always sometimes monsters

thoughts and musings

I recently picked up Vagabond Dog's Always Sometimes Monsters in part because it's set in modern times and doesn't involve roaming around executing pixels but mainly because of Polygon's feature on the game's origin. In particular, this section stood out:

But the choices laid out for the player aren't dictated by good and evil. They are dictated by necessity. There is no green or blue or red path toward some denouement of greater or lesser goodness. The puzzle isn't about trying to do the noble thing or trying to demonstrate your character's badassery; it's about doing the thing that seems to carry the most benefit while causing the least amount of harm. It is a puzzle of morality that also seeks to deny the existence of morality.

"There's no sliding good/evil bar in the game," says Amirkhani. "There's no linear morality meter. Rather than having any association to ethical or unethical behavior, we leave that all on the player."

"In games, when you have the obvious Paragon/Renegade divide in the dialogue choices, it's very clearly outlined for you," he says. "Players tend to fall into those two categories. A player will say, I'm going to be Paragon this time, and they'll make only Paragon choices. That kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical quandary in a game, because people are just going for the path that gets them the achievement. I wanted to get rid of that."

That is a game I want to play! And so I did, playing through to a few endings, reading about other players' experiences, and toying with the idea of playing again. Despite not caring for ASM's premise ("Your ex is getting married in a month—unless you can stop it!"), I still realized that I had reached a "bad" ending where my character failed to break up the wedding and instead became homeless individual blaming the world for their mistakes. I mean, the forthcoming sequel is pretty clear that stopping the wedding is the expected result since it's the default scenario. But playing again to get the "better" ending seemed like the Paragon/Renegade problem that they had wanted to avoid. What follows are some thoughts on why the version I played didn't achieve the goal from the interview with mild spoilers.

While players can undertake or ignore smaller quests/tasks in each location, the overall story arc occurs essentially in the same sequence across games. Tasks combined a dialog tree and an activity of some sort such as finding the correct tiles to use or navigating to another NPC and going through another dialog tree. The choices seem to have both local and long term effects, so delivering cheap drugs to an NPC causes that person to change and seems to influence whether or not the PC can successfully break up the marriage at the end and live happily until the sequel. So even though there's not a visible Paragon/Renegade gauge, it appears that player actions throughout the game do have some effect on what happens at the wedding. If the only way actions affect the ending is based on player responses to whether or not they regret the actions, then there's still an indirect effect on the end result of the game.

Hiding which actions lead to a successful objection and which to failure is how the developers tried to make the actions meaningful—they removed the results being "clearly outlined" for players. But this didn't result in the choices being an ethical quandry; instead, it means that players potentially go back through the tasks, change one of their responses, and repeat until they reach a desirable ending. That is, the same people who would go back and make only Paragon choices one game and then Renegade choices the next have a larger space to search in ASM since they don't receive immediate feedback about the choices of their actions.

Complicating the matter further is that some systems aren't fully implemented, most notably the stamina system. Tasks that involve the stamina system, such as deciding whether the hungry PC should give a sandwich to a hungry NPC, become trivial choices since the PC can't starve. The NPC is this example also doesn't suffer any problems from not eating a sandwich, so really, the choice doesn't matter mechanically at all in some tasks at least for the local world. But not having food be a money sink means that the PC potentially has enough money to avoid, say, doing the menial temp jobs throughout the game. And without that conflict mattering, then there's little reason to perform socially questionably acts in the service of getting to the wedding other than to test the boundaries of the simulation.

Taken together, ASM didn't work on a mechanical level because in removing the Paragon/Renegade meter they instead either hid action consequences throughout the game (does running drugs prevent you from breaking up the wedding?) or made the object results depend on a few questions at the end of the game. There's precedent for both methods in previous games, with Silent Hill 2 being notable for tracking player actions to make assumptions about the player's relationship with an in-game character and Deus Ex making only the final decision change the conclusion. And while this post has been critical about ASM, it's still great to see games in more life-like contexts and trying to make consequences more interesting than exhausting dialog trees. I'm looking forward to see if Sometimes Always Monsters does any better in this regard.