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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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