“There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” - Seneca the Younger
In early 2004, a middle-aged man with the Fallout-derived moniker “Vault Dweller” wrote a brief forum post that began, “Long story short, I’ve decided to make a game...” By late 2015, he had posted some 30,000 more messages, taken on a new alias (“Vincent D. Weller”), given perhaps the most caustic interview in the history of gaming journalism, and quit his job as a marketing executive. He had also, at long last, finished The Age of Decadence, a masterpiece of outsider art and a game as iconoclastic and challenging as the man who created it. In an era where RPGs overwhelmingly are either neo-classic throwbacks that ape the beloved forms of old or modern blockbusters that emphasize streamlined accessibility and cinematic flourishes, Decadence is something else entirely: a freak that evolved from the old forms but along new lines. It is a game that compels the attention of anyone interested in RPGs, multi-path design, reactive story-telling, or the madness of the lone creator.
“The artist ... shall be socially non-conformist, even to the point of diverging violently from the psychological norm...; and he shall not cater for a public.” - Roger Cardinal
Four years into the development of The Age of Decadence, Weller was interviewed by Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Even pre-Kickstarter, this was the kind of opportunity that could transform an independent game from a bust into a commercial hit. At the time, Weller was still Vice President of Marketing at a large corporation, yet the interview is the antithesis of the marketing-speak that typifies game developers, even indie developers. Weller grows increasingly frustrated and incredulous at Kieron Gillen’s inability to understand him. Gillen, for his part, comes across as more bemused than combative. At last, Weller declares, “It’s nice that your site tries to attract morons and makes them feel at home, but shouldn’t you be educating them too? It wouldn’t take much to double their IQs, so if you want, I can give you a hand there.” Gillen asks why Weller’s answers are so angry and whether he might be alienating potential customers, but Weller just snaps back, “I don’t really care who’d think what and how my comments would affect sales. I’m making this game on a bold assumption that there are some people out there who are interested in complex games that aren’t made for retards.”
Over the years that followed, Weller has mellowed. When customers ask for hints or post negative reviews, he may not be cordial, but he is precise and factual. There is still a sense of frustration, simmering and ready to boil over. It is easy to read this as misanthropy, and Weller has given critics and skeptics plenty of ammunition in that regard. But to me, it is something almost exactly the opposite of misanthropy: like Cassandra shrieking dire prophecies or Plato’s philosopher losing his patience in the cave, Weller seems angry less at the people who can’t understand his work and more on their behalf. He has something to teach them, something important, but powers greater than his—pandering games and pandering game journalists—have dulled their minds.
Roger Cardinal, who dubbed the genre of “Outsider Art,” explains that such works open our eyes to entirely new perspectives and possibilities. The outsider is so defiant or ignorant of accepted limits that she will pursue goals that have been deemed unattainable by reasonable, rational folks. She will walk paths that have become overgrown or were never blazed at all. Whether she reaches her destination or not, she serves to remind us that the paths and goals are there.
In this regard, and in many others, The Age of Decadence is a triumph.
“Outsider Art gravitates toward a pole which we have already seen to lie beyond effective reach.” - Roger Cardinal
The first area of The Age of Decadence—a town called Teron that is one of three major settlements left in what was once a vibrant quasi-Roman empire—gave me the most unadulterated pleasure of any RPG I’ve ever played. Any particular part of it—the writing, the art, the lore, the combat—is inferior to particular parts of games like Planescape Torment, or Fallout, or Morrowind, but the overall whole is something extraordinary. In Teron, Weller has removed the things that make so many other RPGs tedious: things like trash combat, aimless dialogues, level grinding, dumpster-diving for loot, ping-pong quests that ask you to do no more than walk back and forth across the map, false choices with no consequences, cliché origin stories, tedious exposition to establish the plot, and so forth. In place of these are the kind of options that seldom make the transition from tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs.
The Age of Decadence has not only the typical set of what I would call “mechanical systems” (things like combat or crafting), but also a superstructure of dialogues in which you can use character skills and statistics in bespoke ways. Within minutes of starting the game, my smooth-talking merchant had used his Perception, Intelligence, and Charisma statistics, along with his Persuasion, Trading, and Streetwise skills, to weave elaborate plots that entangled almost every NPC and faction in town. To solve one quest, I tracked down a supplier who was provisioning an enemy outpost and bluffed him into agreeing to let me poison the wine he was delivering; shamed an alchemist into furnishing me with a powerful toxin and then haggled the price down to where I could afford it; poisoned the outpost guards; identified and exploited a bandit captain’s pride and greed to persuade him to attack the outpost; persuaded the local lord’s majordomo to finance that attack; and then—when all was said and done—traipsed into the outpost amid the carnage that had unfolded, with both the captain and the majordomo grateful for my assistance in spilling their blood and treasure.
Most RPGs have one or two quests that can go this way. The first two Fallout games and Arcanum have a good handful of them. Mask of the Betrayer has several. But what is remarkable about The Age of Decadence is that this is not the one “cool” way of solving the one “cool” quest. Almost every path for every quest has this complexity and novelty, though, as explained below, that is not always obvious to the player.
