Reality’s a hard pitch to sell in video game format. Having to work for a living, deal with personal problems and even helping old ladies clean their apartments is not necessarily video game fodder. Always Sometimes Monsters, the first game from developer Vagabond Dog, forces players to deal with that reality, with no fantasy and little implausibility to sugarcoat it. What sounds like a bland game is an edible slice of life, but it’s a cuisine that’s not without problems.
Always Sometimes Monsters tells a story of a young aspiring writer created by the player through a unique character creation sequence. After meeting a high profile publisher at a party, a year passes and life deals one bad hand after the next. Your character’s loved one leaves, you’re behind on rent and still haven’t finished your book. Life takes an unexpected twist and your character, determined to put things right, begins a 30-day journey to make things right.
Without spoiling the story any further, the story is arguably the best part of Always Sometimes Monsters. Great emphasis is put on character development, relationships, believability, morality and realism. There’s romance, drama, intrigue and even some comedy too. Issues that very few games tackle are covered, including homophobia, racism, drugs, blackmail and abuse. These topics are all handled tactfully, never exploited but implanted within a story that rarely pulls its punches in getting across the message that reality has its ups and down and is not what we expect it to be.
The story however loses steam as it draws to a close, which comes all too quickly. On the plus side, no matter how the game is played, all endings are surprising, even if players choose to do the right things for the entirety of their playthrough. The game exceeds at doing something few game stories can do: show that real life makes for a compelling story.
The story is complex but the game is easily navigable. Players use the keyboard for movement, interaction and operating the simple game interface. There’s no combat, so players only focus on exploration and interaction.
Gameplay itself is challenging, owing to one big factor: choice. How you decide to create your character and how you act is important. The only way to see everything the game has to offer is to play as different characters and change your decisions. For example, playing as a character of one ethnicity will bar you from certain parts of the world or from accomplishing specific tasks. This provides players with incentive to replay again and again.
The tasks you can perform and the moral decisions you will be forced to make will challenge players. In the game’s first objective, you must pay $500 in overdue rent by the end of the day. That may seem simple at first but it’s more challenging than you think. You could play honestly, but there’s a good chance you’ll end up sleeping outside, or you could steal and lie to get the money. Sure you’ll have a bed to sleep in, but you’ve done so at the expense of others.
Beyond that, gameplay is underwhelming and half-baked. There’s a few glitches but they are overshadowed by how minimal the world is. There’s not much to do beyond advancing the story–there’s a lack of side-quests and activities. With a time limit of 30 days to complete the game, there’s not much time to explore anyways. Without the feeling of immersion, the game ends up being too demanding.
During the game, players will encounter the game’s creators through meta-fictional cameos. They humorously point out that even they aren’t entirely happy with the graphics. It’s understandable as the art is notably average. The world is underwhelming and unpolished. Character models are unimpressive and the bulk of the game looks bland.
There are a few exceptions, including character busts that appear during conversations and certain scenes that display touching moments. However, animations are clunky and closer examination shows them to have a faint flicker. Graphics only accomplish the minimum of giving players something to look at and nothing more.
Sound leaves something to be desired. The game is greatly lacking in atmosphere, which is odd for a game that strives to be realistic. Walking the streets is almost like walking in a ghost town. The lack of effects to enliven the world is troubling given the huge efforts in other parts of the game to do just that.
When effects are played they aren’t out of the ordinary or special. This isn’t the case for the musical soundtrack by Laser Destroyer Team, which is the highlight of the game’s audio. Terrific and addicting, it’s the audio’s saving grace. It manages to almost always fit in with the scenes it plays to. The effects, few though they are, are average and there is little else to say other than this portion of the game could use some improvement.
Even with a terrific story, excellent concepts and huge ambition, Always Sometimes Monsters is a good but unpolished experience. Turning life into a video game requires time and effort. Vagabond Dog has created an entertaining and intriguing proof of concept that reality, with a minimum of fantasy, can make for great gaming. It’s not perfect but the indie title manages is interesting enough to warrant a look, especially for those who aren’t afraid to deal with the hard knocks reality can deal.