The genre of cats: a chat with the team behind Copycat

Key art for Copycat

Last year, the team at EZIYODA were lucky enough to check out all of the indie cat games that were being showcased as part of PAX Aus. In a few short months, we’ll be back on the scene for PAX Aus 2023, and clawing our way through everything feline related!

As a special treat, I had the opportunity to speak with the team responsible for one of the winners of the
2023 PAX Aus Indie Showcase. Samantha Cable and Kostia Liakhov are the duo behind Spoonful of Wonder, and their entry, Copycat, will be showcased to the public for the first time at PAX Aus 2023.

Centred around a shelter cat and her journey of love, hardship and self-discovery, it promises to touch our hearts with its thoughtful narrative. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to get my paws on it as part of the
Aus Indie Showcase this October, but enough chittering on my end. Let’s dig in and find out what it’s all about!

TONY: To get us started, could you tell us a bit about yourselves, and your journey in game development?

SAM: Kostia and I are very new to the indie game scene but have deep roots in storytelling. Our background is in advertising where we worked as a creative team together — writing, crafting and filming commercials. Kostia was responsible for the visuals, and I was responsible for the words. Six years into this solid creative partnership, we pivoted out of advertising and into the world of animation.

KOSTIA: Sam received her Masters in Screenwriting, and I gained valuable experience as an art director, 3D animator, and motion graphic artist. Together we took the leap to work on the creative side of video games. Now we’ve been developing our debut game, Copycat’ for around two and a half years now. But what turned this passion project into a reality was the support from Screen Australia.

TONY: If you were to describe Copycat — I suppose the elevator pitch — what would you say it’s all about?

SAM: Copycat is a wholesome, heartfelt adventure game that follows the story of a cat who gets caught in an elaborate plan when a jealous stray copycat steals her place in the home. The game’s colourful visuals delight the senses while exploring dark emotional depths. 

It’s a game that people want to snuggle up with and get emotional about — in a good way. It’s a three-act, transformative narrative piece.

KOSTIA: Considering our background in marketing, animation and screenwriting, our goal is to bring advanced storytelling to the game. Our aim is to maintain the integrity of the narrative without excessive stretching. So it is an experience lasting around three to four hours at most.

TONY: I really love that the main character, Dawn, is a newly adopted shelter cat. That really resonated with me. It seems like a very deliberate choice, I would love to know the thought process behind it.

SAM: Dawn holds a special place in our hearts. Growing up, all my cats were from the shelter. So going to the RSPCA was a big part of my childhood. Our goal was to capture that special moment of bringing a cat home for the very first time and trying to build a relationship with a scared animal that doesn’t quite know its place in the world just yet.

Also, thematically, this is a story about loneliness. So we needed to find a protagonist that felt like the world was not on her side, and she had to go on a real journey to overcome obstacles. All animals deserve a second chance.

TONY: Obviously I don’t want to give away too much, but I’d love for you to speak on Dawn’s relationship with her new owner, Olive.

SAM: It’s beautiful. Dawn and Olive have to mend each other’s heart, because both their hearts are broken in some way. Dawn has never had kindness shown to her, she’s floated between many different homes, and ended up in the shelter a couple of times.

Olive’s backstory is that she’s had another cat that ran away, and she’s trying to replace that cat with one that looked very similar from the shelter (Dawn). She knows it’s not the same cat, but she hopes deep down that they can get along, and things will go back to the way they were.

Dawn decides how to react to Olive in Copycat
Spoonful of Wonder

TONY: I’ve noticed that there’s a few choice-based elements in the game. How will that influence gameplay?

KOSTIA: We choose to move forward with choice-based nodal design; similar to a forking narrative. As a tiny team of two, we don’t have the luxury of writing 20 different endings. We have to be very careful with our resources, with the scope of the project, to make sure we create something we eventually can deliver. Otherwise we will be stuck in this endless loop of revisions.

As a result, Copycat is evolving into a primarily narrative-driven linear journey. Choices may influence dialogue options, they may influence outcomes, and they may influence complexities of the scenes. But ultimately, we do have a pretty fixed ending.

SAM: It was also important that our character had agency. Dawn is in this world where she can’t control her choices, but the player can help her and guide her along the way.

TONY: Circling back to the fact that you’re a studio of two, could you speak to some of the advantages, and maybe some of the difficulties of that?

KOSTIA: Absolutely. I’ll start with the advantages. The fact that we’re a studio of two gives us a lot of flexibility and a lot of creative freedom. We’re not only partners in business, but we’re also partners in life — which makes this project very special to us.

SAM: Our primary challenge is learning how to do everything by ourselves. That can be everything from handling the legal and the accounting, to briefing the translators, to working out the specific code. We are able to divide and conquer quite a lot. We have many different plates spinning all at once. But it’s honestly such a privilege to be able to do what we do, because it means we can bring more joy and meaningful stories into the world.

Dawn tries to recall something in Copycat
Spoonful of Wonder

TONY: Could you tell us about some of the collaborators you’ve worked with for Copycat? I understand it will feature a full score by Daniel Bunting, as well storytelling from a robust cast of voice talent.

