on Apple Arcade, but in 2023 it was delisted when the exclusivity period ended. Not long afterward, even people who had downloaded it weren’t able to launch it. “This is the sad thing about the way our kind of creative mediums are going: works don’t have any kind of permanence — they can just vanish,” he says. Evelyn felt he owed it to his past self who did all that work to make sure the game was still available and recently launched it on Steam.

After the game’s Apple Arcade release, Evelyn thought he might be done working on games. “I spoke to one of my friends who’s a AAA developer and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s me done. I’m never doing this again.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you six months.’” Almost exactly six months later, he started working on his next game, The Wings of Sycamore. Also hand-drawn, it’s something of a spiritual sequel to The Collage Atlas.

Atlas is trying to explore the idea of falling inwards,” he says. “Wings of Sycamore is about flight. After you manage to climb back out of the depths, hopefully, that’s when you just have the pure joy of flying.”

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