Exile: Escape From The Pit was released as shareware in January of 1995. I discovered it a few years after that on a disc designed to prey on the ignorant and uninitiated in PC gaming during the 1990s. Several CDs crammed into a jewel case labeled with something like “One MILLION Games!” held closer to a few hundred shareware games, and the company doing the packing was literally just pulling demos from wherever they could to compile into sets to be sold at the Circuit Cities and mom-and-pop electronics stores of the world.
Those discs contained some of the games that I still cherish today: Hugo’s House of Horrors and its multiple sequels, Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol, and Jeff Vogel’s Exile: Escape From The Pit and its sequels.
Despite being limited to shareware copies of all these games, I threw hundreds of hours into Escape From The Pit, Crystal Souls and Ruined World, all of which told the story of a vast underground cavern the size of a continent used as a prison system and its relationship to the large fantasy empire living on the surface. These games were hugely important to me because of the wellspring of imagination that they evoked. As a kid who was spending most of his time playing shareware games, the Exile series was miles above whatever else I was interested in. Eventually, like all entertainment before the age of 13, it faded from memory.
Then, years later, I wondered what the hell had happened to these games. From what I knew of game development, I thought there had to be a tight team of a few creators, and knowing what I did about fabled design teams like the one at Looking Glass Studios that eventually spawned the creative leads of Bioshock, Deus Ex and other massive hits, I assumed that the creators of Exile were all firmly entrenched in the game industry in various positions of power.
It was then that I discovered Jeff Vogel.
At the age of 24, Jeff Vogel was working on a PhD in applied mathematics and fiddling around with Exile: Escape From The Pit. After shareware release, Vogel abandoned the PhD in favor of the greener (or maybe more fulfilling) world of independent game development in the tail end of the 20th century. 1995 was more than a decade before the rise of the current independent gaming scene with the release of games like Braid and World of Goo in 2008; it was also a decade after the ascent of fantasy moguls like Richard Garriott and his wide world of Ultima IV. Releasing computer role-playing games during the ascent of the game console was a tricky thing, and I’m not the only person who might have lost track of these kinds of games at the tail end of the last millennium.
What’s remarkable about the work of Jeff Vogel is not the struggle of grinding out 22 games in 22 years. Don’t get me wrong—that number is shocking, but I think what should be celebrated about Vogel’s work is not merely that he did it but instead how he did it. The method here is much more interesting than the volume.
In the first half of the 20th century, the director Howard Hawks was known for his particular style. Across comedies, gangster films, westerns and other genres, you could recognize a Hawks film from its dialogue, character interactions and constant driving force. There’s a momentum, or a fatalism, to his work across its many variations.
Making new films within a familiar format of a certain style is a way of honing the edge of skill, but Hawks went the distance by repeatedly remaking his films. Making the same thing over and over, with little variation, might be the most testing thing an artist can do. Hawks turned Rio Bravo into El Dorado and then into Rio Lobo. While there are variations within the films, including a bent for comedy in Rio Bravo, the fundamental structure of all remain the same. Hawks built a new creature from the same skeleton each time.
This is also what makes Jeff Vogel unique in the world of independent game development in 2016. Since 1995, Vogel has created four unique series of games: Exile, Nethergate, Geneforge and Avadon. Each of these games is a unique blend of fantasy and science fiction elements, with Geneforge leaning furthest toward the latter and Avadon bending toward the former.
While Geneforge has remained untouched and Avadon is too new to be remade, each of the other games have been remade and revamped by Vogel. As I am writing this, Exile: Escape From The Pit has been remade three times: the original, Avernum in 2000, and Avernum: Escape From The Pit in 2011. Each of these games has been a jump forward in graphical fidelity, writing quality, quest design and general ease of use. They have also opened up the franchise to newer players with newer computers, solving the compatibility problems that many games have with newer operating systems.
I cannot think of another figure in videogames who has so diligently focused and refocused on a world and collection of ideas as Jeff Vogel. It’s this constant repetition, finding new notes within old songs, that I find so engaging about his work, and it’s work that I don’t often see praised or even addressed in articles about him or interviews with him. Vogel has an uncompromising aesthetic vision that returns to these same ideas of imprisonment, rebellion and triumph over systemic forces that is tragically unrecognized and undiscussed in critical circles around games. Even worse is that Vogel seems to still be a niche (but, thankfully, a large niche) creator who is adored by a wide pool of hardcore fans and the additional players they gather by word of mouth.
Jeff Vogel is the videogame version of John Waters, Mark Kozelek, Evan Dorkin or Jandek. While the vagaries of time have placed him, variously, in the limelight and in the back seat, his gradual increase in profile has not compromised the singular modes of creation that make his artistic products fundamentally about him. Booting up Avadon: The Black Fortress in 2011 grabbed me in the same way that Exile did more than a decade ago. That kind of singular, unchanging, always-iterating design philosophy is rare today, and Jeff Vogel will be remembered long after the design fads of our contemporary era have rotted away to dust.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.