A few years ago, a small developer had the bright idea to take RPG Maker, and use it to tell a story. There was no combat, no experience levels. This game offered nothing more than a touching and at times troubling look at humanity through the lens of death.
That game was To The Moon, and it was a masterpiece and tear-jerker alike. It was also proof that the most simple of tools, when in the hands of someone genuinely creative, can produce something every bit as deserving of your time as a AAA-blockbuster.
Published by Devolver Digital, Always Sometimes Monsters is very much in the same vein as To The Moon. It, too, uses RPG Maker’s engine, but forgoes combat and other such RPG tropes to instead tell a simple but effective narrative of humanity, relationships, hopes, and morality. It’s a difficult game to put down, because within the first half an hour you’re almost certainly going to be so invested in the characters and their story that it’s impossible to stop thinking about them.
The narrative kicks off with a party, in which players pick their main character from a host of people at the party, and then also pick the love interest for this character. The game is open, honest, and modern about the choices it allows players to make (it’s possible to choose to have the main character have a relationship with a member of the same sex, and the game’s narrative naturalises this choice), and then the two characters celebrate with another couple – a young book publisher has agreed to take on the lead character’s first writing project. In the space of five minutes the game has been set up brilliantly; players know that they’re going to be able to make meaningful choices in Always Sometimes Monsters, and there’s an overwhelming sense of hope and optimism, with the young couple’s future seemingly secure under a book contract.
The screen fades to black and a “one year later” message pops up on screen. The screen fades back in, and I find my character is now alone and clearly living in poverty. She’s (I chose to play a female character, but there are male characters as well) unable to make rent. Her partner has left her for reasons that are not immediately described. Something has happened and her book contract isn’t making her any money.
And just like that she’s told by her landlord that she has a day to earn $500 to pay the rent, or she’s on the street. From that point on I’m left free to try and earn money however I like. There are legitimate and illegitimate ways to earn money, but it’s very difficult to survive via purely legitimate means. On the other hand, engaging in theft, drug dealing, and the like can cause all kinds of other problems. Because every major decision that players can make does have an impact on the flow of the story, it’s difficult not to become personally invested in what’s going on, and the sense of struggle and desperation is palpable in Always Sometimes Monsters. I ended up on the street, and I found myself truly saddened that this was happening.
The game in turn acts as a running commentary of humanity itself. We play as one struggling individual, but all around that person are other people trying – and at times failing – to eke out their own existences. Early on we meet a musician friend who has finally kicked a drug habit and made the difficult decision to leave his drug-using girlfriend in order to stay clean. But while he’s preparing for a concert the girlfriend shows up. Knowing that he will be nervous about performing when not high, she asks that the player pass on some heroin to him to help calm him down. Players will need to choose whether to do so or not, and there are significant consequences to either decision.
This is just one early example in a game that is from start to finish filled with difficult choices, and demands multiple replays in order to fully appreciate all of the different possible paths through the narrative. There’s a couple of little puzzles that are also worked into the experience in order to break things up, but this is a game more about reading and thinking than traditional play experiences.
It’s not all misery, however, and the developers show some maturity in also building in moments of levity. “James Sterling” makes an appearance, and some of the more minor characters have truly entertaining lines to deliver. The nuanced approach to plot means that the overall experience has greater impact; there’s light and shade, joy and sadness, love and hate. Always Sometimes Monsters is a truly human story, and it’s brilliant for it.
As touching as the narrative is – and it truly is difficult not to feel empathy for the various characters in this game – it’s also a game that has a raw quality that lets it down. The writing of the dialogue has a tendency to drop in and out of character, and some of the odd things that the characters do say break with the atmosphere of the game. The writers of this game would have done well to go through a more rigorous editing process.
After a while these more awkward moments fall into the background, and Devolver Digital’s broader vision and tale of humanity is one that truly works. This is a game that will make you care about what’s going on, and I’ve got high hopes that this team will continue to refine this style with future games.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld