West of Loathing's creators do 'whatever the industry says you're not supposed to be doing'

At PAX Australia the indie section is dominated by games that aren't out yet, playable demos hosted by the games' own developers—many of them Australians. We saw some great ones, but incongruously placed between those stalls was an indie game that was already out and an American one too, in the most American of genres: the western.

West of Loathing is a single-player RPG about stick-figure cow punchers who fight bandits, skeletons, and demonic cattle while also digging around in spittoons for magic items, investigating a necromancer who practices "Nex Mex" fusion spellcraft, and trying to decide whether to buy a crazy horse, a pale horse, or a dark horse.

I chose the crazy horse, of course (of course).

West of Loathing is genuinely funny in a way too few games are. Whether it's sight gags like the silly walking skill my character has picked up or references like the miniature piano belonging to a 12-inch pianist, West of Loathing is so full of gags I can't imagine any more being squeezed in—even if they were wafer-thin. I've found it consistently funnier than Asymmetric's previous game, the stick-figure MMO Kingdom of Loathing. In fact it's one of the funniest games I've played all year.

It's also a well-structured and replayable RPG, with a first hour that shows its cards and proves it to be full of decisions worth thinking about. That first hour of prologue was the demo being shown at PAX, and it did a pretty great job convincing people this is an open-world game that won't waste your time.

Zack Johnson, designer, artist, and writer on West of Loathing talked about making an open-world RPG that is also an adventure game and a comedy.

PC Gamer: I haven't finished West of Loathing yet. I've been doing a lot of sidequests, taking my time.

Zack Johnson: That's what it's all about. That's where the soul of the game lives.

A lot of open-world games, you get that sense the main story is what they really wanted to tell and the extra stuff is there as padding. But for you it's the other way around?

Yeah, definitely. I think that there are some people for whom that makes the game not work quite as well or feel shorter, but I always felt like the main questline was the least interesting thing about a Bethesda game or a—really just a Bethesda game.

It certainly was in Oblivion.

It sucked! Even in Skyrim I don't remember anything about the main questline. You go to heaven in the end of it, right? But that's not what those are about, that's not people's experience or memory of playing Skyrim. [In West of Loathing] not having the player be the most important person in the world was a real goal. Another thing about those games is you become the archmage and the master thief and the head of the Fighter's Guild. You could be one or zero of those things and it would still be a fun videogame. 

So what's it been like showing your game at PAX and watching other people play it, seeing what they enjoy?

It's been interesting. For a while it was very emotionally taxing to put the game in front of people, but now that it's come out and been successful and there's evidence to allow me to believe we've made a good game it's way easier to just be like, "Of course people are gonna play this and have fun. That's what's been happening for the last year."

That was part of our philosophy: just put jokes everywhere

Zack Johnson

It's interesting being in Australia for the first time because there are a lot of people here who this is the first time they're seeing us at a trade show, and so we're getting a lot of that thing where people say, "Oh! Kingdom of Loathing is a thing I remember from 10 years ago. I can't believe that's still around." It happened the first time we went to PAX East. Every once in a while you get a real local crowd of people who, if this is the first time they've seen us out, it's their reminder we still exist.

Which parts do people find funny? Is it interesting to see which jokes people laugh at?

It is. Everybody likes the silly walking. The prologue is the part we've polished most by far because we've gotten to see so many people playing it. There are a couple of things that are broken about this build that I wince every time I see but we've been using the same demo build for a year at this point. 

It's good. Something that I think is a strength of the game is different people are gonna find different things interesting about it. There are gonna be jokes that are obscure and a joke only one out of every 50 people that plays the game is gonna get, but how excited is that person that there's a joke that was just for them? That was part of our philosophy: just put jokes everywhere and don't worry about them not being accessible enough. Don't worry about it being too obscure. Somebody will find it, somebody will appreciate it. To somebody else it'll just look weird or confusing and that's fine.

Do you think of it as a comedy game? If this was being voted for in the games of the year, would you see it in the RPG category or the comedy category?

It makes me wish there was a comedy game category, because that is the only actual category it would belong in. That's weird though, because comedy's not really a genre designator for games. It's a genre of movie or book but games, the genre's about how it plays and this is, I don't know? Adventure game? Uhhhh, narrative, I guess? We were trying to figure out if we were to get an IGF nomination what category would we want it to be in, what would even make sense, and maybe narrative I guess? It makes me sad that there aren't enough comedy games to really be a category.

I do feel like in the last few years maybe there's been more of them. Games like The Stanley Parable and visual novels like Butterfly Soup, which has really funny writing.

Jazzpunk definitely counts as a comedy game. It's more a Zucker brothers Airplane!-style thing where it's really playing with videogame tropes as opposed to, "This is just a videogame with jokes in it". It's more mechanically comical. 

You called [West of Loathing] an adventure game before and I think in the '90s adventure games were comedy games a lot of the time, that's where the humor was.

Yeah, absolutely. We set out to make an RPG because that's what Kingdom of Loathing is and that's the kind of thing we wanted to make but it slowly revealed itself to be an adventure game and we didn't fight it too hard. That's how it turned out. Definitely still has significant RPG elements and I like that. 

We basically do whatever the industry says you're not supposed to be doing any more.

Zack Johnson

I like that there are boxes with random loot in them, your stats get bigger, and you have turn-based battles with skills with different numbers attached to them, and different pieces of gear that you're wearing and optimizing. I enjoy that. We insert it only to the extent that it's fun and doesn't get in the way of the jokes, right? We're not trying to put hard fights in. There is an optional hard mode that you can find if you're interested in getting that achievement but it's not that important.

What's next for you? You've done an MMO, you've done a single-player cowboy RPG, what's the progression from there?

I don't know! We basically do whatever the industry says you're not supposed to be doing any more. We did 'games as a service' before that was a thing, we've switched to single-player now that the industry is moving to games as a service. We'll have to see what everybody else does to figure out what not to do.

But the real answer is right now the content side of the team is working on some DLC, the tech side is working on ports—we've got iOS out by the end of this year and then shooting to get out on Switch early next year. We should have learned never to say that in public because it always ends up getting 50 blog posts where it's "Confirmed: West of Loathing on Switch!" It's not confirmed yet but we're going to do it. And then just see what happens after that. It's done well enough that we have some breathing room, so that's nice.