Always Sometimes Monsters Review

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by fetch quests.

Call it Chekhov's platitude. You see a conspicuous title like "Always Sometimes Monsters," and you can bet that in the third act some character is going to fire off that string of words verbatim as part of some truism on the human condition. We're always sometimes monsters, you see. Or something.

I can hear echoes of Don Cheadle's faux-wistful speech from Crash: "In LA, nobody touches you. ... I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something." In A.O. Scott's Times review of the film, he'd wondered about a possible name for the genre Crash typified: stories "where people from radically different backgrounds are brought together by a grim serendipity that forces them, or at least the audience, to acknowledge their essential connectedness." I find myself wishing Scott had settled on a term for the genre, because Vagabond Dog's Always Sometimes Monsters is it, whatever "it" is.

Almost everyone speaks in this uncanny way.

Always Sometimes Monsters is full of strange people who wax philosophic to those they've just met. People who commit felonies to avoid minor inconveniences, and who constantly vacillate between righteous empathy and callous disregard for their fellow man. One of those people is you, a failed writer and failed lover who has received an unexpected wedding invitation from your ex. The particulars of that relationship are flexible, dictated from player to game by a simple choice of drinks at a party. It's an elegant character select system in disguise, wherein personal qualities like gender, race, and sexual preference are never made to suffer the crass fumbling of sliders and toggles. Always Sometimes Monsters has been lauded for this--and rightly so--but it botches the landing: while the selection of male characters runs the full gamut of body types, the available women range from the impossibly cute to the improbably endowed. The latter cup their breasts between their biceps suggestively, or rest them over a bit of forearm scaffolding.

Ah. So it's a video game we're playing then, lest we'd somehow forgotten--an RPG Maker game, to be specific, boxed into the do-it-yourself engine's low resolution frame and sporting only the most rudimentary audiovisuals. But it's enough to shuffle Always Sometimes Monsters along toward its main thrust--an exploration of choice and consequence. As you set about the task of finding a way to the wedding, the narrative dovetails immediately: You're short on your rent. Do you resort to crime to make up the difference, or sleep on a soiled mattress in the adjoining alley? A few menial job prospects have revealed themselves, but do you keep a promise to do chores for your elderly neighbor instead?

This sort of choice is, for some, the thing role-playing games "do." Linearity, to such a person, is a term of bitter disparagement. But branching narrative isn't always the sexy design it's so frequently made out to be. Before you can approximate your avatar's mindset, before you can make informed, satisfying decisions about relationships and careers, the fiction's table must be set--salad fork on the outside and all. But Always Sometimes Monsters' in medias res story writes a check that the game's amateurish writing can't cash. We're asked to summon up emotional investment for new characters based on a scant few lines of blunt exposition, a la "Sam is my best friend." Then we're asked to sustain that investment as they're dropped from the narrative altogether for most of the proceedings.

The issue is exacerbated by the limitations of the engine powering Always Sometimes Monsters. Without voice, or gesture, or change of expression, characters met can only be evaluated by their portraiture and a bit of anime emotional shorthand--heart icons for love, sweat drops for exasperation. Disappointingly, the personalities found therein rarely deviate much from the often stereotypical appearances.

Take your good friend, Darkeff. You know he's your good friend because your character states that he's your good friend. Darkeff is a musician. He's also a recovering heroin addict. When he stumbles upon a bag of the stuff, I gamely look for options to get it out of his hands, but my curiously incurious character doesn't seem to see much cause for concern. Fast-forward a few days, and guess who's in the hospital, dying for want of healthcare funds. Our good friend Darkeff wears the same sunglasses he always wears even in near-death, and his guitar sits in the corner of his room, perhaps because we might not know who he is otherwise.

You're short on your rent. Do you resort to crime to make up the difference, or sleep on a soiled mattress in the adjoining alley?

