The words “role-playing game” have come to be associated with a very peculiar thing. In what we call a role-playing game, a spiky haired gang of teenagers wielding oversized weapons team up in a poorly-dubbed mission to kill God. There has been a curious lack of representation of how people live – a question being asked about what kind of person the player becomes when placed in a real life situation. Always Sometimes Monsters attempts to answer that question – and a very interesting conclusion it is.
The premise behind Always Sometimes Monsters is that the player flashes back across the a snapshot in the life of any of a number of partygoers. It’s up to the player to establish their own life and partner, then set out with the initial challenge of paying their rent.
The choices the player makes over the next few days establish their personality. They can work in a club, sell a gift, join an old lady for dinner, work for a newspaper or an advertising agency and make nuanced decisions about relatively minute details. But one thing is for sure – your character will spend their first night on an old mattress outside.
There’s a little bit of a lack of direction to the game at first and it’s not really obvious what to do or where to go. But it soon becomes natural, as you learn your way around the world and work, steal and cheat your way to a decent life.
All this gameplay is done simply via movement commands, an “interact” button and an inventory, which does reduce depth somewhat. A bigger emphasis on puzzle solving would have been welcome, although the memory-testing mini game that was the coat-check job was more taxing than it initially seemed.
The whole game is presented in a simplistic, if charming pixel style and at a low resolution which means it displays in a tiny box in the middle of a desktop. This does hit the immersion somewhat when you realise that you’re squinting at a tiny representation of your character over a sea of icons for programs you never use. Other low-resolution games use fullscreen by default – why not this?
However, the game is independent and there’s a certain quirky individuality to using sprites – odd considering the lack of definition – so it does pass overall in the visual department. Less sensorily pleasing is the audio, which tends to be too loud, too grating and too lacking in tone awareness. Merrily bleeping away while your character becomes homeless, the music is an irritant rather than helping the player get lost in the game and any subsequent games ought to have the issue fixed.
What’s good about Always Sometimes Monsters is that it takes an entirely unique approach to the moral choice system. Some games have either a good or bad ending (see BioShock) while others attempt to take a more open-ended route but fall short (InFamous, wherein other endings are possible, but unlocking anything good requires unending virtue or undiluted malevolence). Always Sometimes Monsters understands that most decisions are grey, there’s a plausible reason for most behaviour and it’s very hard to break people down into merely good or evil.
Joining an old widow for dinner and going to work in a club are different choices with their own pros and cons – it’s nice to join the old lady, but you’re poor and need to pay your bills as well. Neither route is flagged up as obvious and there are rewards and punishments either way. It’s rare to the point of exclusivity to find this level of choice in anything with a story, and it’s that freedom which makes Always Sometimes Monsters so interesting.
It could do with a little more depth – indeed after a few fresh starts there’s little reason to play through it again – but the concept and execution are both solid. Vagabond Dog have made a game which touches a few nerves we may not like, as it shows us the travails of love, work, money and morals and asks – aren’t we always sometimes monsters? 80%