On Saturday, January 6, I got to sit down with Caty Herndon and Marty Duff, the two faces that compose the entirety of RockTheClock, a promising indie studio that’s reached the final months of development on their first game: The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot. Caty is the Project Manager for the game, while Marty is the Artist.
The game is a comedic visual novel that puts players in control of Grace Sinclair, a teenage girl who somehow gets a job at a detective agency even though she faints at the sight of blood. The demo is currently available for free. The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot is scheduled to release for Windows, Linux, and Mac on April 21, 2018.
The following interview has been edited for readability.
Jordan: I played your demo twice now, because I wanted a quick refresher after playing it a week ago. I loved it. I didn’t know what I was going to get into, but I ended up really enjoying it. I think the thing that really captured me right off the bat was the art style being so bright and vibrant. It caught me totally off guard, because this game is a murder mystery story and we’ve gotten a lot of video games in that genre recently that are a bit darker. So I wanted to pick your brain a little bit and ask why y’all picked such a light-hearted tone for the art style of The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot.
Caty: I think I should leave that to you.
Marty: Right! Well originally Caty approached me with the idea a few years ago, and I thought since it was a visual novel, we’d do a morbid mystery anime style. But then I read the finished script and I realized…that’s not going to work at all. [laughs] It’s a goofy game, so it needs a light-hearted art style to go with it. So I kind of combined anime with a western style of art to make something a little unique to the murder mystery genre.
Caty: I think at the time, I was really obsessed with Layton Brother’s Mystery Room, and they have this cute cartoon style, and I showed it to Marty and pretty much just said, “I want it to look like THAT! Make art for me now…” [everyone laughs]
Jordan: I don’t immediately think of Layton when someone asks me about visual novels, but I can see the franchise’s influence in your game. Speaking of the genre, what made you decide to develop this detective story as a visual novel? The pairing is not unheard of, but a visual novel hasn’t been the first choice for most developers making a detective story in recent years.
Caty: Yeah, well originally I was making this game with RPG Maker. But then I realized, “This looks terrible!” [laughs]. So, I asked Marty for help. I have a friend named Tina, and she’s been very interested in creating visual novels, and I saw her mess with Ren’Py. So yeah, originally this game wasn’t going to be a visual novel, but, after trying out Ren’Py, I fell in love with all the customization options, and decided to change the game’s genre.
Jordan: I noticed there was another game tied to RockTheClock, called…Going Home?
Caty: Oh, no, that’s hers [points at Marty]
Marty: Yeah, I made that for my mom for her birthday.
Jordan: Oh, okay [laughs]. It was really sweet, but it was a totally different type of game and art style, and I was curious as to the abrupt change in tone. I was wondering if only one of you had worked on it, and the other person was influencing the direction of this game.
Marty: Oh we DEFINITLY each have our own tone.
Caty: Yeah, like Marty, she’s a writer too, so she’s written other stories. And hers are just…sad, so sad. She writes sad things! I write funny stuff.
Marty: Yeah, so Caty is the Project Manager for THIS game, so we’re going with her tone for this game. For the next one, I’ll be the Project Manager. We’ll have a bit of a back and forth when it comes to our games’ tones.
Caty: Yeah, Marty’s game is shaping up to be more on the serious side, and mine’s more on the YAHOO! [everyone laughs] I’m the crazy one, and Marty keeps me grounded. In a good way!
Marty: And Caty lightens things up for me!
Jordan: That’s a nice dynamic! Caty, does that mean that you’ll be the artist for the next game?
Caty: [aggressively shakes her head and everyone laughs] You DON’T want me to draw the next one! We’re going to be learning how to code the next one together. I’ll probably still be doing most of the coding, so Marty can focus on character models and whatnot, but yeah, mostly coding. I hate it. Well…I have a love-hate relationship with coding. When I get something right, I celebrate, but most of the time I’m just hitting my head against the wall and wondering why nothing is working.
Jordan: You can’t tell looking at the demo for The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot! Based on this conversation though, it looks like I’ll be reaching out to talk to you both again in a few years. But I digress! This interview is about The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot, so let’s return to the conversation on that. So, like I said before, I just finished playing your demo again for a second time. Now, I love visual novels. The one thing I DON’T typically like about them is that there’s usually no way to “lose.” You can’t fail or die in a visual novel. Some visual novels are the exception, but most are pretty linear in the type of narrative. They’re “a book” so the main character is supposed to follow, to an extant, a set path.
So I really love that The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot incorporates gameplay that allows the player to “fail.” Grace will faint if she looks at too much blood. Considering she’s a detective solving murder cases, she has to examine crime scenes filled with bloody pieces of evidence all the time. So, the player has to be deliberate in what evidence they look at, and which ones they skip over so she doesn’t pass out halfway through the investigation. How did you arrive at such a mechanic?