Still more issues rise up from the depths to challenge immersion. Always Sometimes Monsters doesn't like to abandon any one narrative thread until it has achieved peak melodrama. So at the behest of another addict, you're inexorably compelled to blackmail the doctor, either by snooping through his files or, as I elected, by smashing up his expensive car. But as luck would have it, another character who'd just earlier promised me a ride out of town was planning, unbeknownst to me, to borrow that very same car. Grim serendipity, indeed.

With choice and consequence thusly meted out, the results of each of Always Sometimes Monsters' vignettes are entered into your character's diary. But considering the inherent absurdity of most of the scenarios and the disconnect between player and character, there's no question about who is authoring those journal entries. When a character recites your ignominious history back to you near the game's end and asks you to reflect on each entry--this actually happens--it reads like a case of mistaken identity.

There are a great many not-so-subtle references to the larger games industry.

Pleasantly, Always Sometimes Monsters doesn't hand down much in the way of judgment. There's no morality stat here, and though most of the cast is given to fortune cookie musings ("Stay true to who you are, whoever you think that is" says one in parting, apropos of nothing), they're mercifully laissez-faire. While this does result in some juvenile apathy, particularly during a mayoral election mid-game, Always Sometimes Monsters' moral reticence is its strongest quality. The subtle but persistent gravitational pull of poverty in the game means a lot of time spent performing excruciating temp work, or hanging out in alleyways and bars, but most of Always Sometimes Monsters' interesting characters occupy those very same haunts.

The camera's viewpoint, an otherwise awkward mash-up of overhead and axonometric shots, reveals all the pixelated squalor, all the detritus and homelessness and violence that so often goes ignored by the upper crust. The RPG feels at home here, among the dregs of society, like it did back in the Midgar slums of Final Fantasy VII. The genre's old mainstays--fetching, bartering, and grinding--are much more suited to a blue collar than they are to plate armor.

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The Good
RPG mechanics suit a blue-collar tale
Progressive, if imperfect treatment of gender, race, and poverty
The Bad
Overwrought dialogue can't convey a meaningful message
Branching narrative tends toward the absurd more often than not
5
Mediocre
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

Nick Capozzoli grinded through Always Sometimes Monsters' story over the course of a dozen hours, mostly carrying crates from one side of a factory to another. Watch out for that crate part.
67 comments
dto1984
dto1984

There is actually a name for movies like Crash, Magnolia, Babel, Grand Canyon, Short Cuts, Traffic and Syriana. It's "hyperlink cinema." The term was coined by Allisa Quart, but made popular by the late great Roger Ebert.

prime_l
prime_l

I've noticed Kev is listening. Don't worry Kevin, your opinions still hold a lot of weight with me.

prime_l
prime_l

Best review I've read for a while Nick. Kudos for not bashing it on being an RPG Maker game.

The idea of the game has me curious though. I might give it a try.

prime_l
prime_l

EDIT: OK, just re-read a bit when I saw people commenting on how the engine restricted character portrayal. Apparently I some how skipped an entire sentence 'The issue is exacerbated by the limitations of the engine powering Always Sometimes Monsters.' That makes me a sad panda. 

I have to disagree.... It's like saying that all old school RPG's couldn't make you feel connected to a character with out fancy cut scenes and animations of giant swords going through a flower girls chest and that is simply not true. Good visual novels can get this down and usually you just get two portraits talking to each other.


Unless I'm misunderstanding, and Nick wasn't blaming the engine for a lack of decent character portrayal?

nick_capozzoli
nick_capozzoli staff

@prime_l Yes and no, yes and no.


The crux of my complaint is actually with the writing. I think that more visual options give you more weapons to play with, so to speak, when fleshing out a character. Without them, you're really reliant on the strength of the writing to carry the burden, and ASM's dialogue left me wanting.


Without writing to lean on, you're stuck evaluating the characters by their portraiture and the other little emotional cues you're given, and it's only then that they really begin to feel insufficient.


Hope that helps clarify. Maybe it's also worth noting that the last paragraph is a bit of praise for the way the engine's used to render urban environments, with all the poverty and character tucked away behind alleys and side streets revealed by the top-down camera.


