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Always Sometimes Monsters Review: Bloody brilliant torture

We're in 2014 and the best game so far I can show looks like it belongs on a system from early 90's. I look at the poorly detailed sprites, I look at the lack of diverse animation, and I'm struck by a realisation: I've never been more impressed by a game that I was this excited about in the first place. Always Sometimes Monsters is ugly on every level and the parts that attempt beauty are like diamonds held by mud-stained hands.

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This is a role-playing game (RPG) who's combat is choice, representing exactly the weapons we all use everyday: stabbing at presented choices with daggers of limited knowledge and arrows dipped in flaming ignorance. The monsters are nothing so cliche as people; to me it appears they are missed opportunities haunting our continued steps down paths wrongly chosen.

The game is simple in terms of controls. Nothing fastidious as a tutorial arrives - except in the form of road blocks. Your little sprite moves up and down and left and right, as complicated as the first Pokemon games. You interact with the enter key. That's basically it.

But how can a game so bare bones, so unimpressive in terms of its graphics and controls, be so potent? Well, I suppose its precisely because there wasn't 3,000 cloth design real-time effect artists that finite focus could deliver on the promise of human suffering. Or human condition. Or human existence. Whatever you wish to call it. Everything is stripped so the raw, brutal focus is knotted entirely around choice and consequence. Indeed, it's amusing that the removal of AAA graphics also removed boring AAA "moral" decisions.

Morality, in my limited study, is basically never between two choices, of pure evil and pure good. inFAMOUS doesn't give you moral choice, it gives you wardrobe options; Mass Effect didn't give you moral choice, it gave you scowly Shepard or Shepard Jesus. Always Sometimes Monsters presents morality because it doesn't fence you in between heaven and hell and claim they're moral destinations. These are the playwheels of morality, but adulthood means we're running unsupported in an open landscape. And that's exactly Always Sometimes Monsters.

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For example, in the game, my character Sarah has a friend trying to improve his music career. I'm trying to make cash so he suggests I help him set up his rig for a huge concert. After doing so, he drops hints that he's been really struggling since quitting narcotics; he's more nervous and he's worried he'll mess up. I try reassure him but he's still uncertain. Suddenly, his ex-girlfriend appears, she tells me she's got his favourite stash. I'm happy my friend's off the drugs, but he wasn't exactly crazy or hurting anyone when he was taking them. He's an adult and he thinks he'll do better. Besides, she tells me, better that he get it from someone he knows and when we know, than him doing it secret. So I agree to give the bag to him. So I do. He performs amazingly.

The next day police are swarming the same venue and I can't get hold of him.

I'm still, sitting here, struck by this. Games traditionally will try give you the big shoulders to carry the world; every bad action is your fault because every good one is. Here, a friend may be dead, shot, hurt, in serious trouble. But, as I detailed, it's not my fault - or rather not entirely. No one put a gun to his head to get him to take it. I didn't buy it for him. How much is it my fault, really?

There's no punishment: no reduced points. Just a missing friend that troubles me.

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Interestingly, I also have more important things to worry about like saving enough cash to get a bus trip. And the day is getting late.

Graphics are irrelevant: It feels real, I'm still sitting pondering my decision - much as I would a real life one. Always Sometimes Monsters does this cost-benefit economic balance all the time: Do you take the money from the girl who wanted you to talk to the dodgy guy and stash it? Do you help the old lady or work the coat rack at a club, because you might be able to pickpocket? Do you take the gift back from the dodgy PR guy who's theatre you're writing a piece on? Your editor never needs to know and you can just pocket it, surely? Or maybe he finds out, or maybe the PR guy spreads lies about you because the piece wasn't as gushing as he'd like?

I don't know. I have no idea. And that's the point: Everything feels rigged to go against you. Everything is dirty and horrible and yet you want to continue. You want to fight for your idiot ex-lover who's remarrying less than a year after the break-up. But do you pay to get your apartment back to clean yourself up, or spend it now on a bus ticket to get to the wedding in time? Days are counting down and you need to make it across state.

I don't know.

The dialogue is brilliant, the narration gorgeous. This is what would happen if Chuck Palahniuk did games. Indeed, violence might be something you find yourself doing. Might. Maybe.

I don't know.

Uncertainty and dread, these are the ways most of us with limited income and ability live our lives. No certainty that tomorrow we'll have a job; no certainty that a simple fall won't lead to crippling financial medical costs. No certainty the love of our life won't leave us. And we fight, struggle, cry, revel in a few moments of wonder and joy, and then we die - forgotten, alone. This is life and adulthood; we drape our few spoils across the corpse of hope, which was attached to us like a shadow from childhood, imagining we weave a tapestry of fortune. But we only make a rough bed to lie in and wait for the pain to pass. Life doesnt have a save point. No restart. We keep going. Always Sometimes Monsters is a reflection on this; it's hard not because of ability but because of reality. It hits too close, it pulls to hard and yet never shows you why. Because when we ask "Why me?", nothing even bothers to reply "Why not?".

It's something everyone should play. It's a reason why video games do more for me than film and, lately, books. If it is showing us the realities of adulthood in us, it is also showing us adulthood in gaming. And that is the only adulthood we should perhaps long for.

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