By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online reviewed horror adventure PC game The Cat Lady in early 2013, describing it as “a life-affirming experience thickly coated in death that deserves to be received by as wide an audience as possible.” The game’s creator, Remigiusz Michalski, thinks the following interview is one of the best he’s ever written – after reading his incredibly detailed, frank and insightful answers, it’s hard to disagree. AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with auteur adventure game designer Remigiusz Michalski!
Hello Mr Michalski, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO!
Hi! It’s nice to be here!
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I like to be called Rem, since my name’s pretty much impossible to pronounce for anyone who’s not Polish. I was born there and spent my youth in a little town in the middle of nowhere… but for the last 11 years or so I’ve lived in England, hence the very British vibe of my games! As some might already know, I’m not a game developer full-time (as much as I’d like to be I’m not quite there yet). I make my games in the corner of my living room and work as an auxiliary nurse in a hospital in Exeter. It’s an o-kay job and I like making a difference to people’s lives… but its not “it”. One day, I will be known as the Stephen King of video games. It’s just gonna take a lot of work to get there first!
In many ways The Cat Lady is a much more personal – and even darker – adventure game than your first release, Downfall. Where did the idea for the game come from?
I’m not some dark, depressive individual myself, but I’ve come across these issues more often than I would’ve liked to, whether by contact with friends, relatives or my patients. Enough to understand the meaning and amplitude of what depression is and how it affects people. And seeing the reaction to these themes through forums and comments from players only confirmed what I feared – it’s pretty much everywhere. And it needed to be said – that even when some try to put labels on this kind of mental suffering and brush it away, there is nothing wrong with feeling that way. But I wanted to show that no matter what cards life deals us, there is always a way out, and it’s not suicide. There is always a reason to go on. And that if depression were to take on a human form, as in The Cat Lady, it would become both your best friend and your worst enemy…
How would you describe the game’s protagonist, Susan Ashworth?
Susan is just a person next door, the kind of neighbour we never pay much attention to because they keep to themselves. We all know people like that. We just assume they like their privacy and have their own set of friends they like to hang out with… but in fact, they have no one.
She’s very lonely, but she thinks she likes it like this. Or even thinks she deserves to be lonely. She made a mistake in her life and now she’s paying for it.
Susan is one of the most realistic female video game characters I have ever played – was it difficult writing a lot of the game from a female perspective?
I spend my life surrounded by women, it seems. I don’t have to tell you that being a male nurse means you’re in an environment dominated by women! Of course, I don’t really mind – and they say it’s good for them, as it apparently lightens up the atmosphere in an otherwise gossip-heavy workplace. This also means I might not be the kind of guy who’ll fix your car and watch a football game with you… but one thing – I never wanted to be that, and second, I have a different set of skills that doesn’t make me any less of a man.
But to answer your question (instead of desperately trying to defend my ego!;)) it does help me understand women. At least a bit, because I don’t think any man can REALLY understand women!
Also, I keep denying it again and again but… Susan Ashworth, The Cat Lady, has been to some degree inspired by someone real. Someone close to me. Someone I love the most in the whole world. Someone who hopefully never reads this… ‘cos if she does, I’m dead!
The character of Mitzi is introduced later in the game and contrasts beautifully with Susan – how would you describe their relationship?
It’s friendship in pure form! At least that was my intention – to show that it’s possible to find a true friend in this rotten world. It’s not easy (especially in Susan’s Parasite-filled world!) but at some point you have to make a decision to trust someone, to get out of your comfort zone and let a stranger into your life. I can’t say they’re opposites, because while they do have a different outlook on life and different interests, they also have a lot in common. The main thing about Mitzi is that she is willing to keep fighting for it, even when Susan pushes her away whenever their friendship becomes too much (being alone for 10 years has made her extremely cautious).
Also, Mitzi is a chance for Susan to meet her daughter, whose life ended tragically when she was just a baby. She’s a bit older then Zoe would’ve been but still, for a short time she’s able to live in the company of a young girl, the kind her daughter could have well turned out to be! And most importantly – she’s telling her it’s okay to let go. She’s setting her free, a bit like the ghost of Zoe would have probably done (were there such thing as ghosts, duh!)
And like a ghost, she’s gone – taken not by a silver moonlight mist, but by a fucking brain tumour… Still, that was a done deal from the start. Life comes with an expiry date and Mitzi’s was short but she made no secret of it.
Depression is a topic often avoided in films, books, music and video games. If it is raised, it’s usually in passing. How did you approach tackling such a difficult subject matter head-on?
