There is a game on the horizon that intends to plunge you into an adventure of morally-challenging proportions. Always Sometimes Monsters is the debut title of developer Vagabond Dog, which is based out of Toronto, Canada. Monsters, which was created with RPG Maker VX Ace, is somewhere between an adventure game and a visual novel. It’s set to unravel a journey that goes beyond choice and consequence.
Players will not find themselves looting chests or swinging swords in this title. Monsters unfolds around a progression of seemingly innocuous decisions as players attempt to travel coast-to-coast in thirty days. Along the way, our pixelated protagonist will contend with the likes of adultery, racism, murder and desperation. In a unique twist, players will be treated differently by other characters based on their chosen race, gender and sexual orientation.
Always Sometimes Monsters is an eerily realistic look into life, and will ask players to test their own social and ethical limits in order to find true love. There is no high fantasy premise to this game. There is no almighty enemy set on destroying the world. Many situations are tailored to bring about genuine discomfort, and Vagabond Dog isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to plumbing the depths of the human condition. It is an ambitious project being crafted by a very passionate team, and it looks amazing.
The game’s May 21 release date is only a month away, but it seems like forever.
Vagabond Dog’s very own Justin Amirkhani was kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail, despite his very busy schedule.
RPG Slayer: First off, could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, and your main role at Vagabond Dog?
Justin Amirkhani: My name is Justin Amirkhani, I’m the Creative Director and co-founder of Vagabond Dog. My main role is to design Always Sometimes Monsters, which ranges from figuring out the gameplay systems to writing all the dialogue and keeping track of the ever-sprawling branching paths the game creates as you play. I make life difficult for Jake and the rest of the team.
RPG Slayer: What were some of the inspirations for Always Sometimes Monsters?
Justin: The core idea of the game came about during a nearly year-long backpacking trek across North America to meet video game developers. That journey took me high and low while having all sorts of adventures, meeting incredible people, and learning a lot about life in the process. While out there, I saw that the line that separates the people I had called good or bad, worthy or unworthy, pure or unclean – it was far thinner than I had ever imagined and I had been stepping back and forth across it my entire life, all while believing absolutely that my position in the narrative of my life and the role I played in the larger story of humanity was a fixed point.
Looking back on my life before that awareness, it’s almost embarrassing how juvenile my worldview had been, but crossing the threshold of that revelation is what brought about the idea for the game. The dissolution of absolutism is part of growing up. It’s something we all experience at some point in our lives as part of the transition from adolescence, but it was particularly profound for me at the time and inspired the idea for a game that would take players on a similar journey of self-doubt and discovery.
When I returned home, I partnered with my old friend Jake Reardon and we set out to make it a reality. Nearly a year and a half later, we’re getting share it with the world.
RPG Slayer: The title alone is what drew me to the game and made me want to learn more, even before I saw a screenshot. Was such an intriguing title an accident, or is there a deeper meaning to it?
Justin: The juxtaposition between the absolute “always” and the ambiguous “sometimes” kind of sums up the wishy-washy way in which the game handles morality. As mentioned previously, this is a game partially about dissolving the concept of absolutes and so throwing those adverbs together just kinda does the trick. However, the title came about almost by accident in the 11th hour before we debut the game at PAX Prime last year.
We had been operating under the title Save The Date, which some may recognize as the title of Paper Dino’s IGF Nuovo Award Nominee. Faced with having to come up with a new name for the game with little time left we ran through dozens of choices before one night (while drunk) Always Sometimes Monsters happened upon us while I was trying to come up with something to describe what the game was about.
RPG Slayer: I feel that the omission of combat in Always Sometimes Monsters is a perfect choice, and will instill a greater sense of realism. Do you have any concerns that players will be turned off by this?
Justin: There are far greater things to be afraid of when releasing your first game. However, even if there was a tinge of worry in our hearts over whether or not combat was necessary to make a successful game, we don’t need to look far to find examples of wildly popular games and franchises completely devoid of violence. There are more than enough people playing games now for there to be a range of tastes wide enough to make a game like ours survive.