Cheers,


-Nick

hikaruai
hikaruai

eh to each their own...personally this was the best game I've played all year so far

DefconRave
DefconRave

Can this guy replace Tom Mc Shea to write features/editorials, GS is a meritocracy right? ;)

blister81
blister81

It's refreshing to read a literate critique such as this, on any media site. Keep up the good work, Nick!

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

@nick_capozzoli @blister81  Nick, stop having your friends and family come on here to applaud your review.  You mother is going to praise your work no matter what :)

Fedakyn3
Fedakyn3

Entertaining and well written, this is not a game for me but I am pleasantly surprised that I've enjoyed your insights on the game despite all that.  Cheers. 

leikeylosh
leikeylosh

First two paragraphs = Awesome


Nick Capozzoli, best reviewer on Gamespot today!

amafi
amafi

Oh man, macroshaft. That's quality stuff. Whoever wrote that should be like a professional joke writing person or something. My sides are aching.

Hurvl
Hurvl

Always Sometimes Awful.

observer98
observer98

Can someone please enlighten me about what is this game actually involves? I couldn't tell from reading this review.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

Hmm, I wonder if this game will ever come to Xbox?  Oh, probably not, since in one of the screen shots they refer to Microsoft as "Macroshaft."  What are game developers thinking when they just openly rag on companies in the industry?  Burning bridges left and right.

Earthbound_X
Earthbound_X

@spacecadet25 @Earthbound_X I don't see how, they are been games on consoles that have made fun of gaming as a whole.

They've made fun of both MS and Sony. So that wouldn't be the reason this game wouldn't come to consoles. So the next thing, would be asking, if any RPGmaker games, which this is, have ever made it to consoles.

hitomo
hitomo

'is it fun and can I plow s(tuff)hit up?'


I think thats the cretieraia if a game gets a score of 6 or 9 on gamespot ... glad you brought this up and created a sentence, so much the essence of your sites philosophie, its mindbending ...


I dont know why I found this in the comments to a game I totally dont get the point of wich

SambaLele
SambaLele

Moral reticence a strong quality?


Come live a couple years in Brazil (go further than a tourist's impression) and see what a completely laissez-faire society leads to...


Of course not being judgemental about gender, race, etc. is a good thing (a necessary thing), but saying moral reticence is good is another thing altogether... a pejorative take on morals, like if moral's purpose is antagonizing diversity in any way... while it's actually the contrary.


So in the end... that was a platitude indeed.

nick_capozzoli
nick_capozzoli staff

@SambaLele Well, I'd aimed for "moral reticence" there to only apply to the local context, not to say that moral reticence is uniformly good. It's meant to convey that ASM is "reticent" compared to games that parse players into good/bad binaries, that give you "hero" or "criminal" points, that dole out "good" or "bad" endings accordingly.


Basically, it's easy to end up destitute in ASM, but the game is refreshing in the way that this circumstance isn't painted as you having "failed."


Hope that helps to clarify! That passage probably could have been worded clearer.


-Nick

i_noseworthy
i_noseworthy

Overwrought dialogue can't convey a meaningful message...

Kind of like this review.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

@i_noseworthy  I was like this too for about a year or two after coming out of college.  I liked to write fancy, the way I read in literature I liked.  However later I came to understand that in the business world good writing involves clear, succinct communication tailored to the audience.

prime_l
prime_l

@i_noseworthy


Each to their own. Personally I liked the fact the review wasn't dumbed down and explored, in detail, what the game was trying to convey instead of just 'It looks like a snes game and fails to deliver that emotional punch'.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

@prime_l @i_noseworthy  Except for the fact that I couldn't actually tell what you do in the game, and what the object of the game is.  And it's a game with a lot of choices, do the consequences of those choices follow you and affect the game, or just the diary entry at the end?

phbz
phbz

Bad luck for the developers of this game to have their game reviewed by someone like this. I don't like writing about reviews, but this one is completely unfair to the game. 

Luckydan79
Luckydan79

@phbz A completely fair review, they are charging for a game that uses a third party software and deliver a half assed game missing out a few components. With some brainstorming they could of fixed this but decided to take an easy way out and I would absolutely believe the reviewer when the outcomes and characters are too one-dimensional when they only appear in one second. Can't agree the reviewer pulled bad eggs on this one, it also used RPG Maker and since it hasn't got the atmosphere with Yume Nikki for free (AND YOU CONVENIENTLY FORGOT) which it should be scaled at, the game deserves what it gets.

phbz
phbz

@Luckydan79 I've played the game, I think in't not a fair review. But of course that's the opinion of the reviewer, i just can't agree with it. 



Note: Not saying its a goty. But it isn't a mediocre game either. 

plasticreality
plasticreality

I'm glad the author recognizes Crash as pretentious nonsense - it gives the review more credibility.  I personally long for games that say meaningful things about the human condition (including race, class, and gender, etc.), but very few really pull it off from either a political or an artistic perspective.  Because so few developers dare try something innovative or progressive, critics are too quick to give praise simply for making the effort.  


For example, Gone Home was given far too much praise for writing that is really on par with teen fiction (e.g. Twilight, Hunger Games).  It's laudable the developers wrote a story around a teen lesbian's first romance, and I appreciate an interesting exploration game in a time where too many games involve shooting people, but we should hold the writing in video games to the same standards as literature or film.  

Ailurusf
Ailurusf

@plasticreality It seems you did not pay as much attention while playing Gone Home as is needed to unravel the whole story. Sure, there is a teen love story at the center of it all, but Gone Home is also the story of a broken family, and it deals with some pretty dark subjects. Revisit the game, you might find a few more answers to questions you had not yet asked.

Also, keep in mind that Gone Home was not praised only for its story, but for how it chose to tell such story. Gone Home was groundbreaking. The 'environmental' narrative so well used in that game is a truly new form of narrative, one that was not possible before videogames. Seriously, this is pretty exciting stuff. Not everyday you get to see the birth of a new form of art.

Luckydan79
Luckydan79

@Ailurusf Gone home would of been acceptable if it was rated on the same circumstances, A game that can be completed in a minute does not deserves 10/10.

Ailurusf
Ailurusf

@Luckydan79 @Ailurusf If you completed Gone Home in a minute then you missed the point. Gone Home is not about 'completing' but about learning and slowly piecing a story from the clues you find. 

And I very much agree with the 9/10 score the game got. It was a superb piece.

CoolCamel616
CoolCamel616

@freedomzealot What does any of this have to do with politics? Is someone at gamespot running for office, or did you just string together buzzwords you heard someone else say in order to make whatever half baked point you are trying to make seem credible?

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@freedomzealot 

We will see whether you can keep up your boycott.

I doubt that you can - you have a tendency to have your two cents appear, whether anyone would agree with you or not.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@freedomzealot

Oh, there you are - contributing to the view counter of this article again. For a person who have said that you want to boycott reviews from the author of this article, you are doing a terrible work at that.

dietc
dietc

@freedomzealot if you can't deal with gamespot confronting you with problems and issues you are afraid of thinking and talking about, then maybe you should gtfo already, "freedomzealot", because they do it all the time.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

You can use a woman as a playable character, thank God, the gods of political correctness will be pleased...oh wait, you can't be an unattractive woman?  Yeah!  Gamespot has something to complain about, yet again!

jhawk
jhawk

@Kevin-V @spacecadet25 Thank you Kevin. That response was much-needed. BTW, spacecadet25, maybe you should try to make an attempt in the future to see things from a, you know, more mature perspective and also try to show a bit more humanity. It wouldn't kill ya. Just sayin...

Luckydan79
Luckydan79

@Kevin-V @spacecadet25 Since you guys are so in-depth in analysis you should of stated that the limitations was because they used 3rd party software RPG maker to make the game instead of using their own engine which you could of easily input in the review. So much for your in-depth analysis of the game. Very lazy, I could spot that in 5 minutes and you guys spent 12 hours and couldn't figure it out...

