Dan Fedor is a nice guy who wants to kill you. Over and over. In his excellent post-apocalyptic rogue-like, NEO Scavenger. I liked the game so much I decided to corner him, improvised shiv in hand, to ask him some questions about his career working on Dragon Age and Mass Effect for Bioware, why he went indie, and the probability of an IRL apocalypse. Turns out he’s a pretty nice guy. Too bad I needed the meat to replenish my hunger bar.
The Existential Gamer: The apocalypse (and what happens afterwards) has become a prevalent trope in gaming. What attracts you personally to the end of the world, and why do you think others are fascinated by it?
Dan Fedor: Personally, I think I enjoy the opportunity for adventure that it creates. It’s a way to blend frontier or explorer life with a contemporary level of technology. And it allows us to tell stories about mankind as the underdog, which I’ve always enjoyed. When I set out to make NEO Scavenger, it started as a list of things I wanted to be able to use in the world. I wanted a setting where humans were once again at the mercy of nature and the unknown. Where I could simultaneously feature technology from now and the near future with supernatural elements, as well as exploring ruins, salvaging junk, repurposing items, and solving mysteries. I think many authors who use the apocalypse (or post apocalypse) as a setting enjoy its precariousness and opportunity for resourcefulness. It blends the familiar with the unknown in interesting ways.
TEG: With NEO Scavenger, you wrote a very bleak and unforgiving game, but as a human being you strike me as kind and well adjusted. Do you have an inner-nihilist and if so, how does he relate to your everyday life?
DF: I hadn’t really thought of that juxtaposition before, but I agree they seem at odds. I’ve had phases in my life where I may have leaned towards nihilism, but these days I’d say I’m a mix of optimist and realist. When dealing with people, I try to be the person I want others to be, so I aim to be patient, kind, and respectful. In my designs, however, I think I tend to be calloused and dark, at least towards the player’s character. I appreciate games that pay attention to detail, and those that aren’t afraid to pull punches. It’s still important to treat the player with respect, but sometimes hurting their character is the best way to evoke tension, empathy, excitement, and fun.
TEG: There isn’t really an “end” to NEO Scavenger. What what does “success” mean within an open-ended survival framework of this type, and is there a philosophy behind this particular design decision?
DF: There is a sort of climax and epilogue, if one gets that far. It’ll signal the end of gameplay, and switch back to the main menu. But the game is aloof with its exposition, and very hands-off about guidance, and this is by design.
In the world of NEO Scavenger, there are many strange things afoot. Things which defy explanation, or have multiple explanations. I am a big fan of X-Files, and one of my favorite aspects of the show is perpetual uncertainty. Viewers were always left wondering whether Scully’s rational explanation superseded Mulder’s “spooky” one. Or like the uncertainty borne of confusion in Deliverance: “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?”
NEO Scavenger‘s clues were a deliberate constellation left for the player to connect as they saw fit, which I feel is usually more satisfying than a “right” explanation. The lack of guidance is also by design, as I feel it’s more fun for the player to have agency than for the game to highlight the next milestone for them. There are very few waypoints or other indicators of what to do next, and it’s up to the player to notice leads they can follow-up on. I probably sacrifice some players by going this route, but I think there are enough games out there to satisfy players who want more hand-holding.
TEG: What would you do if you woke up from cryogenic sleep and heard a snarling monster approaching the door of the room you’re in?
DF: Probably hide. I lack many of the technical and physical skills to deal with that situation, so I’d probably do something as close to the “Hiding” option as possible.
TEG: As a species, do you think we’re heading towards a world like the one portrayed in NEO Scavenger (minus the fantasy elements, of course)?
DF: I don’t think we’re guaranteed to, but I also think we’re closer to this kind of a collapse than we often think. Many of the civilization-ending failures hinted at in NEO Scavenger are directly pulled from real-world events. It doesn’t have to be a nuclear bomb or asteroid that pounds us into the stone age. We’re perfectly capable of undermining ourselves in subtler yet just as serious ways. And sometimes, moderate disasters can mount to create something worse than the sum of their parts. For example, if the bee population collapsed, would we survive? Probably. I think we have tools to mitigate that threat, even if quality of life diminishes as a result. But what if we’re dealing with that problem and another one happens? Say, Kessler Syndrome from a failed satellite manoeuvre? The subsequent loss of shipping due to GPS outages might strain already weakened food supplies to the breaking point. How long until people start to panic, and turn a bad situation into an untenable one? NEO Scavenger‘s universe is one where these seemingly minor setbacks have coincided in dangerous ways.
