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The Creators of Slay the Princess Want to Go Isometric for Their Next Game

Tony Howard-Arias and Abby Howard are the couple behind Black Tabby Games, the creators of visual novels Scarlet Hollow and Slay the Princess. Ahead of the latter game’s upcoming free major update, they sat down with Minus World to discuss making two games with two people, what makes a horror game, and what the future may hold in store.

Minus World: Let’s start with a simple question: How did Black Tabby Games come to be? I know Abby was already a cartoonist beforehand, but what inspired both of you to get into game development?

Abby: Well, we were sort of both winding down on our various projects, so I was trying to work on the next thing, and it wasn’t really working for me, and we got talking with a friend of ours about dating simulators, and then just decided “Well, we have the skills for that!”

Tony: “We can do that!”

Abby: “We could try it out!” And then that, within the course of two hours, became the first drafts of Scarlet Hollow, so it was great, it was very fun.

MW: And if you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing beforehand, Tony?

Tony: Oh, just tech stuff. I was doing a startup that was building non-profit organizing software with friends. Non-profits do not have money, so…

MW: It’s in the name.

Tony: (laughs) Yeah, right?

MW: One thing I enjoy about both of your games is the emphasis on choice. I love games that act as a sort of personality test, where how you play says something about who you are. How much did that approach inform the choices in Act 1 of Slay the Princess, and the design of the Princesses in Act 2?

Abby: I suppose it’s the primary factor. It’s kind of trying to decide to reflect the player … I mean, Tony says this a lot, that the game is kind of its own mirror to show the way that you interact with the game, the way that you interact with these choices, and this moral dilemma.

Tony: Yeah, they all sort of spun out from the choices the player made rather than us having a bunch of Princess designs that we then tried to build choices around.

Abby: It was a little bit of a mix. We started with a list of five, kind of, ideas of “Well, we probably want a Princess like this.” The Adversary, The Damsel, and The Beast were, I think, pretty front and center there. But then it was kind of a thought experiment of “OK, so you made this choice. What does it say about you, and how would she react physically?”

Tony: Right, it’s like, at its core, the first chapter was written before [Abby had] done much in the way of art. I kind of drafted that up while Abby was visiting her family, as like “Hey, look, surprise! Extra project!” So, in that sense, the initial scenario has relatively simple setup, where there’s a lot of options players can take, but it’s set up in such a way that we can be very, very exhaustive, so there is just a logical flow of “OK, well what happens if you fight her and lose?”

Abby: Yeah, “What does this say? What does it lead to?”

Tony: What does bringing down a knife do, and then…

Abby: Every time I leave the house for an extended period of time, you get so busy. I should leave the house more often, see what happens.

Tony: (laughs) I’m busy enough!

MW: I’m not very assertive, and the first Princess I got was The Tower, and I’m like, “Oh, that makes sense.”

Abby: (laughs)

MW: But then I’m like “OK, you have to die,” and then I got The Fury, so I’m glad that’s getting expanded on in The Pristine Cut.

Abby: Ooh, yeah. Her chapter is very interesting. It’s a lot of fun. So a lot of the game has a lot of this sort of poetic metaphysical stuff, and then this one was a nice blend of the metaphysical and flesh, which is my specialty, so I got to go really wild with it! It’s fun.

MW: There’s been some speculation online that Scarlet Hollow was primarily written by Abby and Slay the Princess by Tony. Has the writing division been different at all between the two games?

Abby: It’s so hard to say.

Tony: Yeah, there’s large amounts of both of us in both of them. Generally, the online consensus is correct in that Abby writes the first drafts for Scarlet Hollow, and I write the second drafts, and I write the first drafts for Slay the Princess, and she writes the second draft. But also in both games, before any word processors are connected with fingers, we exhaustively talk things through, so it’s a very collaborative process.

Abby: Yeah, like I can point to lines that either one of us have written, but at the same time, so much of it is a collaboration.

MW: So the final products of both games, you’d say, is equal parts both of you?

Tony: Yes, definitely.

Abby: Yeah, they definitely wouldn’t be what they are without the other. It’s kind of hard to explain, I think, to people who haven’t done a collaborative work before. But yeah, it’s kind of wild how it blends together like that.

