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.

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.

Discussion

71 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.

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!

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.

RogerioFM
RogerioFM

I think this is the problem with this kind of game, they try to show the 'real' World and how people can be brought to the brink of madness but despite their efforts it's never natural, they use elusive dialogues with heavy handed philosophy to force a point of view like it's the truth. People don't talk like people in this game do, they're crass, arrogant, foul and cynic, for instance, most people in the first picture would say something like 'No matter how prepared, sh** still happens' and not that.


It's like you're forced to do one desperate action after another to make a living, look, I understand people who can relate to the main character's plight, I mean, I came from a very poor background and I've seem a lot of crap, but not all my decisions were life threatening or of dubious morality, yes eventually you do something stupid but not matter how low how desperate you get it really depends of where you want to reach. Me and my family never had to harm or do complex moral choices, for instance my father's choices in the past were something like, should I take that second job or stay with my family? He chose the first, we saw less of him bu we endured, others were like, should I buy a birthday present to my son or pay the bills? He chose the latter and I was ok with it we never doubted his love.


Sometimes it seems that people who makes these kind of games or even those who play it ,do it to have a fictionalized vision of what poverty and hardship really is, maybe some want to know the experience without having to really suffer it, but reality is a bit harsher and most of the time more boring than fiction and people endure it, some live good lives some do not, but you must be pushed much harder than what you were on this game to really need to consider a darker path. 


I think the closest theme was how love was handled, people in love or heart broken live in a poetry where everything that happens is more profound than it really is, when emotions talk logic get's silent, I guess that's why love is so easy to write when you're in love you don't really think, you just feel, it's a pity it's such a small part on this game, instead we're stuck with countless wannabe philosophers.

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.

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.

i_noseworthy
i_noseworthy

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

Kind of like this review.

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. 

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.  

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?

hitomo
hitomo

@RogerioFM  yep, if you have sympathy for the theme of this little game, be sure to play max.payne.3 and the Kayne and Lynch games ... this ground is already covered, in flawless triple A

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

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

@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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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 :)

phbz
phbz

@hitomo @RogerioFM  The way as you shot your way on a favela on Max Payne 3 preaty much covers the whole poverty subject on video games. lol

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

@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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Always Sometimes Monsters More Info

  • First Released
    • PC
    Always Sometimes Monsters is the story of life, love, and the things we will go through to find happiness in both.
    6.5
    Average User RatingOut of 4 User Ratings
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    Developed by:
    Vagabond Dog
    Published by:
    Devolver Digital
    Genres:
    Adventure