Looking for answers to big questions, Justin Amirkhani travelled through the dangerous underworld of American poverty. Unexpectedly, what he found was a video game.
Even as the woman opened the passenger door, released the chair lock and invited him to climb into the backseat, the hitchhiker understood that this was no married couple who were offering him a ride. Their relationship was entirely transactional.
The car rumbled along. The driver, a man, said he needed to get high. The woman in the passenger seat, a hired sex worker, said she knew where she could obtain drugs. The hitchhiker, Justin Amirkhani, settled in to the back seat of the car and waited for it all to play out. He was travelling around North America, relying on the kindnesses of strangers, and strangers come in all varieties.
He had left his comfortable apartment and his steady job making Facebook games because he wanted to see the country, not just the monuments and the vistas, but the people too.
They came to a place and the woman got out and left for a while. When she came back, she said the drug deal hadn't worked out. The john started getting agitated.
Using the hard-won instincts of her trade, she decided not to hang around. Amirkhani had to get away from the angry man, but by the time he figured out the front seat's release mechanism, by the time he had squeezed his body through the space to exit the car, the driver had his gun out. Strictly speaking, the gun was pointed at the departing woman, but Amirkhani's head was in the way.
He had left his home to find the soul of America, and here it was, in the depths of Texas, in a bad part of town, pointing a pistol at his head.
Life on the road
Amirkhani's decision to travel began as a blogging experiment. He wanted to work his way around the country, visiting game publishers and developers, and write about his experiences. The project was called Gamer Unplugged and was funded through donations. He began in the spring of 2012.
The day after having a gun pointed at his head, Amirkhani was sipping jalapeño vodka and telling the story to an acquaintance who worked in the game industry, Nigel Lowrie, head of Devolver Digital, whom he had come to Austin to meet. During his road trip, Amirkhani had been granted audiences with some of the biggest names in gaming from North Carolina to Seattle.
Now in Austin with Lowrie, Amirkhani knew the drug-deal-gone-bad story sounded, even to him, like the sort of vagabond tale that anyone who travels — who travels seriously — will hone and share. But as he repeated the story, he had to admit that he'd been frightened. People get killed all the time for the dumbest reasons, and being the hero of your own story is no protection at all.
Emboldened by the vodka, he started talking about stories and how, mostly, they aren't like life, and no where is this more true than in video games.
Lowrie agreed with what Amirkhani said about stories, and he was looking for games that were willing to tell new kinds of stories that reflected life in all its varieties.
In that moment, in a cozy, ramshackle bar in Austin, Always Sometimes Monsters, went from being a road-weary traveler's vague idea into something that could actually happen. But by that time, Amirkhani had spent so much time with travelers, with the lost and the homeless, that his focus had moved away from games and toward the harsh reality of surviving on the road.
Emboldened by the vodka, he started talking about stories and how, mostly, they aren't like life, and no where is this more true than in video games.
"When I started I thought it was going to be this fun, weird little project I would do," Amirkhani says. "People would read the blog, I'd come home, and that would be it. But it changed my life completely. I slowly slipped more and more into this weird fringe world that you don't really get to see when you're working a nine-to-five every day. You don't get to experience fringe life or vagabond life and understand that there are a lot of people in this world who do not have any form of privilege or opportunity given to them. There are some genuinely, down-and-out people who just have never, ever seen what opportunity or good fortune looks like. Getting to experience those people firsthand and riding with them and hearing their stories, that changed everything."
Although he had packed a 3DS and a Vita for his journey, he rarely played either. His focus on visiting game-making companies declined. He ceased blogging. Travelling became an end in itself. He felt himself moving away from games and gaming culture.
"None of it made sense anymore," he says. "I was living free and not playing by anybody's rules and not really following games. I had experienced some of the most uplifting things of my life. I felt so disenfranchised from games. I didn't really mesh with the conversations about who's going to play Superman. Those things don't matter to you when you know that there are people around you who, all they want in life is an orange or a tomato."
In the bar in Austin, Amirkhani told Lowrie that he wanted to make a game that was like the lives he had seen, in which there were real choices to be made and real consequences, but without all the moral and ethical shit that comes with most fiction, without a sense of right or wrong, without protagonists who were noble or evil. What he had learned, while living on the road all these months, was that people are forever making choices — some good, some bad and some that aren't really choices at all. He also saw that the outcomes of those choices were just as predictable as they were unpredictable and that those choices, rarely, if ever, had anything to do with the base concepts of good and evil, unlike most entertainment narratives.
