How Stick Figures and Absurdism Power One of the Year's Best Games

In a sense, the joke is on us, as players.

Many quests start with a simple gift: a mystical ring bequeathed by the hazy ancients, a wooden sword given by a harrowed old man. In Asymmetric Publication’s West of Loathing, the closest thing I got was a briefcase full of snakes that - according to my literal stick-figure of a mother - belonged to my grandmother. Presumably, she would have wanted me to have it. After all, I’m no hero. I’m just a born Snake Oiler trying to blaze a trail through this weird, weird West.

Perhaps you remember Kingdom of Loathing, the fantasy pastiche browser role-playing game that fully-enveloped certain corners of the Nerdosphere back in the early Aughts. Though the slow march of attrition has drip-drained its player-base over the years, Asymmetric has continued to work on it, quietly cranking out an immense amount of content for its clans of studly Seal Clubbers and pesky Disco Bandits. But, by 2012 - nearly a decade after the game’s original launch, and well-past the death knell for the once-inescapable massively multiplayer online craze - studio head Zack Johnson was beginning to grow a bit worried.

“We were still making a living off KOL, but it had gotten to the point where I needed to start laying off people,” he says. “That was when we started realizing we needed to do something else.” The dozen-strong studio had worked on a handful of prototypes over the years - including the ill-fated Scrabble-slinger WordRealms, which Johnson describes as a “total failure” - but it wasn’t until Johnson and co. moved the studio from arid Arizona to sunny San Francisco that the gears really started to mesh for them. “We were just really isolated out there. It was nice to meet other people, hire new people.”

Around that time, a fairly-obscure studio called Failbetter Games launched a successful Kickstarter to a literary seafaring game called Sunless Sea, which borrows its flooded Victorian Lovecraftscape from their previous work Fallen London, one of KOL’s former competitors in the browser-RPG scene. It ended up becoming one of the most critically-praised games of 2015, but to hear Johnson tell it, the mere fact of its development is really what opened the way for them. “They make this weird, wildly successful game in the same universe, and suddenly, there’s a ton of interest in Fallen London again,” he says. “We didn’t really expect West to do that for us, but we figured it was worth a shot. We wanted to play to our strengths, and that meant ‘make a short single-player RPG in the style of KOL.’ So that’s what we did.”

Whether you’re a fan of Kingdom or not, the continuity of style between it and West is undeniable. Luckily for Asymmetric, however, nothing in gaming comes close to it, even fifteen years later. While many RPGs stumble through ponderous, sober tales of capital-G Good and capital-E Evil, of needlessly-complex rituals and thinly-sketched factions, West throws you into its wacky world of demonic cows and killer clowns with nary a care for plot or lore. Like Jazzpunk before it, West is the rarest of game breeds: a light, loving parody that, rather than tearing down the tropes and traits of its chosen vestments - a la Grand Theft Auto - reminds you of why you dug those dumb contrivances in the first place. That might come as a surprise to Johnson - by his own admission, he doesn’t even particularly like Westerns.

“I guess this is slightly controversial, but I’ve always thought the West was just as valid a setting for fantasy than the usual medieval fantasy pastiche,” he says. “There’s treasure, there’s established technology, there’s good and evil. To me, it was more about doing fantasy in a different setting, with different themes and vocabulary. With KOL, we’ve made so much content that it doesn’t even feel like fantasy sometimes. With West, we were able to start fresh. It’s the same dumb humor we’re known for, and it’s only nominally a Western.”

To my mind, Johnson might be downplaying the careful consideration he and his co-writer Riff Conner apply to their craft. West of Loathing might be silly - this is, after all, a game where you fish top-notch loot out of rancid spittoons while the game chides you with increasingly grisly descriptions - but it’s very rarely unintelligent. The sheer formal variation and comic dynamism that West brings to this totally optional recurring gag is enough to embarrass a great many top-flight writers in the industry, from triple-A all the way down. (And that’s in spite of the loss of KOL’s former co-scribe, Josh “Mr. Skullhead” Nite, who left the studio prior to the development of West.) But when it comes to penning great material, to Johnson, there’s no secret sauce - just two friends who know each other very, very well, to the point that the all-important in-game text receives very little editing from the duo.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Johnson says. “It’s easy to forget this, but we’ve been in indie development for almost fifteen years, and I’ve been writing the same basic tone that whole time. Riff and I are influenced by the same things - we love absurdism, as you can probably tell - so, if he writes it, I’m probably fine with it. That being said, he seems to love fart jokes, so I sometimes edit that out, because I hate them. But other than that, we basically just put it in the game and move on.”

During our conversation, it becomes clear that Johnson has complex feelings on the broadbase acclaim that the humor in the Loathing games continue to receive. For him, it has to do less with the relative strengths of his games - and by extension, the studio he heads - and more with his practice as an creator and an artist. “There are a lot of games where the first twenty minutes are funny. Now, a game where you’re supposed to laugh the whole way through - that’s unique. For me, that’s our real strength - a consistency of tone. Most ‘funny’ games are mean-spirited. That’s an easy way to get a laugh - to flip somebody off with both hands. We’re trying to present an alternative to that.”

With its plentiful goofs and endless puns - walk up to a shopkeeper’s stock, and it’s clear Johnson and Conner gave their thesaurus a workout - it’s sometimes easy to forget that underneath West’s rodeo clown costume lies a real-deal RPG with a heavy emphasis on non-linearity and player choice. Like the Bethesda titles it shares its structure with, West’s whirring guts are fairly simple - you have but a handful of stats and skills, and level-ups come faster than you can dole them out, though that’s hardly the point. West may never dare to take itself seriously, but, by the time you’re stalking through its creepy carnival - populated by balloon-wranglers who violate the laws of physics and a knife-thrower who loves to lick his wares - you might find yourself more unsettled than amused.

To hear Johnson tell it, however, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily intentional; Asymmetric is just trying to make the best RPG they can. Again and again - despite the game’s considerable sales, which he says are already “beyond our wildest expectations” - he mentions aspects of West that he believes that the studio could have improved on, especially its anemic, Dragon Quest-esque combat, which he describes as rigid and insufficiently tactical. “In the rest of the game, you have a lot of options. We could have done a better job of that. I realized too late in development that it should have been a game where combat was an option rather than a mandatory element.”

Like Kingdom before it, the real punchline to West of Loathing isn’t funny at all. It demonstrates a tacit failure of the current gaming climate - right now, games just aren’t all that funny. Like every other medium in our vast sphere - cinema, literature, and comics among them - with enough time, effort, and craft, games can have both tremendous humor and fathomless depth, provided you balance the proportions well. In a sense, the joke is on us, as players. While this might irk Johnson a bit, in a way, he views this hidden complexity as part and parcel with their continued success.

“Ultimately, it’s way better to surprise people. I see compromises in scale where other people see a thing that was way bigger than they expected to be. We were always intending to sell this game for $20, but we had a ton of playtesters caution us against that. It’s better to sell for half the money and surprise people that it’s worth twice the money.

We’ve learned over the years that consumers just generally don’t care how much money, how much effort you put into a thing. It looks like a $10 game, and it has a lot of jokes in it, and that makes it a $10 game. You can’t be precious about things like that. To me, it’s more important that the critical mass of people play it, and enjoy it, than anything else. And now we can make DLC for it, and maintain KoL, and make another game of similar scope in half the time. That’s what matters, and I love that we can keep doing it.”

West of Loathing is available now on Steam for Windows and Apple PCs for $10.99.