Always Sometimes Monsters doesn't play, look, or read as particularly human. Vagabond Dog's story about traveling across the United States to win back your first love, built in GameMaker, is a heady brew of visual novels like Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward and SNES-era Squaresoft role-playing games. Squat, big-eyed cartoon characters wander about squat cartoon college dorms and warehouses having lengthy conversations in a lackadaisical but outsized tone, like a less scatological Kevin Smith movie. Vagabond's new PAX East 2014 demo impresses because of how a deeply human game peeks through these layers of artifice.
"You can play as any race, gender, sexual orientation," Justin Amirkhani, creative director and writer on Monsters, explained. "People treat you differently based on who you are, what you look like, and whether they have personal prejudices or not."
The demo demonstrates this philosophy well, but takes time to warm up. In a clever fourth wall-breaking sequence, Amirkhani and his partner Jake Reardon actually appear in the game, explaining why the player I'd get to control would be randomly selected. As a failsafe making sure my decisions reflected my own personality and prejudices, it worked nicely. The lovesick character picked for me came close to the mark: a white, heterosexual male writer. His great love? A Hispanic woman named Gina.
From there, Monsters set me up to meet cute Gina in college. Monsters doesn't seem especially promising at this point. Your roommate wants you to ask his crush - Gina, naturally - if she's interested in him, but the dialogue falls into an unnaturally clever rhythm. It's cute when an offer of nachos in exchange for playing wingman includes lines about "horrible jalapeno death," but it's got an air of '90s sitcom about it. The choices you make here also feel shallow. Gina actually asks you on a date when you find her, forcing you to decide between loyalty to your roommate or new romance, even when you know you'll inevitably end up with her. By the time the game flashes forward after both your relationship with Gina and your writing career have crumbled, Monsters has lulled you into a stupor, waiting for action and more surprising decisions.
More subtle and provocative is the demo's second half, and it's subtleties are surprising. Desperate for cash after your book failed, you're struggling to find work. Larry, your former publisher, has gotten you a day job working at a shipping center packing trucks. The foreman, a seemingly racist union man obsessed with labor disputes, is your boss. Monsters places your character in an emotionally fraught work situation, jumping from artist to laborer at the same business. Adding insult to injury, you're hauling around boxes of your own bomb of a book that are being sent to be pulped and recycled. A harsh situation if there ever was one. Further complicating matters is the implied serious racial tension between your black and white bosses. The foreman calls Larry a "faggot" and then refers to him later as "your dark friend." He doesn't come across as wholly evil, though, something Vagabond Dog worked hard to ensure.
"As horrible as it is to say, a bigot has other sides to them," said Amirkhani, discussing how to balance his characters for the widest variety of scenarios. "Nobody is one thing only. You have an experience, you meet a character, and I do the same, but we have remarkably different takes on this character because they're kind to you and they're horrible to me."
Choices are more abundant than you'd expect. Lug one box after another from a conveyor built to a nearby truck if you want, possibly earning the respect of the foreman. Find the foreman's old lotto tickets in the corner, and you can use the numbers to break into his locker then quit early, walking away with the money your publisher paid up front. I chose to just do the job, because I honestly didn't want to be a jerk.
"The game throws questions at you that seem important and aren't, then questions that don't seem important but are. It's confusing and you're never sure what is or isn't significant," said Amirkhani. "I've noticed two reactions from people: intense paranoia or natural honesty with how you handle the character. There's no paragon/renegade divide. You have to be honest with yourself and you end up with a story catered to who you are." Monsters' slow burn got me to react honestly to its situations in spite of initial doubts.
The demo ends with anti-union workers literally pooping on the foreman's car from the shipping center's roof. Options: use a nearby hose to spray off the car like a decent Samaritan or spray down the foreman. Amirkhani told me, though, that had I played differently, I could have been the one up on the roof. Had I been black myself, the foreman wouldn't have been a racist at all. Just this one little moment of the game would have been totally different. " I try to rid myself of personal bias. What else would I do, could I do? What would somebody else do? I write those options into the game," said Amirkhani. If nothing else, I wanted to know what my next choice could be.