Marty: That was all Caty.
Caty: Yeah, that was all me. So, as I said before, one summer I was playing Layton Brother’s Mystery Room. And I actually did faint at the sight of blood. A few days later, after I had recovered, I just kept thinking about how difficult it would be for a detective to have this condition.
So I designed Grace to have incredible deductive skills. She can see everything, and she immediately knows whether or not something is important to a murder. She can instinctively identify the murder weapon or where the dead body fell, but it’s up to the player to decide exactly which pieces of those evidence are important enough to warrant a closer look for further clues. They just have to be careful they don’t look at too much blood to keep Grace from passing out.
Jordan: The gameplay reminded me of the TV show Psyche. Like if both Shaun and Gus were meshed together into one person.
Caty: [laughs] Yeah.
Jordan: Did you use Psyche as an inspiration for any parts of the game?
Caty: I’m sure it subconsciously influenced me, but it wasn’t something I was really focused on while designing the game.
Jordan: Fair enough.
Caty: Admittedly, it probably was always in the back of my head…because I really love the show.
Jordan: You have excellent taste. [everyone laughs] Circling back around to the bloody item mechanic, there weren’t too many of those types of items in the demo. A lot of the evidence had no blood on it. So I was able to observe most of the evidence and still stumble into the truth. I had to do some mental gymnastics, but I still arrived at the truth by talking the case through with Grace’s coworkers.
Can players expect the amount of bloody items to remain consistent across the whole game, or can we expect to see the amount of bloody evidence grow with subsequent cases?
Caty: Well, in the demo, our casino case is a tutorial for finding evidence. In the full game, the following restaurant case is a tutorial for questioning witnesses.
Marty: Yeah, the two missions in the demo will return in the full game as the first two missions. They, along with a third case, will be the tutorial for the fourth case that will be much harder.
Caty: Yeah, and in that fourth case, there are only two pieces of evidence that are NOT covered in blood.
Jordan: Wait, what?
Caty: [laughs] Yup, everything else is covered in blood. Because the murder takes place in a restaurant’s kitchen, so there’s both a lot of human blood and animal blood.
Jordan: That’s not sanitary.
Marty: Oh yeah. [everyone laughs]
Caty: So in answer to your question, yeah it some cases it will increase, and it will make things more difficult on the player’s part in those instances. That being said, The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot is not about being difficult. The game is, like all visual novels, is very story centered and more of an experience than a…
Marty: A challenge.
Caty: Yeah, exactly. Like we’re not trying to trip the player up or lead them down a certain line of thought and then say, “Just kidding!” when they don’t figure it out.
Jordan: Well…you kind of did. In that first official case in the casino, I just couldn’t figure out who the murderer was. I wracked my brain for a good 10 minutes before finally giving up and clicking the “I don’t know” option, and then I was told that I wasn’t expected to figure it out until taking the evidence to the crime lab!
Caty: Okay, yeah, the STORY is going to throw the player for a loop, but the CASES themselves don’t. Not really.
Jordan: So the player will be able to figure out any of the cases with a basic understanding of deductive reasoning.
Caty: Right. Honestly, even if the player doesn’t click on ANYTHING, it’s still technically possible to solve the case if you happen to then click on the ONE right thing. You could figure everything out without having to closely examine anything. Also if you just keep clicking answers, you’ll eventually get there.
Marty: The other characters, especially your fellow detectives can help you out too.
Caty: Yeah, Lem does help you out in the casino case when prompted.
Jordan: Changing gears, I also noticed, since I was browsing your Kickstarter this morning, there’s going to be multiple endings to this game. I don’t know if you can talk about it yet, since it might be spoiler territory, but how will the player reach those different endings? Are some tied to failing specific cases? Is there just one large choice at the end of the game that determines how the game ends?
Caty: There is a point in the game where the player CAN outright fail, and the story will keep progressing without forcing them to try again.
Marty: Yeah, and although the effects of that failure aren’t immediate, it does affect what ending the player gets. There are four total endings. I wrote two of them, so two of them have my tone and two of them have Caty’s tone.
Caty: There’s a good ending, which offshoots into two separate endings depending on whether or not you failed that case we talked about earlier. There’s also a bad ending that also branches into two different types of ending depending on the outcome of that case.
Marty: And whether or not the game goes good or bad is dependent on several variables that stack up from the choices the player makes. These choices start accumulating right from the very first day of the game, and depending on what the player chooses, they’ll either get Caty’s good end or my bad end.
Caty: Yeah, we can actually tell pretty quickly which ending the player will get. From the few Let’s Plays of our demo we have, we can already tell which ending most players are going towards.
Caty: Yeah, we have a pretty good idea right from the start which ending a player is going to get.