RPG Slayer: The game will touch upon some pretty grim topics, placing players in some rather unpleasant situations. In dealing with these scenarios, will the player ever feel judged by the game? In what way will the game provide feedback on meaningful actions or decisions?
Justin: Judgment is only as meaningful as you are willing to make it. If you disagree with a system, the results it gives you are completely meaningless no matter how much it’s telling you that what you’re doing or who you are is wrong. That’s why rather than judging you itself, the game turns that job over to the player. In doing this, whatever judgment is passed is entirely of the player’s design and thus completely impactful to the individual playing. If there is some higher being shaking its head in displeasure, that being and the player are indistinguishable from one another in the world of Always Sometimes Monsters.
Because the game adapts and changes your circumstances based on the consequences of your choices, you are both creating and experiencing the reality of the game simultaneously. This makes you both villain and victim when things get tough, ultimately creating a cyclical question where you ponder at what level does your responsibility for the outcome of the game begin and end. As in life, a perfect answer to that question will permanently elude you.
Then again, it’s just a silly video game. You shouldn’t take this stuff too seriously.
RPG Slayer: Player choice seems to be a major factor in the overall experience of the game. Will every choice affect the experience in some way, or will real consequences be reserved for the larger, plot-centered decisions?
Justin: Some seemingly innocuous choices have far-reaching implications, others seem very important but have near none. Then again, some seem as important as they are and others seem as important as they’re not. The real goal with all this is to just generally confuse you about what might or might not be significant to your life, eventually creating either complete ambivalence to the very idea of choice or absolute paranoia that every decision might be your last.
Either option works for us, really.
RPG Slayer: Just how deep will these consequences go? Is it possible that some players may have their journeys cut short due to a poor decision?
Justin: There are choices that will end your game immediately upon making them, but these aren’t the choices to fear. You can always reload a save and start again almost at that juncture and just veer in another direction a little wiser. It’s the choices that have consequences that come into play long after you forgot you even made a choice that are the really scary ones. The sort that you make early in the game that don’t have payoff until nearly the end when it’s far too late to turn back and change your mind about how you wanted things to go.
Kind of like looking at the past in real life, there’s truly no escaping the ghost of who you used to be.
RPG Slayer: What are some of the ways you’ve approached the player-to-character relationship? How will players find themselves caring about the fate of their avatar?
Justin: The most obvious way we allow the player to identify with their character is by offering a great diversity in terms of who your character is. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort making it possible for players to take control of a character that they can identify with on some level regardless of what gender, race, or sexual orientation they are. With the game’s world reacting to these facets of your character, there is a greater sense of shared experience between the player and the character thus bringing them closer together.
However, the real connection you have with your character will be defined by the choices you make along your journey together. You will understand why they’ve hurt who they’ve hurt, why they turned on their values when they did, and why they became who they are by the end because you will have made those decisions with and for them along the way.
As frequently as we can, we try to remove barrier between who your character is and who you are so that you can truly role-play in this experience. That’s the only way you can make players genuinely care about a goofy bunch of pixels that doesn’t even look like them.
RPG Slayer: Do you have any plans to bring the game to other platforms?
Justin: Right now we’re focusing entirely on our initial release as this is our first game and we want to make sure we get it right. That’s not to say we couldn’t or won’t bring it to platforms other than PC, but the right opportunities need to present themselves before we can confirm anything definitively.
RPG Slayer: How has the overall experience of developing Always Sometimes Monsters been? Have there been any significant challenges and concerns along the way?
Justin: Developing Always Sometimes Monsters has been an uplifting, soul-crushing, hilarious, depressing, frustratingly delightful experience. Dedicating yourself to something like this is hard and while there are tremendous joys to be found when things go right, it’s equally dissatisfying when things go wrong. Like any pursuit of passion, developing Always Sometimes Monsters is a heightened version of life’s emotional carousel.
I won’t speak for the entire team here, but given the chance to do it all again there’s no doubt I will – even if that means taking all the beatings a second time.