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@spacecadet25 

Why not? This is a game which is trying to be nitty-gritty and adult with its themes yet it still has limitations caused by residual juvenile tendencies in its artists.

JoMr3
JoMr3

@Luckydan79 Please explain how using RPG Maker limits the game to representing female characters as stereotypes...

toast_burner
toast_burner

@Luckydan79 Why is using RPG Maker relevant? His complaint was that the engine doesn't allow expression which for a game that is about the emotions of the characters is a rather important thing to have. 

SambaLele
SambaLele

@Kevin-V @spacecadet25 Kevin I admire your work, but a game reviewer is one thing... a game critic is (or at least should be) entirely another.

SambaLele
SambaLele

@nick_capozzoli @SambaLele @Kevin-V @spacecadet25 lol


The GS staff showed before that you want to dive deeper into aspects of gaming other than the joy (the "overall"experience) the game provides - which has been the norm for years already.


It's a somewhat recent "work ethos" here, to contribute to the gaming community with your work, providing more complex views on games.


I'm all for it. God knows Xenogears needed that when it came out, to make justice for the game.


But the way I see it, there's still some balancing to do...


A review is different from a critical analysis... at least that's how I see it.


Maybe some games deserve special articles on social, psychological, cultural or political contexts that may go unnoticed to many. But are reviews the best way to address what are meant to be complex matters discussed by that medium?

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

@Kevin-V @spacecadet25  Kevin, the comment like the one above exists because Gamespot has been going over the top lately with it's agenda of seeing sexism in everything, and the readers are lashing back.  We had to endure a week of developers getting accused of having something against females, made on baseless grounds, and during E3 week, so you'd better bet you're going to hear some backlash.  Or what, all those stories upon stories trying to paint various companies as sexist is just people doing reviews of games?  Ha!  And then you report on disgruntled former employees speaking out against their former employers, such as a developer claiming how easy animation is, etc., and using that as proof that you guys are "right?"

Do you really, honestly, think that the female hostage in Rainbow Six Siege was sexist (you, Kevin, not gamespot's management)?  And what would have been the acceptable alternative (hostages can only be guys?), you guys criticize that but you give no real alternatives that would have been PC.  And you guys are speaking well beyond your competencies on social issues, you try to talk about "trends" and socio-psychological issues, but give nothing but anecdotal examples, not real trends, not real analysis.  Unless you are reporting on actual studies or doing actual quantitative studies don't call things "trends."

You guys dish out criticism, please take some criticism as well.

nick_capozzoli
nick_capozzoli staff

@SambaLele Well, this is my little pet rant, so brace yourself:


I'd like to think we can all agree that games are an art, so let's take that as pretext. If games are art, then an evaluation of their merit should address any of the many ways that art can be effective, and that means all those quirky little social, psychological, and political things, too.


People talk a lot about reviews being purchase advice, as though that somehow precludes them from discussing these matters. But why shouldn't such things factor into purchase advice, too? When I mention them in a review, the tacit implication is that I think the game has value, or doesn't have value, because of them. I'm saying whether I think it's an experience that's worth having or not, and part of that worth might be in the social or political message.


The industry is awash in reviews that go over exhaustive lists of a game's mechanics, that dilute themselves by trying to make mention of every little facet, even when there's nothing interesting to say about them. Better to spend the space in a review discussing what's interesting about a title, I think. 


That makes for reviews that are worth reading, to me. To do otherwise would be to spend thousands of words telling the reader something that could be gleaned from a casual glance at a wikipedia page. Reviews can, and should, be more rigorous than that.


-Nick

nick_capozzoli
nick_capozzoli staff

@SambaLele One last point I'd meant to include: 


What are we saying about the way we perceive race or gender issues, if we don't deem them as germane to a review as say, a game's frame rate?

ggregd
ggregd

@spacecadet25 @Kevin-V I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be complaining if your worldview and the one you've decided is GameSpot's were more in-line.

