Review: Always Sometimes Monsters

Always Sometimes Monsters presents something of a paradox. It’s a game that, with its myriad possible outcomes, absolutely begs to be discussed. But at the same time, the degree to which you can personalize your experience makes the whole endeavor intensely… well, personal. This is a game that strives to make you feel vulnerable and be honest when it comes to your friends, your career, and your love life. Though everyone will experience it differently, it’s certainly capable of hitting very close to home.

This is a game about choice, and right from the outset, the only constant is that your character is a struggling writer. Everything else about them – their race, gender, and sexual orientation – is determined in a rather clever intro scene. You walk around a party as a literary agent named Larry, deciding with which of your various guests you’d like to share a drink. Then, as whichever guest you choose, you go off to find your romantic partner among the various people standing out on the patio. It’s a neat take on character creation, to be sure, although looking at screens online it seems as though everyone picks the girl with headphones as their girlfriend no matter who their protagonist is. (The game may need a patch to nerf her cuteness levels.)

Screenshot 2014-05-28 22.27.44

Regardless of who your beau is, the relationship is more or less doomed. The game picks up a year after the party, with your protagonist alone and broke. Some kind of conflict split your relationship apart (the nature of which is determined by your choices) and in spending a year moping around you’ve lost the contract for your book. To make matters worse you’re facing eviction, and right when you’re at your lowest you get a letter from your ex – an invitation to their wedding.

You have 30 days to make it to the wedding, which is happening on the other side of the country. How you get there, and why you’re going in the first place, are largely up to you. At its core, Always Sometimes Monsters is a time and money management sim – in fact, money is pretty much the sole mechanic outside of walking around and picking dialogue options. You need cash to make the trip, so a lot of your time will be spent doing odd jobs – ranging from copywriting to meat processing – in order to pay your way. You can also lie, cheat, and steal to scrounge up the cash you need, though the game doesn’t judge you too harshly for any particular decisions.

Screenshot 2014-05-26 19.46.06

One of the game’s big selling points is that it isn’t about right or wrong, but rather your own moral compass, and by and large that holds true. The game certainly presents some interesting questions. Do you blackmail a doctor to save your junkie friend’s life after a heroin overdose, or walk away and let them face the consequences of their bad decisions? Is it wrong to rig a mayoral election when both candidates are in the pocket of the same big corporation? When it comes down to it, can you let someone die in front of you (by no fault of your own) when the alternative would cost you dearly?

Not all of the choices are quite that interesting though, and at some points the game can be straight up mawkish. If you choose to work at the slaughterhouse rather than the tofu factory, for instance, the little pigs will stare directly into the camera as they’re loaded into the slicer, which makes the clearly “monstrous” choice simultaneously more profitable and funnier than the alternative. Toward the end of the game, you’re challenged to a race against a better-equipped opponent, and have the option to either work to improve your car, or sneak into his garage and cut his brake line. The game paints him as a bit of an asshole in an effort to make the choice more ambiguous, but it also populates the town with his children, who never shut up about how great their “daddy” is. You’d have to be a captain planet villain to sabotage him under those circumstances.

Screenshot 2014-05-27 00.47.15

Moreover, the moral ambiguity seems to be undermined by the “fate” system, which explicitly rewards you for being helpful to others at your own expense. “Fate” tips probabilistic outcomes in your character’s favor (with high fate I was able to win 9 out of 10 hands of blackjack at a casino) and more than offsets the money you lose by putting yourself out. Alongside this is a “couple” point counter, which appears to track how close your character was to their ex before the breakup, and may influence your odds of winning them back at the end. Neither of these stats is visible on the pause menu, but they do appear on your save files. It would take more experimentation than I have time for to see exactly how they affect the game’s outcome, but from what I’ve seen so far they appear to be in direct opposition to ASM’s core idea of organic choice.

Your choices at the party determine how characters around the world treat you. Your racist landlord will be extra hostile toward you if you’re black, while the nice old lady who lives next door will dance around your relationship with euphemisms if you’re gay. It’s interesting to see the world around you from different cultural perspectives, but most of the changes were barely noticeable – though perhaps the subtlety of how privilege affects us is the point. The only time I ever felt impeded by my in-game blackness was during the aforementioned election rigging, when it forced me to play a series of godawful minigames.

