“What kind of monster would allow this to happen to me?”
My former love, a spiky haired bespectacled tie-wearing white male, asked this of me as I ruined his chance of happiness. My character, a portly bearded black male, has faced many choices in the past month, his appearance being one of them. His race, gender and sexual orientation have all factored into his journey, and unlike in most games, all of these things actually have a tangible effect on the story in Always Sometimes Monsters.
Always Sometimes Monsters follows a narrative that in a different context could be the subject of a romantic comedy, but in this instance is extremely tragic. The character that you play, who is created from a set of pre-made avatars covering the gamut of race, gender, and sexual orientations (once the partner’s avatar is selected) is an up-and-coming writer, newly graduated and in a stable, loving relationship, on the verge of signing a huge book deal in the seemingly thriving book publishing industry (haha).
Cut to six months later. You’re broke, alone and on the verge of homelessness. Like any person in a malaise, you wake up after noon. You’ve missed your book contract by at least six months, because of course you have. It’s just that time again, for you to meander through life for another day.
Except, this day is a little different. It’s defining. Your ex is getting married, you find out, by way of a wedding invitation sent from across the State. You’re getting evicted, you find out, by way of your Disney-villain-esque Landlord, an old curmudgeon who’s just about had enough of you.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life – whatever that means.
Always Sometimes Monsters takes the ideas of hopelessness: of being homeless, of scrounging for your last lease on life, and brings it to the foreground in a way that I’ve never seen in a game before.
It tells the same core story – and what moral decisions you make may not change the final outcome – but they change how you perceive your character, of what kind of man or woman they they are or have come to be.
Mechanically, Always Sometimes Monsters is made in RPG maker, but it eschews almost all RPG elements except for basic movement and a talk/action button. Normally, this would make a game boring – mind-numbingly so – but Always Sometimes Monsters pull it off through the strength of its characterization and world-building.
As you travel between several cities, it seems that all the problems are similar, and ultimately more dire than yours; socio-political battles, civil strife and low-level catastrophe plague the cities that you travel through, but you’re so caught up in your own battle for survival that you barely notice them. They may be more important in the grand scheme of things – but what seems to matter, at least to you, is your struggle to win back your lost love.
The one that got away.
Like the world around you, your actions aren’t black and white, but are colored in shades of gray. You can’t make choices that are pure evil, but in hindsight, these choices have unforeseen consequences that you could only begin to be aware of while making the choice. These range from egregious breaches of trust to the outright death of NPC’s who frankly doesn’t deserve it – just another casualty in your quest for lost love.
Wining – or more accurately, surviving – is what you’re trying to do, with many a night spent on outdoor mattresses, various people’s couches or among the homeless. As bleak as this might sound, Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t all doom and gloom, and is about the only game I’ve ever seen where world-weariness and throwing poop on a man’s car can be mixed to great effect.
Outside of walking and talking, the gameplay in Always Sometimes Monsters is rooted further in social commentary then it is in the typical risk/reward paradigm of most videogames. Slaughtering pigs on an assembly line or moving boxes across a warehouse for what seems like minimum wage may not be what you’re used to in terms of riveting gameplay, but the monotony and dreariness is all part of the wider point – the only person who can change your life is you, and that’s about the most depressing fact there is.
The message is both apt, depressing and oddly striking. It’s easy to throw everything away on a dream, but it’s even harder to pick up the pieces and acknowledge, well, maybe this isn’t the best thing for you right now.
It’s easy to go to college, graduate, and have some early success and feel entitled by that head-start you feel that you’ve earned – but it’s hard to acknowledge that in some ways, you’re only ever a step away from becoming a lovelorn hopeless romantic, trapped by your dreams but paralyzed by your insecurities. It’s easy to think that the world owes you anything – when really, it’s you making the decisions.
Always Sometimes Monsters acknowledges all of this and creates a world that more real than any videogame I’ve experienced. The drudge and bustle mirror our own and the consequences feel real. Even the rampant homophobia and racism feel real and believable, rather than the overwrought portrayals so often seen in gaming. Whether these are outright statements from police officers who feel you are suspicious due to your race, or expectations that you know about hairstyles and fashion due to your sexual orientation.
The game isn’t perfect by any means – there are notable typos in the game’s sprawling text-based narrative – but Always Sometimes Monsters takes advantage of the unique strengths of the medium by making a bold decision to put complex gameplay on the back burner. Instead, an enrapturing 16-bit score, an 8-10 hour narrative (depending on how much you like to explore) and the weight of your own decisions creates an experience that not only seems wholly believable, but takes you out of the world of videogames and focuses primarily on its emotional core – which is one of the strongest that the medium has to offer.
For that reason, Always Sometimes Monsters lives up to its admirable ambitions and is the type of game that anyone who has ever seriously struggled in life will appreciate. Touching, honest, and unafraid to depict the often-harsh realities of modern existence despite its simple gameplay and 16-bit visuals, Always Sometimes Monsters manages to feel more real than anything else in recent memory.