Sidequest has had its proverbial eye on Monster Prom for some time. It was a huge hit with our PAX West team of 2017, it was the first game we streamed as a newly launched site, and it’s been something we returned to again and again in eager anticipation of its full release.
Once we got around to playing the whole thing, we decided to sit down and have a conversation about what works for us, what concerns us, and what we’d like to see in the future.
Those Awesome Guys
April 27, 2018
Sidequest was provided a copy of Monster Prom for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Melissa Brinks: Naseem, we have to start with the most important question: who is your ideal monster prom date?
Naseem Jamnia: Undoubtedly, Damien. My husband is all over Polly (who I also love despite some, uh, problems), but I, too, loved setting fire to things in high school, so Damien speaks to an important part of my soul. Who is yours???
Melissa: Absolutely, one hundred percent, Scott. I am a sucker for a sweet and charming werewolf, and though he is about as smart as a bag of rocks, it doesn’t matter. He’s a good boy, Naseem, and I love him. My second choice might actually be Brian/Green PC—he might be a little, you know, decaying, but it’s fine, it’s fine. Everybody’s got problems.
We’ve played some Monster Prom together before, and I think you watched it when we did our 24-hour stream to celebrate Sidequest’s launch, right? What made you so interested in playing this game? Do you play any other dating sims? Besides Mystic Messenger, of course.
Naseem: Yes, we all know the level of trash I am for Mystic Messenger. Actually, I’ve gotten really into otome games lately, sort of like a second adolescence. Wow, all these cute guys are into me??? (WHERE ARE THE CUTE GIRLS THO?) Right now, I’m playing Midnight Cinderella, which is exactly how it sounds, and I’ve downloaded a literal TEN other games on my phone to try out. But I wanted to check out Monster Prom because I loved the stream of it that we did in November—it was funny and irreverent, so I wanted to see more. Also, I like the art! You’ve been following the game for a while, though.
Melissa: I have! I saw the game at PAX West and fell in love with it there. We had such a good time playing it, especially because were fortunate enough to get a look at the Alpha version, which added in all kinds of features that weren’t in the demo. I’ve been waiting for this game to come out for a while, and having the full release, especially with all the new features and updated artwork has been great!
To be fair, though, I honestly… haven’t played it that much since the full release came out. I attribute this in part to my busy schedule and the numerous other games I’ve started and am trying to finish, but I also struggle with it a bit in single-player. I feel like it’s a game that works best multiplayer, with people to share its buckwild humor and antics with. What do you think? Have you done much of the single-player mode?
Naseem: TBH I haven’t even touched single-player. I feel like a lot of the fun comes from the multiplayer, semi-competitive aspects. My husband and I played like four rounds back-to-back when we first got it, but he was pretty satisfied after that, and I’ve also had other games I’ve been playing. (No, YOU spent 107 hours on Persona 5 and are replaying it.) This might just be one of those games that you bring out to a party but don’t otherwise play much on your own.
Personally, I’m okay with that. I think it could be a lot of fun, both in a group of people you know well and in a group you don’t. Actually, the times I’ve played, I’m not even sure I’ve experienced everything the multiplayer can offer—I don’t think I’ve ever competed with someone for the same love interest, for instance. Have you?
Melissa: I haven’t! And that’s probably for the simple reason that Scott, the sweetest, goodest werewolf boy, is my one true love. I think about romancing other people and instead I’m like, “Hm, or, I could just take my fave dude to prom again.” Which is especially bad (good?) because he’s the easiest to romance—he’s the only character that, if I recall correctly, goes for you based on choices (most of which are just: be nice to Scott) rather than stats.
But I think the fact that we’ve played so much of this game without competition speaks a lot to its replayability, right? Like, we’ve dumped hours into it and have yet to explore one of its key features, which is the ability to try to date the same person and sabotage one another in the process, especially with the new weekend sections. So you have your normal day-to-day visual novel interactions (except all of them are like, summon demons to start a rave, or fight off griffins in the bathroom), and then these sections that take place during the weekend where you can make choices to support the other players as they try to romance their favorite character, or sabotage them by choosing options that suggest they’re rude or unfaithful or whatever. It’s especially good because the other players are often sitting right there as this happens.