I think it just happened. I don’t really plan my stories right from the start. I make some stuff up and as I go on I try to connect the dots. To be honest, when I made the first chapter I didn’t really know who the Queen Of Maggots was. She asks Susan about her identity, and the player is faced with all those different options – is she Death? The Devil? God? I had no idea myself!!! But as the story went on, it became clear that she is in fact a personification of Susan’s illness. It just made sense. I greatly rely on hunches, and I think so far I’ve been successful in following my gut. Just like Doctor X.
Throughout the course of the game, Susan seems to become empowered with a sense of purpose despite her crippling anxiety and depression – do you hope that the game will do the same for players who have had experience with similar feelings of hopelessness?
Indeed, and it’s already done just that! There is always a purpose in life – sometimes we just don’t see it. I can’t say I changed people’s lives with the story of Susan Ashworth, but… I do actually get a lot of emails about it. They usually start with: “I’m just like Susan. I’ve suffered from depression for many years and the way Susan feels is the way I feel every single day.” And to my absolute joy, they often end like this: “I’ve realized now that I do have a “Mitzi” in my life too, but I’ve been pushing her/him away all the time, thinking they wouldn’t understand. I think I’m going to give them a chance now.”
I love how, despite the terrifying events thrown at them, neither Susan nor Mitzi ever felt like a victim to me. Would you agree – and was this intentional?
It’s hard to say… Like I said earlier, I spend years so involved in a game but never really seeing it as a whole (because I don’t know how it will all end right up to the very last word I’ve written). Then I take a step back and see it for what it really is, and somehow it makes sense to me. The thing about feeling like a victim… I don’t think it was planned. It just happened. Maybe when you take charge of your life you’re never really a victim, even if bad stuff happens to you? Maybe you only become a victim when you give up and stop trying?…
Like Downfall, the game was made using the Adventure Game Studio engine. How has the engine improved in the intervening years between the release of the two games?
It improved a LOT. The old version I used for making Downfall relied on drop-down noob-friendly menus. AGS 3.2.1 is mostly script based and allowed much more freedom. Once I wrapped my head around it I really got to love it! I’m still no scripting genius and I guess I never will be, but if it wasn’t for certain graphical limitations and difficulty with porting, I’d honestly say I’d never need another program.
What made you decide to move away from the point-and-click controls of Downfall, to the keyboard controls of The Cat Lady? What do you think this control scheme adds to the gameplay and overall experience of the game?
I don’t really know… Maybe it’s because I loved old games like Another World and Flashback? And the first Maniac Mansion – when you think about it, it’s got that platformer-feel to it. But mostly, I wanted something different, something a bit more exciting. A game in which every single step you take can bring surprises – that just can’t be done in a point & click. As a matter of fact, I think point & clicks have become incredibly boring and predictable lately… They’re not the kind of games that will keep you glued to the monitor for hours. I wanted The Cat Lady to be exciting, to be unlike any other game you’ve ever played… And that had to be reflected by every aspect of it, from the control scheme and the graphical style, to the way characters talk and behave. And I did that not for the sake of being “different”, but because I’m tired myself of adventure games playing it safe. There’s still a lot that can be done within this genre and I think people are just afraid to experiment.
Unlike Downfall, The Cat Lady features full voice acting. How did you go about this process – I thought the acting was incredible and added a lot to the game. It was also nice – and creepy – to finally hear Joe Davis speak!
Voice acting was one of the few things I didn’t have a direct control over. It was my producer, Mark Lovegrove, who was in charge of finding the actors and he did a great job indeed! Of course, since we had no budget we had to rely on people willing to work for free or, for bigger roles, for minimal wage.
In the end I took on a lot of editing duties and loved every second of it! It also made me realize how hard it is to act for a video game and how many skilled individuals there are out there, waiting to be discovered! I knew I had to save the role of Joe Davis for someone very special, though… Someone who played Downfall and knew this character well… And my friend Jesse Gunn (also the musician and author of most of the songs used in the game) went for it, and did it so well I felt cold shivers in my spine when I opened the file and listened to it for the first time…
Lindsey Frost, as Susan, was without a doubt the star of the show and I’m obviously looking forward to working with her in the future. She brought her character to life. She gave Susan that special something. And – apparently – she freaked out her neighbours when recording the shouting parts. Honestly, what would you think if you heard “I’m gonna paint these walls with your blood. pal, and I’m gonna watch and smile!!!” coming from your upstairs neighbours? Well, she gave no fucks what they thought and I’m glad, because that’s exactly what Susan Ashworth would have done.
I really enjoyed the way you referenced Downfall throughout the game. Where do you see The Cat Lady sitting it terms of Downfall’s timeline of events?