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

@Gelugon_baat @ggregd @spacecadet25  No, I actually think logically, and use evidence and facts to derive my opinions.

Notice you guys think I'm so wrong and such a bad person and Gamespot must be so right, but no one can answer basic questions I pose, such as how is Rainbow Six Siege sexist for having a female hostage, which conducted herself rather stoically considering the impossible situation she was in, and how women were prominent on the SWAT team that was saving her?  It is a fact Gamespot thought it was highly sexist, but logic does not follow their conclusions, and they never try to defend it.

That's common though.  Usually when people debate gender issues on this site they bring their dogma, and if anyone thinks their reasoning for claiming gender bias might be off base, then that person is stupid and a bad person.

It's actually a lot like McCarthyism (yes, there are liberals on this site using the same tactics).  The accuser says, "I think so and so is a communist based on some really loose reasoning of mine."  And someone else says, "I don't agree, you don't have the evidence to fairly make that claim against that person."  Then the accuser says, "Well, if you disagree with me then you must be a communist too."   The way people argue gender issues on this site is exactly like that, those that like to throw accusations left and right also don't like to have actual debates where facts are discussed and weighed.

I'm a liberal, I think women deserve equal rights, everyone should be treated fairly, and everyone should see some representation.  Given that, if I still disagree with you even though we have similar beliefs, maybe it's you that has a really dumb or baseless opinion, consider that for a moment.

AK_the_Twilight
AK_the_Twilight

@nick_capozzoli @SambaLele There is a difference between a review and a critique. What Nick did was critique it. He didn't mention anything about price or value, judging the game for how good it was. He did not address it as a product.

There's nothing wrong with critiquing a game instead of reviewing it. However, the consistency is important. When one person reviews a game and another critiques it, that's where the problems arise. Jumping back and forth between the two, while a valid way to offer multiple opinions, tends to show the sites' cultural focus in a bad light.

It really depends on who does it and in what fashion.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@spacecadet25 That's not what it says. And I suspect if you don't want games to be analyzed for their content, including their thematic content and character portrayal, you are going to have a tough time ahead of you when reading reviews of, well, anything. I can't even imagine how you would handle literature analyses, or cultural critiques of music or the visual arts. Suddenly, games have become the subject of actual dissection, and God forbid such aspects be analyzed, because POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND THIS IS JUST A GAME AND HEAD ASPLODE WITH THE CRAZINESS OF A GAME CRITIC CRITIQUING A GAME. 


Games are changing, as is the criticism around them. In fact, it's only of late that we are anywhere near the maturity of film analysis--and we have a long way to go. One of the biggest things holding critics back, actually, is the vocal young male audience, which reacts with great immaturity the moment a critic tries to dig any deeper than "is it fun and can I blow shit up?"


Now that criticism is maturing, though in fits and starts, part of me hopes the audience will mature with it. I am not confident that my hopes can come true, however, for mostly obvious reasons--one of which is that a comment like the one above can even exist. 

hikaruai
hikaruai

@Kevin-V @spacecadet25 ehh although your comment has truth, it seems more like something you had pent up and wanted to say as it doesn't really respond to what spacecadet was saying at all...maybe you should fully flesh out your thoughts about this subject and do an editorial feature, that could be a good read, but throwing all this out as a response to the above poster is kind of bs

spacecadet25
spacecadet25

@hikaruai @Kevin-V @spacecadet25  Yeah, I'm glad someone else noticed that.  Kevin can have all his friends and Gamespot colleagues "Like" his comment all he wants, but it was still an abusive and completely out of place comment. 

Always Sometimes Monsters More Info

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  • First Released
    released
    • Macintosh
    • PC
    • Unix/Linux
    Always Sometimes Monsters is the story of life, love, and the things we will go through to find happiness in both.
    6.8
    Average Rating6 Rating(s)
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    Developed by:
    Vagabond Dog
    Published by:
    Devolver Digital
    Genre(s):
    Adventure