My first day at PAX Prime 2013 was off to strange start. It opened with a rousing game of find-the-media-registration, which for some reason was tucked away in an underground tunnel off to the side of the entire show’s acreage and landed me a solid 15 minutes behind schedule. My breakfast had consisted of orange juice and a granola bar, less substantial than I usually had to fuel a day where I would later subsist on trail mix and thoughts of pancakes. And now, I was manically walking and surveying the Indie Megabooth looking for a game called Always Sometimes Monsters.
The trailer, if you’ve seen it, is rather misleading. It does accurately reflect the themes that this game is addled with insomuch that it talks about choices and consequences, but it does so in such a heavy-handed manner than doubt began to creep into my mind. Its writing comes across as trite and makes a point of circling the same thesis several times without coming to a satisfying conclusion. But as I walked up to creative director Justin Amirkhani, another press fellow was just wrapping up his demo. His facial expression told me what I needed to hear: there’s something to this game.
Always Sometimes Monsters is the first game from first-timers Vagabond Dog, a small eight-person team from Toronto. It’s a story-heavy, mechanically light RPG-ish game that, as far as I can tell, is all about twists that arise from even the most casual of decisions. (That was another reason that morning was strange; it’s not often you find time to sit and play a reflective indie RPG in the middle of a crowded conventional hall.)
There are no monsters, there are no aliens, and there are no world-ending apocalypses rearing their ugly heads. This is a game all about the decisions you make in your daily life which reach so far out of your view that you can’t possibly understand their impact. In fact, I would argue that this is a game you probably shouldn’t read anything else about until you play it yourself, but then I guess you also wouldn’t know if you would want to play it, so here we go.
The demo opens with a man and a woman in a dark alley. They quibble about a job of some sort, eventually revealing that you are meant to kill someone and she doesn’t want you to do it. As you, the ostensible assassin, push forward through her objections, a “vagabond” comes forward. His hood is up, giving up nary a detail of his identity, and casting a shadow over the gun he just pulled out. You pull out your weapon as well, and a standoff ensues. He offers up a deal: listen to the story he’s about to tell, or pull the trigger and he shoots the woman.
At this point, the first branching decision set comes up. You can either A) pull the trigger, B) run away, or C) listen. I choose to listen, and immediately begin to wonder what might have happened if I’d simply shot the man. Regret sets in, and that line between gaming and real life begins to blur, my personal litany of regrets growing by one and by many more throughout the demo. We fade out into a party scene.
Now you are in control of a man with poofed up hair and a blue jacket. I go around talking to a few people, understanding now that this is my party in my apartment. One woman I come up to says we should toast, but in his head he’s thinking that maybe he shouldn’t since his wife said one drink was enough for tonight. A second choice (and another what-if) comes up, and I decide to say to hell with it and agree to the toast. The woman says great, that she’ll go get both her spouse and the toasting beverage from the patio, and now I’m in control of the woman.
I walk her around and chat up a few people, nothing amounting to much more than party chitchat. I step outside and survey the scene. There’s a man with sunglasses in the far corner standing next to a boombox with a large clump of people between us. To the right are a few people milling about and interspersed are many more just standing and talking. All in all, it looks like a regular ol’ non-college-blackout-drunk party, but a question briefly paralyzes me: how am I supposed to know who my significant other is?
To a certain degree, I assume I’m looking for a man (a heteronormative assumption, I know, and I’m sorry and I still feel bad about it), but for some reason or another, I decide to walk up to a woman in the middle of the patio first. And she greets me as her wife. My mind is quickly atwitter. My relatively short list of “hmm, I wonder” internal debates just exploded into a fireworks display of possibilities. After signing the gift for the indigo fellow (and subtly inserting the gaming option to name the two characters as Erin and Paige), I realized, still in a daze, that I had just seemingly picked of my own free will my own character and my character’s spouse.
This is interesting for several reasons. First and foremost, it treats a person’s sexuality as pure fact. There was no pomp and circumstance surrounding the fact that my female character was married to another female character, just as it should be. They are people all the same, albeit digital, and they should be treated as such. I loved—loved—this moment.
Second, it sets the tone for the rest of the demo. These are decisions made so casually that heavily impact the rest of your experience, a mirror to how real life works. If you’ve ever wondered what would have happened if you’d said yes just that one time or if you’d skipped school that one day but your dismissive “no” or “I probably shouldn’t” could have been the pivotal moment that landed you exactly where you are now, then you know exactly the territory this game trades in.
After a short conversation with the host and your wife, I find that he’s a publisher and I’m a writer and now he’s going to get me set up with a publishing deal. Huzzah! Unfortunately, the scene fades out and fades back into a small one-room, somewhat trashed apartment. Erin is waking up alone with nothing more in her possession than some microwavable pizza pouches (which I get to actually microwave) and several notes slipped under her door. My rent is overdue and a friend has a job waiting for me. My wife, clearly, has left me.
I step out of my apartment and bump into my neighbor, an elderly woman. She asks me if I could help her clean her place in anticipation of having some people over later, but I decide it’s more important to go fulfill a duty already promised (plus the other obligation was a paying one). I promise to come back and help and go downstairs. I try to sneak past my landlord’s door, but he comes out and demands the five hundred dollars I now owe him. As he takes away my key and I make more promises regarding a late publisher’s check, I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed to help clean that woman’s apartment.
The demo goes on from there, and it’s a lengthy one, so I won’t keep detailing the intricacies of my poor decisions and ensuing regrets, but this is definitely an interesting game. Remember that guy I said was standing by the boombox at the party? He later shows up as a bouncer trying to keep me out of a club. What would have happened if I’d talked to him first instead of my wife? What if I’d pulled the trigger instead of chosen to listen to the vagabond’s story? What if, what if, what if…
Most interesting, perhaps, is that every choice offered to you seemed genuine. Each one was unique for each branching moment you encountered, but they were only just so in their skewed perspectives. Amirkhani calls it an “ethical compass,” which feels exceedingly accurate. Instead of going on either end of a binary choice, the needle points just a little bit more one direction than another. Perhaps both of your options are lies, but they both feel right though you know each one can only lead you down one path.
Sitting in the middle of 70,000 people, leaning into a laptop as I read and hang on every worth coming out of these pixelated people’s heads, I realize that this is a bit odd. The entirety of the Ubisoft booth seems dedicated to stabbing pirates while the sounds of Titanfall dribble in from every corner of the Washington State Convention Center, and I just sat there, wondering why Paige left me, regretting ever agreeing to that damned toast.
Look for Always Sometimes Monsters in 2014 for PC.