Wot I Think: Always Sometimes Monsters

By Ben Barrett on May 27th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

If you’re bored of your own listless existence, Always Sometimes Monsters aims to offer an alternative. Starring a character of your choosing who is down on their luck, broke, homeless and love-lost, it’s about their quest to get their flat back, cross country for their ex’s wedding and preferably become rich and famous on the way. Naturally, I ended up a homeless loser who can’t put the past behind him, shot in the face in a ditch. Here’s Wot I Think and, much like the game, it contains discussion of a number of topics that some readers may find unsettling.

I’m not sure exactly how you’re supposed to choose your avatar in Always Sometimes Monsters, but I went for the guy I named James because he had absinthe at a party. While others wimped out with wine and beer, this was a man who didn’t piss around with lesser alcohol. Despite my legendary light-weightedness, it was something I could respect. And it is, immediately, where my experience of the game will differ from yours.

There’s a praise-worthy selection of genders, races and sexual preferences available, and each will shape the story in different ways. At points characters would dismiss James based on his skin colour, others finding some solidarity with him because of it. It’s brutally realistic in this regard, pulling no punches when it comes to the prejudices faced and privileges afforded by factors beyond our control. That on its own can and should stand as an achievement, being an idea woefully underserved in gaming.

Essentially it’s an adventure game – you’re given an end goal and must explore, find items and perform tasks to complete it in whatever way you see fit. Each chapter has the eventual goal of departing for the next main city along the road to the wedding. However, going about that is mostly freeform – just the first day gives the option of writing for a newspaper, tending bar, checking coats at a night club or running drugs. There’s only so much time on the clock, with each day broken up into three chunks of morning, afternoon and night. Different options are available at different times – characters will only be in certain places at certain times of day and may react differently depending on what has already happened or how you’ve chosen to use your time.

It’s a marvellously complex series of logic trees. They determine how you make your money, how characters are first encountered and what you may think of them. An early minor plot revolves around a rock star, his girlfriend and their drug habit. He’s worried his music’s only good when he’s high, she’s still an addict trying to give him what she feels he needs. Through the way I interacted with them both I ended up breaking into a doctor’s house and blackmailing him with evidence of his sexual deviancy. If I’d taken a different route it’s possible I’d not have even met them, nevermind the rest.

Obviously I haven’t had time to explore the myriad possible routes through all parts of the game, but stories like this seem common. There’s crossroad decisions to be made at almost every step that determine fates and outcomes. The problem comes in their significance. I’m not talking about effect this time, but how difficult it is to make those decisions. The two sides of an argument will usually be quite clearly marked as “good” and “bad” by their actions. One will lead to someone’s death or other horrible fate, while the other is more rational. There’s no Catch 22’s like the end of most Telltale episodes, just the possibility that you’ll be left with a little less money at the end of that particular string.

Which wouldn’t be a problem if the mechanical end of the game didn’t fail to hold up the emotional one. As a game built in RPG Maker, it’s played fully top-down with a basic interface. This isn’t a problem, but it makes moving around the world and interacting with characters purely an action made interesting by the strength of the writing. It becomes an issue with the introduction of mini-games. There aren’t loads, but every time they appear is another horrible downturn. Two stick out in my mind. First, a Frogger-style game meant to simulate hacking, which is as frustratingly dull and repetitive as it sounds. The other is a “combo-boxing” game that involves blind-picking from a set of rock-paper-scissors-style counters and counter-counters against an opponent doing the same. Each has a preferred set of tactics, but guessing is the fastest route through and all are too random to make a more strategic approach appealing.

Perhaps what’s worst is the mandatory nature of it all. If these were side-amusements they’d be a footnote, a joke to criticise as easter egg games have been since Doom 3, but they are pivotal to various points in the plot. While most of your time is taken up speaking to characters and deciding to help or hinder them, these are the only interaction that feel classically “gamey” and the product as a whole suffers as a result. Stripped of these you would have something different, but I think superior. The path of an interactive novel may have been preferable, removing all but the most basic interactions and allowing the excellent art to take center stage.

What this would also emphasise is the mostly fantastic writing. When not being heart-rendingly moving, particularly in the flashbacks to the main character’s lives together, it’s hilariously funny and down-right smart. There’s so much territory covered – from journalistic and medical ethics to the inner thoughts of depressed teenagers in the first chapter alone – that it’s incredible it holds together as well as it does. Individual lines had me howling with laughter, particularly in the early stages, and it’s almost enough to recommend the game on its own.

Sadly, the broader strokes are a little less easy to enthuse about. Tonally, it’s all over the place. The humour took me by surprise just because of how seriously the game presents itself and how serious many of the issues involved are. You’ll be laughing along with the self-inserted developers in the coffee shop one moment, then dealing with the results of drug abuse the next. The first antagonist, your landlord, is comedically grumpy: a Disney-villain-level of money-grubbing and youth-hating – but he’s forcing you to live on the streets until you can work off your debt. There’s a particularly interesting story in the second chapter surrounding a workers strike which is interrupted by two people literally shitting from several stories onto your boss’ car. The switches from adult themes to juvenile humour are thick and fast, making it impossible to ever be sure the smile or frown has totally disappeared from the writer’s face. It didn’t necessarily reduce my enjoyment of the writing, but did make it more jarring.

It’s something of a wasted opportunity that many of the scenarios, particularly towards the end of the game, become so ridiculous for the main character. So few games are willing to ground themselves in our own universe, in our own time, that not simply sticking to that is a failing. There was potential for a properly identifiable set of stories here that is somewhat wasted by an unrealistic raising of the stakes. There’s also problems of particular threads not seeming to lead anywhere, since you depart from towns before the results of many of your actions can resolve thoroughly.