MW: You’ve mentioned dealing with crunch before. I did want to make sure you’re both taking care of yourself.

Abby: Aw, that is so sweet. We try.

Tony: (laughs)

MW: But I also have to ask, if you don’t mind, is this like a self-imposed deadline?

Abby: It’s usually driven by a variety of factors. For this one, there are certain deadlines that we actually have to hit for other people to be able to finish their jobs, for Slay the Princess and…

Tony: Things that have not been announced.

Abby: Yeah. We have to make sure that it’s done in time for those people to be able to finish their jobs in time without having to crunch, so hopefully we succeed at that.

MW: So there’s a publisher that you’re answering to?

Tony: I can neither confirm nor deny anything.

MW: Oh, suspicious. The mystery unfolds. But I do hope you’re both OK, because I love your work, but…

Tony: Well, that’s really appreciated. We’re gonna take a nice rest after this chunk of work is done.

Abby: Yeah, at least a week, and then I’ll get right back to it, because I can’t stay away for long from work, that’s for sure. But yeah, it’s been a little rough. Some of the other deadlines have been somewhat self-imposed, but it’s more because there’s a season where you don’t want to release a game, so we have to avoid releasing in that season, and in order to hit that, we…

Tony: Generally, you want to avoid anything between November and February.

Abby: And with Scarlet Hollow it’s also really hard to hold off on releasing something after it’s done, so Episode 4 was released, I think, in December, which is usually not a time when you want to necessarily release a game. It could’ve waited until February, but we did not want to. We wanted people to play the game.

Tony: Right, that episode also went through a comical series of delays because we just kept misscoping the climax of it, where it was supposed to be ready by October, and then it just kept taking longer. We got COVID or some nasty bug in the middle of it, and then it was just, like, I’m pretty sure by release week we had a series of delay updates on Steam that were getting comically shorter, of like: “We’re delaying by a week! We’re delaying by an extra two days! We’re delaying by, like, five hours! Hold your horses!”

MW: And I remember that, because I’ve been following you for a while. My inner asshole gamer was like “Oh my God!” But you’re not a huge publisher, so I’m being reasonable there.

Abby: Thank you!

MW: You’re releasing The Pristine Cut of Slay the Princess as a free update, and eventually you’ll have the fifth episode of Scarlet Hollow, continuing the trend of how you buy the game and then every episode so far has been free. I love the generosity there, how much content you’re giving for no additional price. Was that mostly for moral reasons, or was there sort of an economic factor to it?

Abby: Moral reasons for me. I just feel like if you’ve bought the game, you’ve bought the game.

Tony: Yeah, not enough people do that.

Abby: I want people to play the game! Like, that’s most of what I want. I mean, I’ve done webcomics forever, and publishing work is basically a way for me to be like “Oh, here you go, a nice physical copy for you to have on your shelf,” but you can also still read it for free, because what I want to do is make sure that people can actually read it and encounter it and love it, but at the same time, of course, then it leads to things like … as a studio, we were not going to make enough money to finish Scarlet Hollow.

Tony: Yeah, that’s kind of where Slay the Princess came from. Still a passion project! You never say this without someone being like “Oh, so Slay the Princess is a cash grab!” No, we obviously care immeasurably about both of our games, but…

Abby: And it has succeeded in that! So now we can do stuff like take our time with Episode 5 and make sure we don’t wind up with a three month-long crunch.

Tony: Yeah, and with The Pristine Cut being free, I do think there is something to be said for when somebody buys a product, we want them to have the best version of that product possible. We don’t want to release something, figure out a way to make it better, and then nickel and dime people from there.

Abby: We care about the integrity of what we’ve made, and then knowing that there’s more coming, I’m just like “Wait, wait! Don’t play it yet! Wait until it’s out!”

Tony: But that’s why we did a smaller free update back in March, where it was like “Well, we’ve finished a lot of our overhauls of the ending of the game. It’s tighter now. It hits some emotional beats harder. We’re not going to wait until everything else is ready, we’ll push this out.” And also with The Pristine Cut, the game has made plenty of money. There’s no need to just continually greedily push for more.

Abby: Especially since it’ll drive people to the game who hadn’t heard of it yet, having a big release like that. So yeah, we don’t need to make it DLC, we can just give them the proper game.

