Do you think you are a good person? Have you ever done something a little… unkosher in order to get what you wanted? We all like to think that we would be helpful to our fellow neighbor when faced with a particularly hard decision, but in life those decisions aren’t always as clean-cut as we would like them to be. Some days you have a bad day and the wrong trigger at the wrong place might cause you to lash out at someone for almost no reason. Despite efforts to do good by others, we may find that we sometimes have the capacity to show a monstrous side as well.
This past week, I had a chance to play part of Vagabond Dog’s upcoming game that touches on these ideas, Always Sometimes Monsters. Unlike many RPGs in which the hero is tasked on an adventure to right some world-threatening wrong, this pixelated adventure focuses on one person’s fate as they find a way to get back to their lost love. Throughout the game, there is a strong emphasis on globally human themes such as the hurdles we jump through in life to make ends meet, as well as the decisions one might make in desperation. In the case of the story’s protagonist, these hardships take form as a down-on-their-luck writer set on winning back the heart of their former paramour.
The game, like many good tales, begins at a party. The man responsible for throwing the party is looking for raw talent to sign to his publishing group, and as such you get to meet and greet with the guests, determining who you want to sign. You are in control of the host only briefly, and whomever you choose to sign becomes the story’s protagonist. This was a very cool way to allow the player to choose the character you want to be; you are given the capacity to choose gender, race, and appearance just by walking around the party and toasting with your character-to-be.
Likewise, you will also be given the opportunity to have the same choices with your significant other: once you have chosen your character, you inform the host that you have someone you want them to meet and can go pick whomever you want as a partner. Right off the bat, the choice you make can affect parts of future gameplay. Some characters will treat you differently whether you are male or female, your sexual preference may impact how certain people perceive you, and you might even be slighted by others depending on your race. All of this is set up right off the bat just by choosing your character and your loved one.
Once you’ve established the characters, you toast to a successful career in writing and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Of course not! Where would be the fun in that? Fast forward a year and you find your chosen protagonist living in a messy apartment, alone, and with less than $25 to their name. This is really where the story starts. We find out that your former significant other has not only left you in the time since that party, but is about to get married, too! Our adventure encompasses your quest to reunite with your true love before time runs out! How are you going to do this? You are broke, about to be evicted from your apartment, and the publisher you signed with has basically given up on you. You have to find ways not only to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis, but also to save enough money to get across the country so you can stop a wedding .
Finding temp jobs here and there or writing a bit for the local newspaper seems easy enough, but life is never easy and other things always pop up. At one point, your best friend needs help to pay for his junkie girlfriend’s hospital bills. Do you choose to help him? If you do, how do you do it with no money? Do you blackmail the doctor in order to get the bill taken care of? Moral ambiguity is a big factor in this game. Sometimes you will have an opportunity to swindle people out of their money or pickpocket them, as opposed to doing a hard-day’s work. Will you walk the straight and narrow, likely facing harder challenges but keeping your moral compass true? Or will you find that sometimes it’s just a little bit easier to be a monster?
Like I said before, these choices aren’t always clear cut. At one point, I was working for a foreman who seemed very racist towards the guy who got me the job in the first place, but was relatively nice to me. The foreman was in a bind and needed all the help he could get due to a union strike. Information I had gathered from each group earlier that day really made it seem that each side had a reasonable rationale for feeling like they were undeserving of their difficulties, but it never felt like the story was all there; something felt out of place from both parties. Then, at the end of the day the foreman’s car was literally pooped on by the strikers. You have the opportunity to take a hose and either clean the car off if you want to help the foreman, or you can turn the hose on him and soak him down if you think he’s being unreasonable to the union workers. Do you find his just-below-the-surface racism too offensive to help him, or do you think that no one deserves to have their car pooped on? The choice is yours, but the consequences that occur from decision can alter the way your story plays out.
I seem to find myself drawn to consequence-based games. As much flack as it got for its ending, the choices you had and the possible outcomes for the characters in the Mass Effect series were beautifully handled, and many were resolved in a manner that left me filled with awe. The Walking Dead episodes pull at your heartstrings when you’re forced to choose who to save or who to let die. I’m also playing Fallout: New Vegas, and I love that you can choose the factions to help or hurt, as well as finding multiple ways to achieve certain sidequests. With that in mind, the themes presented in Always Sometimes Monsters were very entertaining. The preview copy I played only contained about half of the full game, but there were plenty of opportunities presented to either be selfish or to bite the bullet and do something for the greater good. It’s not surprising when (if you are looking out for yourself only) the potential to hurt someone becomes very real, and suddenly someone that could have helped you is dead. At one point in my playthrough I was interviewing a guy who seemed like he was going to go postal, and even after I thought I calmed him down, he shot himself. I wonder if I chose to do something differently, would he have lived and would that have presented a new opportunity for me?
