A humble team’s foray into horror: Discussing Fear the Spotlight with Bryan Singh of Cozy Game Pals

I’m sure for most of our readers the idea of returning to the land of academia sounds like a nightmare far worse than any ghoulish goblin or gore-soaked cemetery. But you better get your book bags and notebooks ready, because with Fear the Spotlight indie game duo Cozy Game Pals aims to make us experience a new tale of creeped-out kids and the creatures that stalk them, that is sure to make your memories of getting sent to the principal’s office seem like a summer vacation to Disney-world. 

I learned about Fear the Spotlight during a study session on my favorite subject: Indie Horror Games, but I was shocked to see that the team behind it was relatively new to the genre of horror, having made only one game before that contained mild horror elements, and instead of having a back catalog of varied, and frankly, very entertaining, games. I wanted to know what would lead a team from making games about balancing cartoonishly high stacks of treats on a dog’s nose and catching them, to making a game about dilapidated schools and spotlight stalkers. After visiting their website, I messaged them directly, and after inquiring about an interview, Bryan was more than happy to oblige. Through the magic of the world wide web we connected for a voice call, and I began my quiz on Cozy Game Pals, their past works, and their upcoming title Fear the Spotlight. Unfortunately, Crista was not available for this interview, as they are both the proud parents of a young child, who needed attention at the time. Perhaps as we near the release of the title we can find time to get a follow-up interview with the two of them.

I sincerely had a lot of fun going through their gameography before I interviewed Bryan, so much so that I took a moment before the interview to relay the amount of fun I had, and the amount of time I wasted playing cacti jump rope, or catching dog treats out of the air. Cozy Game Pals makes small games with a lot of charm.

Bryan Singh: Oh, cool! I’m glad to hear that. That’s exciting. 

I can’t understate the difference between their previous games and their upcoming title. It was a far cry, not only in tone but in scope. So I asked plainly, what had led them to make Fear the Spotlight?

BS: Crista (Crista Castro is one half of the dev team) and I, we just like horror games… so there’s a lot of reasons to make Fear the Spotlight. It’s like a mix of practical and kind of inspirational reasons… Most of the games that we play together are horror games, because… one person can be driving and the other person can be spectating. And it’s a lot of fun to play horror games, kind of like Co-Op-ish. So a lot of the games we end up playing together are just straight-up horror games. We watch a lot of horror movies together. I think Crista might be a bigger fan of horror than me but she’s really brought me into it. And now I also consider myself a big horror fan. And so I think in making our games so all of our games up until this point have been before Fear the Spotlight they’d have been like hobby projects, Fear the Spotlight is going to be our first game that we’re attempting to make as our full time job. And so when we’re deciding, like, Okay, what does that mean? What’s a game that we can make that we think we can actually earn a living off of? Maybe not a living, I don’t think it’s going to do that well, but what can we make that might make some money. Because our previous games were just kind of dabbling, experimenting, trying stuff and catering to our tastes, but also catering to our limitations as a small team. And Fear the Spotlight is, based on the stuff that we’ve made before, we see that there are also a lot of horror fans out there… There’s a huge audience of people that are ready to play horror games, and share them, and get excited. And when they play horror, you want to get scared like you really want. You know, there’s a lot of genre hybrids of like, kind of silly games that start off silly and get more twisted as you go into it. When we made I’m Still Here it was a bit like the opposite where it started, like, “oh, this might be like a real horror game” and then you pretty quickly realize it’s dumb. It’s like even dumber, but it still has some of the, you know, horror tropes, like, the stuff that we think is fun and horror. And so even though our brand is pretty light hearted and jokey and stuff, we think we can make a horror game that still caters to our own tastes. And we’re still kind of trying to figure out what that line is, because it’s pretty dark and creepy and serious. But I think in a way, the story, at least the one we have planned, is still pretty sweet and kind hearted. Even though it’s got some creepy and sinister stuff in it. I think it’s the stuff that we like in horror… There’s hard lines that we’re not interested in crossing, like it’s not going to be just straight up gore or straight up jumpscares and that kind of stuff.

On the topic of influences, I commented on the distinct similarities between the inventory screen in Silent Hill and Fear the Spotlight

BS: (laughs) Yeah, there are some touches we like, just straight up pulled from points of reference.

