Nathalie Lawhead talks ghosts, games, and the internet in Cyberpet Graveyard.
Inside the Leftfield Collection, Rezzed’s presentation of anything from small passion projects to unusual commercial releases, a range of delightful video games caught our attention. But none were quite as compelling as Cyberpet Graveyard.
Created in July 2018, Cyberpet Graveyard is a game where you must discover the secrets behind the disappearance of a Cyberpet development firm from a relic of their work. The twist? All of this takes place on your desktop. You don’t boot up Steam to play; the spookiness exists in your files, the applications interacting with each other in ways rarely seen in a video game.
To find out more about the Cyberpet Graveyard and how it was made, we got in touch with creator Nathalie Lawhead who was kind enough to answer some questions.
Can you introduce yourself and Cyberpet Graveyard to our readers?
I’m Nathalie Lawhead, or I go by AlienMelon on Twitter, and I come from an experimental art background and kind of just ended up in games. Cyberpet Graveyard is one of my more recent things where I was playing around with the idea of a game existing on your desktop.
In Cyberpet Graveyard, the idea is that a long time ago there was an accident in a cyberpet development firm and the whole team went missing. [The game] is a relic from that and you uncover what happened.
Where did the idea of creating a game for the desktop come from? What sparked that concept for you?
I’d been doing fictional desktop environments, like fake operating systems, in games and working specifically with the desktop. Using everything available to your computer gets very interesting because you can do some really weird things and it [feels] more personal and alive. It’s kind of like a software curiosity; I wanted to do something that’s really existing on your computer and gets really personal, because it’s on your computer and messing with your files.
Creating games as you do must bring up unique problems. What’s the biggest challenge when making a game like Cyberpet Graveyard?
It’s a very different way of making a game, so there’s a lot of stuff you run into that you had no idea would break a certain way. I wanted to have more branching folders to make it more of a ‘choose your own adventure,’ but it ended up breaking massively on Windows because Windows doesn’t like things nested deeply in folders.
For this game, I wanted to take one pet and put it into the folder of another pet and have them understand that they are sharing a folder. There’s a lot of permission problems that come with that, so it breaks very interestingly. It’s a lot easier if you make a fictional desktop where you have complete control over that environment, rather than using someone else’s machine and dealing with security restrictions.
From watching others give it a go at EGX Rezzed, it’s obvious that you have a talent for surprising people. What’s your secret to keeping players guessing when playing your games?
I think I’m very inspired by the whole concept of easter eggs in games. Older games did that a whole lot more. You’d find some oddball tangent and it’s a whole thing in itself, and that’s something I like incorporating into my own games. It’s not so much about the main theme/story, but it’s about the distractions you find along the way.
Why is putting these secrets in your games important to you?
I think it feels like you’ve discovered something special that’s just for you. If you run one of the skeletons and paste [the file] into a notepad later there’s an ASCII skeleton there. So for the player who happens to find that there’s a little surprise, and it almost feels like your computer is haunted and the game didn’t just quit when you closed it as there’s relics of it left over.
I think that game design kind of forgot about easter eggs, and how special they can be. Games within games, or games that are completely unrelated tangents to the main game you’re playing. There’s something special there, and I think people like them if they find them.
How did you go about making the many Cyberpets within Cyberpet graveyard, and where did the inspiration for them come from?
I wanted to do something that feels like you’re going through abandoned folders. So [there are] lots of really oddball, strange, weird characters that you stumble across. I drew lots of illustrations and chose the ones that made sense.
Originally, I wanted to have this be a lot bigger, but there are constraints that would discourage people from downloading. Like if it were bigger, the file size would be larger. I had to decide how far I wanted to push it.
Throughout your games – and even on your website – you use a distinct early-2000’s internet style. What about that aesthetic appeals to you so much?
I think there’s a philosophy – that we very much forgot about – that the internet belongs to everyone, and having a presence there belongs uniquely to everyone. You owned your presence online, and you could customize it to look 100% like you. We’ve kind of lost that and now the internet, websites, and even using your computer is like a highly branded corporate experience.
We don’t really browse the web anymore; we browse Twitter, which is very soul-crushing in many ways if you’re looking for uniqueness. Old websites, it’s more than a style, it’s a philosophy of everyone having a presence here and everyone can express themselves. It’s that uniqueness I like incorporating and keeping alive in a sort of way.
All of your games, as you’ve said yourself, are experimental. How important is pushing the boundaries of what video games can do to you personally?
Anything I do, I try to make sure it hasn’t been done before. From my background in early web stuff, there was a huge movement with websites as the new emerging artform. The idea from that movement was to never repeat anything and always try to do something new. That’s kind of stuck with me.
Like, don’t do something everyone else is doing. Try to find your own unique voice, or niche, or style, and explore concepts that might not be touched on enough. That’s very important to me. I’ve tried making more normal ‘game-ish’ games but they always end up being weird.
In a time where developers seem to be looking forward to the next video game innovations, Nathalie’s dedication to making use of tools others have overlooked sets games like Cyberpet Graveyard apart. Mixing an old-school internet philosophy with experimental gameplay makes a video game cocktail both unapologetically distinct and genuinely game-changing.
With so many trend-chasers out there, it’s games like Cyberpet Graveyard, alongside the numerous other out-there creations found hidden on Itch.io and beyond, that remind us that when looking for innovation, we should be looking at indie developers.
Nathalie Lawhead is currently working on two as-of-yet unannounced collaborative projects and a larger solo venture. This next game is going turn players’ desktop into a village, filled with characters, stories, tangents, and missions. This game has no planned release date and will come out whenever it’s ready.
Connor Makar is a freelance games gournalist with bylines at Eurogamer and Kotaku. He loves fighting games and will jump at any opportunity to play a few rounds, even when there are far more important things he needs to do.