The Downfall poster was my version of the “Ask me about Loom” t-shirt, that you might remember from that pirate game from many years ago. 😉 Joe Davis just “happened”, I guess. It kinda fit Susan’s world to put a familiar looney in her apartment building, since it was already filled with looney characters.
The way I see it, The Cat Lady takes place shortly before the events of Downfall. Joe’s already on the way to crazy-land, but he’s not completely insane just yet.
The music in the game is brilliant – both your brother Michal’s soundtrack and the licenced songs fit the mood of the game perfectly. How did you go about putting the musical elements of the game together?
I’m very lucky to have a talented brother like him! Even living so far away from each other we still have a great relationship and Michal happens to share my passion for games. He made most of the music based only on short descriptions I gave him and he did it for free. He says he wouldn’t make any music if it wasn’t for Downfall and The Cat Lady. He just needs a reason. A push. And he’s glad to be helping me! Authors of the licensed songs never asked for money either – it’s those kind of over-the-internet bonds that develop over the years that become really useful. In a way, I think we all inspire each other. And because suddenly two million people have heard their music they are able to sell more albums and promote themselves. This is how us indies work! It’s all friendship-based.
Which is your favourite ‘Parasite’ and why?
The Pest Control guy. Partly due to him being a part of the whole not-so-subtle Maniac Mansion reference, and partly because of David Firth who voiced him. I’ve been a huge fan of his for many years and I couldn’t believe my luck when he said: okay, I’ll do it. To those who aren’t familiar with who he is I’d advise you to immediately Google him up. You might miss sleep for weeks, but you will not regret it…
Were any sections of the game cut or not expanded upon as much as you would have liked?
Not really. I was able to do exactly what I wanted, the way I wanted. I hear every now and then that the fourth Parasite should have been given more backstory… But to me, it was crucial that he remained a secret. But who knows? Maybe some of the characters from The Cat Lady will make it into my next game, in the same fashion Joe Davis found his way into Susan’s world? It would be like seeing old friends in a different light, from a different perspective. That’s my favourite thing about making games – I create that world and I make the rules.
The game features several different endings – do you consider any particular one ‘canon’?
Yes. The one where Susan and Mitzi let Adam live, but a few months later Mitzi dies of cancer. Having watched (many) YouTube playthroughs I see this is the most popular one. It’s my favourite one, too.
The game also changes throughout the course of playing for each player in numerous albeit subtle ways – for example, at one point Susan recalls a sequence of events and the player can determine what happened. Do you think it’s better for players to replay The Cat Lady numerous times, or just play through once and take away their own unique set of memories?
The Cat Lady gives players some freedom of choice, but a lot of it is just the old smoke and mirrors trick. These choices may affect players’ perception of the story and Susan as a person, but they won’t always affect the turn of events or change the ending dramatically. It’s a bit like Heavy Rain in that way. I played it twice… and regretted it. It made me realise that most choices that I thought were crucial weren’t at all. Somehow it made the whole experience… worse. Maybe it’s just me – I hardly ever replay games. I like to come out with an experience but I don’t need to take the whole thing apart and see how it looks inside. Just like magic tricks – once you know how they work they lose their charm. That’s why magicians never reveal their secrets and that’s why I’m gonna say – no, play it once. A unique set of memories, how you put it, is the perfect way to describe how I want players to feel about The Cat Lady, too.
Although the ending I finished with perhaps wasn’t the happiest, I did feel that I had been true to myself with my decisions and the overall feeling I was left with as the final credits rolled was one of hope. Do you feel that your storytelling skills have matured since Downfall?
Definitely!!! Or at least – I hope so! I find it difficult to even look at Downfall these days, even though I know there are still plenty of people who like it a lot and because of The Cat Lady it’s been in the public eye again in the last few months. It’s actually being re-released by Screen 7 and Desura as we speak. I suppose once I’ve made my next game I’ll feel the same about TCL – it’ll feel somehow inferior, because I learn all the time… But only time can tell. Right now, I have a head full of ideas and I’m ready to let Susan Ashworth go. Ready to move on…
What’s next for you – would you like to create another adventure game set within the same universe as Downfall and The Cat Lady in the future?
Yes! I still need to persuade my wife that it’s okay (yeah, I know…) and find a new home for me, her and our son (we’re still a lower-class family living in a one bedroom flat) and… make sure I’m ready for another big commitment. A new great adventure. A challenge. Because once I start that thing there’s no coming back. Whatever it’ll turn out to be… yeah, I already know it will rock. Otherwise, what’s the point making it at all?
Thank you for your time Mr Michalski, I’m a huge fan of your work. The Cat Lady is one of the best adventure games I have played in a very long time and I can’t wait to see what you do next!
Thanks for letting me speak my mind!