Sunday, July 21, 2019

Spotlight: Alex Gleason from Vegan on a Desert Island

For this month’s interview we sat down with Alex Gleason, creator and developer of Vegan on a Desert Island, an upcoming libre action/puzzle RPG. The game follows the story of Rachel, a vegan girl who shipwrecks on an island, and becomes embroiled in a quest to uphold her own conflicted values against the interests of the island’s many talking animals.

A newcomer on the scene, we spoke with Alex on what inspired him to create this project, along with his views on activism, software freedom, game development, and of course, life.

FG: Tell us a bit about yourself and your project to begin with.

Alex: My name is Alex Gleason and I'm making a game called Vegan on a Desert Island (VOADI). It's a puzzle-adventure game with emphasis on art, music, and storytelling. The game is about Rachel's journey, which I modeled after some events in my life involving animal rights activism I organized in real life, including all its conflict and turmoil. It's a linear story meant to be experienced once and leave a lasting impression.

FG: At a first glance, a vegan stranded on a desert island seems like an unusual concept to make a game about. Could you elaborate on how your experience in activism motivated you to create this project?

Alex: In conversations about veganism people often ask if we'd eat animals under dire circumstances, such as being stranded on a desert island. It's a ridiculous question that deserves a ridiculous answer, which is why I decided to develop VOADI.

The true answer is coconuts. In The Real Castaway, a woman in real life was stranded on an island for 9 months and survived entirely off of coconuts. To answer to the deeper question, it's the same question as if you'd be fine eating another human on a desert island. I believe that animals are people and there is fundamentally no difference. It's impossible to know what you'd really do, but it's not a black-and-white situation. It's okay to not have all the answers.

While developing the game I started to feel like a "vegan on a desert island" in a different way. The animal rights organization I founded collapsed on me. They took my home and crushed my dreams. I was the villain in their story and they were the villains in mine. This inspired me to create a more meaningful story in VOADI, reflecting what happened to me.

I redefined the character of Greybeard from being a classic evil-doer to an ambiguous villain. You're never sure whether he's really good or bad. Good vs evil is a false dichotomy that doesn't exist in real life and I wanted to reflect that in VOADI.

FG: Why did you decide to translate this particular experience of yours into a video game?

Alex: Unlike books or movies, video games force you to experience something yourself. I want players to take a step in my shoes for a minute. The downside is that I cannot guarantee they will actually enjoy it. Successful games make people feel happy, but a lot of VOADI is about misery. Some gameplay elements are even intentionally antagonizing to the player. I think this is balanced a bit by CosmicGem's cheery music and Siltocyn's meticulous pixel art. At the very least, I hope players will always be wondering what's coming next.

The game conflates serious ethical topics with ironic humor

FG: What you just mentioned highlights a certain tendency in the video games industry to reward and empower players in a way they will feel good about themselves, which is a bit contradictory to the idea of art as a form of self-expression. Based on that, do you think there's enough interest or room for dissemination for this type of project?

Alex: VOADI is not a game for everyone, but a few people will deeply resonate with it. If that happens I'll consider the project a success.

FG: For such a personal background, so far the game has been presented as having a cheeky and humorous façade, with an ironic twist to it. Could you elaborate on the role of humor and how it has shaped the game so far?

Alex: I think humor itself is antagonistic. It's about subverting expectations, meaning there is a conflict between what your mind expects and what's really there. "Vegan on a desert island" is a ridiculous premise met with a sarcastic answer. The game is funny precisely because it's antagonistic. Part of that antagonism is in the way the game is presented: a cutesy colorful game about talking animals where very serious things happen.

FG: The project itself has been openly publicized as being a Free Software and Creative Commons endeavor. How did you first became familiar with both of these movements and how have they affected the development of VOADI?

Alex: Software freedom is a boycott, much like veganism. There's a lot of overlap between the communities because it's people who understand the concept of sacrificing something for the greater good. I still use copyleft licenses for all my works. It's a deep conviction I'll never change, and you can be sure everything we put out there will free culture approved.

Linux was a groundbreaking discovery because it defied everything I knew about people's incentives to create things. I thought software freedom didn't go far enough. Later I discovered Nina Paley, a copyright abolitionist, and her view that "copying is not theft" really resonated me. She is a personal hero of mine and an inspiration. In some ways I am quite literally following in her footsteps.