But prospective players should not take that to mean that the world of Fear the Spotlight is going to be anything like the traumas experienced by Harry Mason or the other residents of Silent Hill, Bryan elaborated on this point

BS: Yeah, it’s more, I don’t think we intentionally catered to a younger audience. But I think it’s in our sensibilities to, like, sort of include, maybe not younger, maybe like younger adults, you know, at the youngest. I think our tastes overlap with that almost like Goosebumps level horror, where it’s like, Goosebumps has some creepy stuff in it, and it can be really fun and silly also. So I think it’s not trying to be a satire on horror, it’s still horror. It’s just a little bit of a more lighthearted horror or a little bit of a more innocent horror. And so I think that might be the tier that we’re aiming at, but for games. You know, like we can still have creepy stuff, but it could still be inviting to young adults and teens and stuff. Yeah, it’s like “okay, if your a fan of Silent Hill it’s got, I think, what is like the Goosebumps tier of Silent Hill”, if that makes sense,

It sounded like a breath of fresh air to see a classic survival horror game that was aiming to be more accessible to people who were less familiar with horror. Or for people who are deterred by copious amounts of dismemberment and gore. 

BS: There is a place for it. It’s just not our interest, you know? 

It seems like Fear the Spotlight is putting its stock into the exploration and escape elements of survival horror, as even the short demo offers an example of the creative ways Cozy Game Pals implemented their puzzles and how they educate the player about them.

BS: Yeah, we’re really trying to take inspiration from so many different kinds of games. Because like you mentioned, a lot of them like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, you know, Resident Evil has those very grounded, maybe esoteric, and kind of weird, but like, almost like escape room style, riddles and puzzles and stuff, then Silent Hill lets you introduce surreal or supernatural elements to it. And then I think modern indie games, at least the ones that we gravitate towards, are just like, kind of spooky task after spooky task. And then a bunch of weird stuff happens. And there’s space for that,  like, “hide from the monster” kind of stuff. So it’s like really trying to mix together all of our favorite inspirations and elements from different kind of sub-genres of horror

Aside from the puzzle elements of the title, I was curious about what other Survival Horror elements were taken into consideration. While the demo does feature inventory management, there is little item management needed. So I asked Bryan, what plans did they have for those types of mechanics in the final release?

BS: Yeah, I think that’s such an important or fun trope of horror games, I’d like to think, like, you know, the recent Resident Evil game simply just fucking nailed it. Those games do that so well, where you’re always on edge with [the enemies] staring you down. You’re just like, really on edge about, like, “do I have enough?” Is this the right time to use my [items]? at least at the beginning of these games. You know, like, should I use one of my five bullets or something. So it’s something we (Bryan pauses) Maybe it’s worth talking about where we are in development, like, we’ve done the demo, and the rest of the game only exists on paper. like we only have ideas that we haven’t implemented, [the demo] was really all we have up to now. And now we’re like, okay, now that we’ve kind of proven that out, we’re just sharing as we’re going along. And so we’ve got the whole game to make, pretty much, so there’s a lot of ideas on the table. And that’s an element we want to incorporate. 

Like, we have health items, you have your inhaler, because you have breathing problems and your health. The demo, that was tuned like, super easy because we wanted to just let people finish the game. So there’s not really much of a risk of actually taking damage or needing to use it. So that’s the start of item management, resource management, like using your [inhaler] at the right time, or your healing items at the right time. I think we’re trying to figure out what is the appropriate balance for our setting, like every decision we’re making is sort of in support of our narrative. We want to make sure everything feels pretty cohesive. And with the setting and characters we have, you’re this kind of weak student with asthma. So you’re running through this haunted environment, and so you should be feeling pretty overwhelmed and underpowered, and so finding the right items that also aid that feeling is tricky, because like the natural go to items in a survival horror game is weapons and things like that.

So, you know, maybe there’s some version of that that works for our games, because the gameplay of that is so good. You know, maybe there’s still a version of weapons [we could use]… I don’t know, there’s still a lot to figure out there. But the item management, resource management stuff, it’s a staple of the genre for a reason. So it’s definitely a thing that we’re talking about. But it won’t be until we get it in and tested that we know what is and is not working, what will and will not stay.

I was shocked to learn that the game was in such an early state, from the polish on the demo I had assumed that they were much further along in development. Curious as to how much of the game the demo contained, I asked Bryan, How far along is the game?

