From the dangerous depths of space (with plenty of sexy dude-on-dude lovin’) to behind the counter of an adorable cat café, Brooklyn-based Date Nighto takes their players places! The company was founded in 2013 by Conrad Kreyling and Lindsay “Ahvia” Woods. Their goal was to “allow independent creators to deliver high-quality, Japanese-style visual novels to a Western audience.” The duo have built up a small roster of artists and developers who have contributed to projects like Starfighter: Eclipse (their sci-fi visual novel with the aforementioned dude-on-dude lovin’) and We Know the Devil, described as a “surreal summer camp dystopia.”
Now they’re working on Hustle Cat, a visual novel project where the player starts as a new employee at the aforementioned adorable cat café. Kreyling serves as technical lead, and they’re joined once again by producer Jo Fu (featured in a previous Q&A) with Woods as art and creative director. Woods got her start by “drawing Final Fantasy VII fanart in the back of math class” before going to the School of Visual Arts in NYC for animation.
Team member Kasey Van Hise, who worked on Starfighter: Eclipse as a member of the QA team, came on to Hustle Cat as lead writer. “I started as a wee little cat lover down in Southern NJ,” Van Hise says, “where the first convention I ever went to was a cat show, back when they had those at the Garden State Racetrack.” She studied cartooning at the School of Visual Arts and started a comic called Winters in Lavelle, a five-year project she plans to return to. Visual novels, she says, were a format so similar to comics, but so different, and she was interested in exploring storytelling in that medium.
Aphelion got in touch with the creative leads of the new visual novel project, currently undergoing a Kickstarter campaign, to talk all things visual novel, BL, and exploring the idea and mechanics behind a gender-neutral protagonist.
Aphelion: What is your earliest memory of drawing?
Lindsay: Drawing Princess Peach in crayons as a teeny tiny kid. I drew a lot—like, a lot of fanart … and still do. An embarrassing amount, honestly.
Aphelion: What led you to working with the team on Hustle Cat?
Lindsay: As a co-founder of Date Nighto, we already had plans for Starfighter: Eclipse from the beginning, and were really excited to move on to a DN original after that. Kasey and I began planning the concept for Hustle Cat quite a while ago, and like most great things, it started out as a joke, but it rapidly became extremely real!
Aphelion: Okay, so short rant, then a question. I created a small visual novel demo in advance of a bigger project (that never happened) that consisted of two backgrounds, two character sprites (one of which had a half-dozen emotive face options), and a couple of other small props, and just that alone took literally a month of full-time work. Admittedly, I’m not a professional artist by any stretch, but what kind of time and energy goes into a project on the scale of Hustle Cat?
Lindsay: Ha ha, tons of time and energy! It took me a while to settle on the style of the sprites, so there was a lot of re-drawing in the early stages. Plus, while I find I can work very effectively in short bursts, anyone in a creative field knows that feeling of being blocked where you work and work but no art comes out. I’m inspired by VNs that usually have a bigger team, so I find myself trying to live up to those standards for myself, which creates a lot of work!
Aphelion: What’s the best part of working on Hustle Cat? What’s the worst?
Lindsay: The best part is that I’m lucky enough to be working with some of my best friends (who also happen to be extremely talented) on a project that’s all our own. I get to bring my own style to a project even though I went through art school always assuming I would have to find work despite my style instead of because of it. I’m living the dream, and I’m thankful every day to be a part of it.
The worst is that I’m honestly super disorganized, and Hustle Cat is a huge project art-wise, so sometimes I get lost in my own files. This is the first time I’ve had to manage this many assets myself, and I’m trying to get better about it!
Aphelion: A lovely feature of visual novel-style games is the sort of “cut-scene” CGs. What can we expect from Hustle Cat’s “cut-scene” type instances? Any good (cute/funny/sexy) ones come to mind?
Lindsay: We have one I’m very much looking forward to drawing that involves a bit of good-natured hazing for a newly employed Avery, and some others come to mind, but those are spoilers, so I’ll keep those to myself for now!
Aphelion: Who, out of all of your gorgeous characters, is your favorite character to draw, if you had to choose?
Lindsay: It was SUPPOSED to be Landry, because I designed him very specifically as MY TYPE! But, surprise—Finley appeared as the most fun to draw, because she’s excitable and gets super-intense faces and … let’s call it “hair emotion” to go along with her fangirling.
