Travel the Russian subway with four-legged friends

Cover by Ed Appleby
Cover by Ed Appleby

Toronto studio to produce dog-themed pixel video game

By Cheryl Minns, Columnist

Get ready for a super cute commute with Russian Subway Dogs, a new pixel video game by Toronto’s Spooky Squid Games. In this game, a player controls a subway dog that barks at unsuspecting passersby in the station to get them to toss food. The concept is based on actual stray dogs who ride the Russian subway in search of food. The game is currently in development, and presently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000.

“I describe the game as being 50 per cent the joy of catching things in mid-air, and 50 per cent the joy of messing with a bunch of characters in comedic ways,” said Miguel Sternberg, the founder of Spooky Squid Games.

After a Twitter post brought his attention to the real Russian subway dogs, Sternberg created a simple game about the dogs in two and a half days for the Pirate Kart game development competition. The original game had a squared-off design and mostly involved the dogs running around and stealing food from passersby without much interaction. As Sternberg developed the commercial version, he tweaked the design and added additional challenges, such as the subway bears.

“I took that original design and made it cuter and added the ushanka hat to the dog to make it distinct,” he said. “As I was taking it from the original game to a full game, I wanted something that would be a threat that would last for a while and change the pace of the game. A bear just felt like it would be funny in the right way.”

Spooky Squid Games decided to use actual Russian subway stations as inspiration for the game’s backgrounds. Spooky Squid Games artist Alina Sechkin animated one of the backgrounds, an elegant station with curved arches, stained glass windows, and chandeliers.

“Looking at all the different subway stations has been super fun. They’re really beautiful,” she said. “I totally want to go to Russia now just to ride the subway.”

The Kickstarter campaign features a wide variety of donor rewards, such as early access to the game and pixel art prints of Russian Subway Dogs characters.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is having very high quality pixel art, so we’re doing a lot of pixel art prints of the dogs and stuff like that,” Sternberg said.

Sechkin is also contributing her skills to the Kickstarter campaign. She drew the sample portrait for the custom pixel pet portrait: A reward for backers who donate $250.

“Getting to draw dogs is so cute and fun,” she said.

There are also three opportunities to have your pet turned into a playable pixel character in the game for a donation of $1,000. To get an idea of what your pet might look like in pixels, Sternberg has provided an example on the campaign page.

“The example that we have is a friend’s pet, this very funny looking Chihuahua. It was very fun to try to capture a specific animal instead of a generic animal of whatever breed. I’m looking forward to doing more,” he said.

The rewards also include a Russian Subway Dogs plush with an ushanka hat for a donation of $100. To create the plush, the team partnered with the apparel and accessory company WeLoveFine, which worked with Spooky Squid Games to design merchandise for their previous game They Bleed Pixels.

“I mentioned to WeLoveFine that we were doing a Kickstarter campaign, and they suggested doing a plush and that seemed like a perfect fit,” Sternberg said. “We worked very closely with them back and forth to create a plush version of the dog that would work well as a plush. You have to change the proportions and everything when you’re doing a plush compared to how you show the dog in the game.”

The Kickstarter campaign also features Backer Missions, which are goals that fans need to complete in order to unlock new characters in Russian Subway Dogs. The missions include funding goals, backer numbers, Twitter retweets, Tumblr notes, and creative fan-made projects. For every four missions completed, a new character will be unlocked, as voted by the backers. There are 24 missions for backers to complete.

“The ones that I find most fun are the fan art and the photographs with people and their pets in ushanka hats,” Sternberg said.

The first new character to be unlocked was the Proletaricat, a grey cat in a military hat and jacket, on August 24. The Proletaricat also appears in the Russian Subway Dogs campaign updates, urging fans to promote the campaign through social media.

“There’s a bit of a meta-fiction thing going on in the updates, where half of the updates are me updating the backers, and the other half that have to do with the missions are from the Proletaricat,” Sternberg said. “Having that fictional element in each of the updates is something I haven’t seen a lot of other Kickstarter campaigns do. It’s worked really well. I’ve gotten a really positive response from it.”

Russian Subway Dogs will have a variety of playable characters in the game, including the original dog, the ones unlocked from the Backer Missions, and guest pups. The guest pups are dog characters from other projects that Spooky Squid Games connected with through the Russian Subway Dogs Kickstarter campaign.

The first guest pup to join the game was Question Hound from KC Green’s comic Gunshow. In the single-page, six-panel “This Is Fine” comic, the brown dog in a brown bowler hat sits at his kitchen table drinking coffee while the room burns down around him. Despite the fire, he declares, “This is fine.” By the last panel, he is badly burned by the flames.

The comic explored people’s naivety to the disasters around them. It later became a popular meme among the college crowd.

“Its first iteration as a meme was used to show what it felt like to be college kids during finals,” Green said, adding that only the first two panels are used in the meme: the first one with Question Hound sitting at the table in a burning kitchen and the second one with him saying, “This is fine.”

From August 3 to September 2, Green ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of a plush version of Question Hound.

I was pretty certain we were going to reach our goal, but not certain as to how big it would get,” he said.

The campaign goal was $35,000, with rewards starting at $25 for one Question Hound plush, and ranging to $275 for 10 (with some additional goodies thrown in). The campaign raised an astounding $454,717 from 12,705 backers.

“I felt pretty good. Pretty relieved too,” he said. “Then stressed, as it dawned on me the amount of work to be done.”

Thanks to a tweet about Kickstarter projects with dogs that tagged both Russian Subway Dogs and Question Hound, the artists were able to connect. Green turned out to be a fan of Spooky Squid Games’ They Bleed Pixels, so the partnership was a good match. Sternberg suggested adding a pixel version of Question Hound to Russian Subway Dogs and Green agreed, leading to Question Hound becoming a playable pup in the game.

“Question Hound was based on an old drawing of a cartoon character I drew in junior high a bunch of times. I never thought he would ascend to this level of infamy,” Green said.

A tweet also connected Spooky Squid Games with Sukeban Games. Like Russian Subway Dogs, Sukeban Games’ cyberpunk bartending game VA-11 Hall-A features pixel art and dogs. The game has players work their way through an interactive narrative that is decided based on what drinks players serve to their customers, including dogs. Two of the dogs from VA-11 Hall-A, Nacho and Rad Shiba, will be playable guest pups in Russian Subway Dogs.

Nacho, a Shiba, will have a cyberpunk look with an electronic eyepiece and a sweater. Rad Shiba will appear in a pair of aviator sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt.

“I always like doing weird crossover stuff,” Sternberg said.

For more information, check out Russian Subway Dogs on, or the company’s official website