Making games in fraught political times
Inspired by the real-life story of stray dogs fighting for scraps on the Moscow Metro, Russian Subway Dogs is, on the face of it, a simple, bright, and cheerful videogame. A score-attack sensibility triggers that “just one more game” arcade feel, and a zany array of bonus objectives inspire drastically different approaches in each of the title’s single-screen levels. But the game isn’t just another retro rehash—it’s a deep, engaging experience from the creators of They Bleed Pixels, a 2012 horror action hit that blended cute visuals with complex, but easy-to-grasp gameplay. But Russian Subway Dogs isn’t about eldritch monsters at a fictional academy—as the title so clearly lays out, it’s about dogs in the very real setting of Russia.
Spooky Squid Games released RSD on August 2nd, 2018, squarely in the third quarter of Donald Trump’s second year in office. On that very morning, five national security officials faced the press to defend the administration’s handling of Russian meddling in the American electoral system. With midterms on the horizon, the White House sought to quell public fears about the vulnerability of the democratic process, continuing its increasingly bizarre line of confirming the threat of Russian cyberattacks despite the president’s alternatingly obsequious and dismissive commentary on that country’s government.
For certain developers, this might amount to a lucky break—organic SEO of this magnitude on launch day is something many independent studios would kill for But Russian Subway Dogs eludes most any political statement linked to its chosen motif. Considering the game’s six year long development cycle, any aspirations to retroactively position the game as a contemporary consideration of Russia’s sociopolitical involvement with the United States would barely make sense. But nonetheless, the game is still steeped in an iconography that now resonates with Americans more than it ever has since the height of the Cold War.
With that in mind, I spoke with Spooky Squid Games about what it’s like for a Canadian games studio to deliver a project set in Russia that neither trivializes its cultural origins nor addresses its involvement in contemporary global affairs.
Leonardo Faierman: Could you start by introducing yourselves?
Alina Sechkin: Hey! I’m Alina and I’ve been working with Miguel at Spooky Squid Games as a pixel artist for about three years now, mostly on Russian Subway Dogs. Coincidentally, I have some basic literacy in Russian as I was born in Ukraine, but I’ve been living in Toronto since I was six and basically consider myself to be culturally Canadian at this point. Right now I’m still working on some random bits and bobs of Russian Subway Dogs stuff.
Probably the most popular piece of art I’ve made is a drawing of Sonic the Hedgehog and Hannah Montana cuddling, which found its way onto Tumblr and got over 40k notes.
Miguel Sternberg: I’m Miguel Sternberg, I wear a bunch of hats at Spooky Squid Games. My background is as a professional pixel artist but I now do game design, programming, and business stuff in addition to art. I’ve been involved in the indie game scene in Toronto for over a decade, co-founding the Hand Eye Society, one of the first video game arts and culture organizations.
LF: When did production of Russian Subway Dogs begin in earnest, and how did the central gameplay loop concepts come about?
MS: Russian Subway Dogs started as a jam game in 2012, before Alina joined the company, when we were still working on They Bleed Pixels. I’d read about some real-life stray dogs that had learned to navigate the subways in Moscow, commuting to populated areas where it was easy to steal food during the day and then back to the quieter suburban stations at night to sleep. I thought it’d make a great setting for a game so kept it in mind for a future game jam.
The rough version was created at a small local jam called Spam Jam as part of the Glorious Trainwrecks GDC Pirate Kart. I think I spent two days total on it, creating both the code and art myself, with local musician Ricky Lima putting together some chiptunes for it. The core of the game all came together in that early version. Stealing food, juggling vodka, poodles and dobermans all came together then, and I think I added cooking food and the combo system a week after but didn’t release those updates at the time.
You can still download the jam game on our site or Glorious Trainwrecks, though the physics, frame rate and art are all kind of crap. People liked it and it even had some Russian YouTube Let’s Plays.
After that it was this slow-moving ongoing solo side project, I’d work on it random evenings or during vacations and business trips.
In 2016 we had to shelve a larger game project at Spooky Squid and I figured it was time to create a definitive full version of Russian Subway Dogs. We launched the Kickstarter, applied for a grant, and Alina moved from the previous project to drawing subway puppers, and we brought on musician Peter Chapman to create a full soundtrack.
