Always Sometimes Monsters Hands-On Preview: No Good, No Evil
The bad news is, you’re stuck doing a menial job after failing at your dream career as a novelist.
The good news is, the foreman at your job likes lesbians because he thinks they’re hardworking. And you happen to be a lesbian.
This is Always Sometimes Monsters, a GameMaker-made title that’s all dialogue and decisions, on the floor at PAX East 2014. I’m playing as AG_*, a white, blonde woman who had her chance at a writing career and blew it. As has been explained to me by Justin Amirkhani, creative director for developer Vagabond Dog, my book career has fallen flat and with no money, eviction on the horizon, and the proclaimed love of my life set to marry someone else, my goal as AG_ is to earn some money and travel cross-country to stop the wedding and get some semblance of my life back.
The job afforded me is a favor from a friend at a publisher — the very same at which AG_’s book failed. The task, is to move boxes of said book onto a truck in the publisher’s loading dock, which will carry them off to be pulped. It’s a karmic sort of trial for the character, but AG_ needs to make do because there are greater goals to achieve.
As Amirkhani explains, the scenes that take place in the demo — there’s this one, with AG_ working on the loading dock, as well as another at her college where she first meets her future love — facilitate Always Sometimes Monster’s huge amount of player choice. That free will starts with who you choose to be in the world of the game: Characters are randomized in this demo, and elements like your skin color, sexual orientation and gender affect how people deal with you throughout the course of the game.
When I meet the foreman at the docks, Red, he’s none too happy to take me on as an employee. Amirkhani tells me about the elements at play in this scene; like a real person, Red carries biases both positive and negative. He likes lesbians, Amirkhani says, because Red knows a lesbian worker and she’s no layabout, and he subconsciously applies that standard to others. If I’d been of another race, Amirkhani explains, I might have encountered a more hostile or racist Red, a design element meant to reflect reality, the way two people can meet the same third person and have completely different encounters and opinions about him or her.
Red’s opinion of me isn’t helped by my publisher pal paying me up front, which means I don’t really have any reason to stick around and work. And yet you can. You can be quite a great worker, in fact, dragging boxes from one end of the screen to the other to load them onto a truck, as per your agreement. Always Sometimes Monsters leaves you no parameters. The game is about your choices: Do you work because you said you would, or do you bail because it’s the easier choice?
Amirkhani offers players little in the way of guidance, and that’s even a bit at odds with what games traditionally present to those who interact with them. One player at PAX moved something like 63 boxes during the demo, he said. When the developers asked why, the player told them he thought that he was supposed to do so.
But that’s the point of Always Sometimes Monsters — there is no “supposed to.” The game puts questions to players and is overflowing with choices, but the ultimate question is what kind of person the player wants to be within the confines of the game. Do you work on the dock, or bail? Do you put your own goals ahead of helping other people, or do you allow yourself to be sidetracked and risk failure by doling out assistance?
*Either I botched the “What’s your name?” prompt page and couldn’t figure out how to delete characters, or AG_ had strange parents.