I have blood on my hands. I've racked up a mountain of debt, my landlord has kicked me out onto the city streets because rent has not been paid, and the local homeless have made it very clear that they'll stab me up a treat if I disturb them in any fashion. I've managed to swindle a boy out of some money for a seemingly worthless convention ticket, but he's taken the money from a crackhead relative and now that same relative is waving a shotgun in my face. I could have given the money back. I could have made things right. I could have left this kid out of it from the start and opted to make amends in an honest fashion. I've restarted the save from a couple of minutes ago six times and no matter what, the kid dies every time.
In the words of Buster Bluth... I'M A MONSTER!
I love the way that Always Sometimes Monsters opens -- putting you in control of Larry, the man who'll sign you up to that book deal initially. By steering Larry around a soiree held has his mini mansion, you're charged with actually identifying your own character from the throng of assembled guests. Will you be male or female? White? Black? Asian? A grungy old soul or a trendy hipster? Then control passes to the person you've chosen to be your protagonist, and you move outside to identify the love of your life from an equally diverse array of characters. Always Sometimes Monsters doesn't make a fuss about this, it doesn't shove anything in anyone's face, it doesn't ask you if you want to be gay or straight or if you're a supporter of interracial romances, it just does it. Nintendo, take note.
It's a prologue of positivity, of clinking champagne flutes and pledged ambitions. And it belies everything that comes next.
Always Sometimes Monsters is a game that attempts to look unflinchingly at the decisions we make when the proverbial hits the fan. Several years after that night described above, you play a writer down on their luck, faced with mounting debt, a project that you've not been able to finish, a deadline that passed months before, and the news that the aforementioned love of your life is getting married in 30 days to someone else in a town on the other side of the country. The question is how far will you go to get them back?
Though couched in the fuzzy pixels of a side-scrolling, text-heavy, nostalgia-tripping GameMaker creation, Always Sometimes Monsters takes its cues from the likes of The Walking Dead, throwing up a steady stream of ethical dilemmas, none of which present binary choices of good or bad. Like Telltale's opus, this is a game that constantly puts you in desperate situations, so the moral quandaries become more about survival and selfishness and how you can justify the things that find yourself doing. But in Always Sometimes Monsters, the terror and the atmosphere of inhumanity created by the zombies is replaced by something perhaps far more insidious here: reality. Vagabond Dog's message is simple: you don't need to fabricate monsters to create monsters. We are always sometimes monsters.
I like to try and role play as myself in games that offer a certain amount of player choice. I try to ask myself what I would do rather than blazing an ultimate paragon or renegade trail. I like to think of myself as a good person for the most part, I'm a diplomatic soul at heart. But sometimes there is no "good" option, there are frequently situations where someone if not everyone involved will get hurt. And that's not just a dip in terms of a bar denoting a the protagonist's relationship with a character, it's all story-based. Make the wrong call and bad things can happen, you'll wind up in different areas, lives can be changed, friends lost, people can die.
There are no combat mechanics here, no ways of deviating from the jumble of paths that make up this game. It's simply a game fascinated with seemingly mundane causailty. But there's something with which I can identify in that. In determining the paths that my protagonist follows I'm led to think back on the choices that brought me to this point, how things could have gone differently, how my outlook and my approach to things can determine how things might go in the future. It's something that deepens as I start a new character and observe how the tiniest things can change the course of the narrative in meaningful ways.
I reflect that in so many RPGs that I love, I'm fed the illusion of choice. That the conversation options I choose are more often than not just bumping up a "like" stat because I want to unlock a loyalty perk or nab some new swag. Some games obviously handle this better than other, but the narrative purity of Always Sometime Monsters is such that you don't see the lines of mechanical gamification because there just aren't that many. You're making decisions because you feel it's the right thing to do in terms of the story -- your story -- not because of the rewards.
It's a fascinating game, and there's not long to wait until the final version emerges. Always Sometimes Monsters is available to pre-order via Steam for release on May 21st. We'll have a review for you then.