LF: Humor seems to be a really important part of Russian Subway Dogs. I see it as a Marxist satire at most, but I think it’s mostly irreverent in practice, with its meme-flavored humor and overall levity. Is the game trying to “say” something more, about marginalized “invisibles” getting their share, or anything like that?
MS: Stories of scrappy animals surviving in a harsh world appeal to me, so it was more that than trying to make a larger allegorical point. A lot of the light story stuff we landed on was pretty improvisational. I’m happy we ended up with this sort of mixed-species pack of animals that’s a bit of a found family at its core, roving the subways and causing trouble.
The sort of systemic comic simulation design I’m interested in as a game designer also just lends itself to goofy humour, so it made sense to work towards that in other aspects of the game.
LF: One of the reasons I was interested in speaking with you both regards my own personal background. I’m Latino and Jewish, and have frequently noticed a common routine when it comes to casual political conversation: people say things like, “Israel is this” or “Israel wants to do that.” When, in reality, most individual Israeli people and friends that I’ve known vehemently disagree with a lot of choices and actions being taken on the national level. Still, the use of the nation’s name gets identified as a generalizing whole, with citizens wearing the political decisions of their government.
So, I wonder if, in some ways, Americans have begun to feel the same way towards Russia. I definitely hear this type of language when people describe what “Russia did,” in regards to the 2016 election. On the one hand, perhaps video games can simply exist in a more exaggerated reality, but they are also often carefully, painstakingly constructed—they are the result of a series of thoughtful choices. The word “Russia” seems to carry another meaning now, and I wonder whether Spooky Squid Games experienced or felt aware of that transformation in any way.
MS: I’m old enough to have lived through the tail end of the Cold War. Since the US election I definitely see a disturbing return to the sort of language you’re talking about, where the actions of a country’s government are conflated with its people. When RSD was a jam game in 2012, the idea that we’d be returning to this sort of “red scare” atmosphere seemed ridiculous. It’s been upsetting to see that change throughout its development. Andrij, who co-created They Bleed Pixels with me, is coincidentally also Ukranian-Canadian, so during the invasion of Ukraine, I’d hear updates from him about family friends, etc.
Then the 2016 elections happened. It’s been strange seeing a lot of extra meaning and baggage get attached to the game’s setting over time. To me, the game has always been about the story of these dogs, so I’ve resisted people’s suggestions that Putin should be the final boss, etc. I think it’s important that there’s space for games about politicized regions that aren’t about politics. To be clear, it’s also important that political games are made. I’m 100% there for a Pussy Riot rhythm action game against authoritarianism.
AS: It’s kind of hard to comprehend that things have changed so much politically since Miguel originally started working on the game and we’re definitely very aware that it looks like we’re making a statement with the setting. It’s really odd feeling caught up in the middle of an international conflict as a result of being inspired to make a cute dog game that happens to be set in Russia.
We were at one point considering filming a mini-doc about the actual stray dogs in Moscow, which didn’t end up happening. This made me realize I wasn’t interested in going to Russia at all, but more so as a result of their conflict with Ukraine rather than anything to do with American politics.
MS: I strongly believe that for games to thrive we really need all sorts of games, made by all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. Of course creator intent doesn’t stop unintended political messages from appearing in a game’s story, setting or systems—see the discussion around The Division for instance. My hunch is that any attempt to do a deep read on Russian Subway Dogs will be pretty incoherent at best.
I’d be interested in making something with a stronger political message in the future, especially if we do a more narrative-heavy game, but it’s very case-by-case for me, based on what the game’s themes lend themselves to and the mechanics we’re working with. We really didn’t change anything in Russian Subway Dogs because of the American election. The game just wasn’t about that, and trying to make it about the election would have felt like a stretch. It also would have tied it to a specific time. We want it to feel relatively timeless, rather than a game that, five to ten years from now would be seen as outdated and tied heavily to our current era and politics.
