Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Review of 'Always Sometimes Monsters'

By Owen Jones (That bloke under your bed)

Morality’s a tricky one, because there’s always more to it than you think at first. So many factors affect how we make decisions so that judging someone for their actions is impossible. Always Sometimes Monsters is a game that attempts to portray this, yet like morality it’s tricky to judge Always Sometimes Monsters. Yet judge it I shall, or at least attempt to, after this trailer of course:

I’m in two minds about Always Sometimes Monsters and its various elements. Take for instance the character creation (or rather choosing) where you decide who you want to play as from a room filled with people. Yet it doesn’t tell you that you’re choosing which character to play as, instead telling you you’re deciding who to drink with. On the one hand this seems like a nice way of choosing your gender, race and even sexuality, but it doesn’t tell you this clearly. Sure, you can go back and chose again, but that kind of defies the point of the section.

And it does something similar with the decision making. Instead of declaring that you’re making a decision it tries to hide them, and whilst this is admirable it meant that I ended up following a path that I didn’t particularly want to. Starting a conversation would often mean I would be taken to a new location and path, and although I could leave it either didn’t tell me I could do so or offered the choice at a time that felt wrong. I really wished I could have protested more or been given a dialogue option that simply said ‘No’. It’s incredibly infuriating when the game makes a big deal out of something that could be explained or avoided by a simple sentence, yet that sentence wasn’t available. Sure, this is a problem in all games, but Always Sometimes Monsters made me painfully aware of that fact.

The distinction between what I wanted my character to do and what they actually did was a problem for me as they made some bold statements or decisions that I didn't feel that I had been given any choice in. Perhaps this is why I failed to sympathise with my character, in fact I struggled to become emotionally invested in the story other than through frustration. Looking back I just felt a sort of blank as the events took place, which is really detrimental to what the game was trying to achieve.
I’m also not entirely certain what to make of the working mechanic in the game. Always Sometimes Monsters uses mini games to simulate things like work, hacking and boxing (yes there’s boxing and it’s so dull I was very tempted to take the clearly labelled ‘bad’ decision instead of it). The mini games are incredibly dull, and whilst this serves the purpose of expressing how mundane manual labour is it’s still incredibly dull and often purposeless.

And this means money is in abundance as long as you’re prepared to suffer the mini games, which kind of ruins the simulation of desperation it’s also trying to create. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of these sections are plot centric or in order for the day to progress you might have to take part in these mini games.

The game also appears to be in two minds about itself. Sometimes it tries to create a feeling of desperation and hopelessness, while also attempting humour. It often is funny, but some attempts felt weak and I felt occasionally sacrificed what the game was trying to achieve. These conflicting atmospheres weren’t complimentary and I found stopped me from engaging or becoming immersed in the game.

It’s a shame because the writing is mostly pretty okay; it’s just that it could be uninteresting or uninspired. The characters were never realistic enough for me to care a great deal, and what they had to say often bored me.

The third section of the game was just tedious and I was struggling to carry on. It was worth it though, because the ending freed itself from the repetitive structure the rest of the game was built around, but even here melodrama undermined the more sincere parts of the story. It’s when the game concentrated on the plot focused parts it was far better than in the mechanical parts, and I could really feel that whilst playing the game. Dream sequences provided the best of these and gave motivation for me to continue playing, although I did struggle to reach the end.

The review might come across as particularly negative, which I feel is unfair to Always Sometimes Monsters. The fact that I gave up around 10 hours during a busy period shows that it was bearable, just not as enjoyable or entertaining as I felt it tried to be. It's attempts to grasp issues that aren't often covered in video games is really admirable, it just presented them in a way that seemed quite dull or inconsequential. 

It’s ambitious in its concept, and when it pulls it off it’s great, it’s just that these moments should have been far more common. I don’t think it’s too expensive at £6-£7, this seems to be a relatively modest price. The 8-10 hour game time feels drawn out however and although it may be ultimately worthwhile it’s a struggle to complete in areas.

Always Sometimes Monsters can be bought from Steam, GOG or the Humble Store. You can find out more about the game from the website or from Devolver Digital.