A Cat in a Box: Procedural Storytelling in 'Always Sometimes Monsters'
It doesn’t matter if you play the light side or the dark side. People are still compelled to behave a certain way based on their circumstances, and individuality only really matters to the individual.
I'm really rooting for Always Sometimes Monsters. I want people to play it and talk about it because it tries very, very hard to be a part of a conversation. Sometimes it tries too hard, but in the current videogame climate, where “being political” is an assumed sickness (Todd Harper, "Erasing your audience isn't 'fun': The false choice between diversity and enjoyment", Polygon, 22 May 2014) and creating subtext is a marketing department’s afterthought (Brendan Keogh, "Big games are often light on themes", The Conversation, 27 May 2014.), it’s refreshing that the developers of Always Sometimes Monsters deliberately approach the politics of class, sex, race, and gender with the goal of communicating something. It approaches these issues with a narrative device that is -- to me -- unique in games. Its narrative is procedurally created.
“Emergent narrative” is a piece of jargon that’s been discussed for several years (G. Christopher. Williams, "Moving Pixels Podcast: Emergent Stories in Video Games", PopMatters, 19 April 2010). The term describes a series of incidental design elements that the player traces into their own story. Crusader Kings II, for example, has a reputation for providing strong emergent narratives. Though the game never dramatizes the interactions of its interchangeable characters, it’s easy for a player to create their own story out of plans and events (Sean Sands, "A Narrative of Crusader Kings", Gamers with Jobs, 27 June 2013). Emergence happens when a player strings moments together, interpreting the story outside of the game’s fiction. Like an emergent narrative, Monster’s story is fluid and undetermined, however, unlike emergence, the player’s interpretation is canonized and made a part of the fiction.
Monsters is a framed narrative about a failed writer and that writer's star-crossed lover’s marriage to a different person. The game is actually a story that an unidentified homeless person is telling to a hitman at gunpoint. The player becomes the storyteller, procedurally creating the fiction’s own history as it becomes relevant. It begins with the player’s character creation. The player determines who the protagonist has always been, then they determine who their partner is, thus also determining what their sexuality has always been. When meeting a transgendered person at city hall trying to get a new driver’s licence to reflect their gender, the player can tell that person -- and themselves -- that they had to go through the same process when they transitioned. Or not. The player’s interpretation of their avatar is not expressly determined, until the player makes decisions. Then those decisions apply to everything before and after that moment. Players write the story that they’re participating in.
Similarly, up until the last chapter, Monsters slowly trickles information about the player character's relationship to their ex with the assumption that the game will eventually reveal why the two soul-mates parted ways. As the game progresses, the history between the player character and their best friend is fleshed out. Finally a character comes out and directly asks what happened between the PC and their ex, prompting the player to simply select who dumped whom and why. Next, a cutscene illustrating the player’s chosen reasons flashes by and closes the matter. The main impetus for carrying the protagonist through their story is to discover more about the relationship with the-one-that-got-away only for that reason to dissolve into a blasé selection from a menu.
This happens just as the player is reintroduced to their avatar’s childhood friend, the player character’s true foil. Monsters compels its player to uncover a mystery only to solve it by providing a selection of solutions to choose from; partially because the relationship between the PC and their ex is no longer important, but partially because they are writing the conflict for the final act, the conflict that has always been at the center of the story even though it had yet to be written out by the player.
All the important moments in Monsters are selected from a menu, there isn’t really a shocking twist because most important decisions are written by the player, both in ways familiar to video games (saving the old lady’s cat or snatching her purse will change the story) but also in more direct ways when the player simply chooses who is important and what happens to them. Given that kind of power -- and considering the game’s title -- it isn’t surprising that the player occasionally abuses their authorial power. What is surprising is that the power of authorship does not prevent them from receiving abuse. The player character’s mental health and economic struggles put them in a situation in which there is no positive outcome and where they are (forgive the heavy handed observation) sometimes monsters. The player is a writer literally writing out the events that happen to them, retrospectively determining what happens to them. And that doesn’t matter.
There are important differences, of course. Procedural narration is generated by limited options whereas emergence can stretch as far as the player’s ability to reason and form connections. This isn’t to say that emergent narratives aren’t powerful. Entire games can be comfortably carried by a player’s interpretations (G. Christopher Williams, "Death of a Quarian", PopMatters. 28 March 2012). Indeed, one of the virtues of emergent narratives is that they’re infinitely interpretable -- the delicate balance lies in opening systems enough that they can be interpreted any way without opening them so much that they become meaningless -- and the procedural story of Always Sometimes Monsters is limited to the options in a menu. But it is significant that it incorporates the player’s reading into the actual story. The game follows a failed writer -- a professional storyteller who failed to tell a story -- as told by a removed Greek chorus with no identity. The player writes the story they’re playing, interpreting events, and those interpretation then are told back to the player as a part of the story.
This resonates with Monsters’s central contention that the smaller details of people don’t separate them. There are differences, but it doesn’t matter if you play the light side or the dark side, whether you romance the rogue or the mage. People are still compelled to behave a certain way based on their circumstances, and individuality only really matters to the individual. The player writes their own story, but the story never really changes.