Our lives are full of choices; ups and downs that dictate our destiny and forge our path through the world. They’re the moments that define us, and for better or worse steer our life one way or another. Always Sometimes Monsters builds itself on this intrinsic aspect we all experience, but does so to intentionally take us down roads we would hopefully never travel down in our own lives. Unrestrained and unafraid of presenting dark and controversial moments, it’s a shockingly human experience that’s alarmingly introspective, making me continually question myself as I lead my character into increasingly dire circumstances, but at the same time is untraditionally relatable. I connected with my character to a degree I’ve rarely experienced while playing a game, and this ability to bring the player into a second life with nothing but text and pixels is what makes ASM such an unprecedented achievement.
There’s little I can say about story specifics as so much of it is derived from your own decisions and how you interact with the world, but in essence this is the story of one person on a journey to find where they fit into the world and what’s left for them in life after hitting rock bottom. Times are tough and the situations you’re placed in are the sort of moments we’d prefer to ignore and forget. The content warning in the description isn’t a ploy; sex, drugs, illegal activities, foul language, and death abound and the developers make no attempt to gloss over or sugarcoat them into something palatable. Whether you get offended is not the end objective; the question of if you will is, and is what drives an story that at each moment seems to sink you deeper into insurmountable circumstances, the outcome of which is almost entirely in your own hands.
The moments when I was forced to make a choice between equally unpleasant scenarios are the moments when ASM shines and accomplishes something few games have attempted, dealing with subject matter entirely unlike what we are used to seeing in games. It’s not fantastical or larger than life, it’s simply the story of a person and the people around them, moving emotionally from joy to suffocating depressing, to mundane daily tasks and the moments in between. It’s strange to play something that so closely resembles real life, but it’s even more unusual for it to be as engaging and intriguing as it is in ASM.
Where the developers falter is in merging their idea of a human experience told through a game, with the limitations and exceptions of a traditional game. Sandwiched between the narrative decisions and character development are the usual, uninspired RPG standbys, from fetch quests to currency farming, or simply poor pacing and direction. I appreciate the freedom you are given to continue your story or completely ignore it and laze around doing nothing of importance, but the problem is you are rarely given enough freedom to actually warrant being left to roam around on your own. Where there a choice between being shuffled from one story moment to the next, or stumbling around trying to find it for myself with options to engage in unnecessary fluff that ultimately matters not (such as feeding your character), I’d have gladly opted for the former as at times the pacing is so slow I found it hard to continue playing for long stretches of time.
For as basic as the sprites themselves may be, developer Vagabond Dog has manage to inject an exceptional amount of character and distinction to its environments and the people in it. Character portraits are drawn memorable and add a lot to the otherwise entirely text based story, and the environments you traverse sparely populated but with just enough detail to keep each area feeling unique. The soundtrack is a little less consistent, as for every excellent track there’s one that’s just as annoyingly repetitive and dull.
Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t without problems, but like the characters in it they are simply part of a whole that you can still love despite their obvious flaws. Nothing and no one is perfect, as the decisions you’re forced to make in the game and your own life can hold testament, but if you’re willing to look past them there’s something very special laying underneath. ASM is not what it looks like, or in many ways even what it proclaims itself to be, but what it is is something that connected with me like few experiences in any medium have managed. I became invested in my character’s fate and longed to see them get the happy ending they so desired, and when the moment finally came to seize it I came to the startlingly realization that maybe I had been blinded by what I really wanted. Maybe my selfish desires weren’t meant to be and I was attempting to create something that could never be.
But perhaps in the end that’s the point of it all. To show that we’re all human, that we all long to be happy, and occasionally we must become a monster to achieve it.