reviews | video games

REVIEW : Sometimes Always Monsters

August 5, 2014

I have to admit, when I picked up a copy of the indie game Always Sometimes Monsters in my latest Steam shopping spree, I wasn’t expecting much. For 6.99, I was expecting a short, fun, indie game to waste a few hours of my day playing. From the title and a quick skim through a few of the trailers, I was expecting a Scott Pilgrim-esque philosophic rant about how life is terrible.

What I wasn’t expecting was for  Always Sometimes Monsters to be one of the best games I’ve played all year.

What really intrigued me about  Always Sometimes Monsters was its re-playability.  The game offers what so many others do these days – a story where choices matter, and every playthrough is different. Unlike plenty of other games however, Always Sometimes Monsters actually delivers on that offer. In the opening scenes, you choose your character and your significant other from a selection of different protagonists. There’s no character customisation, as such – the game is very much focused on having you experience the story of a particular character, rather than one you yourself have created.

The main point of this seems to be to allow the player to experience the same story from another character’s point of view. At first, this seemed a bit social justice warrior-ish. The game comes with a trigger warning for ‘racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mental health, sexual assault, child abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide,’ which while definitely not a bad thing, as these things can be encountered in the game, gave the whole setup a weird tinge of tumblr-esque snobbishness.

This didn't help.
This didn’t help.

But it’s worth noting here that the game doesn’t attempt to hit you over the head with how ‘different’ the various characters are. My first playthrough, I played a black gay man, and I thoroughly expected to have to slough through a sea of racist homophobic assholes in the game’s attempt to be edgy.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised. I encountered exactly two homophobic characters, and each time they were less Westboro Baptist than Awkwardly Offensive Grandmother. The game made it clear that their attitudes were changeable, and they didn’t affect gameplay in any significant capacity. I didn’t encounter any racism at all, but then again, maybe I was looking in the wrong places. What the game delivers is a real sense of playing as a distinct character who, while definitely aware of the attitudes of others, is not defined by them. It was pretty refreshing to play a game that lets you be a minority character without bringing it up every five minutes. My new character is a straight white girl, so it will be pretty interesting to see how (if at all) that affects the gameplay.

As for the characters that you don’t play, they are all interesting and fairly well-developed. There will be characters that you dislike intensely the first time you meet them, only to find yourself sympathising with them by the end of the game. There will be characters that are presented as your best friends, who later turn out to be absolute assholes. There will be absolute assholes that turn out to be… sort of okay.

That said, I think a major selling point of Always Sometimes Monsters was the opportunity it presents to perceive the game in your own way. At no point does the game tell you how to feel. It hardly even tells you how your character is feeling. Everything, from the major decisions that you make to the way you interpret those decisions is left up to you. Towards the end of the game, other characters begin to call you out on those decisions – but as I discovered, it doesn’t matter which choices you made – someone will always have a problem with them. It’s up to you to either justify your choices, or apologise for them. I haven’t played enough to determine what effect, if any, this has on the gameplay, but it definitely affects the way I perceived my character. Rather than being a stale player avatar,  I felt like he really developed a personality and a story all his own over the course of the game.

In terms of gameplay, Always Sometimes Monsters plays a little bit like the flash games that used to be all over newgrounds, where you’re given a town to explore, goals to achieve, and the occasional minigames to play.

It’s a lot like flash games on Newgrounds.

The game was very obviously made in RPG Maker, and is unfortunately subject to all the limitations of that engine. The game resolution is stuck at 800×600, which I guess might be an issue if you’re not playing it on a toaster, like I am. You’re also stuck moving in four directions (using the arrow keys) which while not a big deal for most of the game gets a bit clunky when you end up, say, driving a car. That said, once you’re used to your little pixel people shuffling around at 3mph, it’s becomes clear that for the most part, this was the best engine for the job. Would the game be vastly improved if it was in HD3D with crazy bloom effects and hyper-realistic environments? I don’t think so.

My other issue is that there are moments when the game just… breaks. Early in the beta version of the game released on steam, it was common for gameplay to be halted completely by a message reading ‘mini game not found’. While this has since been fixed, there are options that lead you to a kind of limbo where the story grinds to a halt, and you’re forced to actually play the mini games in order to progress. For a long time after the official release, it was actually impossible to get a ‘good’ ending, no matter which choices you made during the game, which lead to a lot of hilarious complaints about the game being ‘too much like real life’.

Personally, I think the game’s resemblance to real life is a real selling point. I came away from Always Sometimes Monsters feeling like I’d learned something important, even if I did get a terrible ending. The game is very much about taking charge of your own (well, your character’s own) destiny, but it makes it clear that that’s all you can be responsible for. People can be jerks. They can fail to stay off heroin, they can be workaholics, drug dealers, liars – and there’s nothing you can do about that.

When asked about the underlying themes of the game, creator Justin Amirkhani had this to say : ‘I spend a lot of time thinking about choices, both as a game mechanic and as a fundamental principle of the universe. In ways the game asks you to decide for yourself if choice is even real – whether we get the opportunity of choice in life or if circumstance and the momentum of consequence have more control over things than we think.’

Choice is integral to Always Sometimes Monsters, but it’s not the be all, end all of the game. It stands out from other games because you find yourself making, and being pressured into, choices that directly contradict the ‘point’ of the game – ostensibly to gather enough money to get to your ex’s wedding and win them back. The game asks questions, and leaves you questioning yourself long after the credits have rolled.

Buy this game. It’s one choice you absolutely won’t regret.