Aphelion: What’s next after Hustle Cat?
Lindsay: I can’t say too much about it yet, but it will be a BL horror game where Kasey and I unleash our full fujoshi power. I’ve always wanted to say this in an interview, so I’m going to. “Please look forward to it.” Ah, that felt good. I see why Tetsuya Nomura does it all the time.
Aphelion: I’m so glad I could be part of you fulfilling that!
Aphelion: Now on to Kasey! What started you on the writing path that led you to be the lead writer of Hustle Cat?
Kasey: My first big nerd passion was cats! I had a subscription to Cat Fancy for about four years, and I was getting a newsletter about cats from Tufts University when I was like nine. I always wanted to do something creative that involved them, but I kind of let it fall to the wayside until the idea for Hustle Cat hit me.
It actually started as a joke between me and Lindsay (who’s my creative partner on most things now), but the more we talked about it, the more solid the idea became. We pitched it to Conrad Kreyling, lead developer at Date Nighto, when the company was still just a baby, and it just kept coming back to us over and over as something we should really try out. Montage past the development time while we fleshed out some world building and story ideas, and here we are today!
Aphelion: As soon as I saw the concepts for the game my mind immediately raced to BL (“boys love”) anime. How much are you (or is Hustle Cat) influenced by the BL genre, if at all?
Kasey: I absolutely am influenced by BL! I kind of came up in the fandom around BL, and it still feels kind of special to me since it’s sort of how I figured out my own queer identity. For a long time, BL was almost my only exposure to VNs—[some] of the first games I played were untranslated copies of Silver Chaos and Artificial Mermaid back in like 2002 – 2004 or so. Lindsay and I picked them both up on trips to Japan and stumbled our way through them, even though neither of us read Japanese at all at the time, but they had a big impact, I think.
Fast-forward to now, where Nitro+Chiral sort of brought us back into the fold of VNs with Togainu no Chi and DRAMAtical Murder. I sort of got into this wanting to make a N+C style game, but it’s really expanded out from there!
Aphelion: The game has this new, incredible element where you can choose gender presentation, gender pronouns, and then sort of base your sexuality on who you romance. What are some challenges of writing around those kinds of mechanics?
Kasey: The biggest, most obvious challenge that I was concerned about going in was how to actually handle the implementation of pronouns. At first I found myself subconsciously not referring to Avery in-script with pronouns, but that sort of defeated the purpose of offering an option at all! If I may get wordy-nerdy for a second, it’s actually kind of an interesting challenge to see where pronouns get included when you’re writing in first-person (which was a huge personal debate all on its own), and where the characters almost always address Avery directly. It did come up more naturally in later dialogue, especially in scenes with more than just two characters, since they would be talking about Avery.
The gender presentation felt like a natural idea when it came up in development. To be honest, at this point, I can’t remember if the pronoun selection or the presentation selection came first!
They just feel like such a natural fit together, and so does the sexuality based on romance. I thought it was important to represent a wider audience in terms of sexuality represented, rather than a singular gaze. As a bi/pan person myself, this worked out perfectly for me because I could add more types of people I think are attractive and appealing.
Aphelion: What are the rewards?
Kasey: I’ve already seen a good number of people really excited to see the gender options available. I was really passionate about a [non-binary] Avery, and seeing that resonate makes me feel like we made the right call.
Aphelion: How would you define your style as a writer? What are your interests as far as genre? What do you want to write next?
Kasey: It’s really hard to define my own style, I think! But I definitely recognize that I have one. I guess I tend to get a little wordy, and I think I tend a bit toward the cute-funny. Hustle Cat is probably as close to my natural writing voice as you’ll see in that regard. I think Lindsay is a funnier person overall, but I like to think I can hold my own with humor too!
Otherwise, it’s actually kind of funny—the other day, I found one of those old LiveJournal surveys I did something like ten years ago where I said the two genres I dislike the most are romance and horror. Funny enough, with Hustle Cat, I dove headfirst into writing romance and adore it, and the next major project we’re planning for Date Nighto is going to be both romance and horror. Though, I also have some shorter VN ideas I’d like to try out as well in other genres, so stay tuned!
Hustle Cat will only be funded if at least $25,000 is pledged by Thursday, November 5 2015, so check out the team’s amazing perks and pledge now!