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The bizarre metastory behind making Sometimes Always Monsters

Making game development your life.

James stood a block away from the Levi's corporation headquarters in San Francisco. He was homeless. Lonely and hungry, he approached a massive bus parked along a busy San Francisco street, looking to bum a smoke.


Coming from a deeply Christian community, he didn't feel comfortable growing up. "I was never baptized," he said between drags. "And I made mistakes. So ... I had to leave. And I had to leave some things I really cared for and loved. Just to go struggle ... I dunno. I'm just looking for some sort of stability. I don't think I'm going to find it here."

James was in San Francisco and he was "waiting on a dog" to accompany him. He wanted to travel to New York, but he needed a companion or someone he could trust to go with him.

"That's a big journey ... that's a long, dangerous trek ... Everyone is just as bad as the next person. There are some people that will scum you just because it puts them higher on the list ... and I know that it's because they feel small. But it's hard to be a nice person when you're homeless. And I'm surprised I haven't been hurt. And it wears on you. It beats you down."

"I get that I had the choice to be a vagabond, and that can [put some off]."

The bus was packed with game developers attempting a bizarre journey — a cross-country road trip to promote their game, Sometimes Always Monsters. The team at Vagabond Dog wanted to take a trip that matched the arc of the game's story, which follows a writer on a professional book tour.

As far as anyone on the team could tell, no one had ever tried to promote a video game with a bus tour. Vagabond Dog's creative director and de facto leader, Justin Amirkhani, is obsessed with the meaning behind action. He wanted to do "the most meta thing [he] could think of."

Previously, Amirkhani spent a year as a willful drifter, eager to see the U.S. and live on the charity and luck of others. Later, he modeled his first game, Always Sometimes Monsters, after his experiences. In that case, experience came before creation. In this one, he's reversed the order. It's all part of his grander plan to tie his actions, his trips and his own personal memories to those in Vagabond Dog's games.

"I get that I had the choice to be a vagabond," Amirkhani says, "and that can [put some off]. ... The way I see it, though, is that life is just funneling money into a fire. It can be anything, right? Like, it's your home, or vacations or whatever. ... We're lucky because at least our fire has an engine."

Amirkhani and James started chatting about their respective stints as drifters. The two traded stories and talked philosophy until Amirkhani invited James onto the bus for a couple of hours as they went to press appointments along their scheduled tour. While there, Amirkhani picked James' brain, tried to learn about his life. James left with all the food and water he cared to take and a promise to meet back up with the bus at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers later that night.

Sometimes Always Monsters

Ring storytelling

Amirkhani isn't the only member of the team. Jake Reardon, a middle-aged Canadian coder, Emilio Aceves-Amaya, the lead artist, Will O'Neil, the writer, and the associate designer, Jane Dunlop, round out the group. But Amirkhani is the one who holds Vagabond Dog's uniting vision.

His plan for Always Sometimes Monsters was a longshot. He started with barely any experience in game development, having spent most of his adult life as a freelance game journalist. Together with Reardon, he wanted to explore the kinds of terrible things people do when their backs are against the wall. Modeling the game loosely on his time as a vagrant, Amirkhani sought to capture his own nihilistic morality.

"I still had a moral code back then," he says. "I don't believe in anything now. Anything can be justified to someone. I may disagree with it, but I'm not a moral arbiter. I can't be. There is no right or wrong. I don't deal with that. [In my games] the player has to figure that out for themselves. And yes, it's possible for them to play through in a weird way and come out a worse person. It's definitely possible. But life will do that, too. I just want to create something that leaves life open. I want something for people to project themselves onto and figure out who they are."

"It's a search engine nightmare. But it doesn't matter, because this isn't for anyone else."

Always Sometimes Monsters was about losing the love of your life, struggling to survive as a writer, and ultimately abandoning your ties to chase your dreams. He wanted to press players against a wall and let them explore themselves through the morally ambiguous actions they took. His games force players into hunger and homelessness and asks whether they'd do something otherwise repugnant, like selling a stray to an underground dogfighting ring to avoid starvation. Now, Amirkhani seeks the inverse.

"I want to mirror what we did before," he says. "In the first game, you started at the bottom and clawed your way to the top. You fought and struggled and bled … you may have lost some people. You may have done things you weren't proud of, but you probably got what you wanted in the end. Now you start on top, and it's about the inevitable decline. … Because success is never sustainable. There is always a fall."

As indie games go, Always Sometimes Monsters was a success. It sold better than the team expected, making all of its money back and then some — enough to expand the team and upgrade essentially everything. Even more than that, it gave the team the liberty to pursue its vision. The team members expect to fail — if not now, then eventually. That lets them take risks their PR director describes as "confusing."

