20 August, 2014

Review - Always Sometimes Monsters, but mostly philosophers.

Want to experience a taste of the hardships of trying to live when you have no money, one fleeting career prospect and are surrounded by people with their own share of problems and prejudices? Well Always Sometimes Monsters can certainly provide that glimpse, you'll just have to keep an eye out for those people with latent philosophical tendencies.

Always Sometimes Monsters

All actions have consequences, never is this more clearly illustrated than in the harsh realities of modern life as you descend to rock bottom. In Always Sometimes Monsters you are caught between lifelike obstacles in a 16 bit, pixel-art world; reaching out for that elusive writing contract to make your career whilst try to make ends meet, because if you can’t, you won’t eat and you know what happens then. Always Sometimes Monsters targets areas and issues of modern western culture, from the mattresses in the alleyway, all the way up to mansions, it places you in the centre of anecdotes concerning class, gender, race and much more.

The entire story is framed in a neat narrative which propels you through characters and events under the guise of a cross-country love story. You may need to resort to blackmail when your friends can’t pay for medical treatment, or you might just be in an awkward exchange in a hair salon, it doesn’t matter which because in either case you’ll need to make a choice, pick a side. Often such choices, such actions are decided by how selfish or selfless you are, will you look out for numero uno or be mindful or others and their own hardships.

There’s certainly heavy commentary on the situations and encounters you land in, but rarely does the game judge you outright, go through one location being ‘good’, go through the next performing criminal acts, there is no meter or stat to tell you otherwise, only your own moral judgement.

Stop wasting that hard earned cash deadbeat!

“I really hope that was the right thing to do…”, as I cut a man’s brakes.

It doesn’t matter how many crimes you commit, or even small acts of kindness you perform, at some point
the need to live takes precedence and you’ll require paying a job, a rather bitter a fact that every teenager is forced to learn in reality too. Jobs are accompanied by their own moral baggage as well, for example; at one employment office I had the choice to work either, in a tofu factory or a pork factory. I chose first to work a day preparing tofu, upon arriving at the job I was met by a very pleasant man, happy to explain everything, the environment was clean and I could call it a day whenever I felt like it. My second day, this time in the pork factory was an entirely different experience. You do the same task – moving the food through several machines on a conveyor belt – but unlike the tofu, the walls and floor are covered in blood and gore and the pigs looked at you pleading as you send them headfirst into the mincer. I’m pretty sure one of the pigs was contaminated, it was glowing green but the end product came out fine and I got paid either way, pay which was considerably higher than in the tofu factory. Union rules won’t allow you to leave the job until all the pigs are slaughtered though, so be prepared for intense boredom, but at least you’ll be able to afford food when you’re done.

All the jobs are about as monotonous as one would expect, none more so than the box staking gig in Salt City. Pick up a box, walk across a room (with obstacles), place the box in a van and repeat. I made it to seventy boxes before I called it quits, there were still more to go. Boring certainly, but it unflinching illustrates the monotony and repetition of such a job to great effect.

Somewhere in the middle of the game, shortly after the stacking boxes episode, I miraculously became a hacker and a covert agent. The somewhat believable, if not awfully convenient circumstances, were left by the wayside during this rather odd section of the game. Hacking took the form of a simple, yet frustrating minigame. After hacking cameras and navigating the maze of vents of the government office, I dropped into a server room and was confronted by a junior detective (who I apparently knew) tasked with investigating exactly the thing that I was doing. The entire chapter just felt out of place, blackmailing people, cutting car brakes,  and writing biased news articles, all felt pretty natural and awful, yet I could see why my downtrodden protagonist would undertake these monstrous acts. But sneaking and hacking government records, not so much. It was harder still to stomach when the woman who caught me decided to have a long rant about actions and consequences, both out of place and out of character.  The only reason she was there at all was to have that pointless conversation. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other occasions throughout the game where different characters deliver similar speeches, all written in the same disembodied tone that ensures every word feels unnecessary.

No room for misconceptions here.

Cue the self-aware video game lines.

As mentioned earlier, the game rarely judges your actions outright, but commentary about the world and people around you is heavy, and it is not subtle. Most of time the writing is fine, simply too heavy handed, leaving few doubt as to the developers’ thoughts on a given issue. It is not that they handle any issue insensitively, but rather it is written too directly, too forthright, there is no room for misunderstanding. Moreover, the writing revels in jokes and references surrounding game development and the industry as a whole. This is taken further still as the developers, Vagabond Dog, have an office in the game and they seem to follow your character around from city to city.  

Always Sometimes Monsters tackles a huge number of issues and it does this well. I found some of the anecdotes and encounters to be profoundly hard hitting and heartfelt, those which I empathised with the most, naturally. At the most soul-crushingly boring points in the game, it succeeds in demonstrating the drudgery and monotony of work, whilst also commenting on the ethics of these jobs. It is a shame that’s that is not all that the game does; being inundated with self-awareness and overwrought game references detracts a lot. Between that, and the risk that any character may suddenly decide to spout some philosophical nonsense at me, I quickly found myself avoiding talking to characters and stopped exploring the later environments at all. It does an excellent job at stressing the hardships of being at the bottom, and it handles the resulting issues well, with feeling if not a little unsubtly, unfortunately there is a lot of excessive material weighing it down that simply adds nothing to the experience. 

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