In terms of project impact, being Free software helped VOADI garner more widespread support. Daniel Molina is an amazing volunteer who joined the project to advance software freedom for gaming. I've received support from the sidelines as well, with people donating money and others doing small but important tasks like updating wiki pages and mirroring assets. It's pretty incredible how much people will help you without being asked if you put yourself out there and are willing to give back.

FG: Eventually this has taken you to present your project at LibrePlanet last March. How did that come to be?

Alex: I've been a member of the LibrePlanet community for years but never gave a talk. Last March the stars aligned. I didn't intend to give the talk originally, but I felt empowered by the people there. Lightning talks seem like a low-pressure way to showcase something you've been working on, and VOADI was received very well! Lightning talks at LibrePlanet are open to anyone on a first-come-first-serve basis after the conference starts. All you have to do is add your name to a list.

FG: Switching to more technical matters: You have been using the Solarus engine as a main development platform. How did you first hear about it and how has it helped making VOADI a reality?

Alex: Solarus has a map editor GUI making it a great tool for beginners. The Solarus community is vibrant and generous, always eager to help. It was developed by Christopho as a reimplementation of the game engine from Zelda: A Link to the Past, a game I was already very familiar with. I highly suggest Solarus to anyone new to the free gaming scene, looking to create their own games!

I used to love Zelda, especially the Game Boy Color titles. Nintendo is notorious for cease-and-desisting fan created works, which I think is unjust and counterproductive to a healthy society. I struggle to enjoy the games from my childhood because I'm too distracted by the fact that society would punish someone for deriving or extending works that they care deeply about. I see Solarus as a stepping stone towards creating a new ecosystem of free games that can hopefully touch people's hearts in a way that they'll want to extend and remix the game, and they'll be allowed to do so.

FG: VOADI notoriously bases most of its graphics style on a Creative Commons tileset (Zoria), but it also features original additions of its own, as well as original music. How did you go about sourcing an adequate free tileset, along with finding artists to fill in for the remaining necessities of the artwork pipeline?

Alex: Zoria tileset was found on OpenGameArt. I had been trying to make my own tileset, but knew I couldn't match that level of quality on my own.

Later I commissioned our tileset artist, Siltocyn, through an ad I posted on the /r/gameDevClassifieds subreddit. CosmicGem, our chiptune musician, was found through Fiverr. This has worked out really well for VOADI. It's amazing how much you can do with a small amount of money.

In both cases we switched to free platforms (email and Matrix) for communication. Reddit was the most effective at garnering attention for our gigs.

Originally I planned to make all contributors sign a waiver similar to the Apache contributor agreement, transferring their copyright to me. But the freelancers wanted to maintain their privacy (they didn't want to sign their name and address). So instead now there's a policy where all contributors must put the license on the deliverable file itself, or distribute it in a ZIP with the license.

For graphics we created these stamps that say stuff like "Siltocyn CC BY-SA 4.0" in a tiny font in the corner of the files

A glimpse into the development process

FG: When are you planning to release the game, and in which formats will it be released?

Alex: I'm planning for a 2020 release for Linux, MacOS, and Windows. We'll consider more platforms depending on the reception (although anyone will be free to port it if they have the skills).

I'm planning to distribute the game on some proprietary platforms like Steam, Humble Bundle, etc. Those versions will have a price associated with it. I think of it as a "proprietary tax." Users in the free world will play the game gratis.

I'm also planning for a limited physical release on CD, which I'll cobble together at home using LightScribe disks, booklets I print myself, and used jewel cases from eBay. I mostly just want something to hold in my hands.

FG: Any tips for other Free Software or independent developers out there?

  1. Put yourself out there.
  2. Good art and music goes a long way.
  3. Start it and don't stop.

FG: Alright, thank you very much for your time Alex.

Alex: Thanks so much for the opportunity!

Vegan on a Desert Island is set to be released in 2020. The project's code is licensed under the GPLv3, and al of the art assets are being released under CC-BY-Sa 4.0. If you would like to contribute to the project you can join development talks at VOADI’s Riot channel or check their repository at Gitlab. You can also donate via the project’s Patreon or Liberapay.

All of the images on this article are courtesy of Vegan on a Desert Island, released under CC-BY-SA 4.0.

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