Always Sometimes Monsters deals in chaos and quantum theories – in every second of our lives, we make choices that forever impact our timelines going forward, dictating whether we keep or lose friends, maintain a job or succeed in our goals. We are the masters of our destinies, Always Sometimes Monsters says – but we can't control other people's lives. That's where it gets tricky. RPG Maker, lending it a simplistic aesthetic that belies a deeper story. The crux of the game lies in choice, and it begins with a clear example: You choose a playable character from a room full of women and men of various ethnicities (and alcohol preferences), and then you affirm your sexuality by picking your ideal partner from the remainder of the party. It's a limited freedom, but the selection pool is reasonably vast.
Regardless of the chosen avatar, you play a failed writer pining after a lost love – that ideal person you chose just moments before. The actual gameplay jumps ahead in time, after that partner dumped you a year before, and your life is a mess. You can't pay rent, your book deal fell through and you don't have a job.
To fix (some of) these things, you pick up odd jobs and help out friends for cash, basically simulating real-life chores. Eating, working, chatting, sleeping. And then, you have a chance to maybe, possibly regain your former love by traveling to San Verdano, a town miles and miles away. You stop through four cities on the way to Love Town, picking up allies, enemies and work en route. Sometimes when sleeping, you dream of your former lover, recreating memories you shared together and building a rich history for your character.
This is where the magic of Always Sometimes Monsters comes in – the game itself is tedious, packed with tasks made to simulate boring but necessary things in real life, but the relationships make everything interesting. The game forces you to choose the lover you truly want and has you form a bond with that person, and then it immediately snatches your story away. That burning loss drives the narrative forward, and it pushes you to pick up just one more crappy job so you can get on a bus to San Verdano as quickly as possible. The friends you meet along the way are fully-fleshed people, each with their own problems and philosophies, and how you interact with them determines how much help they'll be in your journey.
It's poignant, sad and real. Always Sometimes Monsters isn't afraid to be funny, either, throwing in fart humor and in-jokes from other independent games at scattered intervals. The writing hits high and low emotional notes on a rollercoaster scale, humor following philosophy following social commentary.
It's clear the game doesn't suffer from copy-paste, cookie-cutter dialogue syndrome. Should you play as a lesbian character, for example, the writing approaches casual misogyny and homophobia in realistic ways, with male characters commenting on her butt and making unwanted advances, and other characters throwing around the word "dyke." These touches of reality don't feel forced for controversy's sake. They're there because they're real, and they feel natural (unfortunately).
Again, they don't get too boring, but there are dull moments. Wandering around a new city can be fun, but wandering around the same two blocks you've lived in for the past few days gets old quickly. Mimicking reality by asking players to move boxes from one side of the room to the other is a great social commentary, but not the most riveting gameplay.
Without the well-established relationships in Always Sometimes Monsters, the game would be a disaster. It would be an exercise in tedium and starving artists – but the writing makes it all worthwhile. Yes, even the act of making tofu burgers.
In the end, love – even just the chance of it – is worth it.
This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Always Sometimes Monsters, provided by Devolver Digital. Images: Devolver Digital.
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