An inventive exploration of desperation in video game form.
At some point, we'll all probably hit rock bottom, be it through a break-up, divorce, death, poverty or physical injury. Whether we've hit that point in our life or not, we all sort of know it's coming. Eventually. The threat of tragedy hangs over our lives as a curious thing, a distant idea we toy with when we're feeling particularly masochistic. Always Sometimes Monsters is about those moments and the things people can or will do when backed into a corner and left to wallow in their desperation.
One of my favorite lines from the past decade of film is in Batman Begins. Mobster Carmine Falcone is talking to wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne and Falcone says, "You've never tasted desperate." Wayne, even after seeing his mother and father gunned down, still hasn't seen just how much worse his life could be. He can still lose more. It wasn't until I played Always Sometimes Monsters and found myself selling a dog to an underground dogfighting ring that I realised I'd hit that point for the first time in a game.
In Always Sometimes Monsters, you mostly play as a struggling writer. The game opens with an introduction to a new publisher, eager to toast to your success and take a gamble on your future. A year later and you're six months behind on the book, late for a $500 rent bill, on the verge of eviction and you've lost the love of your life. To those who haven't yet tasted desperate, that's what it feels like. Having been in an almost identical situation myself, I can say that it's not a fun place. Similarly, this game is a struggle. It's stressful. Annoying. Tedious. Frustrating. And completely worth it.
The game itself is almost painfully simple. You only have six distinct inputs and five of those are used for movement. You wander around town looking for odd jobs, mindlessly work an assembly line, or just try to scrounge up enough food to see you to tomorrow. Just about everything that doesn't fit into the broad 'narrative' box is handled with a curt mini-game that helps keep the limited controls from becoming stale.
You have a limited amount of time each day to make as much money and maintain whatever relationships you can manage. The clock is ticking, though. Not paying rent on time means homelessness, and your former lover has invited you to her wedding in 30 days. Whether you squander your time or pour everything into one last-ditch effort to shut the marriage down is your choice to make, but either way you move forward whether you want to or not.
Beyond that foundation, you make countless choices - some that matter and some that don't. If anything, it's these little decisions that constitute the thematic meat. Games can often feed into an inflated sense of self-importance. We save Earth, reunite nations and conquer long-dead civilisations. But that's not real. None of it is. Our real choices in our real lives are much smaller and more personal. Choosing to hold the door open for one person may just enough kindness to save their day. Conversely, a nasty look or a snide comment to the wrong person can send them spiraling into a whirlwind of depression.
In its sentimental presentation, Always Sometimes Monsters runs a lot closer to critically insignificant and yet massively influential choices than it does to the kind of grand world-saving fodder typical of games. One path that I thought insignificant ended with the murder of a child at the hand of his drug-dealing uncle. I had no idea, nor any hint that I'd done anything wrong. In fact, up until that point, I was expecting the kid to mug me.
We all make snap judgments about the people around us, and they do the same. Once again, Always Sometimes Monsters cuts really close to home by encouraging you to judge others and letting them judge you. You can play as almost any race, gender or sexual orientation - all of which you pick via a series of apparently meaningless decisions. I chose to be a soft-spoken, kind-hearted gay black man, and that was significant.
I was called "faggot" a few times, and "deadbeat" some others. Usually, though, the racism and homophobia were so subtle I couldn't be totally sure whether anyone was a threat. As I spent more time in this man's body, I became not only more wary, but more hostile to the people around me. I tilted into paranoia, constantly fearing that the straight white guy across the counter didn't use the word "monkey" coincidentally. Before long I felt openly hostile to just about everyone. If they're going to treat me like this, I thought, then I'll gladly return the favour. Lying and stealing to secure a place for me and mine became the norm, but only because I was out of options and constantly pushed out into the fringes of a broken society.
Always Sometimes Monsters mirrors so much of my own real-world experience that it's hard to get any distance from it. At one point, while freelancing for a news outlet in the game, a PR manager handed me a sack of cash, and I took it. I've never come that close to breaching journalistic ethics in real life, but I've been damned close. Especially when I had just started out and was regularly seeing eviction threats from my landlord.
When backed against a wall and faced with starvation, I've abandoned almost all of my morals. I've said, time and again, that if I saw someone in need, no matter what I was going through, I'd help them. But I know that's a lie, and more than once, when it really counted, I've let someone else down. That experience isn't unique to me though. Eventually everyone will know the taste of desperate.
Always Sometimes Monsters isn't the first game to get clever with morality. It's not the first game that's had a few grey areas. It also isn't about either of those. It's about perspective. It's about empathy. It's about who we are and why we do what we do. That narrative is one of contradiction and hypocrisy, because that's what real people are about.