Adventure games have come a long way since Myst and are enjoying a second wind in this new indie renaissance because of their generally low cost to make and lack of pressure to deliver a product of a certain genre or caste. It isn’t the incredibly conspicuous lack of financial blessings that hold Vagabond Dog’s debut title back from great innovative recognition though. It’s the vicious lack of good game design that holds Always Sometimes Monsters away fromthe greatness that some of its creative decisions deserve.
The story is more fit for an indie movie than an indie game. As a failed author who has spent the past year getting over the collapse ofyour romantic relationship and trying to make something productive of your life, trouble brews when your ex invites you to his or her wedding. You decide to make the journey across country to see the wedding, but you only have 30 days to do so. Why you go and what you do to get there is up to you. At the beginning of the game, you don’t have a car or a job. You spend much of the game working odd jobs or doing people favors in order to get money or other equally valuable opportunities to get closer and closer to your overall goal, be it picking up temporary employment at local employment agencies or helping to rig mayoral elections. The kind of hijinks you can get yourself into is rather entertaining.
The feeling you’re left with by the end of your first playthrough isn’t really fair, considering the enormous promise the game makes with you in its intro sequence. The execution of the narrative/control switching sleight-of-hand used during a party scene to cleverly choose the main characters of this story is absolutely brilliant. The sheer amount of possibilities for who these characters may be is also something special. Your protagonist, can be any one of the dozen or so denizens at the party. After choosing your character, you choose their significant other, who can be any of a different set of party goers. The combination you roll with becomes the crux of most of the narrative hooks you will get caught in as you progress through the tale. If you choose to be a young, pretty, white blonde, strangers tend to receive you more favorably, but they tend to take you less seriously. If you’re gay, some of the more conservative characters may want little to do with you.
The promise of unique experiences over multiple playthroughs is a bit deceiving though. Much of the game’s “awareness” of these choices play out as simple text loops that appear (or don’t appear) without too much real, concrete change to how you go about the game. I took three different main protagonists and had no issue going about the same set of early game activities as an unscientific test, and I found virtually no difference in how my goals progressed. Which, in and of itself isn’t terrible – many games get away with pseudo-diversity. This game’s cardinal sin is that most of it isn’t much fun to play.
The day-to-day journey concerns itself with one simple motivation: making money. How you make that money is almost entirely up to you, and it informs the sort of character you develop into. Early on, you can use your writing experience to freelance for the local paper or work at a copyright building. As a journalist, you can choose how you write the particular stories you cover. Being the voice of the downtrodden may not net you the financial corporate cosign you’d like, but the people will respect you and help you in other ways. When these events are over, if you still haven’t secured enough money for a bus to the next city or a ride by any other means, you’re going to have to go to the temp agency to make up the difference. These jobs are collectively boring, offering nothing to the narrative, involve doing menial menu clicking for 5-10 minute intervals, and really take the wind out of this game’s sails. In later moments, I found myself making decisions that would potentially net me the most money, regardless of the outcomes to these characters simply to avoid temp work.
This would be a good opportunity to argue the interactivity of the narrative; my in-game disregard for my friends in pursuit of the almighty dollar could be reflective of some sort of real-life greed and social nihilism. The truth would be that it is just not very interesting to play a game that punishes you for trying to do things the right way despite quick payoffs, especially when the alternative tasks are more boring than that of my actual, real-life job.
The shame, then, is that the motivating factor for getting through the game comes despite of all of the genuinely interesting characters you meet during your trip. Some are old friends, some new enemies, but they all are well-grounded and, for the most part, don’t feel like simple, over-contrived archetypes. The overall story, though, is somewhat a different animal. Many moments of dialogue seem heavy-handed and overly informative or rigid, making many of the game’s more pivotal scenes play out more like mid-tier Young Adult novels. There’s also the question of the overall mission itself: going to see your ex’s wedding. You are catapulted into doing the task before you are really given any good reason to or before you even know anything about your relationship with them. When the majority of the main character’s personality is based around your decisions, it seems rather out of place to take the biggest decision a person could make out of your hands.
Mechanically, the game is somewhat lacking as well. Main city maps were laggy consistently. This may be attributed to the engine used to make the game as RPG Maker, even though it has produced legitimately good games in the past, really lacks as a reliable engine. There are metasystems built into your journey as well. A fate system, for example, that reflects your luck as almost karmic; the worse you treat people around you, the more often you come up short on probability based activities. This is never really explained within the game though, and requires a personal investigation to really figure out. A hunger system also exists, pretty much simply to force you to spend your money on something else that isn’t completely progressive.
This game will be for someone though. There is great care put into this game’s seemingly moral agnosticity. It sits, watches, and waits for you to make what should be a very difficult choice, not really nudging you in any particular direction, and making you live by the consequences. Very few games that offer you moral choices rarely do so without the reward of “good guy/bad guy points,” which become a currency that undermines the ‘choices’ that impact the narrative. This game, for all intents and purposes, had all the makings of a game that bucks this trend. But, the consequences for not wanting to rig elections or be a drug dealer are an effective enough punishment that they staying legit never becomes a realistic choice. In almost every other aspect, Always Sometimes Monsters manages to shoot the feet off of its own great concepts in similar ways. Some will find a way to eek a satisfying dance from this title, but most shouldn’t even try.