A Hat in Time’s creator shares his love for cute cynicism and more

I will use all of these answers against him while he solves a murder mystery

A Hat in Time is one of my favorite games of last year. Its gameplay mechanics revel in absurdity and its writing contrasts cute-as-heck appearances with unapologetic cynicism to great comedic effect. I’ve said before I felt like developer Gears for Breakfast made many decisions around these just to have fun with A Hat in Time’s development themselves…but a feeling wouldn’t make a solid basis for an article discussing a developer’s design philosophy. I mean, most people who want to know what a developer thinks would probably just shoot an email to the developer’s business inquiries, ask for an interview, and hit up Gears for Breakfast’s founder Jonas Kaerlev in a Discord call.

So I emailed Gears for Breakfast. Here’s a transcript of my delightful interview with Mr. Kaerlev! Oh, and in case you’re wary of Nyakuza Metro + Online Party DLC spoilers, there are none of those here. I interviewed before the DLC released anyway.

Hovermale: So, let’s start with the biggest thing on my mind. A lot of A Hat in Time’s written jokes come across to me like — for lack of a better term — endearing shitposts. Stuff like the halibut pun, the “No one is around to help” dance, the empty capitalism book, and more things that may confuse everyone reading this without context. How would you describe your writing process for jokes like these?

Kaerlev: So I think a big contributor is the fact that we are keenly aware of who we are and who plays our game. Like, we know we are not Mario and we know that the people who are playing are going to be exactly like us. That allows us to have creative liberties. We know our audience is not going to be made of kids, so we can go in kinda weird directions like how the latest DLC is all about the yakuza, which is…not something that something kid-friendly would ever dare to go into. So we like the way we step on unconventional subjects and the same thing goes for our writing.

A lot of us at the studio are young adults, so we grew up on stuff like The Onion and et cetera. We’re super jaded and cynical and that is really what allows us to write what’s on our mind, what we find funny, not what we think our target groups find funny. Like when Hat Kid loses her soul it’s like “You feel really empty inside.”

And then when you get it back, “Now you feel the usual amount of empty!”

Yeah, and when you examine her closet, there are like skeletons in her closet, et cetera. It’s a lot of fun to just know who you are speaking to directly and being kind of unhinged in that regard.

The Murder on Owl Express is one of the most unique levels I’ve ever played in a platformer. What inspired you to create a Mad-Libbed Choose-Your-Own Murder Mystery?

So A Hat in Time isn’t just a platformer, right? If it was just a platformer, you would just go from left to right. It’s much more about the experience, how you feel playing it. When we put you in different situations we want you to actually feel like it’s a living breathing place, whether that’s a movie studio or the haunted woods or a meta scene, we want it to feel more engaging like you’re playing a mini-episode of a TV show.

In fact, I think a TV show style way of doing things is probably the most accurate description of what we do. You jump into one thing, and we set the entire scene up, and we’re like, “Alright, how much fun can we have with this?” And once the episode’s over we jump onto the next thing.

Murder on the Owl Express is something I really wanted for the longest time just because it’s really, really funny when there’s a cute, cute game and then someone just dies. There’s an inherent fun factor to that whole setup. It’s ridiculous, having to see a cartoon character die. We do this in the new DLC as well, in the trailer we released, like one of the NPCs just explodes into this dust pile, which is really funny.

“Don’t let that be you.”

Yeah exactly! Like when you’re playing Mario or whatever and Mario jumps on a Goomba, it’s like “Ah, that’s normal, right,” but imagine Bowser punching a Goomba and it exploding. It’s like “Wow, he just killed that guy!” Playing around with what the player expects is really, really funny.

And obviously, in the end, we reveal that nobody was really harmed because we kinda have to do that unless we want to get a mature rating. But we played for as long as we can until we dropped that reveal, and especially like, picking the murderer themselves.

You can write so much for that, where Hat Kid says that it’s the voices that told her and obviously the voices are a reference to the player. You can just do a lot of fun stuff when you play off the fact that you know your target audience isn’t just kids.

Whenever you hit NPCs that you can’t hurt, they bounce and make a squeaky dog toy sound effect. Why that sound, specifically?

So we added that because we had a serious problem, and this is way back. It was in Mafia Town, and in Mafia Town, there are Mafia you can kill and some you can’t kill. And we were like, “Oh dang, how do we differentiate those,” and we were close to going in a crazy direction to that those you can’t kill are going to have super armor you can’t destroy or crazy stuff like that, and that’s when we realized: What if we just don’t explain it?

So we added that squeaky sound, and what I realized is that players don’t care as long as it’s funny. So players hitting NPCs and seeing them bounce and squeak are like “Oh, holy shit” and then you don’t have to explain it! So that solved our issue.

Hat Kid’s spaceship has a not-so-hidden analog computer with an astonishingly deep dialogue tree, especially when playing the Corgi Quest text adventure. What gave you that idea?

All the credit for that one goes to our writer Briar. They wrote a lot of A Hat in Time with me, and what we developed for Hat in Time was a dialogue tree system which we used for every single conversation. And as we were getting close to the end… Briar… got bored.

(Laughs together)

There’s not a lot of writing to do at the end, right? Because everything has to be voice acted and et cetera and we had already done all of that, so Briar just went fucking HAM on everything. That room has so many different things you can interact with. It has an internet search machine, it has that text adventure, and there’s just so much stuff. So Briar just went HAM, and I know Briar ultimately likes text adventures, so that was probably a lot of the reason why.

