I’m not sure what it was that first piqued my interest in Always Sometimes Monsters, but the game has been of interest to me since I first got wind of it late last year.
An 8-bit style indie title, Always Sometimes Monsters is a narrative RPG that plays with and questions the notions of “good” and “bad” choices in games. In the course of the title, you’ll be forced to contradict yourself, to come face to face with what seemed, at the time, like innocuous, innocent choices and question the motivation behind those...
The plot of Always Sometimes Monsters is simple enough. You play a young and promising writer who, at the start of the narrative, has an exciting future ahead having just scored a major publishing contract. Fast forward one year, however, and things aren’t as bright. Your partner has left, and your career - thanks to writers block or idleness - lays in tatters. Your publisher moves to cut you off and your landlord kicks you out for skipping rent just moments before you find a wedding invitation from the lost love of your life in your mailbox. Broke, homeless, and heartbroken you have a month to get yourself to halfway across the country to watch your beloved tie the knot.
What follows is a curious mix of RPG and choice-based narrative game. I had to move boxes for a day to raise a hundred bucks, pawn most of my possessions, and decide whether blackmailing a doctor to save a friend would come back to bite me in the ass later on. I was literally playing a game that replicated some of the dullest, worst paid and most tedious jobs I myself had done. I was trying my best to make decisions about my characters life that seemed right at the time, only to realize that morality in Always Sometimes Monsters is a heck of a lot greyer than that.
What the game really hammers home is how different the real world is from your standard role playing game. There are certain pre-conceived notions that come with playing any one genre of game, and if you repeat it long enough, you start looking out for signs. Bins, chests, boxes? Hunt for loot. Moral decision to be made? Better choose if you’re gonna opt renegade or not.
Always Sometimes Monsters takes this concept and utterly, utterly screws with you.
One particular moment that really stuck with me was when a kid asked for my help in an errand his family had asked him for that he couldn’t undertake himself. To do so, I had to walk across town, collect the relevant supplies and report back. The hardened RPG gamer in me saw this as a classic “fetch quest” indicator, and I have to admit I was disappointed. I figured it was generic RPG fodder, and went about my everyday life for another couple of game days. Hell, if this were Pokemon, I could have popped out, collected half a dozen badges and the kid would still have been waiting there, asking for supplies. Only here, when I returned, I found the kid brutally murdered and floating in a river; turns out someone wasn’t too keen about being left waiting.
Another, particularly fascinating aspect of the game is how much your initial choice of character affects how people relate to you. The way you choose your character at the start of the game is a nice novelty; walking around a room at a party, the person you decide to drink with becomes your character for the remainder of the game. Whether you choose to play someone who is white or black, male or female, straight or gay; these characteristics all impact how NPC’s relate to you, and racism, sexism and prejudice are notable and brave inclusions in the game without overwhelming it. Unlike something like Gone Home, it is not a game about sexuality or gender per se, but the inclusion of prejudice, offensive language and microaggressions give an interesting perspective on the world particularly if you’re character belongs to a minority that you, as a player, do not.
Always Sometimes Monsters is an unapologetically intelligent game. Almost exclusively dialogue based, this open world RPG won’t have you fighting off zombies or accumulating skills and abilities. Having to “survive” in the world means just that; surviving. Threats aren’t supernatural creatures or faceless enemy forces, they’re things like deciding whether you can afford a decent meal or which street mattress you’re going to sleep on tonight.
I've spoken in other reviews about the “illusion of consequence” in choice-based narrative games; the idea you have to believe that tiny choices you make in narrative games make an overall difference. Where Always Sometimes Monsters is arguably most successful is in the way it illustrates how tiny choices that seem so petty and insignificant at the time can lead, in reality, to love, to happiness, or to wealth or, conversely, to suffering and even murder.
That being said, it is far from perfect. Too much of the time, the open world feels empty, and you find yourself left with nothing to do and no one to speak to until a certain amount of time has passed. A good few times, I wandered around aimlessly for 20 minutes or so before realizing the only thing to do was go to bed and wait for time to pass. It might be attempting to reenact everyday life, but the result of this is that much of the gameplay is a pretty dull and tedious life-simulator. Whilst I understood that those parts were necessary for the overall game, in practical terms they were not enjoyable as gameplay.
In addition, the game at this stage still contains a few minor bugs that interrupt the flow of the story. At one point in particular, I entered a church to find one of my friends telling me at length about a large section of plot I hadn’t yet started, which rather ruined the suspension of disbelief. None of these bugs were game-breaking at all, but they did hint at a slight lack of polish in an otherwise well thought out and interesting story game.
For a little over £6, Always Sometimes Monsters might not be perfect, but it is a conceptually interesting game that will hold some sway with fans of narrative titles or those who want something ambitious and barrier breaking. What Always Sometimes Monsters occasionally lacks in breadth and polish, it makes up for in concept and the way it challenges minds used common gaming formulas and tropes. It’s a fascinating experiment, and whilst it might not be to everyone’s taste, it’s great to see games that are happy to challenge the status quo and dare to take us to task on our pre-conceptions.