Sometimes Always Monsters is the sequel to Always Sometimes Monsters, the morality-driven adventure game released two years ago. This is an important distinction to make, because the names are easily confused.
The teams at Devolver Digital and developer Vagabond Dog are aware of this, too. But Creative Director Justin Amirhkani s consistently fought to keep it.
“It’s an artistic necessity,” he says. “I’m the only one who is adamant that it’s absolutely mandatory we call it that, because it’s a reflection of the polarization of the philosophy in it. This game is designed as an antithesis [to the first game].”
Whereas Always Sometimes Monsters saw the main character working their way up, Sometimes Always Monsters explores the decline of someone once they’ve achieved success.What happens when one has all the power and affluence they crave? What sort of decisions would lead them to begin a slow decline? Who will get hurt or be left behind along the way? These are some of the many questions to be explored in Sometimes Always Monsters with varying shades of gray.
While speaking, we’re sitting on a giant bus Amirkhani and his team are taking from Los Angeles to Seattle. According to him, this is a reflection of Vagabond Dog’s success, since his days before Always Sometimes Monsters were made up of hitchhiking across America, the journey culminating in a trip from Seattle down to California. Today, they’re going up the coast, en route to PAX West in a luxury tour bus.
“We’re a studio that lives for the meta,” he explains. “Any time we can mirror life in-game, it makes amazing things.”
In Sometimes Always Monsters, the player is a successful writer working on a new project while going on a book tour across the country. It’s a study of decline, of seeing the struggles of someone from the top as they continue to attempt managing their success.
Amirkhani sums it up by explaining how success can make it difficult to know the dangers of self-sabotage.
“It’s the idea that when you’re having the most fun, you’re doing the most damage to yourself. And joy blinds you to truth.”
Although it appears to have a clear moral alignment, much care has been taken to keep Sometimes Always Monsters on both sides of an issue. This is not a game that will present the player with warnings about the dangers of affluence and inequality, nor is it a game glorifying success and grandeur. Instead, it attempts to play devil’s advocate with itself by presenting accurate images of both sides.
“I stand outside of moral judgement as frequently as possible,” Amirkhani says. “I play devil’s advocate way too hard to ever take a stand on anything.”
He points to one location in the game involving a mansion owned by a wealthy family and turned into a Hostel. “I can’t say one is wrong and one is not. The wealthy family with a mansion are hard-working, they deserve it, it’s...you can see it’s not a fault of theirs. And then, the other people never had opportunity, so you can sympathize with them, too. And that’s what makes the gray, that’s what makes the game fun. Otherwise we’re just preaching at the player.”
Sometimes Always Monsters brings with it a swath of new features. The art has been completely re-done, mixing smooth pixel art with a more 3D-rendered, top-down look with Visual Novel character portraits. It’s built in the same engine as Always Sometimes Monsters, although the sequel will offer a great deal more by way of features and narrative options for the player.
“I’ve gone for a more fluid, modular system for this, where the events exist, but they don’t exist in a timeline,” he says of the narrative. “It’s almost a procedural narrative, but not really; there are still checks and hooks. But for the most part, we give the player a lot more freedom, specifically the freedom to decline.”
According to him, the player can even go so far as to completely reject the bus tour, instead opting to stay home and write their book instead. It will make for a much shorter experience and will prevent one from ever seeing all of the detailed content Sometimes Always Monsters offers, but it’s an option.
Detail has been added into every inch of Sometimes Always Monsters, including mini stage plays written exclusively for the in-game version of Netflix on the TV, an entire recipe crafting system for cooking, and a robust amount of side dialog for NPCs to cycle through as you speak with them. It’s easy to get lost in an environment, exploring everything it offers and seeing the wide swath of knock-offs and satire the game loves to flaunt. And it does it well, particularly in characters. One obnoxious journalist I encountered early on was the spitting image of Jon Lovitz’s character in The Critic, and knowing the source of his inspiration and the way he was portrayed through the writing made it easy for me to turn him away at every chance.
Sometimes Always Monsters is neat. It is a very interesting and surprisingly level-headed dissection of modern ideas of success and happiness, gracefully handling the topic from multiple angles. It’s difficult to imagine a game about failure being enjoyable, but I’m optimistic Sometimes Always Monsters will deliver on its premise when it releases later this year.