Every Story Ends
Always Sometimes Monsters is a game about choices, consequences, and inevitabilities. As a modern day RPG and life sim, it pits players against the challenges of poverty, broken relationships, and difficult decisions whose effects aren’t always immediately obvious. Its characters face tragedies ranging from drug overdoses to attempted suicide, gambling addiction to starvation, and yet most maintain an air of hope and humor that makes exploring this world both tragic and heartening.
This exploration takes place in a fictional version of contemporary America, overrun with Bacon Barn fast food joints and 24-hour convenience stores. Our main character—whose gender, race, appearance, name, and sexual identity are selected by the player—has just been kicked out of his or her apartment for failure to pay rent. Soon after, he finds out that his book contract has fallen through for lack of deliverables, leaving him a fraction of the royalties owed. Finally, to top off the day, he receives an invitation to his ex’s upcoming wedding, even though they separated only one year ago. Hurt, confused, and with nothing worth sticking around for, our main character decides to travel to the wedding on the other side of the country.
With only 30 days to get there and a couple hundred bucks to his name, this proves a challenge right off the bat. Our character’s main goal is to find enough money—or an alternate method—for travel out of town. Like many of the paths in Always Sometimes Monsters, how you earn and save this money is up to you. You could do odd jobs for a little old lady, or help your musician friend prepare for a show. There is temp work available around a couple of the cities you visit, as well as less savory options.
Since time only passes when you complete an event—like a plot point or job—you’re free to wander around the city, speak to NPCs, and make choices that may or may not affect you down the road. There are optional events and sub-plots scattered throughout the game, and each one has at least two methods of completion available, if not more. The best moments in Always Sometimes Monsters force the player to choose between morally gray options, with no obvious “right” or “wrong” choice. Should you blackmail a doctor for treatment, or let your drug-addicted friend die? Should you turn in a recently fired, down-on-his-luck employee for storing bullets in his desk? Which of two unappealing mayoral candidates should you help assume power?
Many choices, though, are too obvious in their morality. You’re often given the opportunity to steal or cheat people without their knowledge, like when your elderly neighbor gives you her bank card and PIN number. There are times when you are encouraged to flat-out murder someone, often by characters that are seemingly decent and yet have no regrets in making such a suggestion. These clearly evil choices would present a greater challenge if the rewards were unbalanced, but often the “good” choice provides the same result for minimal additional effort. A perfect example of this is early on in the first city: you befriend a stray dog that begins following you. Two different fliers posted around town offer options for the dog: either sell her to someone who’s buying dogs for obviously unseemly purposes, or return her to her owner for a reward. Both options simply require calling someone and walking the dog to them before collecting your payment, so why would anyone who’s not a dog-hating monster pick the first option?
The stakes for the main character also feel lower than they should, given his circumstances. He loses his apartment, but sleeping on a mattress outside has no apparent consequences. He has a “stamina” bar that requires food to maintain and is constantly surrounded by meals he can’t afford, but can survive almost the entire game without actually eating anything. He’s adamant about getting to his ex’s wedding, and yet we know very little of their relationship or even how he feels about her until much later in the story. This results in having to do a lot of things—make money, eat dinner, find your way across the country—without a strong incentive to actually do so, save progressing the story.
Luckily, doing these things is still highly enjoyable and varied. There are plenty of characters to meet and interact with who provide unique perspectives on life and love. Our character’s past and personality are fleshed out through dream sequences and his choices in the present day. There is humor and charm sprinkled throughout, including the Vagabond Dog developers themselves camped out at coffee shops and commentating on how the game is coming along. And, depending on the path you choose, there are dire and shocking events that are both disturbing and reflective. These punctuate your trip with a gravity that—to the game’s benefit—isn’t always felt, but act as a reality gut-punch when they appear. Like its main character, Always Sometimes Monsters may not always be sure of where it’s headed, but it’s determined to make the trip memorable.