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Placemaking gone digital: Local library assistant turns Eastown into video game

Local cartoonist and librarian Drew Damron celebrates and pokes fun at Grand Rapids scene in a video game released this past summer to entertain friends and grow local culture.
The GRpg video game

The GRpg video game /Drew Damron

Underwriting support from:
Drew Damron, maker of The GRpg

Drew Damron, maker of The GRpg /Courtesy of Elice Davey

The GRpg game, Chapter 1

The GRpg game, Chapter 1 /Drew Damron

Drew Damron is a Grand Rapids history and video game enthusiast. He’s also a local cartoonist, and a library assistant at the Grand Rapids Public Library. This past summer, Damron released a video game, The GRpg, Chapter 1, at the Grand Rapids Zine Fest. In The GRpg players travel around Eastown similar to a Final Fantasy game.

Damron, who’s played video games all his life, says he got the idea a couple years ago.

“I’ve kind of been in a rut with my cartoons for a while, so this was a very welcome change that still scratched the creative itch, doing something totally different and fun," he says. "I started with Eastown because I’ve lived there for the past three years.”

Damron made it for his friends, combining the idea of a zine and a video game instruction booklet. He’d always really liked the booklets that came with video games, especially the Zelda ones, so he put the disc right into his zine for the festival.

Damron himself doesn’t know any code, but says the programs for making video games are getting better and better. He used the RPS Maker VX Ace program.

“The inspiration behind the game is a combination of me being really into Grand Rapids and history and local culture and an RPG (role-playing game) that came out for the Super Nintendo in 1995 called Earthbound,” says Damron of the game created by Shigesato Itoi.

“At the time, there’s all these like swords and sorcery, Dungeons and Dragon-like games out everywhere and he took the genre and made this game that was a satire on America," says Damron. "Instead of playing a knight or a wizard going through dungeons and fighting dragons or goblins, you play as a kid who’s got a baseball bat, a yo-yo, a frying pan and some of his friends. If you get hurt you eat hamburgers or pizza to get your health back up instead of potions. It’s really smart and really funny. And it’s really odd.”

Damron says that because of this he realized that RPG (role playing games) didn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi, but a game could be placed in current place and time and and still be a fascinating, magical experience.

“Usually in every RPG, you have to decide if you’re a warrior, or an archer, or a thief or whatever, so it’s a take on that," he says. "If you’re sad, you pick the weapon of heartbreak. Awkward silence and sarcasm are also weapons with which you can fight.”

Damron’s own game starts with him waking up from a dream and deciding how he feels that day.

The layout of the game is patterned after the house and street where he used to live, so the character navigates his roommates, hangs out with his cat and gets his first mission when his girlfriend asks him to run to CVS for a bag of chips.

The game is full of local and personal jokes. When you open the fridge, there’s only a bottle of Vernor’s and the game tells you to save the bottle for when you’re feeling sick. If you watch the TV, it tells you that another microbrewery is opening next week. Wall art in the house include the Sanborn map and the poster for the Division Avenue Arts Collective (DAAC)’s last concert. At the bookshelf you find out that it’s pretty empty because “most of your books have been lent out and never returned.”

In Damron's game, the character’s health is restored when he reads a book. If one chooses to have Potato the cat come along it makes the game easier and she helps fight.

“To set up a border- because I didn’t want to make all of Eastown because that would take forever- what I decided to do was block off the street. When the player walks up to the policeman standing in front a bunch of puffy squares, the policeman says, “Someone in Ottawa Hills filled their house up with too many throw pillows and it exploded.”

The local music festival Lamp Light Music Festival makes an appearance as the Lampshade Festival in Damron’s game. Players can enter several houses and hear actual music from local bands. Damron says all the musicians are credited in the end and that he found the rest of the game’s  music from YouTube, copyright free.

A player can fight guilt in the church, insecurities in Tomorrowdog or awkward situations at the Lampshade Festival. Just like in other RPG games, there are random encounters one needs to navigate. Damron says a lot of his friends can relate to these situations, so he took the idea of random encounters in a video game more literally.

“It’s unlikely you’re going to run into a goblin that wants to fight you in the backyard," he says. "But you do have to deal with your emotions all the time, so the emotions manifest that way in my game.”

Near the end of the game, players fight off selfishness in the CVS basement, which is really a huge dungeon, navigate zombies in a secret laboratory down there and encounter the unpaid intern.

The unpaid intern is the final boss who says, “You’re fired, oh wait, you don’t work here. I can’t let you go because DeBoss would kill me.”

“And then you have to fight the unpaid intern," he says. "If you win the battle, you’re tased and knocked down and wake up in the grave of Gerald Ford.”

Damron says he sees local-focused video game creation as placemaking.

“It’s a real place specifically expressed," he says. "And how I experience the space.”

Part of the system experienced in Damron’s game is the change in the city over time and lots of local history most people probably don’t know. For example, the CVS basement has ghosts who note that the CVS building used to be a curling rink.

Now that Damron’s made Chapter 1, he says he knows how to use the program better and is excited to use all the little tricks he learned for improvements in Chapter 2. He’s crowdsourcing ideas to put in the next game so that it’s a community effort.

Damron says that Chapter 2 will center around downtown Grand Rapids and be more relatable to everyone, expanding beyond his Eastown neighbors and friends.

“For example, there’s going to be a big ArtPrize chapter because everyone in Grand Rapids experiences ArtPrize to some degree," he says. "You’ll have to try to get to work through ArtPrize traffic maybe. I came up with this whole funny, convoluted thing with my friends."

"How interesting would it be if every town had it’s own video game that you could play?" asks Damron. "Not only would you read the tour guides before you go visit, but you’d play this game that all the locals made?”

The game can be bought on the GRpg website

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