SAM: Dan Bunting is a brilliant composer who we’ve been working with for about a year and a half. He’s doing a complete original score for Copycat, and we feel so humbled to work with him.

KOSTIA: It’s three hours of beautiful music. Even though this is his first time writing music for a video game, he’s been really hands-on. Instead of just handing us WAV files to put in the game, he got into it. He’s even gotten into a bit of coding, he’s doing FMOD and implementation, making the music modular with different events and how it reacts to the gameplay. It’s going to be a living, breathing thing of its own, so we’re really excited to work with him.

We’ve also collaborated with a few friends and family members, helping us bring the game to life in different languages. Again, as a lower budget game, we’re trying to find people to help us first from our friendship and family groups. We’re currently having the game translated to Spanish, German, Ukrainian and Russian, and we’re also looking for more people to jump on-board and help us with other languages, so that’s been a process.

We have a few people helping us on a contract basis, in terms of coding that may be a bit too advanced for us to understand, and little things like that. And we have a beautiful cast of voice actors, obviously, they’ve been absolute legends. Spending three days in Sydney recording in the studio has been super fun. We’re so lucky to have them.

TONY: Are there any real-life pets that might be making cameos in-game?

SAM: Oh yes, there’s so many! Flame, our family cat, is the voiceover for about 80% of the game.

KOSTIA: Last Christmas break, when we were with the family, we were stalking the poor cat for three days with a microphone, like, “Please meow! Please meow!”.

We have a few friends from Twitter and a few streamers that kindly offered us their help in terms of cat sounds. We have two people sending us cat sounds to use in the game. 

SAM: From a visual perspective, we also have six colour variations of the cat’s fur for the player to choose from. They were designed to represent the cats we’ve loved in the past, and the cats that are present in our lives at the moment.

KOSTIA: Our composer Dan has a cat, who’s been more of an inspiration for him. She’s been sitting there, overseeing his work.

SAM: Her name is Valeria, and she’s a very important part of the musical process. She will definitely get a shoutout. We’ll also have some cats at the end of the credits that have been part of the creative process, and have helped us.

Dawn sits outside in Copycat
Spoonful of Wonder

T: What was it like to learn that you had been selected as a winner of the 2023 PAX Aus Indie Showcase?

SAM: It was so humbling and uplifting. It made us feel like we were actually making something worthwhile which people could connect with and enjoy. 

KOSTIA: We’re really excited to have it played in public. So far, I think the demo has been seen by a maximum of 20 people, and that’s mostly our wonderful friends, or social networks and streamers who helped us play-test the demo. This is going to be the first time we show it in public, so we’re a little bit nervous but super excited. It’ll be our first time in a big exhibition as well.

SAM: Something else that’s really sweet is, we know that we are representing narrative-driven stories, so we want to do a really good job. We know the bar for narrative-driven stories is really high, and we just hope we do it justice.

And of course, PAX Aus is such an amazing event, we’re a bit starstruck, to be honest.

TONY: When people experience Copycat firsthand at PAX Aus, what are you hoping their takeaway will be?

SAM: We want them to turn to their partner, their friend, or their animal, and just give them a big hug!

KOSTIA: On a macro level, we really want people to see that complex and exciting narratives are possible in video games. We all know they are, and there’s been multiple examples, but we want to try to shift more public perception, to show that video games are not just a bunch of violent shooting and robbing games, but they have beauty, they have storytelling.

SAM: They have a soul.

KOSTIA: They’re pretty much on the level, or about the level of film, because they’re also interactive.

Dawn walks the streets in Copycat
Spoonful of Wonder

TONY: Gonna put you on the spot here! We’re all about cats here at EZIYODA, so what are some of your favourite cat games?

SAM: Obviously, the amazing ‘Stray’!

KOSTIA: We have been compared to it a lot. We think Stray’s very important, because it opened up this gateway for players to enjoy cat games. It’s almost created its own genre. Which is really cool! There’s just such a huge variety. Last week on Steam, there was a feline sale happening because of International Cat Day, and it was so great to scroll through so many wonderful cat games.

We also really enjoyed our time with the demo of Little Kitty, Big City.  It’s so vibrant and cosy and wholesome.

SAM: We also really loved playing Night in the Woods, too. And are looking forward to the other game from the same team, Revenant Hill.

SAM: Cats are beautiful vessels to tell stories, because they help people connect. We feel very excited that there’s so many players jumping on the cat game genre, and hope to create more beautiful animal projects together down the track.

I would like to thank Sam and Kostia so much for taking the time to speak with me, and to Rachel and Chris of the Rocket Comms team for facilitating this discussion.

I highly recommend you add it to your Steam wishlist for further updates, and don’t forget to follow Copycat on Twitter or TikTok too! If you’re in Melbourne this October, you won’t want to miss out on PAX Aus 2023 for Copycat and countless other amazing games, so be sure to grab your passes now!

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