Slay the Princess: Developer Interview with Black Tabby Games

On our trip to PAX East this year, we spoke with a lot of very talented devs. Two of those devs were the married developer duo, Black Tabby Games. They have been working on a new game called Slay the Princess, while also creating content for their first game, Scarlet Hollow. They were gracious enough to put their PAX fun on pause and chat with our team member DanielD.

Daniel: Alright, to start out with, I’m curious: does the name Black Tabby have something to do with your own names?

Abby: Black because we’re goth and make horror games, and ‘Tabby’ for ‘Tony and Abby’.

Daniel: Awesome, that makes a lot of sense. So your upcoming game is called ‘Slay the Princess’; how would you describe the game?

Abby: Slay the Princess is a narrative visual novel that is choice heavy with a lot of branchings. So the idea is, you wake up in the woods and a mysterious narrator tells you that if you don’t slay the princess, she’s going to end the world. And from there, it’s up to you what you do with that information.

slay the princess cabin art
A strange abode for a princess

Tony: Yeah, so you can either try and slay, you can try to run away from it all, it’s like a horror comedy visual novel, and the game changes dramatically based on what choices you make.

Daniel: In the preview, it felt like there were a lot of paths. How many branches are there based on your choices?

Tony: There’s a lot (laughs), we can’t talk too much about the structure of the final game because it gets into spoiler territory. The demo contains the first chapter of the game, there are ten versions of chapter 2, so the demo gives you a little taste of that second chapter.

Daniel: So chapter three will potentially have a lot more branches.

Tony: We love exponential scaling in our games. Our other visual novel is currently on its 4th episode [out of seven] and is currently 600,000 words long so far.

Daniel: That is impressive. Can you talk a little bit about how the story came together? What came first? Was it the idea, ‘let’s make the player kill the princess?’

Abby: Our starting point was basically, what can we do faster than we’re doing on [our first game] Scarlet Hollow. How do we cut out all these extra bits, so it’s just one location, one character, and your choices are what drive the narrative.

Tony: So specifically, the way our work flow on Scarlet Hollow wound up, was I would have a few months of downtime between episodes where I was mostly spending my time doing really excruciating marketing stuff. And I wondered if I’d be better off using that time just making a second game, ideally one that puts a minimal burden on Abby compared to Scarlet Hollow. Of course, it worked out differently, the demo for Slay the Princess has something like three or four hundred original illustrations in it, because we don’t know how to stop ourselves from making things big (laughs). But, it’s a lot faster than Scarlet Hollow.

Abby: The art in the game is very minimal because it’s just pencils on paper, compared to my usual thing which is first the pencils, then I do the ink on top of the pencils, then I color from there. It’s very time-consuming, I’m very fast at it, but it’s still a lot of work. Whereas this is much faster, much smaller paper and I can just… the original demo for this [slay the princess] released last summer, I finished all the art in a week. I think it was 200+ illustrations.

Daniel: Wow, you do work fast! I’m interested in what comes first, or is there some interplay between the art and the writing?

Abby: So the writing comes first with this one [Slay the Princess], and then we work together after the script is completed to figure out what I can do, and what can help the flow of it. Because that’s very important for the artist, especially in something like this, making sure the assets don’t feel strange next to each other, and jarring. Making sure it flows well. My work history is in comics, so that’s something you focus on a lot, making sure that you flow really well through the page and that the reader doesn’t get lost. So, I bring that to [making] games as well.

Daniel: Another thing that I’m curious about is the voice acting for the two main characters. Can you elaborate on that part of development?

Abby: Yes, Jonathan Sims, I’m so happy that he’s doing this project with us, and Nicole Goodnight is the princess, and I’m so happy we have her, she’s perfect. Both of them really actually go to their limits with this one because they have to do a lot of different voices.

Tony: Something I really appreciate about the voice acting is that each of them were our first choice for their respective roles. We just DM’d each of them, and they immediately said yes and that was it.

Daniel: It’s not supposed to be that easy, right? (laughs) That’s awesome, I thought I had heard some differences in the voice lines from the first version I played. Have there been multiple takes, or have they been redone?

Abby: Some of them might be branching. It depends on what you did on your version of the demo, because the branching influences the voice lines.

Daniel: That must be it, because her voice was so different when the character was being nice to her. That changed her personality so much I wondered if you’d gotten a different voice actor.

Abby: Yeah, it’s just her. Our games, especially Slay the Princess, are centered around relationships that can change based on just a few quick interactions, and the whole idea that something can be built on these interactions. So with the knife [in Slay the Princess], if you don’t take it out, she’s the princess you’re expecting to see. She’s a damsel, she’s like ‘I don’t know why I’m down here, it’s so scary’, but if you take out the knife, [then] you think she’s a threat, and so she will act like she’s a threat. Because that’s what you assume she is.

slay the princess nice princess
Maybe she’s just a nice princess?

Daniel: Oh, so it’s kinda like a mirrored behavior?

