At this year’s PAX Australia, I was lucky enough to sit down with the minds behind the 2014 indie hit, Always Sometimes Monsters, Justin Amirkhani and Jake Reardon. They arrived in Melbourne to display the sequel, Sometimes Always Monsters and give gamers a chance to experience the continuation of this bending narrative.
Justin Amirkhani (JA): Sometimes Always Monsters is the antithetical follow up to Always Sometimes Monsters. In this game, it’s opposites in as many regards as we could possibly make it. So, for the first game you start off broke, depressed, life sucks. This one, you’re married, you’ve successfully published a book, you’ve got a house, money, everything is great. The crux of the game is that your spouse loses their job and you become the only breadwinner and you have to do what you can to hold onto this achievement in life whilst you’re in the midst of a kind of freefall.
So the whole point is that the first game is the struggle to go from nothing to something, and then the second game is about the other side, the slide back down. Most people have described the first game as a kind of bleak and depressing experience, this game tends to be a little more fun and joyous but that sort of emotion is there to blind you to the truth of your life. If you think about the times when you’re having the most fun in your life, you’re probably also doing the most damage to yourself. So, it’s a little bit about that. There’s a lot of differences in this game, so now you start off with a fixed income and as you go through the game it dwindles as you blow your money on various stupid things. Different situations will require different money, so you have to figure out how to navigate that. It’s about managing the relationship with your spouse, now that you’re married. There’s a lot of little interactions that you have that dictates how that relationship plays out over the course of the game.
And then you’ve got a group of other authors that have accompanied you on this cross country bus tour that you’re going on. You’re going west coast to east coast promoting yourself and the book that you’re writing. So you’ve got this gang of other authors who’ve all got their own back stories, they write in different genres, they’ve got interpersonal conflicts that you have to deal with, and you manage those relationships as well. That’s what the core game experience is about.
Andrew Peirce (AP): I’m excited. I loved the first game a lot, which is a hard thing to say because it is a dark game. For me, at least, it was really informative because my wife suffers from depression, so I found it a really interesting game. So, unless you do suffer from depression, it’s hard to know what depression feels like. So I found that the first game was a good educational tool for people like myself.
JA: I’ve never considered it like that, but that’s very interesting.
AP: Now you explain the premise of the sequel, it kind of hits home immediately because I’m in a similar situation right now. I can sympathise with it. Was it something that came from a personal place for both of you?
JA: So, the first game came from – I spent about a year before hitch hiking across North America, visiting game developers. That experience kind of informed the first game. And in a lot of ways, the new game is about life after the success we’ve had with the first one as well. Our goal is to really try and capture as much of life as we can with these things. Obviously, it’s always related to my personal experience. My situation right now – my girlfriend didn’t lose her job, I let her quit, so she could pursue what she wanted, and it’s the same sort of struggle and burden that goes on you as a sole provider but it’s got a little bit of a different context in reality.
AP: What I liked about the first one, is that there were things that everybody could relate to. Even though it wasn’t all smiles and happiness, there were things that people could relate to. Was that something you tried with this?
JA: It’s all based in reality right? I actually think the new game is a lot more grounded in reality than the first one. There are some weird storylines in the first game.
Jake Reardon (JR): The boxing dog.
JA: The boxing dog – there’s all sorts of weird stuff.
JR: Which we had to have. It’s my dog. If you saw the dog, you had to fight the dog.
AP: It works in the context of the game.
JA: So we’re trying to keep it grounded in reality, but still bring out a lot of different situations at the same time. The point being that you explore – the real thing is that you explore where your soul takes you; if that makes sense? There’s not really a guided path so much, as just here’s the world, it’s full of shit, just go figure out what you’re going to do with your life. I find people are automatically – they’re either drawn to situations that are like their own, or, they’re trying to role play another persons life and they’re drawn to situations that they’ve never experienced before. The fun is is that people treat them very differently, and the game provides them with the option to treat it differently.
AP: I like these sorts of games because it reflects my own life in a way. Now, I don’t just play these sorts of games. I find it interesting that there’s this new wave of games that do really reflect peoples lives in a way, and I feel that Always Sometimes Monsters was at the front of that in a way. Do you feel that at all?