Jordan: Interesting…I also noticed that there are different outfits for some of the characters. Are those purely cosmetic, like are there chapters where certain characters have to change clothes, or are there any mechanics tied to costume changes?
Caty: Outfits won’t be tied to mechanics, but they will be tied to the story.
Jordan: Cool. Speaking of mechanics, the demo doesn’t have any of the interrogation gameplay, because Lem did that for us, but it did have the player both question witnesses and investigate a crime scene. Will most of the cases follow the pattern seen in the demo? Questioning, investigation, interrogation, repeat? Or will there be any cases that mix things up?
Caty: That’s actually…well…no. Short answer is no. [everyone laughs]. Long answer, that’s actually something I didn’t like about Layton Brother’s Mystery Room. Every case in that game is the same, and that’s BORING! [everyone laughs]. So yeah, no case is going to be the same.
Marty: The first ones are formulaic because they’re teaching the mechanics of the game to the player.
Caty: Yeah, the way I wrote them, the first cases all act as a tutorial to different mechanics. Then they all come together in the third-
Caty: Right, fourth, sorry. The convenience store “counts” as one…I guess. [everyone laughs]. Yeah, so the fourth one puts the mechanics together. The fifth one is just…the fifth one. And then the actual cold case of Noelle Bejerot…yeah, I won’t spoil that one for you.
Marty: It’ll be really fun.
Jordan: How dare you tease me, you’re making me so excited!
Caty: [laughs] You’re welcome!
Marty: That’s our marketing wizard right there.
Caty: Yeah…I like people’s Tweets and hope they wonder, “Who liked my Tweet?” and just decide to follow us back. [Jordan laughs] It’ll work one day!
Jordan: Before we start to wind down, I do want to address the sounds that bring The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot to life. I know there wasn’t voice acting in the demo, but I remember hearing voices in the game’s trailer so I’m assuming the full game will have voice acting.
Jordan: So, going off of that, I want to talk about music. I really enjoyed the music in the demo. It was…I don’t want to say simplistic…maybe chiptune? It reminded me of those SNES days. Those really catchy tunes that are really just the same five seconds repeated over and over and over again.
Marty: [laughs] I know EXACLTY what you mean.
Jordan: Did y’all compose that music or did you find that music somewhere or…?
Marty: That was all Caty!
Caty: All me! I made the music that was playing in the background of the game.
Caty: The menu music was composed by a family friend though.
Marty: And he’s going to be composing four additional tracks to play in the credits for each of the four endings.
Caty: Yeah, so he’ll be doing those and The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot‘s main theme, but every other sound in the game was made by me. I used SoundTrap, a program that allows you to easily create loop songs. I had made them before, but with programs that didn’t allow you to commercialize the songs, so this was my first time using SoundTrap. I made the songs with the free assets that SoundTrap provides.
Jordan: Well I like it, and it sounds like I’m going to have to play your game through four separate times.
Caty: [laughing] Thank you! I appreciate it! Yeah, sometimes, when I’m coding and the music is on, I’ll start grooving to the beat [starts humming The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot‘s theme]. Marty will find me just coding and jamming out.
Jordan: How is it, making a game while still being in college? That can’t be easy!
Caty: It’s…it’s not… [Jordan laughs] Yeah, so I’m an Accounting major. Which is just a bunch of math and studying, so when I’m working on the game I feel a release for my creativity.
Marty: Yeah, my major is more closely aligned to my role on the project, so this game acts as a heads up to what I might expect down the road, project-wise. I’m just happy to have enough free time to work on the game!
Jordan: The two of you have a wonderful dynamic! Have you ever considered bringing on more people or do you think you’re going to stick to the two of you for the next few games? I mean, it doesn’t seem like you really need anyone else!
Marty: We do have one person who helps us out sometimes: my husband. We call him our intern. [everyone laughs] He’s a computer scientist, so he’ll come in handy if we ever decide to start using something like Unity.
Caty: That being said, for this game, I haven’t gotten any help! For coding. Except for online tutorials. [everyone laughs] NO HELP!
Marty: I would like to bring on a permanent music person.
Caty: Definitely. A code monkey would be nice too. Then I could just turn to them and ask them to define 200 images while I’m working on the actual code. I could invest in a whip and just yell, “Faster!” while they worked. [everyone breaks down laughing]
Jordan: [still laughing] This has been a pleasure talking with you both. You’ve given me so much insight into The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot, and I know our readers will be happy to know more about that game I keep manically Tweeting about. Anything else you can tease for the coming months?
Caty: [turns to Marty] Should we mention…
Marty: I wouldn’t.
Caty: Okay, yeah, then no, we’re good! [everyone laughs]
Marty: The Kickstarter for The Cold Case of Noelle Bejerot ends January 20 though!
Caty: Yes, please support the game if you can!