With a sequel on the horizon, it’s a good time to reflect on Always Sometimes Monsters, a 2014 role-playing game developed by Vagabond Dog and published by prolific indie game purveyors Devolver Digital, and one of the most memorable, understated and heart-warming indie releases in recent years. That’s not to say the game is perfect; it suffers from many of the issues that plenty of other RPG Maker games tend to suffer from, and doesn’t offer much in terms of visual or mechanical innovation. Indeed, on the surface, Always Sometimes Monsters appears to be pretty standard fare, with many graphical assets either lifted directly from RPG Maker’s pre-loaded selection, or closely modelled on the visual style of said in-engine assets. The game is bogged down by a few pacing issues and uninteresting fetch-quests, which feel more like padding for the game’s eight-hour runtime than any kind of narrative necessity.

No, where Always Sometimes Monsters really shines is in its ability to give the player agency over their character’s identity and actions. It deftly juggles between tackling real-world social issues with maturity, tongue-in-cheek humour that never makes diverse cast the butt of the joke, and confronting the player with meaningful consequences for their choices. If you mistreat a character, you won’t be miraculously forgiven. If you sell certain objects given to you by other characters you might have an easier time in the short-term, but you may lose their trust, or prevent them from getting their own happy ending. Always Sometimes Monsters forces you to choose between what’s right, and what you need to do to survive. However, the game has the propensity to play this concept for comedic purposes; one particularly memorable gag involves stealing cash from Vagabond Dog’s dev budget, found in their office safe, leading to an irreverent faux crash-screen as the game itself is erased from history.

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Even more interesting is the subtlety with which the selection of your protagonist’s identity is handled. At the beginning of the game, you choose your character by chatting to guests at a party, while playing as the party’s host. They’ll each ask you to join them for a drink, and whomever’s invitation you accept becomes your protagonist. As this character you then choose an attendee from another group of party-goers out on the balcony to introduce to the party’s host – that choice decides your character’s love interest. Though your selection doesn’t change much beyond the physical appearance of these characters and a few snippets of dialogue throughout the game, it does give you the option to naturally select your race, gender and sexual orientation without it feeling forced or out of place. And this is just the foremost instance of the player’s agency over their protagonist’s identity through the progression of the game’s plot.

Later on there’s an optional encounter with a young transgender woman who’s trying to get her legal name changed, but she’s being blocked by bureaucratic process. Should you choose to pursue her after she leaves the mayor’s office, you can talk with her about her situation. During the conversation, you’re given the option to affirm the transgender identity of either your character or their love interest, if you so wish. This doesn’t affect anything going forward, but, as a transgender woman myself, it meant a lot that I had that choice without it being made a big deal of. AAA companies such as Bioware could learn a thing or two from Vagabond Dog here. Series like Dragon Age and Mass Effect that have a strong focus on character customisation and role-playing could implement such subtle choices with little to no extra effort, and instantly become far more welcoming to marginalised groups such as transgender people. How difficult would it have been to have given the player an ‘I’m transgender too’ option when talking to Krem, an openly transgender man in Dragon Age: Inquisition? Always Sometimes Monsters shows that such a choice doesn’t need to have a massive impact on how story and character relationships progress to be intensely meaningful to the people given an opportunity to feel represented, particularly in a medium in which they are rarely given a voice.

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Even more subtle in its delivery is the overarching message of hope expressed by the game. Always Sometimes Monsters is a game where you don’t have to ‘win’ to get all the Steam Achievements. You can make poor choices. You can finish the game without managing to convince your love interest to get back together with you. You can end up in the gutter, homeless and alone, but no matter what, you pick yourself up. The epilogue shows that you’ve learned from your mistakes and created a life for yourself – even if nothing ended up the way you’d planned. You don’t have to get the ‘best’ ending for your protagonist to live and thrive and learn, just as you don’t have to get that ‘best’ ending to have the game appear as 100% completed in your Steam library. In life, you’ll make mistakes. You’ll mess things up far beyond easy redemption. But that doesn’t mean you have to regret the past or try to change it. You can live on. You can still get 100% even though you aren’t perfect. Everybody’s a monster sometimes, after all. It doesn’t mean you can’t be something more.

 

About The Author

Contributor

Elodie is an Mspaint Goddess, composer, cat mother and Gungan Queen from the UK. Ingredients include an eclectic mix of earnestness and absurdity, along with a dash of irony and a pinch of salt. The result is confounding, to say the least. Follow her on twitter for an occasional glimpse of insight amidst Jar Jar Binks appreciation posts and cat pictures, and search ChemicalWordsmith for her musical exploits.

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