Except it hasn’t happened to me because I’m always romancing Scott and I will always win.
All that to ask, why do you keep coming back to it? What does it hold on multiple playthroughs?
Naseem: I’m a huge completionist; I have a love-hate relationship with completion percentages in games. If I see it, then I have to fill it, you know? So knowing that there are DOZENS of endings I haven’t seen is driving me up the wall. I have to know all the things. That’s one reason I keep coming back—I want those secret endings, dammit!
Another reason was that it can be surprisingly difficult to woo someone. It took me… I think seven gameplays before I finally got a date to prom (and it was Damien, eeee!). I didn’t realize, at first, that your stats determine whether or not some of your choices will succeed and whether you’re successful in your romance. So I wanted to keep playing until I no longer had to date my hand.
I think about coming back fairly often, though, and not just to get all the endings. I want to play with a bunch of people and see how they experience the game for the first time. That, to me, is a lot of the appeal. But for you, if you keep going for Scott (he is the goodest boy) and are familiar with the outcomes of your day’s mischief—what keeps you coming back? What are you looking for in each playthrough?
Melissa: For me, it’s the character interactions and humor. Monster Prom is definitely a lighthearted game that’s not super concerned about realism or even internal logic—I recall some fourth wall-breaking jokes, and nothing that happens really happens, y’know? But I think the characters are really well fleshed out, and I find it really charming that this group of weirdos seem to really care about each other, especially in the opening and closing narration.
They’re a mess! But a charming mess. I really like seeing the details of their lives unfold through subsequent playthroughs, such as with Damien’s artistic inclinations. It gives the world a sense of consistency that I really enjoy both as a player and as a writer; how does this bizarre dating sim make me care this deeply about a pack of literal and figurative monsters? Can I emulate that in my own writing?
Which, by the way, let’s talk about the writing. The writing team includes Maggie Herskowitz (who has worked on a variety of musicals) and Cory O’Brien (creator of Better Myths, a website I used to read religiously). I don’t think this game would be half of what it is without the humor; I can’t imagine it being serious, nor do I think it would work half as well without the sort of zaniness inherent in the premise that’s carried forward into the situations you encounter. I mean, you can buy a used tampon in the shop, for Pete’s sake. Period products almost never show up in games, and even though this reference is definitely on the irreverent side, it’s so weird and matter-of-fact that I feel like it works. What do you think of the writing, Naseem? How does it impact your enjoyment of the game?
Naseem: YES!!! The writing is probably my favorite part of the game, although the character design is a pretty close second. I’m not familiar with the writers from other works, but I really feel like they nailed it in Monster Prom. They captured what I imagine teenage supernatural creatures would be like, even in situations that are totally ridiculous, where any of us would, rightfully, freak out. The writing really brings the world to life, where the paranormal is normal, and gives us really great character… uh, characterization.
But that being said, there were some ~humorous~ choices that really made me uncomfortable. I remember both of us sort of awkwardly moving past a particular scene when we last played together; it’s when Polly and Liam are in the lunchroom, and as a ghost/vampire, they of course don’t need to eat. But the scene turns it into this joke about eating disorders, and as someone who had a severe ED during college, I felt really, really uncomfortable. I know you have some thoughts on this, too.
Melissa: Yeah, I agree on both counts. The writing is lighthearted and fun, and makes the atmosphere, which could easily be like, legit scary, instead this kind of kooky ‘nothing really matters’ high school setting that I really like.
But as you mentioned, that’s not without its problems. I think what it comes down to for me is that the game is from the perspective of monsters, right? So there’s this suggestion that everything they do, from Miranda’s elitism and classism to Damien’s arson to Vera’s rampant capitalism, is reflective of their monstrous identities. And that’s fine, because of course monsters aren’t bothered by things like that.
But the players aren’t monsters, and it makes it really awkward to play, sometimes. That lunch scene with Liam and Polly always comes to mind because it honestly could be funny without having to use eating disorders as a punchline. I am never sick of the joke of ghosts passing right through food, folks. And Liam’s characterization as a hipster makes his fascination with food despite not eating it genuinely funny! Instead, every time I play through that scene I end up really uncomfortable because you never know who has dealt with eating disorders in real life, and the scene is asking me to laugh.