For one, the promotional bus tour only attracted a handful of critics and journalists, and a few other people — a couple of drifters and a smattering of fans. In terms of cost effectiveness, it wasn't a wise move. Neither, the team says, was the choice to flip around the words of the team's first game, Always Sometimes Monsters, to make the follow-up Sometimes Always Monsters.

"It's a search engine nightmare," Amirkhani says. "But it doesn't matter, because this isn't for anyone else. This is about us."

Sometimes Always Monsters

Top of the hill

Sometimes Always Monsters opens with you swimming in good fortune. Following the events of the game's predecessor, you've rekindled your greatest love and your bank account has swollen beyond your wildest expectations. You've become a successful novelist with a great personal life. The only thing you need to do is figure out how to follow up your first novel's success.

"But that's the catch," Amirkhani says. "When you're down, you can only improve, but when things are at their peak, you can only fall." It's a mantra he's internalized and has been trying to bake into the core of Sometimes Always Monsters. "At each step," he says, "you'll be tempted to break away. To enjoy your success, to have fun and let loose. You can step out and enjoy your wealth, you can go out and do things and have fun … or you can sit in your room and write your next novel. Avoid spending, do what you need to do … Success breaks people. That's the message."

Adding to the strain will be obstacles — like a reporter trying to prove that you plagiarized your wildly successful novel from your spouse's former lover as well as other writers who each have their own books to promote and who try to pressure you into being irresponsible.

"If you can make it out like I did ... you're lucky."

"Going out, doing the fun things, that's part of living life," Amirkhani admits. "That's part of what makes it interesting. But often, those goals are antithetical to what makes us work within the confines of our social roles." That dovetails with Amirkhani's attachment to the idea of the vagabond, to the one who detaches themselves from the norm and pursues what they want to instead of what is expected of them.

Amirkhani hopes that his games have and will continue to tackle big issues, elements that lie at the core of what it means to be a person struggling with modern life. Much of his distaste for the world around him comes from its artifice — the idea that people mold themselves to meet an artificial standard or even that they should have to in the first place.

His discontent is with capitalism, with the idea of working yourself to the bone in service to something you don't believe in. It's a position that comes from privilege, but he's hopeful that others will find a way to escape the prisons he believes hold them.

"If you can make it out like I did ... you're lucky," he says. "But I think most people are afraid, or they have a desire to keep to what they know."

Sometimes Always Monsters

Amirkhani's trick

Amirkhani's approach to art is performative, believing that tricking or manipulating audiences has intrinsic value — like you'd expect at a magic show. A game is more than just the interaction between player and code, it's a holistic experience that involves everything people expect it to be, what it becomes, and how it bleeds into other parts of your life. That's why the bus tour is such an important piece of the reality of Sometimes Always Monsters.

Through that lens, Amirkhani likes to talk about what a great con he thinks No Man's Sky was, and how jealous he is of Sean Murray and the people at Hello Games for pulling it off.

"I'm angry because I wanted to do that," he laments, "and now I can't. I can't ever walk out on a stage and say, 'We have 18 quintillion endings,' because they've ruined that for everyone. You can't ever check the limits of the possibility space yourself, so they could always come back and say, 'Yeah, well, you still haven't seen everything.' It's armor against criticism and it's tragic that it's people with those kinds of resources who are making things in bad faith."

Amirkhani isn't mad that No Man's Sky released the way it did, per se, just that so little was done with the idea. He thinks it was meant to be a con from the start and if there was more intentionality behind it, the game could have made a much grander statement than it did.

"Morality is at the heart of what I'm messing with. It's right there in the name."

Art means everything to Amirkhani. Everyone else on the team has some other grounding, something else that ties them to the world around them. Reardon, for example, loves dogs (and lends his passion to the other half of Vagabond Dog's name). He adopts older or sick dogs and takes care of them and plays with them until they pass. But Amirkhani borders on the solipsistic, believing that his life might be the only thing he knows is real. Amirkhani gets lost in his head and can talk about weighty philosophy for hours on end.

"Vagabond," to him, isn't a social status as much as it is a lifestyle. He's so detached from the world around him — and any desire for a "standard" life — that even though he now has a place to stay and a business that employs several people, he still claims the title, quipping "I'm still a vagabond. I just have money now."

More often than not, Amirkhani sees significance in the act of doing things for their own sake. He thinks of his life, essentially, as performance art. And that's a big part of what his team is trying to do with its games — take players on that ride and bridge the gap between the real world and their crafted, digital one.

"Morality is at the heart of what I'm messing with. It's right there in the name," Amirkhani says. "The first one was about the fact that everyone has breaches in their own codes at some point. Or, at least, the code as they once saw it. When faced with extreme circumstances — when we're homeless, or poor, or heartbroken or whatever — we do things that we'd never think of if we were comfortable. We are always sometimes monstrous."