TEG: After working on Dragon Age and Mass Effect at Bioware, what drew you away from these more classic narrative structures towards the circular nature of the roguelike sub-genre? What speaks to you about this “version” of time?
DF: I can’t say it’s a complete departure from classic narrative structures. There are at least a couple routes through NEO Scavenger which can produce that experience. However, I think one of the biggest departures from games like DA and ME is probably the failure state. In DA and ME, it is obligatory that the player be able to finish the game from any state (apart from player death). In NEO Scavenger, it’s entirely possible to exhaust all leads and be unable to progress the plot. You can say or do something wrong, and your role in the “plot” is over, with no hope of seeing further story elements without restarting. To me, the importance of such a structure is that it allows for real consequence. Making a choice carries much more weight if you know the outcome could have a real impact on your progress. Like permadeath, I think this design choice can have pitfalls and can frustrate some players. But I think it can be a powerful design tool, particularly if the failure states can also be made interesting.
TEG: Cormac McCarthy once said that all good writers, in his opinion “deal with issues of life and death.” Do you think this is also true when it comes to game design?
DF: Hm. I guess that would depend on how one interprets “life and death.” I happen to really like games like Sim City 4, Tetris, and Prison Architect. I think these are well-designed games. Do they deal with life and death? Perhaps tangentially or metaphorically. I think a more important element to game design is dealing with “tension and release.” The games I enjoy most have satisfying tension and release cycles, like one gets in good music or writing, or even visual arts. As humans, we enjoy story, change, contrast, and learning. Incorporating design elements which foster (and effectively wield) these experiences will probably have more of an impact on a game’s quality than subject matter.
TEG: You were a student of physics in your university days. How did that empirical vision of the universe affect your perceptions of life and death?
DF: I think having a background in physics has made me more comfortable diving deep into subjects I might’ve otherwise felt intimidated by. The wounding system in NEO Scavenger, for example, was the result of a week of trauma research. I have no background in medicine, but I wanted something more than an abstract hit point system for health. The result was a fairly rigorous simulation of metabolism, bleeding, coagulation, pain, infection, and other health concerns. On a more metaphorical level, I think physics education has made me more comfortable with violating the perceived rules of the universe in my game world. Studying physics, for me, was a process of learning rules only to find that they break down outside of optimal conditions. Physics has more exceptions in it than I originally thought. Things like the effects of speed on Newtonian mechanics, and even the differences in forces and behaviors when viewing the world at scales from cosmic to microscopic. The deeper you dig, the weirder things get. And in NEO Scavenger, that is definitely the case.
TEG: What would be your least favorite way to die?
DF: I think, for me, the psychological aspect of dying is the most troubling. Being burnt alive or drowning seem really bad, and would definitely cause pain, but in reality, they’d likely be over before too long. On the other hand, being tortured to death could potentially last a very long time. The panic and anticipation of pain would last way longer, the feeling of helplessness would be enhanced, and this would maximize the suffering on both a physical and psychological level. So, I’d have to go with being tortured to death.
TEG: What’s next for NEO Scavenger? I’ve heard rumors of a mobile release and even a sequel.
DF: Hopefully both, if I have anything to say about it! I’ve contracted some help porting NEO Scavenger from Flash/Flixel to HaxeFlixel, which can be compiled natively on pretty much any platform, including mobile. So once that’s done, I’d like to publish Android and iOS versions. I’ve had no end of requests for them, and I agree that it would be a good format for such a turn-based game. I’d also like to begin work on a sequel, continuing the story of Philip Kindred as he discovers this new world. I have new places I’d like to create, and more ideas for changes/improvements than I can realistically make to the game. Work on this will likely begin after the mobile version, as I’ll likely build future PC versions using the same multi-platform HaxeFlixel code. Apart from that, I’d also like to release games in the same universe but with different characters. My current project is to prototype a game that takes place in NEO Scavenger‘s solar system. I’d like to explore what happened to the fledgeling solar system economy when its roots (Earth) collapsed. My devlog at bluebottlegames.com discusses my day-to-day efforts in making the ship-design and crew-management aspects of this game. It’ll be a bit of a change from the NEO Scavenger mechanics, but the world is the same, and I hope to maintain the pensive, turn-based style so that people can enjoy it at their leisure.