This is it: your chance to work at a cat café! It’s an opportunity to tend to adorable (and probably standoffish) cats, serve unbelievably pretty kitty-themed foam art, and maybe, if you’re lucky, fall in love. At least, that’s the premise of Hustle Cat, a new visual novel project by Brooklyn-based Date Nighto. (Apologies for getting your hopes up if you really want to work in a cat café … I know I do.) In Hustle Cat, the player becomes Avery Grey, the new employee at Cat’s Paw, a cute—and possibly magical—cat café.
Among other projects, Date Nighto recently worked under the creative direction of webcomic artist HamletMachine on the sci-fi visual novel Starfighter: Eclipse, which is based on the artist’s popular adult BL/yaoi webcomic, a project that was successfully funded through Kickstarter.
Now the Date Nighto team is back on Kickstarter to fund Hustle Cat, which uses typical visual novel mechanics, but with important twists. A big one—apparent in the Kickstarter video introduction—is that players will be able to choose Avery’s gender presentation and pronouns (including gender-neutral pronouns) among other cosmetic differences, which is an incredible mechanical choice in an industry that so often relies on the gender binary. Throw in a number of beautiful and diverse romance options and this is a game for anyone, but especially LGBTQIA+ folks, to really enjoy.
In this two-part interview series, with a few weeks left to go on the campaign, Aphelion chats with the amazing team behind this adorable visual novel game, starting with producer Jo Fu. Fu is a person of many talents; writing, editing, software testing, project/people management, scheduling … the list goes on! Lucky for us, she brought her multifaceted skill set to work for Date Nighto, especially on a special game like Hustle Cat.
Aphelion: Date Nighto seems to be doing some really diverse projects—I mean, Starfighter, of course—especially concerning sexuality and gender, and the non-binary/gender diverse protag option in Hustle Cat. Can you speak a little to how that came about? Where did these values grow from?
Jo: Date Nighto is based in New York, and between all of us, we’ve spent years attending anime and comic book conventions: our group of friends are a cross-section of so many sexualities and cultures that we rarely see represented in video games and the other media we consume.
That’s why writers’ meetings for Date Nighto games tend to be very thoughtful! Representation isn’t something that we go out of our way to incorporate, it’s just the world that a lot of our creators live in, and unfortunately, one that not many game companies depict. Do we seek out creators who have different stories to tell? Sure! But it’s 100% because we as gamers want to see more diversity in the games we play.
Aphelion: Obviously it’s laid out on the Kickstarter page, but what are some ways money is going to help the project? Where will the money be going?
Jo: We made Date Nighto for and with a ton of cool artists who often get hurt in negotiations with comics and game publishers. Our highest priority is getting talented folks paid generously for their work.
Since we’re an indie company, we get to choose who we make games with, and you can tell from our library so far (Starfighter: Eclipse and We Know the Devil) that we want to highlight marginalized voices who we don’t often hear from in the games industry. The way I see it, supporting our games supports our mission: to show different kinds of stories by different kinds of people.
Aphelion: What are some crowdfunding perks you would especially like to draw attention to?
Jo: We got the incredible Audra Furuichi of nemu*nemu to do cat designs, so the sticker sheets are going to be incredibly cute. I’m also stoked for the tier where the team gets to livestream a game together. We all love visual novels, so playing some for our fans is a dream come true.
Aphelion: Where did the inspiration for Hustle Cat start? Who were the absolute geniuses who sat down and said, “gender non-binary cat café dating sim?” (Aside: Those people deserve a billion cookies.)
Jo: This was more of a question for Kasey, so I threw it back to her!
Aphelion: Kasey Van Hise is the lead writer of Hustle Cat, and she will be answering more questions about the creative process alongside art and creative director Lindsay “Ahvia” Woods in the next Q&A.
Kasey: The idea of including [non-binary] Avery did come up pretty much immediately in our talks about our protagonist character, and all of the decisions both Lindsay and I made in developing them have stemmed from that. I proposed not gendering Avery, but to be honest, it’s been something like two years since the initial concept for Hustle Cat, and the idea feels so natural now that I don’t remember all of my feelings at the time of their creation.
I’m hardly an expert at this, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to be one. All I know is I have a lot of wonderful, dear friends who are outside of the binary, and it’s a shame that I’ve never seen anyone like them in a game like this. I do know that I think we all examine gender in different ways, and celebrating that is important to me, so I wanted to reflect that in the game.
I don’t think this approach is the right solution for every story, since everybody approaches their characters and their narratives differently. I don’t even anticipate this is going to be the solution for every game I do in the future. But it felt like a clear choice for Hustle Cat, and I would never change that.