A reasonable game developer is always paring back, streamlining, chastening his ambitions. He lives by Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s dictum that “perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Complexity begets bugs, budget overruns, underdeveloped features, exhaustion. The developer says to himself, “Why should this option be in the game?” and if he can’t give a compelling answer, the option stays out. Indeed, it often stays out even if he can give a compelling answer. By contrast, Weller’s design seems guided by a different presumption. He asks, “Why shouldn’t this option be in the game?” In that sense, he is like the artist in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, who says, “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”
Such a philosophy—one might say, mania—explains how 11 years can be spent toiling on a game that superficially seems rough and unpolished. But it is also the only mindset that could produce a game with as lush and profuse options as those of The Age of Decadence.
“He is propelled by his own idiosyncrasy.” - Roger Cardinal
When I was little, my parents would tell me that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve anything I wanted. But they added that no matter how hard I worked, I’d never achieve everything I wanted. To some, this advice might seem like Horatio Alger naivety, but to me it remains an essentially glum view of the world: no one is entitled to their aspirations, and the glass of happiness will never be full, no matter how much you pour into it. If ever a game embodied this philosophy, it is The Age of Decadence.
The game is universally described as punishingly difficult, but that is not quite so. The game is impossible—at least at first pass—if one comes to it with the expectations built up by fifteen years of power-fantasy RPGs. You can’t have things in Decadence just because you want them; every fight is a struggle against enemies who are determined to live and who have lived so far by killing. The game’s tutorial warns that even a two-bit thug is capable of defeating you, and this is no exaggeration. Every combat must be taken seriously, even every choice in combat: what weapon to wield and how to wield it, which foe to target and how to target him—these are life-and-death decisions. In combat, as in the game’s other systems, Decadence provides you with a vast and varied arsenal, but there’s a cost to everything, and nothing’s easy.
And no matter how hard you work, if you try to get everything, you’ll end up with nothing. Put in abstract terms, this may sound a bit stingy but far from cruel. But in practice, the game’s cruelty is palpable. The things you “can’t have” are not just achievements or suits of power armor or bits of flavor text. Entire quest lines, entire areas, entire gameplay systems are inaccessible: no matter how clever your build, there will be vast swaths of the game denied to you.
At the same time, if you meet The Age of Decadence on its own terms—focused in your desire, diligent in your work—anything is possible. For example, take a narrowly focused “talker” character. Bioware infamously promised that in Dragon Age: Origins, you would be able to “enslave nations with necromancy.” (Notably, the game did not include necromancy at all.) Decadence one-ups even this sales pitch: here, you can topple all the heads of state in the world through the gift of gab. My powers of speech brought me to vertiginous arrogance. But at the end of the day, you can’t sweet-talk a broken down machine; you can’t charm the secrets out of an ancient book of lore; you can’t gull a swarm of giant scorpions. Despite my parents’ best efforts, I stood dumbfounded and enraged as I found myself unable to unlock the mysteries of old. “[Lore: Failure] It means nothing to you.” “[Crafting: Failure] You cannot repair it.” “[Strength + Endurance: Failure] Gasping for breath in the poisonous mists, you are forced to turn back.”
Stumped, I asked a friend who had just finished the game whether he had any ideas how best to handle Al-Akia, Inferiae, and Caer Tor. “What are you talking about?” he replied. “You can’t even go to those areas.” It seems that his assassin had taken an entirely different route through the game. We started to compare notes. Like the proverbial blind men discussing an elephant, it became clear that what he thought was a spear and I thought was a fan was actually something utterly different: something huge and alive and wildly varied in its parts.
Despite playing the game for hours, I never fought a combat, never used my inventory, only shopped once or twice, and never used the crafting or alchemy systems. Perhaps there are other systems that were so far removed from me that they remain Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns.” I would come across things like bushes to be scavenged for ingredients, rare ores hidden away in mines, formulae and plans that could be bought or stolen from wise men. I gathered exotic artifacts that pulsed with ancient power. But in the end, I won my way with words, and had to leave the rest for the next time I pick up the game.
“The term outsider art approximates the concept of art brut, or ‘raw art.’” - Cynthia Miller
If you read Weller’s interviews and forum posts, it quickly becomes clear that the development of The Age of Decadence was haunted by the specter of another game, Prelude to Darkness. The games share a dated aesthetic—though Prelude, developed by Zero Sum Software, was released in 2002—and both feature dialogue trees laden with skill checks and reactivity. Not unlike Weller, Zero Sum’s president CP McBee described himself as having founded “a company dedicated to meeting the needs of the sophisticated gamer.” In some ways, Prelude’s developers were the very opposite of outsiders: they worked in the game industry; they raised plenty of funding for the project; they were Harvard graduates. At the same time, it’s hard to think of any other RPGs where the project lead was a young black man, and Prelude does not feel like a polished, corporate product at all.
