by Jed Pressgrove
Always Sometimes Monsters spreads the dangerous idea that humans are horrible. Developer Vagabond Dog’s exploitation of modern working-class anxieties and paranoia should not be celebrated, and its disregard for morality and diversity should not be interpreted as “ambitious.” Always Sometimes Monsters preaches the exact opposite of ambition: stay sad, stay mad, stay bad.
Vagabond Dog paints a dog-eat-dog world, but this truth isn’t presented as a realization through experience — it’s a presupposition, a demented rulebook by which we can judge our idiotic actions. Always Sometimes Monsters blandly states upfront that “In this system there can be no right or wrong,” rejecting the social conviction of the citizens who react to your decisions in Fallout. Like the film Pulp Fiction and its imitators, Always Sometimes Monsters packages human life as a bundle of unexpected, dark connections. As such, your decisions in the game merely build a unique portrait of misery and immaturity.
Framing its main story as a narrative from a bum in an alley, Always Sometimes Monsters unwisely suggests that we should sentimentalize our bad choices. No matter what sex or racial group you choose, you play as a writer who desperately pines for an ex one year after breaking up. The quest is to travel across the country in order to arrive at your ex’s wedding. As this aspiring but lazy writer, you face poverty, hunger, and preposterous moments of decision making.
The story quickly exposes its take on life as a sham. For example, if you take a job at an advertising company, every member of the company asks you for advice on how to deal with a recently fired and unstable employee. Another scenario involves a friend who is hopelessly addicted to heroin; to get medical treatment for him, you have to intimidate a doctor through violence. In another segment, you might become a major player in a conflict between a union leader and mayoral candidate (nevermind that you might have slept on dirty mattresses in alleys nights before). While these situations might create a lot of intriguing material, their utter ridiculousness do not support the game’s conceit that we operate in a morally undefined world.
Several critics have praised Always Sometimes Monsters for offering characters of different sexes and racial groups, but the diversity is mainly there to impress you as options. The game shares virtually nothing about social reality or identity. By largely reducing race, for instance, to insults from unlikable, unrelatable non-playable characters, Always Sometimes Monsters puts the blame on random individuals rather than systems of oppression that can affect anyone’s perception or behavior (see Mainichi). Vagabond Dog’s approach to gender and race strokes the egos of people who think they’re above discrimination and prejudice.
Always Sometimes Monsters also fails at exploring survival and work. The game offers the pretense that you need to work to buy food so that you can eat for stamina, but more than halfway through the game, I learned you can survive fine without eating at all. More significantly, Vagabond Dog doesn’t show an understanding of labor. Even though the game might lead you to do annoying jobs for measly paychecks, the narrative fails to touch on our conflicted existence as natural laborers like the superior Actual Sunlight. At the very least, it’s an insult to writers that the protagonist completely pissed away a lucrative opportunity to write.
Indeed, the general immaturity of the game reveals a lack of seriousness about the subject matter that it wants you to take seriously. Early in the game, you can pick up dogs and give them to a dubious institution for money. But later on, you might wind up boxing one of the abused dogs in a ring! Moreover, the game’s obsession with feces further illustrates that its moral sermon is better suited for a toilet than it is for a diverse audience.
The most disappointing aspect of Always Sometimes Monsters is how flippantly it views its most poignant scenes. In the first city, you have the opportunity to have dinner with a lonely old woman who shares stories about her dead husband, but your character takes no lasting wisdom or respect from the visit. Even more disappointing is when the game raises points about spirituality, redemption, and providence before promptly forgetting them. When a preacher asks you if you believe, you can say “Yes,” which then places a victorious car race in the context of a miracle. The game’s subsequent scenes, however, do not acknowledge this experience. Always Sometimes Monsters’ smug dishonesty is a sin of storytelling.