If you love a good puzzle game to pass the time that also happens to include a colourful cast of funny little felines, then Nekograms will be the game for you. Nekograms is a mobile puzzle game and the first game fully developed and independently published by the lovely folks over at the Hungry Sky studio, a Perth-based games studio. The game puts you in charge of getting some adorable kitties to sleep by sliding pillows under them in the right amount of moves. I got the chance to talk to director Nick Lowe, art director Lauren Fletcher, and audio director Ben Hammersley about their new kitty game and how it came to be.
What’s Nekograms all about?
Nick: Well Nekograms is just a puzzle game, but adorable. I think that was our key thing. I like puzzle games and I wanted to make something, but lots of puzzle games that I like just look like black and white squares and numbers all over the place. And that’s where Lauren came in with adorable cats and then Ben came in with adorable music and together we formed Nekograms.
Lauren: The name Nekograms is neko for cat, obviously in Japanese, and then nonograms, which is what the puzzles are based off. So we kind of like mashed those two together.
I’m also a big puzzle game fan, my go-to game on my phone is like this huge traditional nonogram puzzle game.
Lauren: I guess it’s a more visual version of that because if you play Nonograms like Picross or Sudoku or something, you have the numbers at the top and the side and you’ve gotta try and figure out where those numbers align. That’s basically how Nekograms works, like you’ve got the cushions that move up and down and the cats that move left and right. You’re just trying to like move around those blocks, I guess, that we’ve turned into cats and cushions.
What went into the decision making around the game mechanics and the aesthetics of the game?
Nick: So we mentioned it comes from Nonograms, and I realised that when you try to lay that out, it takes up a lot of space, having all the numbers go off to the top and the bottom and you end up having just a little bit of space for the actual grid. So I thought about changing it so that we removed the numbers and then you just put all the things on the grid so that you can slide them around. The first version of it actually had like, you moved little power strips across to little light bulbs and each light bulb needs to get plugged into a power strip and then it lights up. And so the challenge was to get all the lights to turn on, but that wasn’t as appealing aesthetically even though it worked mechanically. I don’t know exactly how we arrived at cats. I mean, why not cats? Everybody loves cats.
Lauren: I think you came up with the idea for cats because when we first made the game, we did it for the Perth Games Festival and we were really into watching Amnesia Fortnight by Double Fine and how they do a two week game jam in their studios. We were like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do a game jam for like a week or something before Perth Games Festival’. And Nick pulled out this idea for what was Nekograms mechanically and I agreed that light bulbs are butts and cats are way better [laughs]. They’re just more attractive as characters, you can put silly hats on them, you know? I think people are really drawn to that.
Nick: Yeah. I feel like the question for maybe every other game out there is why not cats? I mean, so that should be the default.
When a cat isn’t in a game, you should be wondering where the cat is.
Lauren: There’s that website and it’s like, can you pat the dog in the video game? There should be one where it’s like where’s the cat in the game.
Oh, I started playing Hades recently and a big thing for me was seeing the three-headed dog and being like, ‘Can I pet this dog?’ and you go up to it and it gives you the option to pet. I’m like, okay, I understand why this won game of the year. It’s the best game.
Nick: Yeah, my goodness. Three heads to pat.
The thing is you can only pet one because the other two are a bit moody. It’s good because, you know, some dogs like to be pet and other dogs don’t and they did that with one body and three heads. I think it’s really impressive.
Nick: They’re moody because they never get pet.
Of course. Back on track, there are so many cats that you come across in the game, so how did you approach making them all so unique?
Lauren: The first version of Nekograms we did only had one cat in it, which was the logo cat called Peach Fuzz. She doesn’t actually have a specific breed. I kind of just designed her based on the colour palette in that. Then later on we were like, ‘Oh, we absolutely need to add in more cats’ because people wanna see their cat breed in the game. Like they wanna be like, ‘That’s my cat, but with a slice of bread on its face!’ or something. So I learned a lot about cat breeds and I did a lot of research into what their key features were, what colour eyes they have, things like that.
When I started like building them, there’s kind of like templates for each body type up of cat, because you’ve got like the really small sphinx cats, and then there’s the regular-sized cat, which Peach falls under, then it goes up on a scale from there. I think the biggest cat is like Bean who is the Maine Coon. So yeah, we just kind of fit them into those templates and change the colour palettes. I spend a bit of time trying to get all the gradients right and everything so that the colours would look nice. It’s not mentioned in the game, but they all do have silly names. Like I just went to the supermarket and picked up random objects and named them after those things. So they all have very silly names like Peach Fuzz and Socks and Schrödinger and stuff like that.