JA: I think that people have been trying to create games about life for as long as we’ve been able to have stories in the games. You look at even like, the simple early games – they’re ultimately the same. There’s only like, seven stories in the world – that old thing. It’s just part of that. I think, the indie culture concept, these kind of things, allow us to take these opportunities and make something that is a little more closer to a real place for people. I mean, it feels authentic to us because of who we are. We’re the people who come to PAX and talk about these things all the time anyway. Meanwhile, I’m sure, if you handed my game to some totally normal construction worker who would think it was like the weirdest shit ever. It all depends on who you are.
I have very similar experiences to you probably. I used to be a games journalist myself. I did all these things. I find a lot of people relate to the story, because people who are in games kind of follow similar stuff I find.
AP: They sure do. My wife watched me play some of the game as well, she doesn’t have the patience for games at all. She completely understood everything and accepted everything as well. It’s got that extra level if you’re into games as well. For lay people, I think it works quite work.
JA: Thank you.
AP: That’s gotta be hard.
JA: The real difficulty we have right now is continuity. We’ve started a program in the company called Project Continuity where people are now emailing their save files from the first game. We use them for testing and educating ourselves for the second game because we have full save imports available for the new game. But we want to make sure that everyone’s canon is respected. There’s nothing more frustrating than going through a game and suddenly all the decisions you ever made are completely undone in the sequel. It’s been a pain the ass to do, but I hope everybody appreciates it.
AP: Now you’ve mentioned it, I’m really excited to… I was keen to play it on [a portable platform]. Is it going to come to the Vita?
JA: Oh, I don’t know!
JR: We keep getting asked that!
JA: Everybody wants it on the Vita. I don’t know man.
JR: There’s a chance.
JA: I’m not smart enough to do it on my own.
AP: I thought that Always Sometimes Monsters was coming to the Vita?
JA: No, just Android and iOS. And Fire TV. Which is basically like the Vita.
JR: So we technically are on a console… Our PC audience is probably the biggest.
AP: Do you find that with indie games in general that PC gamers have been more vocally supportive.
JA: It’s an audience. That’s the way to look at it. I don’t like to think, oh, these guys are better than these people, because it’s not true. There’s people who are nice. There’s people who are dicks all the time.
JR: Ideally I’d like to have it on as many ways for people to play as possible so there’s more people who can play your game.
AP: I think the first one I feel is a really important game that I think people should go and play.
JR: That’s the thing, even though it came out last year, we should think about whether in 2016 maybe there is a version that could come to consoles that brings it to a new audience.
AP: Do you feel that there’s any responsibility, dealing with the issues that you’re dealing with, is there a responsibility to deal with it seriously and as respectfully as possible? Well, not seriously…
JR: I actually think we did think, well, we thought about it honestly. If it’s a hard subject, it’s a hard subject. There’s some really bad stuff in there if you find it. Especially the alley, if you get stuck in the alley…
JA: It can get dark. It can get really dark. You have nowhere to sleep.
AP: The things you’re dealing with, in real life, they are tough as well.
JR: We didn’t shy away from anything.
JA: In a lot of things, I just take it with as much seriousness as I take any part of the game. It’s just part of the story. It’s part of life.
JR: We also wanted people to have fun. There’s little things in there that will make you laugh.
AP: It’s good to have moments of levity.
JR: Yeah. Like, what is this? It’s funny. Then you’re back to reality. We’re not just trying to be depressing. We’re just trying to be like life. Life has these weird moments. Like, what just happened?
JA: Some people go through the game and they don’t take it seriously at all. They just have a riot. They’re just being assholes left right and centre. They’re doing whatever the hell they want.
JR: We made a game where you can shit on a car.
JA: Yeah, that’s true.
AP: Which is unique!
JR: Or, you can get shit on.
JA: Yeah, that’s true.
JR: We did have a demo that just had that scene in it remember?
JA: We did.
JR: We took it to EGX. They were laughing their heads off.
JA: They were laughing a lot.
It’s weird. I don’t know. We look at situations in life and play the ‘What If?’ game a lot.
AP: Well, I mean, anyone can come and shit on your car at any time.
JA: Anytime. But, we try to create as much variance. I think people find the paths in the game that are most honest to themselves, you know, if they’re playing honestly. It kind of leads you in that direction. A lot of people don’t even really realise how much they’re guiding the story as they play. Because sometimes it’s very little choices that make big differences, but you don’t even understand it even after you’ve finished.