Hat Kid’s ranged charge attack is cute as heck and it reminds me a lot of Super Mario RPG’s Geno Beam, but I never found any practical gameplay use for it that her Brewing Hat didn’t handle more effectively. Did you have any other reason to give Hat Kid a laser?

Yes, the laser is overpowered. (Laughs)

Well then, that answers my question! I’m just playing the game wrong!

No no no, it’s because it has an exceptionally higher skill ceiling, but once you master it, it’s really, really strong. Especially against bosses because a lot of the time Hat Kid only has two attack options, she has very close with the umbrella and medium range with the brewing hat. But a lot the time bosses tend to make the challenge be to get over to them, and the laser badge just completely nullifies that. It is so strong. And you do trade a badge for it, but it is exceptionally strong. And you are totally spot on in that it is definitely inspired by the Geno Beam from Mario RPG.

The stars tipped me off to that! Admittedly I never thought of it as being overpowered because I enjoy the movement and platforming mechanics in platformers like yours so much that I never really think of using ranged attacks to skip those challenges. But that does make a lot of sense, especially for a lot of the harder fights!

Yeah, that badge plus the time stop hat, they can go well together. Who would have thought that an ability to stop time would be overpowered?

Out of every badge Hat Kid can use, one of the most unique ones changes the sprint hat to give you an adorable scooter. There aren’t any other badges that change any hat’s function into something else. Why is the scooter the only badge like this?

We had the sprint ability very early on, and at some point, and I don’t remember why or how, I just really wanted a scooter, and I don’t remember what inspired it. I think it was the Animal Crossing DLC in Mario Kart where you play as the Villager on a scooter and I was like, “I want that.” Something like that.

I was like, “Alright, how do I add this?” I didn’t want to add a whole new hat for it, and I was like, “Oh, well the obvious solution is just some way to augment your hats, right?” That was really the only instance where we saw, “Yes, that makes total sense to do” and it was just really fun. The scooter has some pros and cons, but in terms of raw fun factor, it’s just really fun. It doesn’t matter too much that it’s not super strong or whatever because the fact that it’s fun is inherently a really good thing.

I like that. You guys clearly did a lot of things just to have fun with it in itself and I love that.

A lot of our design approach for A Hat in Time is just to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. That means we do take some stuff out, but the really bizarre stuff tends to stick. We have an entire day every month at our studio called…well, I don’t wanna reveal the name, but we have a day for it, where everyone just gets to work on whatever they want. And those days spark some of the most creative stuff. I would definitely recommend other studios doing that as well. I’m pretty sure they do. It sparks the imagination, it’s really good.

Your upcoming Nyakuza Metro DLC is adding 50-player online multiplayer. Massive multiplayer platformers are hard to come by, and the only parallel that comes to my mind is a Super Mario 64 mod. Why did you decide to add such an unusual feature?

That’s a great question. I don’t think anyone anticipated we would add 50 player multiplayer. We were adding multiplayer, and at one point we were like “Alright, how many does this work with?” And we tested it. Even just testing a lot of people is really difficult because you need to get 50 people in the same room and it’s like, “Oh God, how do we coordinate this?” And we managed to test 50 players and it worked and we were like, “OK cool, we’ll just make that the limit then.” There’s no reason to limit it to four or five or whatever if we can do 50. I think the only reason we didn’t go higher is that we couldn’t get enough people to test it.

We ultimately like introducing things nobody really expects. Like the yakuza theme. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Same with the online multiplayer. It is really fun and pleasant to be able to introduce something that no one really saw coming.

Okay, one more question. A Hat in Time has a lot of strong contenders for Best Girl in between Hat Kid, Queen Vanessa, and the upcoming Nyakuza’s Empress. But the people have a bigger question: who is your Best Boy?

Oof, okay, hmm…oh! Okay, Seal the Deal has arctic crews and the captain on that ship is the most depressed person you will ever meet. He is surrounded by the happiest seals in the world, he has the best job ever, they are so adorable, and he is just miserable. He’s my spirit animal.

Awww, he needs a hug!

Yeah, he does. I really like writing characters who are just depressed and miserable. I just like writing characters, to be honest! It goes back to the thing that like, we know who our target audience is, so we can go to places where our characters aren’t just happy-go-lucky. I hate when characters are just happy for no reason. It’s really funny to write characters who are just awful, just off the deep end, it’s just so much fun to write.

Alright, that’s about it! Any closing statements you want to share with the readers?

Check out Nyakuza Metro + Online Party, we spent a ton of time on it and it’s really fun! Oh, and make sure to get A Hat in Time on Nintendo Switch, which is coming soon! We’ve been working a ton on the Switch version, I am so excited for when people get their hands on it.

[Disclosure: So as it turns out, an old friend of a friend of mine works for Gears for Breakfast as a concept artist. I just noticed this fact days after we conducted this interview, and I’ve already declared A Hat in Time one of my favorite games many times before, but y’all deserve to know that.]

Christopher Hovermale
I'm a former Contributor who goes by the screen name Cedi or CediFonei on most corners of the internet! Not quite obligatory disclosure; I backed Chris Niosi's TOME RPG on Kickstarter. I really wish that wasn't the first Kickstarter game I ever backed...