Brazil-based indie studio Cookie Pixel made their App Store debut recently with Nil’s Labyrinth (out now, $1.99), a delightfully peculiar adventure puzzler that takes place within the convoluted maze-like mind of a cat. I was charmed by its premise and thoroughly enjoyed playing through the game, so I got in touch with Thairine Santos, one half of the wife-and-husband team behind Cookie Pixel, to ask a few questions about Nil’s Labyrinth’s inception and development. It ended up being a fascinating and very funny interview! Check it out below…
Thanks so much for joining me for this interview. Can I start by asking you to introduce yourself, and talk a little bit about how you came to form Cookie Pixel?
Thank you for having us. We are a family-run indie game studio based in Santo Andre, Brazil. My name is Thairine Santos, artist, designer, and wife to Harlen Batagelo, programmer, designer and music composer. I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration but am currently at art school discovering my passion for art and design. Harlen is an experienced programmer. He has a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering and is a university professor, teaching and doing research in real-time computer graphics. We founded Cookie Pixel in July 2016 when we realized that we could combine Harlen’s technical expertise with my developing art skills to make games that reflect our culture and experiences.
What’s Cookie Pixel’s mission as an indie studio?
We believe that games are a form of art. The coordination between visual aesthetics, music, storytelling, and interaction, represents a powerful and innovative art medium that resonates with us. Our mission is to experiment with that art form and use it as a mean of expression of self.
Your company logo features a cat. And your first game is all about a cat. Is it safe to assume you guys are pretty big cat lovers?
As the saying goes, creativity is only as obscure as your reference. It turns out we live with these two persuasive furry references, Chico and Filó. So far they’ve been quite successful in leaving their mark on our works.
Exploring the maze-like psyche of a cat is such an amusingly unusual and unique premise to build a game around. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
Catnip abuse. No, just kidding. Actually, we drew a great deal of inspiration from literature, in particular from the works of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. His magic realism stories often make reference to labyrinths as metaphors for the infinite paths of possibilities of time, but also as a symbol for life itself, for our struggle in finding paths in life that will hopefully lead us to an exit; an exit that is not there. So we were impressed by these fascinating, but somewhat nihilist, feelings towards life and universe. Combine that with our fears — our fears about the unknown, our fears about the indiepocalypse! And there you have it. Nil’s Labyrinth represents all that as a comic relief. It depicts the mental struggle of a bored, nihilist cat — who better than a cat to embody that? — that looks inside his own self and finds a labyrinth filled with puzzles and secret places.
Nil’s Labyrinth pays homage, and nods to classic games like Pac-Man and Adventure (Atari 2600), while still being its own thing. Can you talk a little bit about your influences and how they helped shape the gameplay?
While I am a fan of storytelling and fantasy adventure games, my husband is all nostalgic over old arcade games and 8-bit computer games. We believe we will always incorporate the gaming experiences from these games in our own titles. When we started the development of Nil’s Labyrinth, Harlen already had a prototype of a scrolling maze game. Since that was our starting point, maze video games became the natural references, and so we looked for our dearest classics. From Pac-Man, we have the design of the item collection gameplay and the design of enemy behavior. From Adventure, the ‘lock and key’ puzzle trope, the dark maze theme, the ‘magnet’ and the ‘bridge’ (a ‘ball of yarn’ in Nil’s Labyrinth). We also took inspiration from many other classic titles with celebrated mechanics: the sliding blocks from Sokoban, the switch puzzles from Dungeon Master, the secret places from Commander Keen, to name just a few. Combining these gameplay elements into a new look and feel, with an original element of storytelling, was our way of paying a humble tribute to these games.
Were you at all trepidatious about launching Nil’s Labyrinth at a premium price point?
Certainly. The decision to go premium was not made without much thought, but we believe that this model is more capable of providing a consistent and complete gaming experience for our players. Ads and micro transactions can be disruptive and inconvenient if not done properly, and we didn’t want to take the risk of Nil’s Labyrinth becoming even remotely associated with a money grabbing F2P. However, we know that freemiums have been a more viable mobile game monetization strategy, capable of reaching a wider audience. That is especially true in a developing country such as ours where many people don’t even have a credit card. So, while the premium model is our primary choice as a business model, we have not discarded the possibility of releasing a freemium version on another platform as a way to make it available to a broader public.
Are there any updates or new features planned for Nil’s Labyrinth?
We are committed to a long-term (over one year) update schedule, with a new update coming every six weeks. Aside from compatibility updates for better integration with Apple’s services, our updates will mainly focus on new features: new themes, new items, new enemies, new mechanics and (and many) new secret levels.
What’s next for Cookie Pixel? Any upcoming projects in the works that you can tell me about?
We have gained a valuable experience in the process of developing and releasing Nil’s Labyrinth. From the lessons learned, we now better understand the importance of prototyping as a proof of concept before diving into a new project. Accordingly, we are currently implementing and evaluating game mechanics that we think are fun and engaging for future projects. At this stage, we are still far from setting anything in stone, but we can throw some keywords that describe our current direction: 3D, crowd simulation, physics-based puzzles, intelligent agents. And cats, of course!
Thanks for such a fantastic interview, Thairine! Please also pass along my warmest regards to Harlen (and Chico and Filó)!