Friday, 14 February 2020

Sometimes, Always Monsters

Or, Vagabond Dog for Valentine's Day!

Hello. We are talking today with Justin Amirkhani, of Vagabond Dog. The trailer for their upcoming release, Sometimes Always Monsters, can be seen here. For full disclosure, Justin is a regular in my biweekly Dungeon Crawl Classics game, and was a player with my 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons game when I co-owned Golden City Comics.

RCK: Hi Justin. How are you?

JA: Today, I'm a little frantic because we're in the final stages before release. We've been working on this thing for about 6 years, and despite all that time, I find there's always more to do!

RCK: Hopefully youll still have time to make the game on Wenesday. We’ll be seeing if the dead can return to life....

JA: Joining the DCC game over this last year has actually been great for my schedule, sanity, and socialization. Like I said, we've been working on this for a long time and over that period there's been some points where those elements of my life have definitely suffered. Having a group that depends on my ability to stab monsters to death with my character's pitchfork (long story) is the sort of reliable break I need from the intense and isolating game development work I get steeped in.

RCK: I am not very well versed in video games or computer games, myself. Most of what I do is pure tabletop. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you into the computer side of gaming?

JA: I grew up playing with polygons before polyhedrons, so it's moreso tabletop that drew me in over time than video games. My earliest roleplaying experiences were with the likes of Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights on PC. Ironically, at the time I had no idea all of their systems were based on D&D.

Eventually, I met people who explained their pen-and-paper counterparts, and I grew a fascination with the freedom and wider play space that traditional games offered.

RCK: I understand that started with the Golden City Comics game?

JA: Pretty much, yeah. There were attempts to play one-offs even before I knew the rules, but Golden was the first real campaign that I ever took part in. It was a rather revelatory experience that's informed a big part of how I view games and design.

You're a great DM, and I'm glad to have played under you; both then and now!

RCK: Flattery will get you nowhere!

How about Sometimes Always Monsters? What’s the elevator pitch for that?

JA: It's a game where you play as a recently married author. You're a best-seller, and life is going really well. Then you join a cross-country bus tour to try and promote your next novel, but start hearing some nasty rumors that claim you're a plagiarist.

There's a lot of choices to make within the game, and it's a cross between a narrative experience and a sort-of life simulator. We tried to make as many options as possible within the confines, and it's got a lot of variability depending on your decisions.

RCK: A long time ago, before computer graphics became good, there used to be quite a few text-based games. When you mean narrative, does that mean text?

JA: Yeah. Reading. Lots and lots of reading.

Between this game and its predecessor, there's easily over a million words of dialogue baked in its code. The only thing that separates it from a classic text-based adventure is that you can actually see your character walking around and doing stuff.

RCK: How do you keep players engaged with these non-action scenes?

JA: The quality of the setup, their investment in the characters, and a consistent feeling of agency is what keeps most people interested. Usually, when things are getting their wordiest, there's a heavy choice right around the corner.

RCK: I guess what I’m asking is for your theory of game design.

JA: Although I tend to follow my instinct more than anything, I do believe that giving players the right of refusal is incredibly powerful. Especially in a confined medium like video games, the power to simply decline a piece of content can feel very freeing in contrast to games that try to keep players on a railroad of good content.

Of course, this requires a ton of extra work to provide. Players can also sabotage their own experiences when given this power. For example, you can skip the entirety of SAM's main narrative if you simply don't go on the bus tour and make your character stay home watching TV. It's not exciting, but it's totally possible.

This philosophy leaves players somewhat responsible for their own entertainment, and forces designers to accept that large swathes of content may never be seen. However, there's no substitute for the feeling of agency this sort of design provides.

RCK: The trailer definitely promises something unusual. Most games try to get you to the point where this game begins.

JA: Well, it being the a sort of follow-up definitely helps. We managed to chew through most of the things first-time designers try to do in our previous game and took a lot of feedback to heart when starting this one. A lot of people complained about the chore-like grind and somewhat depressing tone of its predecessor, so Sometimes Always Monsters tries to be different by offering the desserts first.

RCK: I understand you have something of a dedicated fan base. Can you give them any insight into the team behind your games?

JA: Our team's really small. I handle all of the writing, design, and development. Jake makes sure everything still works, and solves trickier technical problems. Meanwhile, all of the art for the maps, characters, and everything else is handled by Emilio. We all work from home, and collaborate online through Discord.

We're nothing fancy, but our fans know we're dedicated. It takes a lot of patience to build the kind of games we've made, especially when you don't have a big studio.

RCK: There you have it. Sometimes Always Monsters is set to release on the 2nd of April. People can preorder it on your website here. And there's another interesting interview based on your previous release here.

Good luck! And thank you for talking with us!

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