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Always Sometimes Monsters review: Being human


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There aren't any monsters in Always Sometimes Monsters. No giant, scaly creatures with sharp claws and beady red eyes; no tentacled squid beasts; no fuzzy, purple and green dinosaurs. The game instead tackles figurative monsters in questions of morality, offering the player mundane choices in everyday situations: Do we buy a donut or save the money? Do we yell at this person or keep a cool head? Do we work hard at a tedious job or slack off? Is love worth it?

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.

Gallery: Always Sometimes Monsters (6/3/14) | 5 Photos

Always Sometimes Monsters is a top-down game built in 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.

Dialogue drives the gameplay, and the writing is strong enough to support this mechanic. Always Sometimes Monsters is about subtleties and emotional decisions, and the dialogue allows for a range of natural conversations and consequences. One character – Larry, the guy who was supposed to help you publish your book – wakes you up from his couch at the crack of dawn so you two can watch the sunrise together. He says he watches the sun rise every day, and he wants someone to share it with. You point out that he has a wife. Larry suggests that his marriage is failing along with his finances. "Everything burns down eventually," he says as the sun's rays light up the horizon.

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).

Always Sometimes Monsters also throws you into multiple jobs with varied ethical quandaries, asking you to be a journalist for a day, to work in a factory packing meat or tofu, and to rig an election, to name a few. Generally, the jobs are monotonous for the sake of monotony, to drive home the point that money doesn't come without work – but they don't get too boring as game mechanics. The larger goal of reaching your love by the end of the month drives your actions and provides constant motivation.

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.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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