Always Sometimes Monsters is an interactive narrative-style game that attempts to tackle several very serious issues through its focus on player choice and the consequences of those choices. Indeed, the game carries a content warning on its Steam page that says “Always Sometimes Monsters has content dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, mental health, sexual assault, child abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide”. So, pretty heavy stuff.
The game opens with a short intro segment, after which you are prompted to select your main character and your main character’s love interest. I didn’t actually realize I was making this decision until later, a theme that generally continued throughout my one hour playthrough- choices weren’t always clearly signaled until after I had made them, and ended up with a blond woman named Tasy as my main character and a brunette named Susan as my love interest. Thus, the first major choice in the game is fairly open- there’s a great deal of racial diversity in avatar selection and while the game does lock you into having a love interest, you’re free to select who you want that to be.
From here the game flashes one year into the future- your character can’t pay rent, your love interest has left you, and your creative career is quickly dissipating before your eyes. At this point you begin to really get into the meat of the game- do you encourage your recovering addict friend to get back on heroin? Do you give a lost dog you find back to its owner or sell it to a dog fighting ring? Do you write a newspaper article that exposes the destructive nature of a new cinema complex on the homeless community, or praise its state-of-the-art features? The game emphasizes that there are no right or wrong answers, and each decision impacts how different people in the world perceive you in slightly different ways.
I certainly applaud the developers for attempting to tackle serious issues through a game like this; I think we should have more games that help us become more empathetic creatures, and it seems to me that’s the ultimate goal for Always Sometimes Monsters. However, this isn’t to say that the game deals with all of these issues as well as it could. In my playthrough there were a number of instances where the various characters’ dialogues felt unnaturally or excessively brutal and abrupt. For instance, when my character was kicked out of her apartment for failing to pay rent, my landlord locked me out and said that he would “sell those panties [my character] never got around to washing” to make up the difference. The landlord is obviously the “bad guy” in this situation, but the game has him going to extreme language and insults so often I half expected to see him twirl his mustache. The exaggerated language persisted throughout the game, making it more difficult for me to identify with individual characters and their struggles. Another example is Viper, the heroin-addicted ex-girlfriend of the main character’s friend in recovery. Again, this character is clearly meant to be a “villain”, but her dialogue often comes off as almost naively evil. For a game attempting to seriously tackle social issues, having these almost comically evil characters takes away a great bit from the sense of immersion its striving for. While the power hour limitations meant I didn’t get particularly far in the main storyline, I’m concerned about the game’s ability to really tackle the issues it wants to target without coming off as too exaggerated to be relatable.
As I mentioned above, the language is strong, and the game certainly doesn’t pull any punches when representing graphic content. The game sets out to depict a grim reality, and forces players to face tough situations that represent everyday life for many people. I didn’t play long enough to encounter any of the “sexual assault, child abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide” mentioned in the content warning, but I feel confidant after the first hour of play that this game needs a pretty strong trigger warning on all of those issues.
If you’re into contemplative interactive narrative-style games, this one may be worth checking out. I’ll certainly be finishing it, because I’m seriously curious about how the choices I’m making will play out for my character. I’ll probably even give a new character a try, just to see how the world reacts to that character. My recommendation is quite cautious though, because as I’ve already explained the dialogue is quite brash in a number of ways (some of them not so positive).
One final note: I spent a good hour trying to get this game working on my laptop before discovering that its engine (RPG Maker) doesn’t always like to play nicely with laptops. Sure enough, when I switched to a desktop the game worked fine. Always Sometimes Monsters is available on Steam for PC (desktop only!) for $9.99.