As the plot progresses, the weakness of the framing of it becomes apparent. I experienced a real disconnect between the motivations of the character I was playing and my own. I was making decisions not based on what he may have wanted, but on my own desire to see how they played out. There is an extraordinary amount of untold backstory to the situation he found himself in at the beginning of the game, and while some of it is shown, he still felt like a character I had not wholly created. He is not a clean slate to begin with, so it feels odd when I’m asked to determine how he feels about decisions he’s made in the past. Again, it’s jarring rather than inexcusable, but the problems do begin to add up.

Much like life, Always Sometimes Monsters is brilliant but flawed. There’s strong stuff in there, made only better by its rarity within games. Those who have experienced homelessness, extreme poverty, lost love or most other hardships will likely find something to identify with. There’s a soundtrack to rival Hotline Miami chilling throughout and some of the illustration is superb. But there will be times when its minigames will remind you there isn’t a good game under all that writing, and the repetitive money-grinding activities required for better endings will anger, even if intentionally. You’ll love it until it drops its own name egregiously into a climactic finale or hate it until it makes you laugh and cry.

You can grab Always Sometimes Monsters on Steam or through Humble.

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23 Comments »

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  1. Pich says:

    Looks like a Newgrounds flash game.

    • nebnebben says:

      It is somewhat shallow of me, but yeah the sprites are ugly and turn me off the game

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        Jackablade says:

        That’ll be RPG Maker for you. The default sprite set is not only ugly, it’s the same ugly as used a whole host of other indi games.

        • dskzero says:

          People can do much better. The art direction of these games can set them apart from the heap: OFF and Gingiva come to mind, but people are lazy.

          • noodlecake says:

            I don’t think it’s laziness. Good pixel art requires artistic talent. The designer of the game probably didn’t have the budget to pay an artist. The game is primarily about it’s quality writing and divergent storylines, which play to the designers creative strengths. I’d rather see projects like this exist than never be made because of a lack of a budget for visual art assets.

          • dskzero says:

            I think you should watch some OFF footage. It doesn’t have to be flawless or even pretty.

          • noodlecake says:

            Oh yeah. OFF looks pretty cool. The person who did the art does have artistic talent though. It takes an understanding of what works visually and a creative experience to make something that works stylistically. I’m kinda thinking of having a go myself now, although I’ve never really done much writing before. I’m interested in doing more pixel stuff art stuff though. I had a bit of a play with it for one of our art projects this year at University. I know nothing about coding though :S

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    strangeloup says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’m not especially interested in the game itself — although given the low price, it’s certainly not a huge impact on the wallet — but on the other, it seems like it’d be very interesting to pick apart for design ideas.

    It’s a shame that the tonal shifts and the obligatory minigames mar the more interesting aspects, though.

  3. chiablo says:

    “James Starling”, really?

  4. Orija says:

    Would’ve been better if the devs had made an adventure point and click rather than use rpgmaker.

    • soldant says:

      Normally I’d say it doesn’t matter, but much like when a game uses the default Unity character controller package, it’s kind of jarring and off-putting. I can pick an RPG Maker game a mile away, same with the default Unity character controller – namely because they’re not particularly good in stock config.

    • dskzero says:

      As I said somewhere else, the problem for me is that this reeks of lazyness. OFF and Gingiva didn’t have (particulary OFF) these mindblowing graphics, but they look really distinctive and attractive. These look amateurish. Dunno about the game itself, of course.

  5. Brtt says:

    For a change, GoG is not overlooked !

    Uh wait…
    Ah well, it’s just like about every time, after all.

    http://www.gog.com/news/release_always_sometimes_monsters

  6. Kanamit says:

    I’m working my way through this. I’ve been thinking about it a lot which I guess is a pretty big compliment although as you note it is flawed as all hell.

    The biggest problem I have with it is probably that I never felt particularly desperate except for the very beginning, especially after buying the fishing rod. My character is sometimes insensitive, selfish, and less than law abiding but not monstrous. I’m not really sure why’d you choose most of the bad options unless you’re doing an evil playthrough, seeing as you get a decent amount of money for doing the right thing anyways.

    I thought the union city storyline was incoherent, but I’ve rambled enough about this game. Suffice it to say that the whole thing came across as some kind of Mickey Kaus fever dream.

    • Ben Barrett says:

      I’m not even sure you actually need to eat. I didn’t throughout the entire final chapter, which includes actual physical fights, and didn’t see any negative effects.

    • heychrisfox says:

      I’ve had a different reaction. I definitely feel like I live day-to-day in the game, and never really have enough money for anything. I save it after a time, but it definitely takes awhile. Maybe that’ll change the further I progress.

      I heard someone on the Steam forums mention that they died due to starvation, and that this happened to him while sleeping outside. Beyond that, that’s the only time I have heard that stamina is an issue.

  7. Dionysus84 says:

    So, like most narrative games suggesting the players have great agency of “choice” and the ability to control the flow of events, most of this game consists of smoke and mirrors. But the more important question, as the article suggests, is whether it’s a good ride. For the price, I’d say do it up.

  8. thelittleboy says:

    I’ve played the game. Interesting concept and overall, I enjoyed, but I’ll tell you what… that scene in the beginning, with the hobo, is a huge mistake to this game. a huge, huge mistake. the game could have been so better without it.

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    Jackablade says:

    So lets see here – RPG maker, heavy themes, wildly inconsistent tone, awkward telling of a poignant story – sounds like a spiritual sequel to To The Moon.

    • heychrisfox says:

      Honestly, there are so few games of this nature, that’s the closest comparison. Imagine a less linear version of To The Moon; the story pushes you through a few narrative bottlenecks due to the framing – which is honestly good storytelling, regardless of this needed mechanic of a game – but generally gives you lots of freedom combined with emotional storytelling.