One of my favorite things about watching Let’s Players is discovering new games to play, especially indie games that have something new or unique to offer, either in its aesthetic or its narrative. When Cry began playing The Cat Lady, a point-and-click horror adventure game, I learned that Rem Michalski offered both in his game. I was very fortunate to be able to pick his brain in this interview, and trust me, he has plenty of personal insights and stories to share.
Thanks for allowing me to interview you! Many game developers come from various walks of life. May you introduce yourself and how you eventually ended up making games? Did you have experience in the industry, learned at a game design or art school, were you self-taught…?
I’m a bit of a nobody. Never went to any game design schools, never worked in this industry at all. What I do, I do because I love games and I know I can learn anything- step by step; if I get stuck, I can always Google it up, right? ;)
In real life I’m an auxiliary nurse working in a hospital in Exeter. I’ve done care work for many years now- I made my first game almost entirely at work! Back then I worked in the old people’s home and things were much more relaxed. I couldn’t really do that now.
I have a three year old son and a wife, who’s also a nurse, and we live in an old, rented apartment, a bit like Susan Ashworth. And while my games are very dark, depressing and violent, I’m not like that at all. Maybe that’s because I’ve always had to be there for other people, you know? To sort of drag them out of whatever mess they’ve been in. Just thought I’d mention that in case someone assumed that the “creep making these fucked up, crazy games” lives in a coffin, inside an old tomb, underground somewhere… ;)
How would you describe The Cat Lady, for those who haven’t had the chance to play the game yet?
The Cat Lady is often advertised as a gruesome horror game and I’ve noticed a lot of people are approaching it expecting jumpscares and buckets of blood. And while it is a horror game at the core (and there is blood in it, sometimes quite a lot!) it’s not the kind we see very often in games. There’s no monsters here, no shooting and for the most part no paranormal or supernatural stuff. But just like in real life, it’s not the dead but the living we should be afraid of- strangers suddenly barging into our homes to torture and murder us, backstabbing liars, derailed psychopaths… The dead can’t hurt us. There are no monsters. – Except us.
I guess what I should’ve said is this: The Cat Lady is a story about a middle-aged woman who can’t die until she takes the lives of five people known as Parasites. The boundaries will be broken and some things that will happen would never have normally taken place in a video game… But this isn’t your usual video game. It will challenge every expectation you might have from games as a whole. It’s been an experiment for me, and if reviews and scores The Cat Lady has been getting are anything to go by- it worked pretty well.
How long have you worked on The Cat Lady? What were the game’s origins and inspirations?
It’s taken more than three years! It wouldn’t have been that long if it wasn’t for all the other things that happened during that time- becoming a father, mostly, family business and my full-time job at the hospital and… playing games, of course! I’ve always been a hardcore gamer at heart and many of my inspirations come straight from playing other people’s games but that takes a lot of time too- and with my son around I could only play at night… which was also the only time I could work on The Cat Lady. So in a way, I had to often refuse myself the pleasure of playing for fun and focus on what I needed to do, which was very rewarding as well… but sometimes it would take A LOT of coffee just to stay awake. Looking back now, I can only say: time well spent! It was definitely worth pushing myself to finish a project many people thought would never see its release.
What I liked the most about the story was how it portrayed sensitive themes like depression, suicide, and coping in a very mature manner. Despite having the conflict externalized in the actual gameplay, Susan Ashworth’s growth speaks for itself, rather than having her “physically tackle her inner demons” to overcome them. How did you go about writing the story?
The whole game has been an extremely “organic” product, you see. I’m not sure how these things work in bigger studios, but I assume some guy writes the story, then another one makes the graphics, animations etc. And since I worked on The Cat Lady on my own until the very final stage when Mark Lovegrove stepped in to help with the voice acting and publishing, I made the entire game one step at a time and wouldn’t move on until the part I was at was complete- all graphics imported, sound and music added, all dialogues featuring in that scene written… I didn’t know what would be waiting for Susan Ashworth behind every new corner and how her story would progress, let alone end! So in a way, it was an adventure for me too- and it was my own curiosity that had driven me to make this game happen.
That all the stuff actually made sense in the end is a miracle! I had a general idea of what I was trying to achieve and I followed it, quite blindly, trying to trust my own instincts. And yeah, it kinda worked.
What do you think it takes to write a good story? Can good storytelling skills be developed?
I always thought it’s got to be something that’s close to your heart, something you care about. But I’m probably not the best person to answer this- I’m not really a professional writer. I make stuff up and keep my fingers crossed that it’ll work! English isn’t actually my first language either.
Writing a story and “telling” a story in a game are two different things, though. The latter involves all aspects of game design, including visual and audio, as well as the spoken word. There are times when you can explain better what happens with the right sound effect rather than if it was shown to the player. You have to listen to your gut, follow your instincts. And yeah, as everything else, you learn on the job. The more you do it, the better you get at getting it right!
The voice acting performances were very natural, especially the chemistry between Susan (Lynsey Frost) and Mitzi (Brittany Williams). How did you find and direct your voice talents? How long was the process of recording the dialogue for the entire game?