Another element I enjoyed about the game were the ability to choose the jobs you could perform to make money. In the first city alone, you have the options to tend bar, work with kids, write for a newspaper, or help out an ad agency. You also can go to the temp office and make tofu or slaughter pigs, and even though the game mechanics were similar for these two jobs, the experiences were quite different. The way the game forces you to find things out for yourself is fun, too. There is a coffee shop in which two game developers are sitting around talking about the game they are going to make. It’s not so subtle that the game they are talking about is indeed Always Sometimes Monsters, but one quip caught my attention: one of the devs stated that there is no tutorial because the game is about real life, and there are no tutorials for real life. Walking around and figuring things out for yourself is part of the fun of the game, and there were plenty of times I messed up, but then that’s true for real life as well.
In the game I didn’t feed myself for like three days, and basically almost died. I didn’t realize that death by starvation was a real possibility in the game, and so never paid attention to it until my character said they might not have the strength to get up in the morning. After that, I found that different foods fill your stamina differently, and sometimes cheaper, healthier food was better for you than more expensive, sugary food (hey, just like in real life!). In that same vein, some choices you make will abruptly end the game if you make the “wrong” choice, aside from simply dying. For example, the prologue to the game starts off with you talking to the mysterious storyteller. If you shoot him, the game ends right there because, hey, there’s no one to tell the story anymore. In a humorous side-plot, I also caused the game to no longer “exist” by stealing money from the in-game developer’s studio. Without that money, the game was never developed due to insufficient funds, and so my game imploded on itself.
While Always Sometimes Monsters has a lot going for it, there are some things that left for wanting. I’m personally not a huge fan of performing mundane “real life” tasks in video games, and so I’m not drawn to games such as Papers, Please. Similarly here, many of the jobs the character had to do to make money were not enjoyable, especially since they had to be carried out over and over again to make enough money and advance the story. As much as the game strives to be lifelike, the tediousness of those jobs really detracted from the story. But, if you are a fan of those types of games, perhaps your opinion will be quite different!
Speaking of the story, however, there was another drawback here as well. From the beginning of the game, you are given the opportunity to choose your partner, and then the story fast forwards to being split up and finding out they are marrying someone else. Although the character is pining over what could have been or what should be, I found myself saying, “screw them! I’m going to go make lots of money and live rich and play at the arcade all day!” But once all the main quests were done, all that was left to do was temp work, and as stated above that got boring very quickly. It is a little disappointing that the character couldn’t stay and find new things to do should they choose not to pursue their ex, but it’s understandable from a point-of-view that that wouldn’t drive the plot anywhere, and what’s a game without plot?
One other issue with the game was that there was no sense of urgency. Although the overall game gives you 30 days to get across the country before your ex’s wedding, the day-to-day issues felt very lackadaisical. No matter if the issue at hand was indeed leisurely or if it was time-sensitive, the character still had all the time in the world to go procure necessary items or compose themselves as needed. This detracts from the game in a way where it, opposite the issue above, doesn’t feel enough like “real life.” If you are given a choice that must be made in a reasonably timely manner, you don’t take a stroll, check your balance at the ATM, or go get a snack. You make that decision right there. In certain cases, the game may benefit from some sort of count-down clock to bring that feeling of urgency to the player.
Despite certain issues with the game, Always Sometimes Monsters is enjoyable and for the most part hits the target on what it’s trying to achieve. Many of the choices and issues the character is faced with are morally ambiguous, and the choices made not only cause the playthrough to be unique for everyone, but also tell the player a little truth about themselves that they may not have known. The gaming culture as a whole has really responded to the choice-based genre, and the different consequences that come with making those choices. It gives a unique take on the story for each playthrough, and drastically increases the replayability for these games. Always Sometimes Monsters is clearly a different take on the genre, and Vagabond Dog has done a great job here. Look for the game’s release on Steam on May 21, but you can also pre-order the game directly from the game’s website at a reduced price ($8.99 instead of $9.99). The reduced price is offered up until the day before its release on Steam, and it comes with the added benefit of being DRM-free for pre-orders.