As they should, the best cat names are ones that are really dumb or a human name.
Lauren: Like Nick’s cats.
Nick: Yeah. I’ve got three cats. Bruce, Peg Leg Pete, as he is missing a leg, and Albert. Human names are the best names.
Really good names. The whole game is of course an absolute treat, but the music really stands out and sits in the background in a perfect video game balance. What went into the composition of the soundtrack?
Ben: So I started out with a few goals in mind. I knew the music had to be easy to listen to because people would be listening to the tracks for quite a time, especially if they get stuck on one of the puzzles and it takes them a bit to complete it. So it needed to be easy listening. I think the main goal was just to capture the cute and playful energy of cats, because they’re almost like these silent bundles of joy, they’re always ready for playing around, and can explode at any minute. So with the music I wanted to infuse it with a bit of that energy. I was listening to one of the tracks just before this interview and yeah, I think it does capture that energy.
We’ve gotten a few good points of feedback with people keen for an OST to be released so they can listen to the music when they can’t play Nekograms for whatever reason, so we’re gonna look into that. There were a few nights where I followed my own cat around with a microphone recording his purrs and meows, and some of those were put into the game. I think he was like, ‘What are you doing? I’m just being a cat here, get that microphone outta my face’. So yeah, that’s kind of what went into the music and there’s five original tracks including the credits track for the game and there’s be more to be released as the game expands.
On the topic of cats actually, surprisingly enough, talking about this game. I know that you developed this one for presentation at the Internet Cat Video Festival in 2016 and it’s pretty exciting that it’s making its way to public this year. This is a bit of a weird question, but wholly important I feel, how have the cats in your life and cats in general played an important role in the creation of this game?
Lauren: I don’t own a cat myself, unfortunately, but I have enough friends that own cats that I can bask in their existence. And there’s a neighbourhood cat that lives down the road from me. I just call him Big Boy. Surprisingly, after every difficult day of working on Nekograms that I’ve been walking home, I’ve run into him. And he always comes up to me with a big, low-pitch ‘brrr’ and headbutts me and… Oh man, they’re just so good at comforting you. So they’re very sweet.
Nick: I’ve got three cats and I think that the things I learned from them are like, they just don’t give a dang. They just do whatever they want. They need attention every day, I mean, at the least you’ve gotta feed them. And I think that game devs feel a lot like that, particularly indie game devs where even though it’s been so long that we’ve been in development, we just gotta keep at it. Cats always feel like they’re new, even though they’re getting old and they’re around for so long, it’s like they’re forever kittens. I guess the last one is just pain tolerance. Particularly my three-legged cat. He can’t retract his claws properly because he has to use them to move around. And so if he needs to get up on anything, it’s usually via me. So I could deal with this and anything that comes up, like we could make it. They’re my challenges and I guess for Ben, I know Ben is allergic to cats.
Ben: Yeah, that’s been interesting. With my cat, Oscar who I used as a recording buddy, there’d be times where I would just cuddle him greatly and then have to have a shower immediately before I broke into a coughing and sneezing fit.
Seems like a gift (you have a cat) and a curse (you are allergic to the cat) situation. Last but not least, while you guys have worked with clients in the past and worked in the AR/VR world, this is going to be your first self-published game. So how are you guys feeling about it?
Lauren: It’s been very rewarding. It’s very different working on your own projects to working on client work. Because this is our first published game, I’m just really excited to see how it goes and to just learn from the process. A lot of the things that we’ve done before gave us the skills to sort of transfer to like making this, but it’s had a lot of unique challenges because it is different. It’s been a learning process and I’ll just be happy to see it released and people enjoying it. I’m just really excited for that.
Nick: So good. Lauren and I have just been constantly excited for the last few months. It takes a toll on our little hearts. I think my favourite moments are when we’re in the office and we’ve gotta build and we’re checking something like, ‘Oh, we should change this’. And then we kind of look at each other and go, ‘Yeah, we could just change it’. We don’t need to talk anyone. We don’t need like better approval and write up a big thing. We’ll just be like, ‘I changed it’. Being able to just make it however we wanted to was so good.
I was lucky enough to get a beta version of Nekograms and I have been playing it non-stop. It’s the perfect little game to play in between other things, it’s entertaining but gets pretty challenging the further you go into it. Nekograms will be releasing on December 16th for iOS and Android devices.