Always Sometimes Monsters is the kind of game that leaves you staring at your computer screen once it's over, wondering just what exactly it all means. On the surface, Vagabond Dog's debut is a depressing life simulator, but there's a reason the game took "Best Indie Game" and "Best Writing" at the 2014 Canadian Videogame Awards. Despite occasionally tedious grinding, Always Sometimes Monsters is a powerful look at the nature of choice, fate, and consequences.
The Narrative Sells It
This game is proof that good writing can make the difference between an okay game and a great one. Always Sometimes Monsters is made in RPG Maker, a program that allows developers to create RPGs in a classic style. But Always Sometimes Monsters isn't some kind of Zelda clone—quite the opposite, in fact.
The player-character starts off as a nobody at rock bottom, not as the chosen hero. You can't make rent, you're hung up on an ex (whom you're trying to get back), you're a failed writer—you have talent, but you can't finish a draft. In other words, your life is a mess. The tough choices start piling up quickly: Do you start running drugs to keep your apartment? Do you pickpocket people? Do you try to make an honest living even if it means sleeping on a dirty mattress on the street?
It isn't an uplifting game, but you know that from the beginning. You make one hard decision after another, sacrificing money to be a good person, or otherwise putting your needs above everything else. But there's no real moral compass here—you don't lose points for selfish or unethical actions, and altruism doesn't guarantee you a happy ending. There can be positive or negative consequences for any choice, just like in life.
What saves the game from being a total downer is the dry sense of humor. Always Sometimes Monsters' jokes, while often dark, remind us how ridiculously random our days can be. You might get shanked in the night, but you might also enjoy moments of hilarity with oddball characters during the day.
Making The Best of a Platform
Because Always Sometimes Monsters is made in RPG Maker, there are some limitations. The game is made entirely through pixel art of varying quality—while many of the environments are detailed, and a few are memorable, some of the character sprites are pretty lackluster. That kind of works for a game that frequently deals with the tedium of life, but you won't find anything of excitement if you're not interested in pixel art.
Still, the game proves that writing is crucial. There are any number of boring classic RPG clones out there, but Always Sometimes Monsters' unique choice-based story helps make up for the poor graphics.
The game's mechanics are standard RPG fare, and gameplay is decidedly light. It's mostly about choices, so don't expect any dungeon crawling or turn-based battles. This game is about navigating through bad situations into slightly better ones, not about saving the universe.
Overall, Always Sometimes Monsters requires very little skill. The occasional puzzle or mystery to solve are fairly easy, but when it comes to the inevitable RPG grinding—in this case for money rather than levels—it's best to turn your brain off altogether. You can spend an hour working at a slaughterhouse to earn enough money for a bus ticket, but you aren't going to get much out of it experientially.
They're working with limited mechanics in RPG Maker, but, in a game so concerned with story, those dragging sections really seem to weigh the game down. While it does complement the game's sense of urgency and realism, this mimesis also makes the game feel like work, and doesn't work in the story's overall favor.
Leaving Its Mark
Always Sometimes Monsters is a somewhat divisive game. Most will appreciate the futile yet compelling nature of the story, and the way it forces players to consider the consequences of real-world adult choices, successes or failures. Others may find the bleakness of the game jarring and unpleasant—an undesirable form of escapism, so to speak. One thing is for certain: this is a game that captures the challenges and logistics of everyday life with pixelated pathos and aplomb.
Always Sometimes Monsters is available now on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux systems.