AP: It’s something that leaves you with things to think about when you’re finished. When are you looking at bringing it out?
JA: Sometimes Always Monsters will be out next year. On platforms. Of various kinds.
AP: I’m looking forward to it. I’m really pleased you guys…
AP: Well yeah! And made a sequel.
JA: We were told this was a terrible idea by many people.
AP: I’m glad you didn’t listen to them.
JA: Thank you. We’re counting on people like you to spread the gospel.
AP: I feel it’s important that these sorts of games exist.
JA: We want to keep working.
AP: It’s nice that this kind of realm of gaming is opening up.
JA: We feel very fortunate that the opportunity is all here.
JR: I like to think our game has a soul, or a heart. You can play other games, and I’m not saying anything negative about other games, but they feel like it’s just a mechanic; ‘we made a game where you can hide and shoot, and hide and shoot’. We like to have a little soul, something that’s a little different.
I like those games too, don’t get me wrong. But even those games, there are certain ones, special ones, that have this thing that they just did right or really grabs you. We want to make games that have that too. As weird as they are going to be. We’ll do an action game at some point, but it’ll have weird hooks in it.
AP: I like that, because it makes it unique and it also makes it memorable.
Random Guy Playing Demo: I went to the first people I came across, did I actually have control over who I was picking?
RGPD: Dammit! I just cleared half the room, and thought, wait a minute, I couldn’t have accidentally gone up to the right people.
JR: Depending on which bathroom you chose, you chose male or female. In the first game, we had a similar mechanic where you didn’t really realise you were choosing your characters.
JA: This is the ASM experience you’re getting now.
RGPD: I’m actually going to stop here because I want to play this at home. That’s actually really good. And I want to play the first game as well. Unfortunately, I have a filter on my Steam account now that says ‘RPG maker games, go away’ because in the last four months we’ve had so many games that somehow made it through Greenlight that just…
JR: Because we’ve spent so much time with the tool, all our recommended games are RPG Maker games. I see them all! Because we’ve spent thousands of hours making this, you must want to see every game made with it.
RGPD: I have a filter set up and that’s why I haven’t seen you guys, and that sucks.
JR: Well, this looks way better than our first game.
RGPD: I’m liking the story. I’m liking the immersion. Especially with the character selection that you’re not even aware of. I like that kind of stuff.
JR: There’s things you can do in the first game, you’ll have a dream, and that will set the reality of your future. Instead of ‘it’ll set your reality now, it’s press this and do this’, you just do it.
AP: That’s part of what I like about the first game. I’ve been playing Until Dawn recently, which is good, but whenever you make a decision, it pops up saying, ‘you’ve just made a decision’.
JA: I think the core thing is that it has a very hard time admitting that it’s a game. That’s where the ASM thing comes from. I want to keep immersion. It’s so important to me.
AP: I don’t mind those things, but it’s like I’m constantly looking out for when something is going to happen to that person. It’s got to be hard to design.
JR: You’ll design our maps, there’s going to be big cities. I was telling to someone, you’re making a procedural narrative based on what you will see, because everyone is going to do it in a different order. We’ve made it more open this way, where the first one had a more linear fashion. This one is going to be where you’re procedurally generating your story. So the story is going to be way different. Because you’re only going to have a limited time in the town, and you’re not going to be able to do everything.
JA: One of the things we learned about the first game was that the player brings a lot to the game. We piggy back a lot off your own imaginations.
JR: We got to watch Let’s Play-ers on YouTube. We could see their inner dialogue. We could see how they would agonise over small decisions. Sometimes they’d justify it to themselves that they were doing something good.
AP: That’s like real life as well. Thank you very much.
I sat down to play the demo after the interview and used one the first save file sent in via Project Continuity. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the short time I spent with the game, I had to stop myself from becoming too involved with it and spoiling any potential plot developments. Needless to say, I’m excited to see how my character from Always Sometimes Monsters plays into this sequel.
If you played through Always Sometimes Monsters, then Vagabond Dog are keen to see your completed save file. As they mention on their website: “That little universe you cultivated with your decisions is important to us, and we’d like to make sure the most important parts of it are preserved as we develop Sometimes Always Monsters”. Head over to their website and follow their guide as to how to send your save file across.
Keep an eye out for a review of Sometimes Always Monsters in 2016.