Always Sometimes Monsters is a game that's all about choice. Sometimes that means deciding whether or not to give that bag of super-potent drugs in your pocket to your rehabbing junkie best mate just so he can calm down before his own gig. Sometimes it means choosing between a job at an ad agency or a local newspaper. Sometimes it means letting someone lose their life so you can keep yours. Sometimes it means betraying a friend and cutting them out of your life so you can be with the person you desire.
Sometimes it means becoming the lesser of two evils. Sometimes it means being a monster.
Always Sometimes Monsters is a slow-paced affair. It's a Game Maker RPG without any combat systems or incessant inventory management. It's not concerned with your tactical thinking or your capacity for grinding. It just wants to know how far you'll go to get what, or rather who, you want.
Always Sometimes Monsters opens with a very brief prologue stuffed with metafictional waffle. Get past that, though, and you'll find yourself at a party, taking control of Larry, a publisher getting ready to sign you up to a lucrative book deal. By steering Larry around a soiree held at 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? You decide by interacting with the person you'd like to form the centre of this tale, after which 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.
I like the fact that Always Sometimes Monsters doesn't make a fuss about any of this, it doesn't ask for your personal details, it just fills in the blanks via simple gameplay.
The positivity of this opening scene is sadly shortlived. The clinking of champagne flutes fades and you fast-forward a few years to find your protagonist living in squalor, unable to pay the rent, having reneged on delivering that book and squandered the goodwill of everyone around them. Worse still, the love of your life is gone, and getting married in 30 days on the other side of the country. You have no money for a sandwich let alone a bus fare, you're about to be tossed out onto the street, and all of the tramps in the local area want to shiv you up a treat.
What happens next is up to you. Do you go and get something to eat, and potentially bump into pixellated versions of the game's developers, ruminating on the nature of metaphysics over coffee? Do you hit up the local nightclub and see if they could use an extra member of staff? Do you help your elderly neighbour out at a dinner party she's hosting in the hope of swinging some extra cash? You might be able to do all of them. You can definitely do none of them. Always Sometimes Monsters sets out a bunch of pieces before you and asks you to do with them what you will.
It's a role-playing game is the most pure sense of the phrase to a certain extent. Rooted at least somewhat in reality, and faced with decisions that swing from the mundane to soap drama to Breaking Bad levels of anxiety and consequence, the compelling nature behind Always Sometimes Monsters comes from really throwing yourself into the narrative and responding to things as you might yourself -- buying into the spider web of narrative choices on offer here, accepting their limitations (the game is ultimately espousing casual determinism, everything has been written out ahead of your playthrough), and resolving situations in a manner that speaks to you and your reading of the gameplay experience.
Thankfully, Always Sometimes Monsters eschews basic "right" and "wrong" binary decisions. There are no karmic progress bars, no ultimate states of Paragon or Renegade to attain -- the story, your narrative path, is everything. Context plays into that too, you might find yourself warming to certain characters when playing as a white, straight male, who might reveal themselves to be bigoted twats if you're approaching them as a darker-skinned lesbian. As such, that plays into your experience. Racism and sexism from NPCs began to factor into my playstyle. My playthrough as a gay black man had been rather more violent than my original playthrough, and that hadn't been a conscious effort on my part to dish out more punishment, but rather the subtle atmosphere of abuse and the paranoia that inflicted became too much. I began to assume others in the game would treat me differently and so I stole a little more and became defensive much more quickly than I had before. What was interesting is that I only really realised that upon reflection in the midst of writing this very review.
To me, that's what makes Always Sometimes Monsters special. It makes me stop and think. As someone who tries to be considerate and do the right thing, whatever that means, it's a game that constantly proves heartbreaking. When shit hits the fan you'll scour the choices you made over the previous hour to see where you went wrong, and in some cases you'll find that point and if you have a save game (we'll get to that) you might be able to reach some kind of new resolution. But there are other moments when there's nothing you can do, when the point extends further back and is buried deep, or perhaps you did nothing wrong at all.
Always Sometimes Monsters succeeds by making things simple and familiar. The decisions in this game are spun out from everyday situations, forks in various roads that many of us have been down. I've struggled with rent, been faced with professional ethical dilemmas, seen friends go too far down the rabbit hole, and had to dig deep to try and win someone back (I actually have crossed continents in that regard). I've also been very lucky in that I've not had to face desperation too many times in my life, but I know enough to understand that morality becomes a morass of grey when the chips are down. This is a game all about that grey area, where good and bad become subsumed by need and greed and desire and survival. Where certainty becomes contradiction and morality melts into hypocrisy.
If there's one criticism to be made, it's that I can't help but feel that the save system partially ruins things. You don't have to save the game, of course, but you will. Perhaps it's because I'm one of those people lacking in willpower who like to save before big decisions just in case something goes "wrong". I an't help myself in that regard, and so for purely selfish reasons I'd have liked to have seen ASM implement something a little more akin to an Iron Man mode, perhaps just one save slot or an automatic save that forces you to restart from wherever you got when you powered down. It's a little thing, but given that everything in this game rests upon the story and the decisions you make, its importance is amplified just a tad.
Still, Always Sometimes Monsters is a bit of a special game, and one that I sought to replay immediately after my first nine-hour playthrough. It made me think and feel and ponder on the nature of control, on all of the little choices that I make each and every day. It made me dwell on the nature of control in this industry, and how simple decisions, simple interactions, the simple act of steering a character through a story can be so tremendously powerful. It grabbed me from start to finish, and then all over again. The simplistic graphical style might be offputting for some, but it works well enough here, and at least there's no threat of the heaviest scenes being ruined by shoddy voice acting or lip-synching or anything else. Holding the characters almost entirely in my own head actually makes things more engrossing.
And Always Sometimes Monsters, for all its realism and apparent mundanity in parts, is never anything less than that.
- Brilliantly written
- Engrossing narrative, stuffed with choices
- Characters who respond to your and your background
- Plenty of meaningful moral dilemmas
- Game Maker pixel art perhaps a little simplistic
- Slow pace and mundane tasks might bore some
The Short Version: Always Sometimes Monsters is a fascinating, utterly engrossing morality play, delivered as a Game Maker adventure that constantly asks questions of the player. There have been games that deal with difficult decisions before, but perhaps none so deftly as this. Always Sometimes Monsters is a marvel.