Project Recap: Urbana- A Video Game Love Story

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Finished my second custom storybook! Crazy. I made this for a super sweet girl named Tiffany for her soon-to-be-husband Mike’s wedding gift. Tiffany is actually a long-time supporter of mine (from buying prints in the shop to custom drawings for her friend’s wedding), and after this process I feel like we’re friends even though we’ve never met in person 🙂

During the initial brainstorming phase, it came out that Mike is a big video game aficionado. I grew up watching my brother play video games (and sometimes I’d get to play lol) so it’s a huge nostalgic genre for me. J and I also bond over well-designed modern video games (Journey, Ori and the Blind Forest) so it’s still a big inspiration source for me today.

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Journey is a beautiful video game made by That Game Company.

I proposed telling their relationship story through videogame tropes, complete with a character builder, fight scene, evil villain, everything. Might sound strange to many people, but thankfully Tiffany was totally on board. I love working with people who trust me 😀

I definitely took my drawing skills to their current max (still working hard at it, and probably always will be), and it was rewarding to see the progress. It was a TON of work but I had a blast writing, illustrating and designing it. I guess that’s how work should be, in my ideal world 🙂 So here’s the story and all the little hidden tidbits. I hope you like it!

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here’s a slideshow of the full book if you’re not interested in the details 🙂

A classic opening screen served as the title page, complete with a “start” and “continue” option. We used the typical Map Legend area for credits and dedication 🙂 Also, I love making up fictitious names for lands, animals, people.
Setting up the story and world! So Mike and Tiffany met in college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and I thought Urbana worked perfectly well as the name of a mystical land. I actually went through several versions of the forest and castle-city design, as I started it it off too much like the concept art I was seeing elsewhere. I had to take a step back and rework the designs to make it feel more “me.” Also, it makes me laugh how I made the EVIL DARK ENERGY rather er cute 😀
Dark Energy has grown up! This was my first time drawing something “dark and scary” and it was refreshing for me! I still wanted to keep it pretty, so it was a good challenge. Mike and Tiffany were born and grew up about 10 minutes from each other but didn’t meet until college, so there was a little shoutout to Chicago there 🙂
Mike is the main character of this story and we introduce him through a typical “character builder” page. All the little details reference something about him in real life, from the “rune decoder” to the “light sais” to his lore. The right page is a classic Zelda/Final Fantasy village scene, which I had so much fun designing. I made the houses look like actual Urbana-Champaign buildings, included their Alma Mater statue, and hid a Link and wizard in there 🙂 Their “how they met” story includes Xanga and AIM references, which is all too familiar to me! It was great how much of my own experience I could reference to make this book special for them.
Mike was Tiffany’s friend for a few years before they got together. At first he often helped Tiffany with her computer problems, which is why I set up the first “enemy fight scene” with a bug haha. “Pummel,” “Summon” and “Mithril Ore” are classic video game moves and items, and it was fun to weave them in with computer references. On the right page, I incorporated the idea of being cast into a friend zone. It might sounds harsh, but hey the struggle is real!
Here the hero’s journey really begins. I wanted to show that Mike wasn’t just doing everything for Tiffany. He was working hard to towards becoming his own person, and that’s one of the most important steps towards finding the right person for you. Designing this page to incorporate the struggle, hero’s journey, and hadouken build-up was fun 🙂
Mike and Tiffany both love Street Fighter and so I knew I wanted to incorporate the classic fight stage into the story. The perfect opportunity came up when other suitors came into the picture. The right page also references the point that girls aren’t just there to be rescued by some heroic guy. Rather a relationship is about developing a partnership and mutual respect. Good picture books need to have some good lessons hahah 🙂
Memory building time! Tiffany appreciates Mike’s sense of humor and they’ve bonded over their love for things like Hello Kitty haha. The dates on the right page correspond to some of their bigger relationship milestones. This page was probably the most like my typical style, but it took me a long time bc I kept trying to make it more complicated, and then it didn’t feel right. I find it’s good for me though, to be able to know I made something simpler because that’s how I wanted it to be, not because it’s all I could do.
This is a scene I had in mind from the very start. As I mentioned on Instagram, one moment Tiffany mentioned involved dreamcatchers. I thought the idea of floating dreamcatchers being like a difficult stage in a video game would be perfect to symbolize what a relationship has to go through to become stronger. Definitely inspired by Journey and the newer Super Mario Galaxy games here. But I had no reference images, so I looked at jellyfish to get the sense of movement I wanted. I am happy with how it turned out, I definitely couldn’t have drawn this a year ago.
Final stage… or is it? Here I finally got to do a little tribute to side-scroll games that I grew up with, mostly Super Mario Bros. There are little references to their actual engagement day hidden in there 🙂
Finally, the Dark Energy is defeated! But I believe there is no pure good and pure evil, so I didn’t want it to be “killed” or “destroyed.” Instead, it’s balancing nature comes back and it creates the new world our hero couple will explore after their union. Tiffany had said Mike balances her out, a yang to her yin, and I’m glad we could work that in to the end.
This was a rather last-minute add-on. I decided I wanted the previous page to be a full spread, so I needed one more page at the end. It ended up being the perfect space for Tiffany to write her own message to Mike, so I’m glad it worked out this way!

A Quick Peek in to Process

A lot of prep work goes into the storybook process, long before coloring even begins. Here are a few screenshots of the decks I’d put together for Tiffany to review the storyboard, text, and coloring. You’ll see even until the end there were some color tweaks, but overall it really stayed close to the original storyboard. It was often the details that took me forever to iron out!

In case you’re curious, I explain the general process from idea to words to storyboard to color on my site (toward the bottom) here.

Proud of that color transition tho 🙂

Some Final Thoughts

So that’s it! Thanks so much for reading. These stories really mean a lot to me. I remember maybe two years ago, before I was really illustrating, I told someone that a dream of mine would be to write and draw picture books. I said it in the way people talk about their pipe dreams that they think will never come true. Plus, at the time, I thought only children’s books were an option. I wasn’t sure if my style and taste would suit that. To this day, I did not know and do not know anyone who makes custom picture books for adults. It just kind of happened. Without me realizing it right away, I was working towards my dream.

I have a couple more of these in the works but I also am working on my own stories. I’m hoping to find time to focus on them next year. These custom books have definitely helped me solidify my process, style, and what I find important in a story. I can’t wait to do more.

So yeah, for those of you uncertain of what your true calling or passion is, or how you’ll ever get there, don’t worry about it so much (ok worry, but don’t let it stop you! To be fair I worry all the time but I try to let it be a motivator rather than a paralyzer). Just know it’s out there. Maybe it hasn’t been created yet, maybe YOU need to create it. You’ll never know how you’ll get to your dream stations in life. You just have to set out in the direction you think is best, and go for it with a smile on your face.

Cheers -MC




6 thoughts on “Project Recap: Urbana- A Video Game Love Story

  1. Dahhhhh! I teared up reading this post, Mimi!! I really do think we’re like friends even though we haven’t met in person yet! I’ve been following your work for so long and I can definitely see you getting better! Keep up the great work, Mimi!! You are truly amazing! Hope to one day meet you in person finally! 😊💜😄


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