The flip side, of course, is the idea that people will always break if they have the chance. When people have power, Amirkhani posits, they use it against others and, often, themselves. He think it's worth digging into our boundaries and limits, especially if we can contain them to a digital space where the chance that we'll actually hurt someone is limited.

Choice

"When I shipped the [first] game, I was in a dark place," Amirkhani says. "I was caught up in what my legacy would be. How people would see me down the line, wondering what they thought of this thing we'd made."

Amirkhani talks about morality constantly, about different perspectives on it, about classical ethics and how people make their own choices. He says he's detached from it all. That he can't and won't judge others for the actions they choose — either in his games or in the real world.

"You can't make a choice that doesn't make sense to you. I don't believe that."

"In the moment, you made that decision because you thought it was right," he says. "Even the bad choices, like you get shit-faced before work or whatever, made sense to you because of some suffering or some thought that you had. You can't make a choice that doesn't make sense to you. I don't believe that."

Just past that, however, lies a desire to see people flourish. He tells a story about a church in his home city of Toronto. It used to keep its doors open for people of the community, accepting just about everyone who needed help. But, as homeless people started coming in, some folks in the congregation were upset that these drifters were abusing the charity.

"They're so upset that someone might abuse something that they will take something away from someone who genuinely needs it," he says.

Whether his time as a vagrant was self-imposed or not, Amirkhani often faced very real danger. By his own admission, he didn't need to put himself in that position. But, since then, he's changed. He understands the desperation that some face and dwells on the frustration that comes when people don't help others when they have the chance. Despite his assertions otherwise, Amirkhani wants to be a good person. Or he at least wants to try. If anything, he's just unsure that there is anything that's unambiguously good.

Sometimes Always Monsters

Once in a lifetime

"I was staying in this hostel just after PAX," Amirkhani says. "I was feeling down and wondering what I was still doing in this industry. But I met someone. Sam. He and I became friends over that week ... but on one of the last nights, he met this woman. She was biking from Vancouver to Panama alone. He fell for her and they went on a little date. But they knew their time was limited. Sam needed to go back to London and she was going to keep going south. The two hit it off, though, so we thought, 'What the hell? Let's see if we can find her again.'"

So Amirkhani and Sam went south. Dipping into bars and dives, trying to catch up with this woman. They hitchhiked down the west coast, starting with a ride from Terry, a suburban mother who was on her way to get her kids from school.

"She was just called to pick us up and take us to the middle of nowhere. She let her husband know and the kids were fine. But she took us to a Denny's that was three hours away. She got us lunch and then she headed back. And we kept going."

"For every up there's a down. But it was still so worth it."

All the while, they were hunting the blonde woman on the bike. They called camp sites and diners and everything they could think of to see if anyone had seen her. After a couple of days, the pair decided to stop by a beach in southern Oregon until sundown. They pitched a tent on the sand and left notes at RV parks, bike groups and the like all over, asking this woman to meet them there.

"She showed up ... right at sundown," Amirkhani says. "And we lost our shit. Because we were pushing this dream and all these people along the way bought into this idea of chasing true love — even if it was only for one more night. And we felt, in that moment, that reality was our own design. And we could do all the things you see in the movies. ... It was so validating. That you could make these moments real. It was a ridiculous concept. And they had one night together, and that made it all the more special. It was like everybody agreed that we were here to make this happen. And we knew it couldn't last. She has to keep going and he had to go back because they had limits on how long they could stay in the country.

"But the next day, I got really sick. And I had to go to the hospital ... Because, for every up there's a down. But it was still so worth it to know that those two got one more night before ... never seeing each other again."

Sometimes Always Monsters

James and Seattle

James met back up with the bus at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco later the same night. He wanted to try the game and hear more of Vagabond Dog's increasingly surreal story. James was also looking for a way out. He didn't think he could keep his lifestyle up, but he felt that it'd be impossible to go back to his hometown, both logistically and emotionally.

Amirkhani, having the resources, thanks in part to Always Sometimes Monsters, wanted to give James that chance. The two walked around for a while before coming back to the bus and saying their goodbyes. Amirkhani had a big grin. Here he thought he had a chance to make another story. To help someone else find another path they didn't see before. Through a wry smirk, he suggested they might see James again in Seattle.

Seattle was the tour's final destination. Vagabond Dog had a section at PAX's Indie Megabooth where it'd be demoing the game. While the team had sparse showings on the tour itself, PAX was a hit. The team played through hundreds of demos and handed out shirts to new and old fans.

All the while, Amirkhani waited and hoped for James. But he never came. After the show, Amirkhani was sullen. Saddened that he couldn't finish the story. That he couldn't make some new sort of Hollywood-style magic happen.

"At least he knows there is a way out now," Amirkhani says, "… it's hard, but it's possible. Maybe he'll find what he needs." Babykayak