If you ever wished a horror game would meld the gore of classic "splatter" games like Harvester with more mature storytelling, indie developer Remigiusz Michalski is the right man for the job. Following his bloody but emotionally-charged debut title Downfall back in 2009, Michalski's new horror game The Cat Lady is about to spread its grisly madness worldwide. With the game's launch fast approaching, we had a chat with the man behind the horrors that have much more to offer under the surface than just extreme violence.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Remi. Thanks a lot for doing this interview. To get things started, I would like you to introduce yourself to our readers, as not everyone may be familiar with your work at this point.
Remigiusz Michalski: Hi, my name's Remigiusz Michalski, but here in England everyone calls me Rem. I was born in Poland and lived there until I was about 20, but for the last ten years I've lived in the UK. During that time I've gone through all sorts of jobs and kept climbing up, starting from the bottom of the ladder... Well, I still haven't got very far on that ladder, mostly because all I really want to do is make games, and that takes a lot of time when you haven't got money and a team behind you... But I had my first success with Downfall in 2009, and now, as my second game The Cat Lady is about to be released, things will change around here at last...
Ingmar Böke: At a time when very few adventures qualify as unique, The Cat Lady tells a story we haven’t seen before in a game. Tell us about the story and the main character.
Rem: The Cat Lady tells the story of Susan Ashworth. The whole game is centred around her life, who she is and why has she ended up in such a bad place in her life – alone and bitter, on the verge of suicide, with only a bunch of homeless cats from the neighbourhood to keep her company, coming up to her apartment whenever she plays the piano. Susan’s world, as perceived by her, is an ugly, horrible place to be – it appears to be broken down, decayed, ruined… and it’s populated by cold, hostile people trying to convince her there is no beauty or happiness to ever be found. But perhaps there is still hope? She holds on to that thought, trying to set her life back on track against all odds, when everything and everyone seems to be against her. There’s got to be someone she can trust. Even if it’s just one person – one person in a world full of liars, traitors and murderers…
Ingmar: The Cat Lady uses a completely different interface than Downfall. How are you using the new interface to create an even more immersive experience?
Rem: Like Downfall, The Cat Lady is still very much an adventure game, but all controls are moved onto the keyboard, the camera set to a side-scrolling view and all annoying pixel-hunting eliminated. You can only walk left or right, like in a platformer, and when you walk onto a hotspot its name is displayed on the screen right above it.
How is this beneficial for the game? First of all, the whole game was built around this interface. The gameplay mechanics and puzzles are very much connected, and when you actually push down a button to walk, like you do in third-person action games, it feels more like you’re actually there, like every step you make is a result of your direct input. It’s a much more immersive system and I believe it’s perfect for a horror game, where there are surprises waiting for you behind every corner.
Finally, it’s an ideal game to play on a laptop – unless you’ve got a mouse, touchpad controls can be a real pain in a point-and-click adventure game. The Cat Lady can be pretty much played with one hand, while you’re holding a cigarette or a mug of coffee in the other. Just got to warn you: Some scenes will really make you jump in your seat. Don’t get scalded!
Ingmar: It seems like The Cat Lady will be quite refreshing when it comes to its game mechanics.
Rem: Well, I think it is refreshing and I hope players will like it too. Watching YouTube playthrough videos of the demo, it seems the controls are easy enough to understand and become quite natural after a couple of minutes. The best thing about this interface is that it enables me to put in a lot of these region-triggered events that happen when you walk into certain areas. That can obviously be done in a traditional point-and-click interface, but it just doesn't have the same impact.
I wanted to make sure that things move from dialogues to puzzle solving sections and to action sequences constantly. There's one or two scenes that could be only described as Quick Time Events, but they're there mostly to surprise players and not to test their fingers. Also, every chapter in the game has its own unique identity. There are more than enough different locations and sudden shifts in the narrative to keep things exciting...
But most of all, I think I just wanted to do something different, you know? A little experiment. I played this game called Killer 7 a few years ago (which I managed to find in a tiny game shop at the end of town after a long search) and I was really excited to try it, because I'd always read so many good things about it, and how its interface was refreshingly new and weird... but when I finally played it, I hated it. So, these experiments can really backfire badly in some cases, and it's a risk that some people might feel like that about The Cat Lady's interface... but it can also prove successful and hopefully it's a risk worth taking. I certainly like it, and so far players' reactions have been largely positive.
Ingmar: What other new features have you added since the last game?
Rem: I'm really proud of the parallax effect and how much depth it adds to the visuals. Then the blur effects, and how all the cut-scenes run on the in-game engine and are integrated in the game, in a similar way to the Uncharted series, for example (however far-fetched that might sound). I was never a fan of pre-rendered cut-scenes in some adventure games... so I tried to avoid that kind of direction myself.
Ingmar: You’re using a very different visual style than last time. Tell us about the style you used in Downfall vs. the style you’re using in The Cat Lady, and why you felt it was necessary to give the new game a different look.
Rem: Oh, I definitely wouldn't want to make the same-looking game every time. That's the best thing about creating games! Being able to reinvent yourself and make something new every time you start a project! For me, these new ideas for the visual side of the game come mostly from experimenting with new techniques.
Downfall was all hand-drawn and I enjoyed doing those drawings a lot. But then, well, this is gonna sound silly, but... one day I lost my favourite pencil. That's the truth! And without it, I just lost interest in pencil sketches altogether. That was a good opportunity for me to learn new things, and soon I discovered that using 3D software for rendering backgrounds and character animation wasn't as complicated as I used to think. And it is so much fun too! To be honest, I much prefer this now, and I think it looks so much better.
The Cat Lady runs in a higher resolution, too. While not super-high by blockbuster game standards by any means, it's – correct me if I'm wrong – the first commercial AGS game to run at 800x600, and technically that brought its challenges with it as well. But the style of the game, the mixture of rendering, 2D art and photography – I think it looks good. I'm no Square Enix when it comes to rendering of course, but I think I managed to give the game a very dark, individual and polished look. Wait… I was wrong. Just remembered another high resolution AGS game: The Journey Down… So, anyway… Now there are two!Continued on the next page...