One of the best things about the modern gaming landscape is the growing number of developers who are taking steps to explore concepts and ideas not often tackled by games. Vagabond Dog’s Always Sometimes Monsters was one such game that tackled the endless grind of life and struggle to get by in a modern world where the odds are stacked against you. We checked out the developer’s follow-up, Sometimes Always Monsters, looks just as interesting and we caught up with the game’s creative director Justin Amirkhani to talk about the game.
Fergus: So how would you describe Sometimes Always Monsters to people?
Justin: Sometimes Always Monsters is a game about our life choices, our circumstances and the consequences that ensue. This is the core structure of the game. It’s a narrative roleplaying experience that follows this loop from circumstance to choice to consequence over and over again – just like life.
Fergus: Obviously your first game was Always Sometimes Monsters, how, if at all, is Sometimes Always Monsters related? Is it a sequel? Do they take place in the same universe?
Justin: This game is the antithetical follow-up. These games are really two halves of a whole. The first game was about the struggle from living at the bottom of society to achieving something in your life. It’s about the grind of reality. The new game is the opposite in many regards. You start off successful, you’re married, you have money and it’s about trying to hold onto that before you lose it all again. If Always Sometimes Monster is about the climb up the hill, this is about the fall down.
Fergus: What were some of the biggest things you learned from Sometimes Always Monsters and how did the design of Always Sometimes Monsters evolve as a consequence?
Justin: Always Sometimes Monsters was our first game ever so we literally knew nothing going into that. So there’s like the business of how to manage a team and manage a production. As a creative director, I just let our talent do what they want. We have a lot of constraints because of our technologies but letting an artist have the freedom to do whatever they want to do will always yield better results than keeping within artificial restraints like not letting a file get too big.
Fergus: Lots of games play with notions of player choice and branching narrative, what is Sometimes Always Monsters doing that those games aren’t?
Justin: We don’t do good-or-evil or paragon-or-renegade stuff. That stuff’s not there. The big thing we’ve always looked at for choice is that you can always fall into a selfish or selfless category. And those aren’t necessarily good or evil because it depends on how you regard yourself within the choice. More often than not, it’s not about deciding which is the correct path for your character but deciding which is socially acceptable for yourself.
Fergus: What challenges come with designing a game that players want to replay more than once?
Justin: I never really expect people to play through my games more than once – they can be kinda hard to get through – but one of the things we absolutely do is lock off content. We have divisions where you make a choice and you are literally not going to see a bunch of the content no matter what. But the thing is that you play it, I play it, we have different experiences and we talk about it later and learn just how differently things have gone. My favorite way to play these kinds of games is to try and reflect my own personality and morality in the game. They’re really good tools for learning about yourself and your friends. Like, we get tons of people who keep sending save files in because they love playing the game. Lots of people love having a friend, spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend play it and comparing the differences is really what makes the experience all the crazier.
Fergus: It looks like the aesthetic of Sometimes Always Monsters is a little more developed and stylized than your first game, what led to this evolution?
Justin: Visually we looked at using pixel stuff not because it was a style we were going for but because we were working under these constraints [with Sometimes Always Monsters] we’ve managed to increase the resolution in this game and so you get a little more fidelity. In terms of influences, that’s a better question for my artist, he’s got tons of influences. I just said go for it and this is how it turned out.
Fergus: What’s the scope of the final game looking like and when can players expect to get their hands on it?
Justin: We have no idea. The problem is that it’s variable, and especially in a game that’s so driven by choice. Like in the last game, you could literally beat it in a minute or play forever depending on your choices. In the first game, the more selfish you are the quicker you got through it. In the new game, it’s a little different and the more selfish you are – the longer it goes – but the last game was 10-12 hours so probably around there.