Lowrie and Amirkhani parted as friends. The next time they met, some months later in the gleaming sterility of the Moscone Center in San Francisco, they struck a deal to make that game.
A game without morals
Always Sometimes Monsters is an open-world RPG-style adventure. It is the story of an individual travelling from town to town on the way to the wedding of a lost love. Along the way, the individual — you choose the gender — has to cope with life's difficulties, like lack of money, friends in trouble, loneliness, random acts of violence and hatred.
But the choices laid out for the player aren't dictated by good and evil. They are dictated by necessity. There is no green or blue or red path toward some denouement of greater or lesser goodness. The puzzle isn't about trying to do the noble thing or trying to demonstrate your character's badassery; it's about doing the thing that seems to carry the most benefit while causing the least amount of harm. It is a puzzle of morality that also seeks to deny the existence of morality.
"There's no sliding good/evil bar in the game," says Amirkhani. "There's no linear morality meter. Rather than having any association to ethical or unethical behavior, we leave that all on the player."
It's not an easy idea to hold — the notion of a story in which there are consequences that don't have moral value. "People ask me, how does the game know if I'm good or bad? And I'm like, it doesn't. It doesn't care.
"In games, when you have the obvious Paragon/Renegade divide in the dialogue choices, it's very clearly outlined for you," he says. "Players tend to fall into those two categories. A player will say, I'm going to be Paragon this time, and they'll make only Paragon choices. That kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical quandary in a game, because people are just going for the path that gets them the achievement. I wanted to get rid of that.
"Things happen as fallout from your actions. But it's not necessarily good or bad."
"I don't decide what is good and what is bad, what's right and what's wrong. I don't want to impose my personal beliefs. I'm very willing to accept the idea that we all have our own different moral compasses. So the game is a whole bunch of switches and variables that record a story, a history of what you have done through the game. There is causality. Things happen as fallout from your actions. But it's not necessarily good or bad."
Amirkhani says that this exploration of morality is designed to give players a sense of how rarely real life offers us choices that define us as being good or bad. Mostly, we follow rules and patterns that have been dictated by others or by habit. Occasionally, we weigh matters based on benefit and cost: Shall I drive home too fast to catch the start of the game, or shall I be patient and avoid the risk of a ticket?
"If you're selfish, then you are taking opportunity or resources from others," says Amirkhani. "On the other hand, selflessness is foregoing reward because of the circumstance. You predict the fallout and you avoid it, but that means that you victimize yourself by not ending up with the resources you need to survive, by not ending up with the opportunities you need to progress. The longer you make yourself the victim and try to be selfless, the harder and harder things get for you."
Amirkhani says that while the worldview that he is pouring into Always Sometimes Monsters, comes from his experience spending months wandering his native Canada and the United States, the game is not trying to make a moral point that the best course is to take what you can and hang the rest — it is only seeking to create a space in which players can make their own judgments about their decisions, a sandbox in which you test your own moral decisions.
A matter of Scruples
There is a board game called Scruples that was especially popular 20 years ago. Jake Reardon, in his 30s and a decade older than Amirkhani, recalls playing the ethical choices game, the sort of thing that leads to interesting philosophical conversations — or fistfights — over a few glasses of Pinot Noir.
Reardon is the other half of Always Sometimes Monsters' development team Vagabond Dog. He's in charge of handling the coding while Amirkhani looks after the writing. They met as part of Toronto's gaming scene, before Amirkhani's walkabout, and kept in touch hoping to work together one day.
When Amirkhani returned from his travels in the fall of 2012, he called his old friend Reardon and they talked about making the game he had been daydreaming about, the game he had loosely pitched to Lowrie, back in Austin earlier in the year. Broke, living with his parents, with no real experience of making games, he and Reardon came together to form Vagabond Dog and create Always Sometimes Monsters.
Reardon says that he is the sensible, settled part of Vagabond Dog — he loves his partner, his dogs and his ice hockey too much to go gallivanting. He is a settled person, so he liked that the game idea allowed players to explore moral landscapes.
"Ten people could play our game and all have unique experiences," he says. "Not good or bad experiences, but they could have a discussion about it. Why did you sell the dog when you could have given him back to his owner? One person could say, well, I needed the money, I didn't want to sleep outside. A second person could say, well, I don't really care about the dog because I don't like dogs. Someone else couldn't live with the idea of parting a dog from its owner."
