I didn't get a chance to play Always Sometimes Monsters at PAX Prime, but I was able to talk about the game with Justin Amirkhan of Vagabond Dog. Afterward, he hooked me up with the demo so I could explore my morality within the safety of my own home. Always Sometimes Monsters is upfront about being about choices. However, except for the demo's narrator, the game doesn't judge. Instead, the designers trust players to judge themselves or one another. The lines aren't as clearly marked as in many games about morality or ethics, such as Ultima 4 or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Rather than a good vs. evil axis, Always Sometimes Monsters operates under the core dichotomy of selflessness vs. selfishness.
"An always/sometimes monster isn't a Dracula or a Frankenberry. It's just plain folks."
An always/sometimes monster isn't a Dracula or a Frankenberry. It's just plain folks. Amirkhan explains the split in a way that minimizes the emotional content and preconceived notions of right and wrong. It's about selfish reward and the selfless elimination of suffering: "There is a much more clear-cut distinction between those two halves, and they fit into game much more easily. Selfishness is deciding to take the path that gets you the most reward, regardless of what suffering you may cause (this can vary from near-nothing to death in ASM) and selflessness is deciding to take the path that causes the least suffering, regardless of what reward is available (this can vary from near-nothing to death in ASM)." This dynamic is represented in the game's code as a series of switches and flags rather than a glowing selfishness meter; the game asks, "Did Darkeff get the drugs he wanted?" not "Did you act selfishly and get Darkeff re-addicted to heroin for your own gain."
The demo begins with a frame story about a hired killer, which will no doubt make more sense in the full release. From there, it's straight to character creation at a swanky party in the big city. One aspiring young writer will be chosen to land a prime writing contract and become the protagonist of the story. Although none of the characters appear to be statistically different in the traditional, number-based way of the console RPG, they represent a variety of races and genders. Selecting a romantic partner allows a snapshot of the protagonist's sexual orientation. These traits impact how other characters react, which in turn may impact player actions. Brushing off a cranky landlord's insults may be easy, but the situation may change if the landlord reveals himself to be sexist or a racist.
The demo consists of three scenarios, each of which feels like it was designed for maximum intensity. Choices have life-or-death options. Amirkhan assures me the complete game isn't a string of Big Issues. For example, instead of going to the club to get involved with Darkeff's drug plot, it's possible to stay home, share a meal with an elderly neighbor, and hear a sappy love story. This move strikes me as a good one, as the changing stakes allows for a more nuanced narrative texture. In the demo, I found myself walking on eggshells to avoid making a choice that I'd regret. Sure, that's part of the point, but it's still a little like having steak for every meal.
Since I was playing the demo, I had no choice in the matter: Darkeff's life was in my hands. My landlord had kicked me out of my apartment. I had to come up with some quick cash if I wanted to get back in, and Darkeff had money. He's also my friend; however, ever since he went clean, his fans haven't responded to his music. I didn't do so great at hooking up his equipment for the show, so maybe it would be in my best interest to reintroduce him to Viper, his estranged, hard-partying girlfriend. The second scenario took Darkeff and me to the hospital, where Viper was dying of an overdose. A brilliant doctor could help her, but we had no money. We did have fluid morals.
I didn't feel ashamed as I snuck into the doctor's house, avoiding cameras and touching as little as possible. All I had to do was find some compelling blackmail material, which required reading his e-mail, obtaining the password for his sexual fetish photography, and locating a fresh printer cartridge. The nature of the good doctor's fetish is played for laughs, which didn't connect for me. However, the risqué photo and earlier possible keyhole voyeurism indicate Always Sometimes Monsters distances itself from similar utilitarian-influenced thought experiments with acts of burlesque. Amirkhan admits, "The game does get light hearted in places (it's not all doom and gloom) but the demo is a good example of the fastest pace and some of the most dramatic stuff."
The final scene of the demo had the highest stakes of the three I experienced. I played a game-within-the-game and won a badge to SwagCon. A punk kid, who oozed with disrespect for honest convention-goers, offered to buy it from me for a pittance. I refused until he stole it from me. After a short pursuit, I caught him at his home. While he went inside to get his final offer, I helped myself to a tire iron and a beer that was chilling in the backyard cooler. He hadn't done anything to earn my trust; it was just as likely he was going to get a gun as a wad of cash. The punk brought cash, but it was stolen from his drunken, shotgun-wielding uncle. This revelation changed the context of my position. By helping this young entrepreneur attend SwagCon, he would be able to network with industry luminaries who could help him out of his dangerous home life. Keeping the pass would allow me to attend SwagCon, where I could presumably meet the same industry luminaries who could help me with my faltering writing career, or at least hook me up with some expensive swag so I wouldn't be evicted. I chose poorly. Twice.
I'm excited to see how Always Sometimes Monsters progresses, given the limited treatment of moral decisions in video games. However, two major issues limit my enjoyment of the demo. First, the cartoony sprites are often at odds with grim depictions of loaded situations. Since the demo focuses on these brief scenes, it's difficult to peek at the effectiveness of the finished game's balancing of emotional extremes. When character portraits and comic-style cut scenes punctuate the action, it's easier to connect with the characters. My second concern... is the punctuation... Ellipses abound, making characters sound spacy and disconnected... Trailing off... Amirkhan is aware of these concerns, and says Always Sometimes Monsters's final release will be "INFALLIBLE." The gauntlet has been thrown, and his confidence has been recorded for all to see. 2014 will be a wild year.