BS: It’s like, oof, what would I say? It’s 15% done? 10%? (laughs) And it’s like, okay, the tech is there. All the systems are started or represented. The map that we have in the demo, it’s a bit reconfigured from what we have planned for the final game… Some of the puzzles are in different orders, and some of the doors are unlocked, and etc. So it’s not exactly as you’ll see it in the final game, even the order that you’ll see the enemy and stuff, we kind of just jam things out of order to make a demo that we thought played well. But yeah, that’s all stuff that will be in the final game, but it’s like, that’s it, that’s all we’ve got. I guess we’ve got some, block mesh, like unfinished rooms that we’re not sure if they’re actually gonna go in yet. We’ve already redesigned on paper, because we have better ideas. We tried to keep things really rough, I guess. What’s the phrase I’ve heard is like, “paper is cheap” or, you know, like, it’s cheaper to prototype or iterate on paper before implementing stuff. Because we’re such a small team, it’s literally just two of us. We have to be really, really conscious about how every minute is spent.

I commented that it was like the game dev equivalent of “Measure twice, cut once”

BS: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And that’s, you know, with games, that only works so much, we can try our best. But once we have something implemented enough, it’s almost like Measure twice, do half the cut then measure again, and then continue to cut and then measure again, and realize, oh, no, I should do a different cut. It’s like don’t even do the full cut before re-measuring. It’s like, we implement it just enough that we can play test with people. And then we see how it’s working. If we’re happy with it, we check in with each other. And we try to cut things off and like, pivot direction, as soon as we possibly can. We don’t wait until we wasted too much time on something before changing our minds.

With the game being in such an early stage, I asked what plans there for other enemies, or was their intention to have the spotlight on the single monster?

BS: (chuckles) He’s certainly the main enemy, sort of the main villain… So we’re currently in discussions of two versions of the game, the reception for the demo has been bigger than we expected. So we’re trying to decide, like, do we do the more conservatively scoped game that we were initially planning or do we do a bigger version of the game. The original plan was doing really just a 60 to 90 minute, maybe like, one to two hour game, something like that. But now we’re considering… our like three to five hour game. So that, you know, depending on which of those we make, there’s going to be a different number of enemies. But it’s going to be few enemies, they’re going to be like, hero enemies, enemies with backstories that are characters that are written into the narrative. So there’s only gonna be a few of them, like the big version of the game might have like three or four. And then the small version of the game might have two or three. So it’s gonna be a few main antagonists with, you know, a bunch of variations of how you encounter them and things that they might do and different spooky things that happen around them and stuff.

The Spotlight slayer has a very foreboding presence, with the light being cast becoming visible well before the silhouette of the creature has come into view. I asked Bryan, where did the inspiration come from for the design?

BS:  I think it started from a mechanics perspective first. The initial idea started from a version of the game that’s unrecognizable to what it is now… While we were doing a horror game, we had a scenario where there was a student chained up in a classroom, they’re in a chair, like, being brainwashed by a giant projector that was on the front of the classroom. And the projector would kind of flash images, like A Clockwork Orange style, crazy stuff, feeding into the students’ brains. And occasionally, if you did something in the room, the projector would flip to an eyeball and the eyeball had this glowing look that would scan the room and try to find you. And so for various reasons, a lot of that setup wasn’t working for us. But we liked that element of just how clear it read that you were, you know, in the vision cone of this enemy. And so, so funny, we just had separately, another enemy that we were prototyping, which was like, an enemy that patrolled, because that’s in other games. So we’re like, “okay, let’s try a patrolling enemy”. And you were sneaking, trying to grab a key and he was patrolling. And that enemy wasn’t working, because we’re like, oh, it’s so hard to see, you know, hard to tell what he’s doing. When you’re dealing with an AI enemy, readability is the most important thing, to make the enemy seem smart and not frustrating. So we’re like, “oh, well, let’s just put the projector stuff on the enemy”. At this point, the enemy was, like, basic shapes, like cylinders, and spheres and stuff. We’re like, “okay, throw a spotlight on that” and it instantly became readable and playable, and interesting and stuff. So we had, you know, a more rough idea of the game, like, we knew the setting and some of the characters and stuff. And then we started to develop the enemy that  actually played well. And so that, yeah, I think from there it became like, “Okay, well we if we want to have just straight up vision cones visible”. That started to get us thinking about spotlights… where would you see a bright light in a school? Spotlights… the theater room and stuff. And that ended up informing a lot of the specifics of the story that we had. So like, a lot of the story references, the theater at the school, and the students who were in theater class and stuff like that. And then the spotlight started making a lot more sense, like as a character to run around, and like, try to shine the spotlight on people.