AS: I strongly believe both that games can be really effective at making overt political statements, and also that many in-game systems, no matter how apolitical they are in their intent, can be read through a political lens—probably mostly as meritocracy sims, i.e. your performance is what determines your success. Having said that, in making Russian Subway Dogs we were really focused on making the art and game mechanics as polished and effective as we could, and I think adding any kind of strong political message about Russia would have taken away from the game.
LF: How has the game been received by the Russian community?
AS: We’ve had quite a bit of positive response from Russian speakers from what I’ve seen on YouTube, as well as people criticizing the game’s depiction of Russian stereotypes. We’ve even picked up on a Russian word, klyukva—клюква, literally “cranberry”—that is used to refer to foreign stereotypes of Russia or Russians. Interestingly, “klyukva” has been used to describe Russian Subway Dogs both positively and negatively!
MS: I feel like it’s mostly been positive from people who’ve actually played the game, though we’ve had some nationalist types who’ve been angry in our YouTube comments. However, we also have players who appreciate how we approached the setting, with the detailed pixel art of real-life Moscow stations and trains. We’ll be releasing a Russian language patch soon so it’ll be interesting to see how that changes perception of the game.
In general, we tried to present a mix of stuff that would be recognized as very Russian by an international audience, with some deeper cuts for folks who actually live in Moscow.
AS: This is a bit of an aside, but when I started working on the game I aggressively campaigned against using any faux Cyrillic, the phenomenon that makes the Borat logo look like “BORDT” to me. We came up with a much more elegant alternative, using Russian words for things like “Game Over” as design elements, which was a nice way to get some authenticity into the game, but without giving anyone who can read Cyrillic a headache.
MS: I think that change to using actual Russian text was a big improvement! It let us do some nice stuff with typography we couldn’t otherwise get away with—ancy text in a pixel art game is very expensive to localize—and gives the game the flavor of a long-lost soviet arcade game.
AS: To tie into what Miguel said about deeper cuts, we absolutely fell in love with how beautiful many of Moscow’s subway stations are, and I spent a lot of time rendering them faithfully in pixel art. As Miguel mentioned, all of the station backgrounds are based on real stations from the Moscow Metro.
LF: I feel like the cultural beginnings and DNA of this game are completely apparent to me, as a person of perhaps mid-level ignorance on Russian culture. It is, at once wholly innocent, but also rebellious. Silly fun, but with a dark air that can’t help but be informed by recent history. And chock full of fun memes, which speak to popularized Western consumption of Russian culture in meme form. But the both of you are clearly aware of this, and it seems like his iconography is something you are wielding, not merely positioning as props or backdrop.
Utilizing Cyrillic instead of nonsense—because Russian Subway Dogs is not about nonsense, except it also is! Am I reading too deeply into it? Do you think these different aspects of the game compete with each other, or meet in harmony?
AS: I guess doing stuff like referencing actual subway stations and making sure to include Russian and not faux Cyrillic was our way of trying to give people a little nod. Like yes, there’s all these stereotypes in here, but also Russia is a really unique setting that I think is really key to making RSD the game that it is. I don’t know if we were successful or not, but there might not even be an objective answer to that!
MS: We were especially aware going into making it a full commercial game that it couldn’t just be a bunch of memes piled onto each other, both for the good of the project and to keep ourselves interested for the two plus years it took to make. We knew we needed to walk a bit of a tightrope between the broad stuff that would appeal to an international audience and those deeper cuts that would make it interesting for us, and hopefully for Russian players as well. So some of that was stripping stuff from the jam game that was too far in the Russian meme direction—no faux Cyrillic, no “In Russia X blanks you!” jokes, minimal use of stuff like “comrade” in the dialogue, implied rather than phonetically spelled out accents.
The other part was finding the stuff we loved and doubling down on it. I love soviet era constructivist graphic design and it translates really well into pixels. Discovering the amazing architecture of the Moscow Metro and finding a way to incorporate that into the game. The Slavic folk music sounds Peter Chapman mixed into the sound track. All these are elements we have genuine affection for and we hope that shines through.
Russian Subway Dogs is available on Steam, Itch.io, and Humble now for $14.99 and will be coming to consoles in the new year.