“Always Sometimes Monsters” is best described as a 2D life simulator with RPG elements that focuses heavily on love, loss, hardship, friendship, betrayal and choice.
Your choice of protagonist and corresponding love interest is determined at the beginning of the game. Rather than being forced to fill a predetermined character’s shoes, you are given the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of characters and subsequent lovers by interacting with guests at a party.
Romantic relationships aren’t shoehorned into a singular heterosexual or monoracial pairing, as is so often the case in games. Instead you can choose to be in a same-sex or interracial relationship. Characters in the world will treat you differently based upon your sexual preferences or skin color, but the bulk of the game retains a largely linear sequence of events with numerous diverging paths.
Regardless of your initial choice, the game begins the same way each time. At the outset, you’re a struggling writer seeking to secure a contract with a publisher, and things are looking up. Fast-forward one year, however, and things have taken a turn for the worse.
Your significant other has left you, you’re 30 days late on your rent, and you have no real prospects. To top it all off, you receive a wedding invitation in the mail from your former lover and only have a month to scrape together enough money to travel across the country and attend the wedding.
Will you win back the love of your life? Do you even want to?
The player is given three blocks of time per day (morning, afternoon and night) during which they can choose to pursue different activities. The most substantial, and necessary, element of gameplay involves attaining some measure of financial security. You can do some freelance writing here and there, get a recommendation and sign up at an ad agency filled with high-strung business types, join a union and load boxes into trucks, and more.
Need some extra cash between actual work? Sign up at a temp agency and take a bus elsewhere to engage in manual labor. From planting seeds in a community garden to processing pork at a factory, the player is free to indulge in these opportunities at their discretion. Just be prepared to hand over the agency’s 50 percent take of the profit at the end of the day.
Choosing what to spend your limited funds on is a struggle throughout much of the game, and can easily lead to the player breaching his or her own sensibilities in order to put together enough cash to make it through another couple of days.
There are other activities to pursue throughout the game, such as wasting time at an arcade, going to the theater, engaging in various mini-games and collecting figurines (which can be sold off for extra cash), and gambling. By and large, the bulk of your day will consist of finding ways to make money and successfully navigating interactions with other people. Just like real life!
On paper it doesn’t exactly sound appealing. But the overall strength of the game’s writing and grounded realism makes for an enticing, personal experience that’s hard to imitate. This is a game that thrives on the conflict between right and wrong. Throughout the roughly 10-hour narrative, players will have to grapple with very real decisions.
Will you take advantage of the kindness of others in the interest of your own well-being, or will you stick to your morals and risk homelessness and starvation? Will you stand by your closest friends when they abandon their ethics, even if they do so merely to survive? Will you act out of spite in the face of betrayal, or will you retain your dignity and persevere? Will you come to terms with your reality, or will you do everything in your power to change the course of your life even if you risk losing everything?
“Always Sometimes Monsters” is by no means the first game that incorporates player choice, nor is it the first to explore these particular questions. Yet the manner in which the plot unfolds and the often unexpected opportunities the player is presented with make for an entirely unique, memorable and reflective experience that few other titles have managed to conjure up.
Despite its low budget, unapologetically retro presentation, Always Sometimes Monsters packs a visceral and emotional punch that puts it in a class of its own.