I want to talk about Always Sometimes Monsters. For one, it’s a quirky, homemade project made with RPGmaker, which is apparently a skeleton key for my heart (Filipowich, Mark. “Sturgeon’s Law, Taste and RPGmaker.” The Border House. Aug 12 2013.). For another, Monsters is very grounded in the real world. In the last few posts on this blog I’ve been thinking a lot about how RPGs are centred on revolution and reform. I’m interested in how the genre uses epic conventions (Pwerko, Xerdo. “‘Hero’s Journey’: Ancient Stories and current RPGs.” RPGamer.) in a structure of constant growth to tell a story (Kaiser, Rowan. “bigger point, let me flip the argument…” Storify. May 11 2014. Tweets). I’m interested in how heroes grow and save the world, whom they are saving it from and their methods of salvation. Monsters, though, is not about saving the world, nor is it about heroism or change, it’s about normalcy and survival.
The game opens with the player guiding a grumpy hitman down a rainy alleyway as his client pesters him to reconsider the job. A vagrant stops the pair at gunpoint and tells a story. The player becomes Larry, an ambitious publicist celebrating the new lease on a swanky new apartment among an assortment of struggling artists. The artists vie for Larry’s vote of confidence while Larry tries to select the one that’ll carry him up his company’s ladder. The player guides Larry to the staryy-eyed, creative twenty-something that will be the focus of the story leading up to the confrontation in the alleyway. Larry, his wife, the player-character and their partner sign the contract that will lead to them all to fame and fortune. One year later the game finally begins for realsies with the PC—who I will call, as I did in my playthrough,* Denise—reeling from her breakup several months ago, unemployed, abandoned by her publisher after failing to deliver her novel and evicted from her apartment. When she gets an invitation to her ex’s wedding, Denise resolves to make it to the wedding at the end of the month.
That’s the game. The goal is to hitch a ride across the country to be a part of something very painful. Denise becomes a modern Sir Gawain and the wedding is her appointment with the Green Knight. The plot is bridged by flashbacks detailing Denise’s life between signing Larry’s contract and her failure to deliver on it and her breakup. Monsters, though, is sharpest in its mechanics. Food, transportation and opportunity requires money and money requires time. The balance of these resources is set up to mirror poverty. The food that restores the most stamina, allowing her to do more with her day, requires a stove or a microwave: but Denise doesn’t have access to one without access to her apartment. Without an apartment she has to find a soft place to sleep where she won’t be mugged and she’ll have to live off fast food or dumpster salvages. She can work a temp job as long as she’s okay with the agency taking their cut or she can get a copy-writing job for a few days if she can make the right connections.
In short, opportunity comes only after she learns the secret handshake and there’s always a hand in her pocket. Her employers pay her when they get around to it, or she can steal or deal drugs. These jobs are actual minigames that consume time and stamina in exchange for money or the promise of money. These minigames are, by design, boring as fuck. Unlike regular RPG grinding, grinding a low-wage, unskilled job is monotonous, unrewarding and unfulfilling: it won’t make you stronger or smarter or any more experienced in a meaningful way but it’ll pay for a burger and a coffee. Reaching the next town means spending a lot of time at a workstation pressing the same button over and over again, or it means earning favours from the right people. Monsters never takes its materiality lightly: money moves the plot and the main character in it.
Monsters is a series of character studies, it’s most concerned with how people relate to one another, but it all takes place under the shadow of the PC’s economic circumstances. When Denise’s best friend is hospitalized she has to choose between supporting her friend or turning down a day of work, when an addict offers her a couch for a few days she has to feed her addiction in exchange. The moral consequences of her behaviour aren’t measured by a scale ranging from red to blue, it’s measured in her ability to survive. Denise is not healthy in several obvious ways and her economic circumstances are directly in conflict with her ability to become healthy.
Denise isn’t Alis fighting King Lassic in Phantasy Star. She doesn’t get to take up a sword and fight the good fight. All she gets to do is try to get by and hope that she’ll make peace with some demons along the way. I’m glad that Always Sometimes Monsters exists and I believe in what it’s trying to do because I feel like I’ve been Denise. It’s deeply sympathetic to unfulfilled creative types in a post-industrial capitalist dystopia and as somebody who fits that bill exactly, Monsters struck me pretty close to home. I’ve had to whip up ad copy for trashy supplements and I’ve had to stand in a production line pushing boxes through a conveyor belt. Not so I could support my dream as a misunderstood artist waiting for my big break but because that’s what was available. Low-wage, unskilled grinding is not fun, it doesn’t improve you and it doesn’t make the world a better place. The environmentally friendly companies in Monsters can’t pay as well and the jobs in Denise’s field pit Denise against the creative colleagues she depends on. Monsters is about a person trying to heal herself in a world where her exploitability is more valuable than her health. Like Phantasy Star and The Last Story, the world of Sometimes Always Monsters is broken but if there are any heroes in that world, you’re not likely to meet them.
*The player determines their character’s gender, race and sexuality during the opening scene when Larry selects his protegé. The player chooses who their avatar will be out of the guests in the living room before determining which of the guests on the balcony has always been their partner. There are maybe a handful of character creation segments that are so seamlessly integrated into the fiction.
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Further reading: Jolley, Davidlee. “Always Sometimes Monsters Preview: Losing everything has never been so enjoyable.” RPG Slayer. May 16 2014.
Street, Zoya. “What is the social class of an adventurer.” The Border House. Sep 5 2012.
Hernandez, Patricia. “You Shouldn’t Have to Be Middle Class or Rich to Make Video Games.” Kotaku. Sep 7 2012.
Dahlen, Chris. “Chasing the Dollar.” Unwinnable. Feb 28 2013.
Fahey, Mike. “The Bleak Despair of Abject Poverty in Video Game Form.” Kotaku. Feb 28 2011.