Prelude was the first and last game ever released by Zero Sum Software, and it is unclear whether it sold more than a few dozen copies. McBee vanishes from Moby Games’s credits list, as does Prelude’s lead writer. Other team members hang on in the industry, some more marginally than others; none seems to have thrived.
Before he began The Age of Decadence, Weller was a devoted fan of Prelude. One forum post from 2003 reads, “This game restored my faith in the future of CRPGs.” He offers to help squash the game’s endless bugs; he pleads for a sequel. Years later, he writes, “When I finished it and compared my experience to playing other, professionally designed games, I was simply shocked. I couldn’t believe it. A couple of guys, without much fuss made one of the finest games of the last 10 years where countless attempts to create a decent RPG by twenty-fifty people teams with multi-millions budgets failed miserably.” For years, he has posted actively in threads about the game; it is possible that there are more posts from Weller about Prelude than there are people who bought the game.
Yet when fans and detractors demanded a release date for The Age of Decadence, Weller would bring up Prelude not as an aspiration but as a cautionary tale: it was rushed out, it blew the only chance that Zero Sum had. He would not make that mistake, he insisted. And so the fabled release date—“Thursday”—slipped farther and farther into the future. A combat demo was released; years passed. An early access build was released; years passed.
Now, Thursday has come. The Age of Decadence did not blow its one chance: the game has sold some 30,000 copies without any steep discounts. Weller and his tiny Iron Tower Studio team have made hundreds of thousands of dollars already. They promise more games to come.
All the same, it is clear that Weller never managed to exorcise Prelude entirely. The Age of Decadence has its fair share of bugs, whether those that crash the game or the little typos crawling in nearly every dialogue. The later parts of the game feel short and curiously empty, and some expected reactivity never seems to happen.
As in the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice, the spectacular magic that Weller conjures in the game’s first act seems to have slipped his control by the third act. In a way, he has defied the very creed that The Age of Decadence preaches by trying to have it all. The early portions of the game are a copse with shrubs and saplings; a single arborist can attend to their branching. But by the end of the game, Weller has allowed a jungle to grow untamed, and the ramifications are simply too many and too interconnected for him to manage. He is trapped in a thicket of options: dozens of distinct character builds; factions and subfactions; overlapping quests with combinatorial reactivity; entirely different modes of interacting with the game (combat, speech, crafting, alchemy, etc., etc.) with their own systems and rewards. And these manifold elements are not self-contained: each affects and interacts with the others. It is simply too much for one designer, however endless his determination, however numerous the hours, days, years he puts in.
Seen from a single playthrough, The Age of Decadence is miserly, but from a broader perspective it is clear that Weller has beggared himself with generosity. The result is flawed and unpolished; the art critic would say “raw.” But it is the game’s ambition, exuberance, and lack of self-restraint that make it so important. Weller has dared to do with a tiny team of amateurs what has been dismissed as unattainable by companies flush with veteran developers.
For every unpaired quotation mark or misspelled word, there is a turn of phrase or a scene that knocks you back a step. Even as one laments the relatively low number of NPCs to chat with, one is struck by their psychological realism and defiance of RPG conventions. When I found myself frustrated by the lack of a particular approach for solving a quest, it was only because I’d been spoiled by the abundance of methods already offered to me: poison, charm, force, impersonation, bribery, blackmail, stealth, all for the kind of side-quest that would, in a traditional RPG, be no more than a FedEx delivery. And nestled among the antiquated graphics are the most evocative and humane character portraits in any game I’ve played.
In short, the game is “raw” and flawed, but those imperfections do not destroy or outweigh its unique and overwhelming merits.
“In art, ‘good enough’ is not good enough.” - Ursula K. LeGuin
The Age of Decadence is a great game. Like the Watts Towers or the 15,000-page-long illustrated novels of Henry Darger, it is startling, superhuman, almost inhuman in its ambition and novelty. When one attempts to break it into the various categories by which games are typically reviewed (e.g., stability, audio-visual qualities, writing style, fun factor), there is room for debate as to whether it is a good game. But that is merely another way of saying that—inspired though it may have been by games like Fallout and especially Arcanum—The Age of Decadence has broken the mold. It is not fully amenable to the metrics we typically use to measure games because so many of its qualities are so unusual.
It will take time to judge whether Weller has succeeded in the goal I’ve imputed to him: opening our minds to a kind of gameplay that we forgot, or forsook, or foreclosed as impossible. But no one could have shouted louder, or longer, or more passionately in that cause than he has. Weller deemed The Age of Decadence worth 11 years of his life, worth abandoning his successful career as a businessman. You should deem it worth $30 and a few hours of your time, though perhaps you will find yourself lost in its world for far longer.
Since this article was first written, the Iron Tower Studio team has repeatedly patched The Age of Decadence, addressing many of the complaints discussed above (including the thinness of the end game and the bugs and typographical errors). It is now even easier to recommend the game. You are only cheating yourself if you don't play it.