Struggling to make ends meet and pay my rent, I began working for my elderly neighbour in an attempt to earn some money. After cleaning up her house and setting up for dinner, I used her credit card to do her shopping. Within moments, I had robbed her for everything in her bank account, and suddenly I was going to be able to hold onto my apartment for another month.
In a sickening plot twist, my landlord turned on me and kicked me out. I emptied my wallet at the local bar, hoping I could get close with the manager and earn some employment. Unsuccessful, I stumbled — drunk — to a dirty mattress in a back alley, where I spent the night.
The main emotion circulating through every moment of this episode was guilt. Was this all an act of karma? Do bad things simply happen to bad people? What if I had treated the old lady more nicely?
This was the first of many times throughout Always Sometimes Monsters that I truly felt an emotional connection with my character, a connection that encouraged me to constantly analyse and re-assess the decisions I was making. It is this connection that makes Always Sometimes Monster’s story so emotional and so compelling, as players follow a winding plot and attempt to win back their ex-partner.
Gameplay takes place in a 2D, top-down world where everyone has something meaningful to say. Dialogue is greatly important as it is the sole element that allows a beautiful story to be told, breaking through the heavy graphical and audio limitations imposed by the game’s genre and environment and keeping players genuinely engrossed in the affairs of their character.
That’s not to say the developer, Vagabond Dog, hasn’t done well in the audio / visual department — each town players explore has been masterfully designed to work with the retro aesthetic of the game, while the 90’s-era background music instils a sense of nostalgia in players and has heads rhythmically bopping along in joy.
Ultimately, however, Always Sometimes Monsters is a game that is all about story. It chooses to focus on the choices we make in life and how these can affect our future. As a player, you begin to learn that every move you make has an irreversible consequence. As a result, you truly care about the decisions you make, whether they involve stealing money from an elderly woman or sabotaging someone’s vehicle and sending them to a premature death.
The concern players have for their character transforms into something greater as players progress through the game, with events becoming more emotional and each decision carrying more weight than the last. Indeed, the emotions you will feel while playing Always Sometimes Monsters will escalate, and you’ll be thinking about your own past. Friends you’ve lost, decisions you’ve made, and journeys you’ve travelled suddenly find new meaning, and you’ll be pondering about the impact you can have in your time in this universe.
The fact that Always Sometimes Monsters can provoke such thoughts makes it much more than just a game — it is not a stretch to call it a piece of art. Few games these days can evoke any emotional response from players, let alone thoughts and feelings so deep. It is this that stands the title so far ahead of other games currently on the market.
It would be hard to pretend the game is perfect. There are some minor bugs and issues regarding audio, which at times become a distraction. Additionally, some elements of play seem a bit tacky — particularly the stamina system. Players need to eat lots of food in order to keep their stamina bar from hitting zero. It’s never explained why, and it doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the game’s foundations.
Additionally, it seems negligent to ignore typos in a game where dialogue means everything, and the messages characters are trying to send are sometimes lost due to the odd typo.
However, these minor flaws are simple to overlook when you take a step back and admire the bigger picture. This is one of the first games in who-knows-how-long that actually forces a player to step back, analyse their own lives and think about what they can do differently. That is truly special.