Screenshot 2014-05-26 18.43.22

To put it bluntly, whenever Always Sometimes Monsters tries to deliver gameplay outside its intricately crafted decision system, it fails miserably.  The minigames range from tedious (crawling through an oversized maze of vents to reach a server room) to frustrating (playing a shitty frogger knockoff to hack said server) to infuriatingly random (trying to win four rounds in a row of turn-based, rock-paper-scissors-style boxing). Ultimately, though these diversions are anything but fun, they’re only symptoms of ASM’s much bigger problem: despite a strong presentation, the game is an absolute mess under the hood.

RPG Maker is not a great engine, and it never has been, but like Game Maker it does allow Indies to try a lot of interesting things. It’s fair to say that a nonlinear narrative this long and complex could never have been completed if the developers had tried to make their own engine, or to create better graphics, so I can forgive Always Sometimes Monsters for being a bit rough around the edges. What I can’t forgive are the frequent bugs and errors that get in the way of the one thing the game is trying to do right. The script is plagued with typos, and I ran into several glitches that created inconsistencies in my story and took me out of the game – including swapping the genders of my ex and her fiancé in the wedding scene. Beyond that, the dialogue system is sloppy, and it’s a little too easy to miss choice prompts and accidentally say or do something you didn’t mean to.

Screenshot 2014-05-26 20.38.25

Really though, the script just isn’t as strong as it needs to be. As I mentioned before it can be a little on the melodramatic side, and this problem crops up with increasing regularity as you rush toward the game’s climax, which turns out to be a wholly unrealistic scenario straight out of a soap opera. The attempts at humor are also surprisingly amateurish, ranging from puerile (Sofa King Fast movers) to obnoxious (the mayor of the game’s stand in for Toronto is named “Bob Hoard”), and pretty much every joke is distracting rather than funny.

It’s a shame, because in the quieter moments the story is quite compelling in a YA novel sort of way. When the characters sit around talking about what’s important to them, who they want to be, and where they want to go in their lives, they feel very human (in a sometimes monstrous way). The game asks you to find your own context in a manner similar to Kentucky Route Zero, and decide whether your journey or your destination are more important. Maybe this quest for love is just fodder for a great novel. Maybe getting kicked out of your apartment was a good thing, as it gave you the freedom you were craving. These are interesting thoughts, and I do love a game that makes me think.

Screenshot 2014-05-28 22.25.07

What I hate is when a game asks me to stop thinking, and that’s where ASM stumbles. I told you about the party, which serves as an excellent introduction to the narrative, but the trouble is that’s not the ONLY introduction to the game. Always Sometimes Monsters opens with a hit man running away from his boss and his old life, only to be stopped by a hobo with a gun who proceeds to tell the two of them a story. Counting when you wake up in your apartment, the game starts a grand total of three times, which is rarely indicative of a coherent narrative. Moreover, this framing device acts as a massive qualifier to your choices near the game’s ending – ultimately, no matter what you choose, someone is going to end up miserable and homeless, all so that they have an excuse to deliver a preachy speech about the nature of choice at the game’s conclusion.

I suppose it’s more “realistic” to present life as not always being “fair,” but Always Sometimes Monsters is as much about finding meaning in your journey as it is about making it. Contextualizing everything at the end as a zero sum game runs counter to that. Trying to boil the whole game down to a single theme – even one as intentionally ambiguous as “are we always sometimes monsters?” – undermines it entirely. Yes, the game does frequently ask what we consider to be “monstrous,” but that’s barely a fraction of what makes it interesting.

Screenshot 2014-05-26 18.27.33

Closing Comments:

I don’t regret playing Always Sometimes Monsters. It gave me a bit of perspective on what it’s like to live without some of my privileges, and also gave me cause to think about who I am, what I value, and where my life has gone so far. In particular, I appreciate it for giving me a lens through which to look at my own writing career, as well as my past relationships. In a lot of ways, the game is what you make of it, but what the designers have made of it ends up clashing with that a little too often. Always Sometimes Monsters is a unique and distinctly powerful experience, but it is also deeply and undeniably flawed.
score3
Platform: PC