Tony: If people want to throw more money at us, that’s what the Supporters’ Pack is for, that’s what merch is for, that’s what Patreon is for, but those are just bonus things for people who want that bonus stuff.

MW: And I’m once again saying things you know for the readers’ sake, that the first episode of Scarlet Hollow is free.

Abby: It sure is. Get ya hooked!

MW: I know Disco Elysium has been a big influence on your game writing (and it’s taking a lot of restraint for me to not just talk to you about Disco Elysium all day). Are there any other games you’d say you’ve taken inspiration from?

Tony: Writing-wise, there’s different types of influences, like Disco Elysium is probably the most contemporary influence, where I don’t think we played that until many episodes into Scarlet Hollow. For older influences, just that early 2000s-era BioWare was pretty big for me, so the original Mass Effect trilogy, the first Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, I think those were like the first choice-driven games that I played. I obsessed over them, I had my frustrations, and … you know how it is. All part of a process that informs growth.

Abby: And then, of course, there is a lot of influence from outside games.

Tony: Yeah, music, movies, TV shows. It’s also so hard to tell when something is a strong influence on your writing versus something that I just really like the writing. We played SOMA for the first time while working on Slay the Princess, and it deeply resonated with us because of a lot of the themes it handles for identity and the self and, you know … just the body horror components. But it’s hard to tell “Did that resonate, or did that have influences?” Who knows?

Abby: I suppose that’s kind of a different kind of influence, in something that gets you really hyped to make things. Something that motivates you to do a really good job because you want to have an impact the same way that something really amazing like SOMA had on us.

MW: This might be more of an Abby question. Both of your games are unquestionably horror stories, but in many ways they’re unconventional. It’s not non-stop terror, there’s comedy, drama, and a lot of … Gretchen would not be in a horror movie. This is a bit philosophical, but in your opinion, what defines a horror story? Is there a line between “horror” and “non-horror with a scary part?”

Abby: This is definitely something I’ve had to give a lot of thought to because of questions like this, because it’s sort of just something that pours out of me naturally, like, “Yeah, this is what I make!”, and then people are “Now how do I categorize this?” And I’m like, well … we just do. But for this one, I do think horror is very much defined by its themes, by its imagery, by the rising tension, falling tension, and breaking tension. Like, it’s something that is not unique to horror, but the combination of those things is unique to horror. You can tell when something is horror. I don’t think horror should be strictly defined by, say, something that scares someone by how many jumpscares it has, by whether or not you are being pursued by a creature of some variety that is going to get you. Those are all aspects that you can use in horror, but at the same time, I think really it is about an exploration of the dark in life. It is staring into the shadows and thinking to yourself “What is the worst thing that could be in there?”

Tony: Right, it’s confronting the things in the world that make you uncomfortable.

Abby: Yes, that is what is horror to me. Things that don’t even have blood in them could be horror as long as they make you feel really bad.

Tony: Right. I feel like of all of the spaces where horror is made, the audience for games has some of the strictest definitions, as they so often do. I’ve seen so much discourse around whether either of our games qualify as horror.

Abby: If we have to put a warning that’s like “Please don’t let your twelve-year-old play this unless they’re really cool.” (laughs)

Tony: Slay the Princess is particularly interesting on that front because so much of it is you get out of it what you put into it. So if you don’t explore those darker tendencies, there’s … the edges of the void around you, but not everyone sees The Fury. Some people free The Damsel and then sit down with The Prisoner and then just have a good time with everyone, and you get to the end and they’re like, “I don’t understand why this was a horror game.”

Abby: It’s fun. It’s really interesting how different people’s experiences can be with it. I wish I could know what that was like, but I made the thing, so I don’t know!

MW: On the subject of genre conventions: Visual novels are traditionally a Japanese genre, with even most Western VNs adopting an anime artstyle. How familiar were you with VNs before founding Black Tabby, and was there any particular desire to defy the conventions of the genre?

Abby: I was somewhat familiar. I hadn’t played too many myself. Like, we did as research, honestly, before starting Scarlet Hollow, and the ones I really liked are ones that probably I should not say I really liked (laughs)The Song of Saya was very good.

MW: I think I’ve heard of that one.