Danika Harrod has also talked a bit about her experience with the game and its treatment of cocaine addiction as a ~hilarious~ joke, and it’s just like, none of this needed to happen? It’s a fun game and the humor is often delightful and crude without crossing the border to meanness. But I don’t feel right playing a game like this and potentially alienating people because it’s encouraging me to laugh at something that might be a source of pain for them. It’s a real shame because it limits my recommendation of it; I can handle humor that’s embarrassing because of outdated meme references or whatever, but when it comes to potentially hurting players, I have to hesitate.
Has thinking about this impacted your desire to recommend the game at all, Naseem? Do you do the thing where you’re like, “It’s really fun! Except… here’s an itemized list of things I don’t like about it, so at least you’re prepared?”
Naseem: Absolutely. It’s a bummer because I really loved chatting with Julián about his vision and overall hopes for the game so I really want to tell everyone to go out and play it! But… I think about these issues and hesitate.
Julián talked about being unapologetic about including “questionable” content like sex and drugs, and I don’t think you need to apologize for talking about these things, but… since they’re real issues, they need to be handled with compassion. And like you said, yes, the characters are monsters, they don’t care, but the players are humans, and we do. As our cultural consciousness (at least in the States) shifts towards being better informed about issues that affect a vast number of people,
I hope that we think about the implication of our words, whether it’s monsters or humans that say them.
In Monster Prom’s case, one way they could have had it both ways (maybe?) is including criticism from the player characters in the form of the commentary that happens after a decision is made. I don’t think it would break the conceit, and it would allow the writers to be critical while letting the monsters be themselves. That doesn’t mean all of it needs to be there—like you said, the eating disorder joke could have completely been removed from the lunch scene while still keeping its charm—but if they wanted to keep, say, Polly’s love of drugs, there might have been a deft way to handle it without making former or current addicts feel like they’re the butt of the joke. It’s tricky. I’m sure some players will roll their eyes at this criticism, but I feel like it’s something to make the game better. And the writers prove, in the gameplay, that they’re completely capable of keeping the same tone without going into potentially hurtful territories. For example, the question of queerness never once comes up or is turned into a joke—no matter what pronouns you choose at the beginning (cue screaming), you can romance whoever you want, and never once do any of the other characters say anything about gender. In the same way, I think the game could smooth out those lines or scenes and still get a similar effect without harming someone. Thoughts?
Melissa: I absolutely agree. Like you, I think there are areas where the game really succeeds, and then it’s dragged down by these moments of off-color humor. I don’t expect perfection from any piece of media I consume, but it’s a serious buzzkill for a game like this because there is so much about it that I genuinely love, and now I have to recommend it with caveats. That said, I have to do that with games like Life is Strange, too, though for different reasons.
I honestly think that’s why it sticks out so badly. If the game wasn’t otherwise enjoyable, we’d just write it off as bad. But it’s a good, fun game with some serious originality in the genre (The Yawhg is all over it as inspiration, but the dating and competitive aspects do set it apart), so this area where it fails stands out. It’s particularly frustrating because what it needed was a sensitivity reader, even a general one, to point out parts of the script that could alienate players. Whether or not they listen is ultimately up to them, but from seeing some tweets throughout the development process, I do believe the team wanted to do right by players—they just didn’t think broadly enough about who those players might be.
I really like this game, overall. I think it’s cute and clever, and I do recommend it for those who like dating sims, party games, and mackin’ on monsters. Just, you know. Be aware that sometimes the humor punches down, and it’s worth skipping through it if it might upset you or someone you’re playing with. You won’t miss anything, and it’s not worth upsetting people for the sake of a not-very-good joke. How about you? What’s your final verdict?
Naseem: Yeah, at the end of the day, I really love Damien too much to walk away forever. I do think I’ll recommend it to people if I think they’ll like it and/or won’t be put off by those moments in the humor, and I’m looking forward to busting it out when I go back to school in the fall. Plus, I want to check out those summer outfits, even if Liam’s hat is the most ridiculous.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.