The Old-School Individualist
Independent game designer Jeff Vogel on putting morality into play
The games that Jeff Vogel creates have their share of cool graphics, streamlined interface designs, and other technological elements that were mere fantasies in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, they hark back to the first generation of computer games, when plot and setting were more important than game mechanics. His Avernum series, for example, features a two-dimensional visual display but has a panoply of divergent story lines, all based on choices the player makes as a game character.
This foundation of plot and setting isn't surprising, because Vogel is also an accomplished writer. He pens first-rate rants for the humor site IronyCentral.com. He wrote a regular column for Computer Games. He serialized a week-by-week, blow-by-blow account of raising his baby on his personal website; Andrews McMeel published it in 2005 as The Poo Bomb: True Tales of Parental Terror. As a literary prank he formed the Scorched Earth Party, the only organization that can make this boast: "We were the first political party to respond to the threat of Barney, and the first to advocate beating those responsible to death with lead pipes."
An independent game developer in an industry dominated by large companies, Vogel regularly inserts themes of individualism into his work. Avernum takes place in a world where inhabitants of a totalitarian society are banished to a literal underworld for such diverse crimes as treason, inappropriate humor, and loving someone of the same gender. His characters include powerful beings who merely want to be left alone, monsters tragically aware that they have been manipulated for evil ends, and heroes motivated by money as much as any ideal.
I spoke with Vogel via phone in September.
reason: What are the advantages of independent game development?
Jeff Vogel: It's much the same difference as between, say, indie film and mainstream, blockbuster film. The blockbusters—whether you're talking about blockbuster games or blockbuster movies—are putting a hundred million dollars into the thing, and you aren't going to see a lot of risks. Usually, you're going to see the rough edges and the oddball things sort of sanded down and taken away.
Indie game developers tend to be more of a bunch of eccentric loners who have a dream and bring that to reality. Sometimes that dream isn't that interesting, but in indie games you are far more likely to find something unusual, or small niche-market things that the larger companies have, by and large, abandoned.
reason: Do you plan to move toward online play?
Vogel: There are a lot of reasons why we're never, ever going to do that. First off, I'm not a very good programmer. I'm a pretty good game designer, but to create an online sort of game requires a frightening level of resources far beyond what our tiny shop can manage.
On top of that, it's not really our niche. When you're a small indie company, generally, to survive, you have to find some small area where you don't have to be constantly fighting with the big guys and write games to fill that area. You step out of that niche at your peril.
We've been writing single-player role-playing games, so I'm competing with practically nobody. There are only one or two decent single-player role-playing games that come out in any given year. If I write a massive multi-player game, I'm competing against people with $50 million budgets, and they will kill me.
Indie game development is a big, growing thing. It's a chance for people who live in their basements, small people with a dream, to create something, and that's really catching on. But if you want to do that, you have to know your limits.
reason: The Avernum series doesn't have simple cookie-cutter outcomes. The adventures carry ethical overtones, both positive and negative, no matter what options you select. Is there something about that ambiguity that appeals to you?
Vogel: Yes. I'm fascinated by politics, and I'm fascinated by the process of how things get done—how ugly and compromised pretty much any dream can become. I have very little patience, in general, with ideas of some people being absolutely good or absolutely bad, or some race of creature being absolutely good or absolutely bad. In The Lord of the Rings, there are these things, and they're called "orcs," and they're all bad, and they're all evil, and their only purpose is to be killed. I find that to be extremely boring. Whenever I watch The Lord of the Rings, I find myself wondering, "So what are orcs like? Why are they like that?"
Obviously, there are some cases in real life where people are doing things that are all wrong, like the Nazis, or the genocide in Darfur. But most of the time, once you get under the surface, there are a lot of contests between people where either side isn't absolutely right or absolutely wrong, and I find that a lot more interesting.
So in the Avernum and Geneforge games, I like to give the players choices. No cut-and-dried solutions, but instead situations where they have to go, "What do I want to do here? What side, what faction, do I think really has more of a point?" If I get to the point where the player has to actually stop and think about it, then I think I've made an interesting game.
The games that are far more political, and far more philosophical, are the Geneforge games. There really is no good guy or no bad guy there; pretty much every powerful person has a faction you can join and fight for, and some of those factions are pretty ethically hairy. In Geneforge 5, the game I'm working on now, you can join probably the most morally appalling side that I've ever created; I mean, I almost feel awful about writing it. But it's really important to me to do that, because most people are going to pick the good guy side and I really want to create an awareness in the player of how bad things could possibly get. I like giving the player a horrible choice, not because I think they will take it but because I think you gain a lot from the awareness that that was a choice.
Those are the games where the people on the online forums argue for jillions of posts: "No, I think that this faction is correct," "No, I think that this faction is correct." That is the most satisfying thing to me, when I've created something where people can come out of it and go, "Yeah, he totally wanted me to join that side," but they all think a different side is the one I wanted them to join. I love that.
Ben Malisow (benmalisow.com) is an instructor in counter-cyberterror at the University of Texas at San Antonio's Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security. His most recent book is Terrorism (Chelsea House).