Abby: There’s really bad stuff in that one, but it was good. I can’t ever recommend it, but … I think it’s kind of famous for being something that a lot of people enjoy, but…

Tony: But that everyone’s like “Uhhh, well, I’m not sure if I can rec this one.” (laughs) I would say that when we started the studio, at least for me, the stronger points of influence than visual novels were things like the Telltale games, like Life is Strange, those sort of more three-dimensional choice-driven narrative games, and just visual novels as a medium felt like a better and easier application of the skills we already had. Like Abby is a traditional pen-and-paper artist, so her style lends itself to that, so it was more about taking structures that were, in the West, explored in other games, and just using the medium that worked for us.

Abby: Mmm-hmm, something that leaned itself into my skills.

Tony: Yeah, we didn’t have to learn 3D modeling or animation or anything like that.

MW: From what I can tell, Scarlet Hollow has been your main passion project, and Slay the Princess was at least originally meant a smaller side game. What has your reaction been so far that Slay the Princess has been the more popular of the two?

Tony: I think as soon as we made the first announcement, it was like, “Well, of course.” It’s a little self-evident there.

Abby: It’s an easier sell, like it has a very basic … you can say what it is in a sentence and it intrigues people. Scarlet Hollow is like a very in-depth mystery, like you really have to get invested in the characters. Personally, I love all my children equally, so both projects still mean just as much to me, and especially when I’m working on one, I usually am like “Oh, I also miss working on the other.” Except I don’t know how much I’ll miss working on Slay the Princess after this particular crunch. So I’m very excited to go back to working on normal people in a somewhat normal town. I miss those.

Tony: Something that’s really important for us as a studio is to really be introspective about what we’ve done, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, what have the challenges been. When we started work on Slay the Princess, part of it stemmed from a realization that we love Scarlet Hollow dearly, but it’s like … especially until it’s fully finished, it is a harder sell, where it is an early access unvoiced visual novel.

Abby: And it’s not in an anime artstyle.

Tony: And it’s not in an anime artstyle!

Abby: Because I’m not good at drawing anime. (laughs)

Tony: And it’s like, it’s doing well now thanks to Slay the Princess. But some of the challenges beyond that are like when you try and sell Scarlet Hollow to someone, you have to follow a marketing model that’s more like what you would do in book publishing or film marketing, where you have more space to give a pitch. And the real pitch for Scarlet Hollow never got shorter than a couple short paragraphs, whereas Slay the Princess in part started with “OK, what is something that we can talk about really quickly? What is a snappier concept that transfers more easily?”

Abby: And I suppose it didn’t quite stem from that, because that’s kind of more of a marketing thing that evolved naturally out of the fact that it was always going to be, supposedly, a smaller project. And it still is a smaller project somehow than Scarlet Hollow, which is massive.

Tony: But when you are marketing games in general, you have under five seconds to get someone’s attention, and if you don’t get that, they move on. So it’s like you’ll see with a lot of indies, they’ll put their logo at the beginning of a trailer. And that’s the thing that kills them, because someone won’t wait three seconds until the logo fades away and then you get to a hook. I think the fact that with Slay the Princess we were able to really use the game’s personality as a way of talking about it was helpful. Where, again, Scarlet Hollow, I’ve never found a way to talk about it that isn’t “Here’s the back cover of a book giving you a multi-paragraph pitch, and the art is pretty, and we have names attached to it.”

Abby: But now we have “Yeah, the people who made Slay the Princess?”

Tony: They made this one!

Abby: They made a sprawling complex mystery game with horror in it. Interested? And people are! It’s very nice.

MW: More than once I’ve seen people assume Slay the Princess is somehow connected to Slay the Spire. Obviously they don’t have a monopoly on slaying things, but how familiar were you with Slay the Spire beforehand? Was there ever a talk about potential confusion?

Tony: Let’s see how many hours I have in Slay the Spire. It’s quite a few…

Abby: It’s so funny. People are like “Oh, is that a sequel?”

Tony: …186 hours, so I’m familiar with it. (laughs) I think there was a very light thought after we settled on the title of “Oh, if this is popular, there’ll be a very small search boost on Steam.” We started with the premise of prisoner in a room, in more of a SCP-type setting in the very, very initial pitch. “What if there was this creature who is whatever other people think that creature is? What are the limitations in you being sent to deal with it?” Abby suggested a princess motif.