This is what made Scruples interesting, the demonstration that we all have different interpretations of right and wrong in different circumstances. It's not about debating whether it's acceptable to shoot a person in the face just for the hell of it; it's not about debating the rights and wrongs of psychotic behavior. It's about the fuzzy moral boundaries that separate us from one another, that keep us from really knowing if we are 'good' people, because such a definition is elusive.
Always Sometimes Monsters begins at a party attended by a diverse mix of people. The player mingles and chooses one of the guests. That guest becomes the player's character.
"The party's a mix of black, white, Asian, Hispanic, men and women, gay and straight," says Amirkhani. "You also pick your love interest. That can either be whoever you think is a good match for your character, based on your own inputs, or you can just pick whoever you think is the most attractive and play as honestly to yourself as possible."
All the characters experience the same main story, but individual traits will throw up particular obstacles. An African American man will not face the exact same challenges as a white female. "You experience all these little different moments of, really, the ugly side of our world's acceptance problems. People's reactions and conversations with you change a little bit based on who you are," he says.
Is the game, which purports to be non-judgemental, making its own point here, even if it is just as simple as "live and let live?"
"Neutrality is not an ethical choice," says Amirkhani. "We've associated acceptance with inherent good, and it's not. True acceptance is neutral. Believing that there is nobody who is better or worse until they've proven it to you through their actions, that's neutral."
"Always Sometimes Monsters is about the human experience. That's what resonates with people, its ambiguity," he says. In agreeing to get involved in the project, he also liked that the game seemed to have the backing of an actual publisher.
Devolver Digital is best known as the publisher of Croteam's Serious Sam 3, but the company works with a large number of developers, aiding the process of getting games into the hands of the public, doing the marketing and distribution stuff that many game makers prefer to outsource.
"Oh, [Amirkhani] is an interesting fellow," says Lowrie. "When we met in Austin, he mostly talked about his stories, some crazy stuff that was happening while he was on this trip. He seemed like a hip cat. He told me about this game idea and how his vagabond lifestyle, these experiences might be reflected in this game."
Lowrie had no reason to believe that his remarks expressing enthusiasm for the game idea would sustain Amirkhani, would help him to pick himself up and return to Toronto, where he and Reardon would rapidly create a prototype that they could show at GDC a few months later.
"Whenever we go to GDC we send an open invite out for independent developers to schedule a meeting," says Lowrie. "Very informal, meet wherever you want, whether that's a bar or, as was the case with [Amirkhani] and [Reardon], on the floor of the convention center in a corner somewhere. He said he had a game he wanted to share with us so we looked at it.
"He and [Reardon] showed me a rough prototype. I was very intrigued. It was an RPG, but there was no combat. It was about life and how sometimes people can be basically shitty to each other. In a usual old-school RPG, you're walking around a town and everyone's there to help you, everyone's there to provide a service of some sort. In this one, you have to scrape for yourself. There's going to be instances in which people are going to deny you the things that you want, you have to talk your way through these experiences, these scenarios, rather than drawing swords and battling somebody.
"It was drawing from personal experience. I think that's what really drew us to it. It's not someone who just had an idea for a story. It was, I have an idea based on these things that I've seen and these people I've interacted with. It was something we hadn't seen someone try to tackle before. So we signed the game shortly thereafter. We've been working with them ever since."
Don't hitchhike with crazy people
Always Sometimes Monsters seeks to challenge players to examine their own lives and choices, both in and outside the game world. This, Amirkhani believes, is what he learned on the road; this is what he wants to put into his game.
"Very few video games have been set in a modern world with relatively realistic choice opportunities in there," he says. "We're so stuck in fantasy, we've had so few opportunities to play games about just normal people trying to survive."
"We live in this weird social media internet world where nothing is real. There's nothing to touch. You never have to really make a choice," he says. "You get this opportunity to frame yourself in the best light possible at all given moments, rather than having to accept who you are and your own failings. Thrusting reality at people ... there's something about it that seems so alien, because we've never seen opportunities to have these things in games. I think in real life we're finding fewer and fewer opportunities to examine these things as well."
There's another lesson, too. "Don't hitchhike with crazy people," he says.
Images: Justin Amirkhani, Devolver Digital
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Jake Lear