In the game, players lead a small sprite through landscapes of brushstrokes to solve physics- and color-based puzzles. The player navigates the inside of a pupil while discovering the masterworks of impressionist painter Claude Monet.
It’s not unusual to see video games created by one person. But Naoum’s creative process stands out in a crowd of idealistic, independent programmers.
“Painting paper is one-to-one, you put paint on a canvas. Even digitally drawing, it’s still a one-to-one scenario,” Naoum said. But coding is a different thing altogether, he said: One tweak can ripple invisibly across the entire work. “It was just so hard to get my head around it. It’s definitely like learning another language, because it has all this grammar and syntax.”
Naoum’s journey started when he played “Braid,” a 2008 breakout indie hit by Jonathan Blow that revitalized the games industry and ushered in a new generation of solo projects. For Naoum, a lightbulb went off: Video games can be made by a single person. “The Master’s Pupil,” which was released in late July, is a similar game in tone and gameplay, a 2D platformer a la “Super Mario Bros.” with a focus on solving physics puzzles.
To support himself financially, Naoum partnered with a friend to start a web design company. He provided the art for websites that his partner coded and created, while teaching himself to code and planning out his game. For years, he would end his day early at 4 p.m. to focus on his game, one hour out of the workday.
“In film, you can’t actually be a filmmaker all the time,” Naoum said, referring to the sprints of filming that last for only months throughout the year. “But I could be a game maker every day, for an hour a day.”
Naoum knew he wanted to tell the story of a human’s life span with an emotional punch. The inspiration for setting the game in someone’s eye came from Armenian physics teacher and photographer Surven Manvelyan, who took close-ups of the human eye. Naoum thought these looked like landscape photography, “twisting vines surrounding the deep abyss of the pupil.”
“I thought I could start at the edge of the iris, which represents the start of a person’s life and we’d move towards the pupil over the course of their life, and the pupil would be looking down into the abyss of death,” Naoum said. “I spent years wondering who this person would be.” He toyed with the idea of following the life of a World War II survivor growing old throughout the 20th century, but because of his relative youth, Naoum said it “seems insincere.”
Then Naoum thought back to his art studies and the life of Claude Monet, who suffered from cataracts. Monet’s deteriorating eyesight informed his later work, which would eventually influence more abstract styles of painting. Finally, Naoum found his muse. The title of his game has two meanings: It refers to Monet’s pupil, as well as Naoum himself, a pupil of Monet’s work.
Once he came to grips with programming code, he began to design levels. True to the handcrafted nature of the project, he would first design puzzles by laying out cue cards on his wall and floor before coding them into a computer.
“I then screenshot those, print them out and get them all organized in Photoshop, paint over them really precisely,” said Naoum, describing his process of fusing programming to paint. He used a film negative scanner to digitize his artwork at a high fidelity before transferring them back into the game.
Naoum wanted to incorporate Monet’s real-life paintings. In the final game, a player’s success is often rewarded by a dozen or so pieces scrolling together to create one of the impressionist master’s full works. It’s a storytelling moment, marking milestones in Monet’s life, and also a visual reward for clever players.
If the work sounds lonely, Naoum assures that it wasn’t. He shared office space with several other creatives who worked on their own projects and provided valuable feedback to his game.
Plus, the solo project offered a reprieve from client-driven design work. “It was this nice moment of not having to compromise with someone. In an artistic way, I was doing my own thing but I also wasn’t holding anyone back,” he said. “Working at my own pace was wonderful, this nice experience, like chipping away at giant marble.”
The project got real momentum once Naoum applied for and received a grant through Screen Australia, the country’s government body that supports productions in film, TV and games. He received 140,000 Australian dollars.
“When I first heard about it, I thought ‘That sounds great, but I’m just one guy chipping away at a project,’ but my girlfriend convinced me, ‘If you don’t get it, at least you tried. But if you do get it, it will be life-changing,’” he said. At that moment, he was already half a decade into the project and felt the passage of time wear on him.
“I was still taking a pay cut,” he said. “My friends were moving into their 30s, becoming successful, and I was still essentially working part-time and battling this process of making a game.”
The passage of time is not only a theme of the game, but it also helped Naoum gain viral attention. As part of the marketing strategy he created in applying for the grant, he outlined posting on TikTok and Instagram at a regular schedule, turning himself into an amateur social media content creator. On June 29, he posted a TikTok showcasing the passage of seven years with two selfies, one with short cropped hair and another this year with hair past his shoulders. The next clip shows the artistic product of those seven years. It stunned TikTok users and gained more than a million views in a day.
“Twisting my ankle running to Steam to add it to my wishlist!” one comment said. “7 years of hard work protect this guy at all costs,” said another.
Earlier this year, “The Master’s Pupil” was on the Steam wishlist of 150 people. By launch day, 20,000 people were lining up for the game.
“My friends have asked me if I would cash in on this, whether being an influencer would become a side hustle,” Naoum said. “I was like, ‘There’s no side hustle. It’s the game, man. That was the side hustle.’”
“The Master’s Pupil” launched as an indie success that already has a community of speedrunners competing to finish the game in the fastest time. It’s beyond what Naoum hoped to achieve, and now that he’s brushed up his programming chops, he wants to make another game. He already has one in his mind, and it’s just a matter of getting back to work after a break. He wants to create a game that offers a similar serene vibe in a 3D environment.
“I wanted to do film, but then I moved into gaming because it has all these things, art, music, animation, acting, writing and hundreds of other things it could be,” Naoum said. “At the end of the day, you get to play it. That’s what makes games different from everything else.”
He’s also very well wary of painting himself into a corner.
“I joke that the next one will be in Van Gogh’s ear.”
POST AUTHOR: Gene Park