Abby: Because you’re going to a place to interact with a captured person, it seemed princessy to me.

Tony: “Save the Princess” (ironically) seemed like a good title there, we realized “Slay” was a word, and to our disbelief there was nothing else called “Slay the Princess” out there, so we just took it and ran with it.

MW: Scarlet Hollow has lots of silly joke names and icons for its achievements, which I love, and the achievements in Slay the Princess’s demo followed that same format, but not in the game proper. Was there a particular reason for this?

Tony: Just didn’t feel tonally in line with it.

Abby: And it also meant I could use art from the game. “Do we need achievements at the very end?” is the worst for me, because I’m super burnt out at the end of having finished an entire episode, and then I have to draw a bunch of little joke art. Which is really fun, and I love doing it for Scarlet Hollow, but for Slay the Princess I was kind of like “Ah, you’ve just met The Damsel, you’ve met The Adversary.” It doesn’t lend itself … well, it could lend itself to jokes, but it’s the extra labor.

Tony: I think it’s the type of humor both games have. Both of them are us, and they’re similar there, but Slay the Princess derives more of its humor from dramatic irony and stressed banter, where outside of the big scary moments in Scarlet Hollow, the characters have more fun with each other. So the tones are a little different there.

Abby: And you can be a very silly guy in Scarlet Hollow.

Tony: You can! There’s not quite an “eat the sludge” equivalent in Slay the Princess. (laughs)

MW: I know you have plans for a third game after Scarlet Hollow and The Last Halloween are completed. I don’t want to ask too much about something so far off, but are there any concrete ideas in place already?

Abby: We’re gonna, I think, go for isometric with that one.

Tony: Yeah, we might go feel like a proper CRPG, but we’re not sure about that. There’s part of me that’s, like, visual novels are such a runt of the litter medium that it would feel bad to abandon them.

Abby: Yeah, it feels like abandoning them a little bit, but at the same time I want to experiment with isometric artstyles. Now that I have all of these skills, I’m like, “I want to see what it looks like when my little guys move around!”

Tony: Right, and you know I think there’s also some questions there about the volume of art Abby has had to crank out for Slay the Princess and Scarlet Hollow.

Abby: I think it’s almost 4,000 at this point for Slay the Princess?

Tony: (laughs)

Abby: …Oh, is it more than that?

Tony: It’s way beyond! Yeah, there’s close to 4,000 sprites or individual frames in the base game and we’re probably adding another thousand or two.

Abby: And every time she moves I need to draw an entirely separate image. But if I just have set animations for “This is when you’re walking, this is when you’re scared,” that sort of thing. Like, it’s still a lot, but it’s nowhere near as much as just … every single time something happens, I have to draw an entirely new image.

Tony: There’s a thing that I get really jealous of with isometric RPGs too, and just, like, kind of more open-exploration RPGs. Their scene transitions are so effortless, right? In Disco Elysium, if you’re deciding you’re switching from looking into this to looking into that, as the player, you move your guys there. There’s no big “Here’s a new scene, we’re setting it up!” and all of this other stuff.

Abby: Yeah, you just move over there. And also it means that I can just draw one big background and you’re on it, instead of having to draw a different background for every single angle that you see.

MW: And I love your backgrounds, by the way.

Abby: Thank you! I really love drawing background work, like, oh my gosh, it’s so much fun. Especially Scarlet Hollow, I get to fill the rooms up with stuff! It’s great.

MW: It kind of gives me an old Mad Magazine vibe, where there’s so much stuff that it feels like the stuff in front is almost an afterthought.

Abby: Yeah, I love busy backgrounds!

MW: Finally, the most devastating question of them all. Which princess would be most willing to accept a bag of boiled peanuts?

Abby: The Damsel. She’ll take anything. She’ll just be like “Thank you! This is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life! Thank you!”

Tony: …I could imagine The Witch enjoying them.

Abby: Oh, she would, but you offering them means she can’t take them.

Tony: Yeah, but she could maybe enjoy them in secret after killing you.

Abby: That’s fair, but she wouldn’t be the most willing to take them.

Tony: No no no, it must be The Damsel.

Abby: She would just sit there and be like “Is that so? Oh my goodness!”


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