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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Monster Prom and Monster Camp: Trying Something New & Offering October-Appropriate Wackiness

Today, we’ll be looking at some October-appropriate content: reviews of a video game series about monsters. Not, like, a spooky game about monsters though; I’m too much of a horror-wuss for that. Instead, it will be one about going on wild dates with them. But first, some set-up:

I need to be in the right mindset to tackle denser games, but those times don’t always correspond to the moments when I actually have the free time to play or write about video games. So I’ll usually keep something a little lighter in progress, a game that I can pop into and out of on the days where I’m not in the mood for the heavier stuff, or for when I’ve finished something big and am reflecting on the experience while deciding what to do next. I was looking for something to bridge the gap between Chicory and whatever the next big experience would be*, when I landed on Monster Prom.

*"The Next Big Experience" wound up being Heaven’s Vault, and there’s a reasonable chance something on that will be coming, if I ever get my thoughts in order.

Monster Prom, for the unfamiliar, is a visual novel from a few years ago by developer Beautiful Glitch. Late last year it got a follow-up, Monster Camp, which uses the same base set-up for a whole bunch of new scenarios with different characters. And a big part of what makes the game unique, as it even markets, is that it’s a competitive dating sim; you can compete against your friends, both going about your life as a monster student talking to potential romantic interests while trying to block your friends from getting the stats or interactions they need to succeed.*

*Although you can also both win, if you play your cards right; but you’ll likely get in each other’s way at least once, even if you’re pursuing different partners. Also, you can also absolutely play it as a single player, taking a Solitaire-style “beat the game” approach. It’s surprisingly difficult, in this regard! I failed at least as often as I succeeded, and you definitely need to strategize to pull off a successful run (particularly in the sequel, which feels even tougher).
As you might guess by that set up, it’s a game that prioritizes replayability even more highly than most other dating sims, with a focus on shorter run times and tons of potential routes and events within each route. If you wanted to slam even more buzzword genres onto it, I suppose you could even call it a roguelike dating sim. I’ve stated before that it’s hard to tell whether a video game’s idea is totally unique, as so much of making a game is iteration and mutating other interesting ideas, and there’s hardly any sort of online compendium tracking the introduction and evolution of every different mechanic and story element (even before getting into how fuzzy those distinctions can get). Even still, my efforts to find other multiplayer or roguelike visual novels and dating sims mostly came up empty (I got a small few for the latter, but most of them seemed very different from the Monster series at best).

It also helps that the game itself is a lot of fun to play, even over dozens of replays. Monster Prom has a madcap, manic approach to its writing; dozens of recognizable school set-ups are distorted through the monster world, which is governed by an “everything can and will go awry in the most disastrous fashion” logic. Skipping class somehow leads to forming a crime ring, sneaking in to change a grade leads to a coup plot on the Water Polo team, the party after school leads to summoning demons to spice things up, stuff like that (and the game is more than happy to get dark in its craziness; they are all monsters, after all). Monster Camp draws things out a little bit, keeping the absurdity but wrapping it in more long-form scenarios that often start in ridiculousness and spiral from there. It’s not a huge difference, but it is noticeable enough to give them each their own distinct energies even as they both run headfirst into outright silliness.

Accompanying your player character on these shenanigans is a cast of six (or eight, in Prom’s free DLC) other monsters for you to date, as well as an assorted supporting cast (many of whom have their own secret routes, if you poke around enough). All of the designs are a lot of fun visually, and the game’s overall sense of style (courtesy of artist Arthur Tien) is a big selling point of the game. The characters mostly draw from fairly common stock character types, and while they generally don’t get any major character arcs, they do at least get some extra depth from the different sides of them that you can see over each game’s thousand-plus potential scenarios, keeping them interesting to deal with. Plus, I feel like some of the newer characters and scenarios (from Prom’s Second Semester DLC and Camp especially) have gotten even better, as the writing team has had to think of more interesting ideas beyond the original character’s basic stereotypes.

Honestly, more than anything it reminds me of a sitcom, right down to the similar comforting effect from going through one or two episodes or playthroughs a night.* It’s just that, thanks to Monster Prom’s game format, there’s a much more active element in play; you need to actually learn the game’s rhythms and think your choices through to ensure you see new situations or happy endings. And it even structures itself somewhat like a sitcom, with end credits and bonus pictures set over a theme song at the end of each playthrough.**

*Especially if you get the Switch version; I often found myself playing from bed to wind down. Sadly, Monster Camp is not on consoles yet, just PC, so you’re limited to the first game here, but that’s generally enough.

**It’s skippable if you’re short on time, but it can serve as a nice capstone to a run where you finally pull off a secret ending or something. And it really helps that the designers have a great ear for songs to use; Monster Camp especially knocks it out of the park with its selection of “Champions of Red Wine” by The New Pornographers over the ending.

But outside of more superficial stuff like that, they share a lot of fundamentals. Like a lot of sitcoms, the Monster Prom games are built off of a cast of strong and likeable characters getting to interact and bounce off of each other. There’s the strong use of humor, especially leaning on the interactions of those cast members, as well as wacky scenarios they get into. Like a lot of especially cartoon-y or slapstick shows, Monster Prom can lean into a sense of negative continuity, allowing the scenarios to get extreme and then be ignored both for the sake of a joke, and for continuing the story the next time around (even the basic ending of each run is “and then we graduated”, which is clearly ignored in subsequent playthroughs, even in the runs when it does make for a sweet little wrap-up).

But relatedly, the individual playthroughs and their resets don’t really let the characters go through a ton of unique character arcs, so that (like many sitcom characters) they can stay their broad, iconic selves from “episode to episode”. If there is a larger character arc to the game, it’s in your player character gradually learning the quirks of the world and the love interests over multiple iterations; like I said, you very well might need multiple playthroughs just to woo a single character, let alone find any secret story branches. And in some way, that can kind of mirror the long-running “will they or won’t they” subplots of a lot of sitcoms.

On the whole, it’s an extremely familiar and welcome experience narratively (there’s a reason good sitcoms remain eternally popular, even while borrowing from broad tropes). But it also makes Monster Prom and Camp incredibly unique in the medium they use to deliver that beloved experience; even setting aside all the gameplay things making them unique and opening up the search to very different types of games with just similar tones, I can’t think of another game that has quite matched this one.

There are other parts of the game’s story that I find interesting, of course; with thousands of potential paths and outcomes, that’s almost a given. But I think I’ll leave those for players to discover. Really, I think the overall effect of the total game is interesting enough on its own to serve as my focus here, as I’m already going on a little longer than intended. The upshot is, I would definitely recommend checking out the games yourself and finding some of these stories, if it sounds at all interesting. And if nothing else, exploring a world of monsters is especially appropriate fun for the Halloween season.

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