I thought that was very cool, the organic way the creature came to be. I told Bryan that I hoped that the Spooky Spotlight man would get recognized as another indie horror icon the way that people latch onto characters like Siren head or any number of FNAF animatronics.

BS: Yeah, maybe maybe if we can build up the lore behind him while I like, I like the story that we’ve got kind of brewing or where it’s going at least. But I don’t know, like I don’t think we’re doing so amazing. Like all the stuff we’re doing, I’m proud of the quality that we’re hitting. But it’s pretty much in the genre, you know, it’s not like, breaking such new ground, that I think people will like “whoa” be so taken by it. But I don’t know, I think it’s cool. But there’s so many characters that are just like “a character with a thing on their head.”

I told him that Red Pyramid will always come to mind when you think “Scary guy with thing on head”

BS: Yeah, exactly like that, Yeah.

But I do have high hopes for the project regardless, having seen the popularity of the demo with gaming content creators. I told Bryan that I would be keeping my fingers crossed for the longer, more fleshed out version of the game.

BS: I think we’re hoping, also. Just seeing the excitement, we’re getting more excited about it. I think the consideration is time and money, like, it’s practical, you know? Mostly, if we had infinite time and money, we would make it. We probably wouldn’t be doing anything too much different, right? We’re really doing this because we want to… we’re trying to make the type of game that we’re actually gonna have fun making.

Not a lot of people have the opportunity. Like I said, this is our first time working on our games full time, because we used to have full time jobs. We had full time creative jobs, I make games professionally and Crista had a professional art job. But it’s like, you don’t make exactly the thing that you want to be making, you know, as an artist, so this is kind of our first time letting ourselves actually have at it and do what we want to make, within reason, we still want to try to make something that people will like.

Wrapping up our interview I asked Bryan a hypothetical. If Fear the Spotlight were to absolute shatter expectations, and open Cozy Game Pals to a whole new level of success. If Konami saw this and gave the Silent Hill IP to you, would you accept it, or would making someone else’s game not be in line with what the two of you want to do?

BS: I don’t think we would try to take that on. I think our ambitions aren’t to do anything huge. It’s just to keep doing what we want to do. And we know we don’t want to do anything huge… That’s why for this game, the bigger version would be three to five hours, it’s like, you know, we’re not going to make this 10 hour, 20 hour like, full-ass game. It’s going to be what we can do before we get bored of it (laughs). We don’t want to drag ourselves through something and to the point where we hate it. Like we want to do something and make sure we like it the whole time through and get excited about it and then move on to the next exciting thing. So it’s like, yeah, we’ve been thinking about after this, say, it does come out and it does well, and people like it. And we’re, we’re like, “Oh, are we horror developers now?” because we didn’t, we don’t see ourselves as that, we see horror as a thing that we really like, but we also like a lot of other stuff. That’s gonna be interesting, that’s thinking too many steps ahead, I think. It’s like, assuming we’re gonna do fine, which is not is not a safe assumption, you know? So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

And lastly, a question entirely for me, I simply had to ask Bryan, can I ever expect to see a sequel to Tokyo snap in the future?

BS: I don’t know about a sequel. Yeah, because that’s, that’s an interesting game, because we were really not full-time doing it. It was our first time trying, I think it was the first time we tried selling something, but we didn’t really have the time to, you know, give it the full scope that it deserved. I think that was like, execution was good, some of the core elements of the game were good. I think some of the writing, I’m actually proud of some of the writing in that game, like some of the characters, I think the character’s Crista [made] like, really knocked out of the park. And like, even the character development and story were cool. But yeah, the kind of gameplay and scenario and stuff, we could have done a lot more with that. So yeah, that’d be interesting to consider revisiting. I think, practically, probably not. Just because there’s not a huge incentive to. That’s interesting to think about, like I I think we need to decide for ourselves sort of some pretty realistic rules for what, what we take on as a project.

I asked if they were rules like “more than one person has to want it?”

BS: Yeah, I think that’s probably one of the criteria.

After our conversation I thanked Bryan again for his time, and he set back on his quest to be a father, and to bring their horror game out of the dark and into the spotlight. You should check out the demo for Fear the Spotlight either on Steam or on Itch.io, as well as check out their many other fun titles. 

If you would like to follow Cozy Game Pals you can visit their YouTube page, Twitter, and Instagram as well as their website.

And for more information on the many macabre makings in the gaming world, follow DreadXP on Twitter and read more of our articles elsewhere on the website.