When I signed up a publishing deal with Screen7 me and Mark Lovegrove agreed that he would take care of voice acting for the game. In the end it was a bit of a joint effort, as I managed to find some as well- I’m most proud of my personal idol David Firth making celebrity guest appearance and Jesse Gunn, a friend and author of most of the songs used in the game. None of us had any money to pay for it, so we had to find people who’d be willing to do it for free or- for some of the main roles- get paid when the game’s out. Not an easy task… but not impossible either! It took nearly 6 months to get all parts covered and recorded. There’s a lot of speech in The Cat Lady- Susan herself has over 4000 lines! The problem with relying on people working for free is that sometimes they make a lot of promises but never actually deliver… So at some point you have to make a decision to give up on them and start looking for a replacement. But there are also some absolutely wonderful, extremely talented individuals who are happy to help just because they like the idea of what you’re doing or want to try something different, and we were really lucky to find some of them! Lynsey Frost is one such example- first time voicing a videogame character she’s done a splendid job, delivering each line of speech recorded as many as 5-10 times, leaving for me to choose which version fitted the scene best. It was a lot of work but also extremely satisfying to listen to it all, edit it and finally hear Susan Ashworth speak- and during those three years of game’s development Lynsey’s was pretty much exact same voice I imagined for my Susan!
What was the most challenging aspect of working on The Cat Lady?
Two things spring to mind, really- time and technical problems. Time- because this being my hobby rather than a job I had to find ways to incorporate it into my everyday life, which with the arrival of my son had become extremely hectic. And technical problems… well, you can probably imagine. At some point my PC decided to die on me and only by pure miracle I managed to save my hard drive’s contents. Then, out of the blue, the game’s interface would stop working as soon as the number of rooms went above a hundred… That one took me a good while to fix and for a minute there I almost lost hope… But then I found what went wrong and fixed the damn thing! It felt… really great! I felt… like a surgeon coming out of an operating theatre after just removing somebody’s cancer!
What was your favorite part about working on The Cat Lady?
It was probably hearing the characters I’ve written speak. It made me realize that I CAN write. That I’m not some insane guy making these crazy stories up, thinking that people will get what I’m talking about- as soon as I heard the first lines of the intro I knew there and then that it does make sense and in its own unusual way it’s actually pretty good! ;)
Creating something out of nothing- that’s what makes games so fascinating for me. I can think up whole worlds of people and places, make them happen, and then share it with the world. It’s an almost God-like process. It makes you feel powerful, yet humbled at the same time.
What’s something you feel most players miss regarding the game that you’d like to share with us? It can be an easter egg or even a little behind-the-scenes story!
There’s one thing I noticed watching The Cat Lady’s Let’s Play videos on YouTube that really leads me to believe the game is actually… haunted, in some way?… I’ll go into more detail but please be warned of spoilers! ;)
So… It’s happening in chapter 4. Susan’s trapped in the Pest Control guy’s house, she cuts through the kitchen- most players are clearly absorbed with a puzzle they’ve just figured out a solution for at that point- when suddenly Pest’s wife appears out of nowhere, walks right into Susan and stabs her to death.
I did NOT script that.
It’s great to see this wonderful game making the rounds, especially with the game being on the Steam Greenlight now after being released last year and the signal boost it’s getting from the current popularity of Let’s Plays! With so many independent game developers out there who want their games played, from your experience and in your opinion, what’s the best way for developers to get their games exposure and eventually published?
The thing about Steam Greenlight is… well, everyone wants to be on Steam. For one reason or another it’s a gaming Mecca, pretty much the only way to sell any meaningful numbers of copies. And I love it myself- it’s quick and easy to use, and once you’ve registered an account you don’t have to ever bother making accounts on any of the other portals because… all important games are on Steam, right? Yeah, well- not quite so. The Greenlight process is tough. Fair- but tough. And without lots of luck, a minor miracle or substantial financial backing it’s nearly impossible to get enough votes, because we’re talking about thousands, thousands of people having to come across your game and press the “yes” button on that one website.
I think so far we fall under the “lots of luck” category- even though we’re not quite there yet, The Cat Lady has been played by a LOT of YouTubers, with accumulated number of views reaching something close to 2 million, which is absolutely awesome! I wasn’t even aware of people making those “Let’s Play” videos until I realized there were so many of TCL, and new ones coming up every day. While it’s not technically making the game financially succesful, it does generate plenty of interest and spreads the word about the Greenlight. When Cry (one of the most popular YouTubers) started episode 8 of his LP with a short trailer I made especially to promote TCL on Steam Greenlight, the game got over five thousand votes in one night!
I like watching these things myself, to be honest. There’s probably no greater reward for a developer to watch people react to something they’ve done in this way. I see a lot of players record the game with commentary just for fun- even if they have just two or three subscribers they still do it because… TCL is clearly suited for it! As a matter of fact, I intend to make my next game even more YouTube friendly. Why? -Because there’s only so many times you can watch people play Slender!
What are some tips or advice you would want to give to aspiring game developers? What does a game developer especially need to become one?
I’ve been asked about that before and I always say: you have to love games. It doesn’t matter what your favourite genre is and whether you have a degree in science or art or whatever- if you love games and you’re ready to sacrifice a lot of your free time to do this, you should give it a try. Because the feeling of accomplishement it will give you can not be compared to anything else! I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life, but nothing really compares to this! (and you get to do interviews, like this one! ;) )
Thank you so much for your time!