Less than a month ago, Always Sometimes Monsters was released by Vagabond Dog as their first project about moral choices in life. Small choices or not, they impact the main character's life and your ability to achieve your only objective: getting the love of your life back.
FogKnight spoke with Vagabond Dog's creative director, Justin Amirkhani, about the very creation of Vagabond Dog and their first project, Always Sometimes Monsters, along with some behind the scenes questions about their decision for making such an ambitious game as their first project.
FogKnight: What was it like writing the tragic incidents for the game?
Justin: Some of the less personal ones it was actually pretty enjoyable to write. It might sound a little messed up, but when you've been given the opportunity to completely mess things up without fear of censorship your mind can go to some wonderfully perverse places. Trying to build serious consequences out of harsh actions and having the freedom to reflect the brutality the player was willing to see/enact on the world was a sort of liberating experience. There were very few times when we even stopped to question if things went too far, even fewer when we thought we did.
That said, there were more than a few scenes that have some very specific personal weight to them. Those ones weren't always a bliss to recreate in pixel format. Pulling from real-world experiences is the only way to have something feel truly authentic, and so the process of reliving those unforgettable moments in your mind over and over as you examine the "what if?" scenarios in order to create the variance needed for a scene is tough. Thankfully that sort of intense analysis of your own life events can bring you a sort of closure, and so it's a process I am grateful to have gone through.
FogKnight: Ambition and love are the themes of the game. Why and what do you think the moral implications of ASM are?
Justin: Ambition and love really can be summed up as variations on desire. Desire is fundamentally where all moral dilemmas stem from because the internal drama of decision is entirely based around an incompatibility between obtaining what we want and doing what we believe is right. We have tried to reflect this as honestly as we can in Always Sometimes Monsters.
FogKnight: Were you concerned or hopeful that ASM could be controversial?
Justin: We'd be lying if we said we never really bothered ourselves caring how controversial the game wound up being, but from the start I think we approached it with the understanding that no punches would be pulled. For me, there's something obscene about the very concept of censorship and to self-censor is in a sense self-abuse. I knew that a time might come when we would be put on trial socially for the things we had put into the game, but I believed in the public's ability to understand that we treated this game like any art and to sand down the corners because it might hurt some feelings would be traitorous its very concept. Thankfully, people do seem to understand that the game isn't crass or harsh just for the sake of it, and instead see the underlying messages the ugliness is trying to get across.
FogKnight: What was the process of writing "neutral" decisions like?
Justin: I wouldn't say that the decisions in the game are ever explicitly "neutral" as everyone who comes to the experience has their own ethical biases that slant the view of every choice. When writing them I tried to get into the minds of as many different types of people as I could, remove my subjective bias and approach the situations from a variety of angles. Then, based on what was logical and doable, I would start implementing those options. The best ones in the game always came out of conflicts that I could find myself landing on either side of very easily.
FogKnight: What is your opinion about the rising popularity of games with moral values ever since 2012?
Justin: Games have been playing with morality far longer than just the past two years, but I will agree with the statement that there are more games in recent history that deal with ethics. This largely has to do with the growing number of video game enthusiasts who are reaching the age of emotional maturity. The Famicom Generation is now at an age where they're looking back on what is a quarter to half of their life gone by and beginning to ask themselves what it means to be a 20 or 30-something. The Pong Kids hit this stride a decade ago, but they are much fewer in numbers and so only now is there's a really big market for games that provide players an opportunity to self-reflect and self-scrutinize. This trend can be dissected almost entirely through demographics.
What's going to be truly interesting is when we hit 2025 and the massive armies of children who grew up playing the Call of Duty are looking for the same things this comparatively small audience of current 20-30 year olds want. There will be an even percentage of juvenile power fantasies in the market, but it's a safe bet to say that the number of games that service a completely different desire will be far greater than what you can find today.
FogKnight: To what extent are moral choices in-game reflective of personal values or dissociative gaming behavior?
Justin: I have seen players adopt and own their characters in Always Sometimes Monsters to a degree where they have felt genuinely guilty or judged for the actions they have committed. I have also seen people completely unable to connect and don't give two shits about what happens and cause as much ruckus as they possibly can. Dissociative gaming behavior is not something you can easily predict or control as it comes down to the individual and their willful suspension of disbelief. If you are a cynical, critical person then this problem will persist for you throughout your experience playing games. It is impossible to force a player to connect psychologically with their avatar and thus, even the best written and designed content will fall victim to those of us who are simply apathetic to the experience because we refuse to roleplay within our own minds.
However, those who do adopt their characters and choices within games as if they were acting as themselves tend to have in-game choices that mirror their personal values to a great degree. Having elected to play as they would in real life, this is where the guilt comes from when they make a decision that they regret the ramifications of. This willful suspension of disbelief and personal adoption of the character is what the game relies on to work, without it then it's just a bunch of pixels and words on a screen that are fundamentally meaningless.
FogKnight: Tell us about the experience of launching the game, and the positive reception.
Justin: Having never released a game before there was a lot of mysticism to the event. We didn't really know what to expect at all. While we hoped for the positive reception the game's received, we never really anticipated the steady stream of lovely reviews, emails, and comments people have left for the game. It's given us a lot of faith in our ability and a lot of hope for the future of our studio.
FogKnight: What is the team planning for the next project?
Justin: There's a whole bunch of ideas on the table right now, and where we go next will be important to defining the breadth of what our studio's capable of. Do we double down on the sort of experience ASM offer s, or do we diversify and try something new? Right now we're just enjoying the post-release calm while we gather our thoughts and see where the wind takes our sails next.
Day 8 | Vagabond Dog