Tony: Yeah, it mirrors, that’s a huge thematic component of the game. The mirror in chapter 2 is a new addition for this updated demo, it wasn’t there the first time around. It was something where, we were eventually going to bring that in later on. But we thought, ‘wait, we can just put this here now, and it’s a really nice anchor point for leaving a lot of lingering questions from the demo, and driving the narrative forward.’

Daniel: Speaking of the demo… I was really enjoying it, but I have pretty niche tastes, and so I like to use my partner as a gauge of what the more “average” gamer enjoys. Anyway, I called her over to check out Slay the Princess, she was watching me play, and she kept making choices for me! So we just decided to play it together (laughs).

Tony: Oh, really? So what options did you pick?

Daniel: We started with… I took the knife and I went down, and I just killed her immediately. Because I thought it would be interesting to see what happens if I just did exactly what the game said.

Abby: (laughs) That’s alright, all I care about is people getting to see all the different princesses.

Daniel: Yeah, she attacked me after I went down to see her.

Tony: If you continue down and just accept that she’s dead, there’s an option for an ending with some really nice art, it’s my only visual art contribution to the game. I made like a really rough prototype while Abby was traveling and drew this “good ending” screen in MS Paint for when she finally figured out how to kill the Princess… I didn’t want to keep it because it was MS Paint art, but everyone, Abby included, wanted us to keep it, and it was a good idea to keep it.

Daniel: I’m glad you kept it! I was wondering how you struck a balance between moods in the game. Because it is a really funny game, but it’s kinda freaky too — did you have internal discussions on how much horror or comedy each segment needed?

Abby: I think that’s just kind of a natural balance for both of us. We’ve always been the kind of people that like something that’s dark, but that has a bit of levity now and then, so the dark parts really hit. You’re not just constantly inundated with darkness the whole time, having those little moments of ‘this is fine now’ and then having it turn around in two seconds. I feel like it helps it land.

Tony: There’s a very fun thing with Scarlet Hollow, our first game. When it came out, it took something like ninety minutes or two hours when you’re streaming it for spooky stuff to start happening. I’ve seen a lot of people on stream get to that point and suddenly blurt out, ‘I forgot this wasn’t just a dating sim.’ And it makes the scary elements so much more impactful, because you’re interacting with the world and there’s this tonal shift, and really both sides amplify each other, and bring out the emotions.

slay the princess evil princess
…maybe she’s not a nice princess

Daniel: Yeah, sometimes too much horror can be a little exhausting.

Tony: I think beyond that, there’s this other thing that happens in horror games where you get over exposed to dying and game over screens. Not only do you get exhausted, but long term, the tension gets stripped out of it. It’s like we’re four chapters into Scarlet Hollow, the protagonist can’t actually die by that point because if you got a game-over screen we knew that would be immersion breaking. So all the horrific things just happen to people around you, so we can make you live with those consequences… With [Slay] the princess, we decided to go with the angle, ‘sure you die, but death has consequences here.’ It’s not the end of the game, it just changes your story.

Daniel: It makes the decisions so much more meaningful. You can’t get used to it because you don’t know what choice, or death, is going to affect the game. Is there one particular part of Slay the Princess that you’re most proud of?

Abby: All the new art in chapter 2, like all the big spreads at the end, I’m very proud of those, I feel like I finally figured out how to draw all those characters (laughs). So I’m very proud of that. I love seeing people get to the end and seeing those things and falling in love with these characters.

Tony: I think for me, it’s the way we structured the user flow. There’s ten versions of chapter 2 in the demo. Every so often someone will get stuck on one of them, but most people are able to understand the core concept of the game well enough that they just figure it all out. It doesn’t take hours and hours of trial and error, they basically get a different princess every single time. The fact that we were able to communicate what the game means and what it’s about to people like that. That was one of the areas where the first demo struggled. I’m very proud of the first demo and people really liked it, but this is elevated from that. There was definitely a shift this time around where…[people get] the different thematic elements of each relationship and that’s so cool.

Daniel: You both definitely have a lot to be proud of. So where can people play Slay the Princess?

Tony: So right now there is this new demo available on Steam, GOG, and, it’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It will be released on all of those simultaneously, later this year, and we’ll probably do console ports sometime in the next calendar year (thinks, then laughs). Sometime in 2024 for consoles.

Daniel: Well, thank you both so much for taking some time out of your busy PAX schedules to tell us about Slay the Princess.

Tony: Thank you so much.

Abby: Thank you so much for having us!

If you’re in the mood for a spooky and unique narrative game, then look no further! We had a terrific time playing the free demo for Slay the Princess, and think you will too. Have you played the demo? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Kelson H.
Kelson H.

Kelson is a spud head from out west. He is most happy when holding a milky tea with too much honey and playing a sprawling role playing game or reading a fantasy novel. His video game tastes vary but his main genres are looter shooters, RPGs, and real time strategy games.

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