Published On: Tue, Jun 3rd, 2014 on 4:37 pm

Games: Always Sometimes Monsters is all about the journey

Always Sometimes Monsters

Kim is an Asian woman in her twenties. She’s a starving artist, a writer looking to land a book publishing deal. She’s just found out the love of her life is about to marry someone else, on the other side of the country. The circumstances of her life have found her penniless and recently homeless but she’s still determined to get to the wedding on time.

She’s the protagonist of my story. Not that I knew this when I met her at a house party some time earlier. Always Sometimes Monsters is a game principally about choice, and the consequences that come with choice. The choices you make mean there’s an extremely good chance that your story will not be told by Kim. And that not-Kim will not be racing across the country to get to her ex-girlfriend Alice’s wedding.

Always Sometimes Monsters is an exceptionally complex game delivered in an astonishingly simple format. Created in the extremely accessible game-making tool RPG Maker, its simple pixel art style belies a game-playing host to a range of dark and very mature topics. The online store page comes packed with a shopping list of content warnings. “Always Sometimes Monsters has content dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mental health, sexual assault, child abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide,” it reads. Your choices mean you could easily encounter more or less situations involving these, but you can be fairly confident you’ll end up dealing with a few of them at least.

You’ll start out as Kim did, thrown out of her apartment by her landlord for not paying rent, homeless on the streets of Dubstown. The game then leaves you to explore the town, to meet people and find your own opportunities. The more morally dubious choices will often prove the most lucrative, but they could come back to bite you later, and when you’re penniless and starving that money could be the difference between life and death. And of course, there’s still that wedding to get to in time. The decisions are often not easy to make. In Salt City you find yourself in the position where the only way out of town for you is to win a hotrod race. One character will offer you the chance to cut your opponent’s brakes before it starts. They’ll egg you on day after day; It would be the easy way out and you’d be on your way again, and if you lost the race you’d never get out of town, and that’s even if you live through the race. But if you did, could you live with yourself were the worst to happen?

At the same time, the dark subject matter and heavy decisions are contrasted by lighthearted elements. There are a series of 60 figurines to collect hidden throughout the game, the Indie Heroz, each a character from another Indie game. Common game elements are often lampshaded: Looking at the staff rota for a grocery store your character observes “Looks like they work their staff to the bone. The same three people work 24 hours a day.” poking fun at the fact that the characters in the world never change. The developers, Vagabond Dog, even include themselves and their studio in the world. If you talk to them they’ll often comment on events happening in the story from the design perspective, and a fun easter egg is to break into their office and steal the development budget. It’s worth saving your game before you try that one.

Almost everything you do in the game has some consequence, great or small, on the world around you. Even decisions you made when you didn’t realise you were making one. Subsequently, everyone’s experience with this title will be unique, and the events within will affect them personally in different ways.

As I’ve mentioned, the game does feature a save system, and I can’t help but feel in a title like this it detracts from the experience. It may be that the feature is an irrevocable part of the RPG Maker game engine rather than any conscious design choice, but regardless, it can detract from the impact of much of the game when you know you can go back and undo any choice you don’t like. I’d encourage players to attempt to play it without any re-tries. I know I personally didn’t have the willpower to commit to all my choices and I regret that now.

I can’t recommend Always Sometimes Monsters enough. It’s a narrative experience entirely unlike that found in any other game and deserves to be played by as many people as possible.

About the Author

Jon Biggin

- Founder and Co-ordinator of Bradford-based video gaming collective, Button Mash.

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