Laika died in 1957. She's one of the tragic prologues of Russia's move into human spaceflight; a terrier mongrel that was picked up from the streets of Russia and launched into geocentric orbit as part of a one-way research mission to test how living things react to spaceflight. The real-life story had a sad end (something you can read about right here) but Minicore Studios' latest Kickstarter project paints a different picture of her life.
Laika Believes is being described as a 2D action platformer depicting an alternate history of Laika, a little dog in robotic armor who, in a world following the death of Stalin and the rise of a Soviet army, tries to put things right.
"Laika's story is just so heartbreaking and important," Minicore founder John Warren told Polygon. "Peter Odom (our creative director) and I have been interested in her story for a while. We love other fictionalized accounts of her story, even ones that don't stray far from the ultimate result, like Nick Abadzis' Laika graphic novel. A few games have tackled Laika's story (or a story resembling it), but we wanted to make something that felt like the evolution of 2D games as if big-budget 3D hadn't been developed. This meant something that combined the traditional action/platforming loops with our personal accents. We felt like creating an alternate timeline was the best way to accomplish this."
'We wanted to make something that felt like the evolution of 2D games as if big-budget 3D hadn't been developed.'
It's not a revenge tale, says Warren. He emphasizes "she's still a dog." Although in Laika Believes the plot device of this alternative timeline allows for a few major changes. She understands and communicates with others. She wears robot armor. She is curious about her intended fate. The odd timeline also allows for the introduction of advanced technology that the game's now-imperialist Soviets have used to conquer much of the world.
Laika Believes features a strikingly complex narrative considering the novel premise. In its alternate universe, Soviet Russia discovers a strange new energy source, lighting a fire under the Russian war machine that results in the destruction of America and Great Britain. The USSR comes out of this as the world's new imperialist power, with the Soviet army left as rulers. "Only a force from beyond the earth could possibly tip the balance," says Warren. "Abram Krupin, who leads one of many resistance cells alonsgide his wife, Amulya Diggavi, knows this. When he sees a dog fall from the stars, then, he takes it as an omen. This dog speaks, wears silver armor, and has an arsenal of mysterious weapons. Abram calls her Laika."
The game is a 2D action platformer that takes influence from the likes of Cave Story and Metroid. It features big, non-linear levels, large-scale skill trees and hand-drawn 2D assets. The latter in the list wasn't always part of the plan, however.
The artstyle evolved over time. Initially the studio aimed for a pixellated look, something that would likely match the retro-styled 2D gameplay. "But when our lead artist started making concepts in a specific style, we opted for a more hand-drawn approach. It just brought Laika to life in a way we hadn't originally imagined.
"A more detailed style also allowed us to create assets that personalize certain areas of the game. We try to be efficient when it comes to asset use (reusing assets when possible, etc.), but creating specific assets (one-offs in some cases) adds a personal touch to environments in the game. There are difficulties with the art style, sure. It's taken us a while to get the assets we have and we still have a ways to go. Lots of our environment and enemy art is finished, though, so animation is taking up a lot of our time right now. It costs us a little bit of flexibility, too, since the art takes a while. We have to be very specific as designers to give the art team exactly what each character/enemy can do. It's difficult for us to go to them later and say "oh the Cyber Bear needs to also do cartwheels." We get the Stare of Doom when that happens."
The team have also adopted an episodic structure for the game, something that Warren acknowledges can be a polarizing factor in games.
"I think it works really well for games like Kentucky Route Zero or The Walking Dead," he said. "It hasn't worked as well for other teams, but with the story progression we have and the skills/choices that carry over, the episodic nature of Laika Believes is actually really exciting for us. From a logistical standpoint, we like smaller packages, in general.
"We have a story we want to tell and it could be told in one act, but that act would destroy us as an independent studio. Splitting up the work creates breathing room for us. It's also a way, frankly, to get the first part out there and see if the players like what we're trying to do. If it works really well (and we think it will), then the next acts will follow close behind. If there are things that need to be changed, we have the freedom to do that."